The Master

His inspired passion made him a favorite in the art world. Now Marcel Salinas is stuck in St. Louis, where hardly anybody knows his name.

Frederico Castellon, whose works are in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said Salinas -- "who's nothing, really, no reputation" -- was one of his most important influences.

Shortly before his death in 1971, Castellon told the Smithsonian Institution that Salinas rescued him from a period of despair rooted in frustration with commercialism. "I would get up in the morning and look at this beautiful blue sky and think, God, why do I have to go to work," Castellon told the interviewer, who was helping compile a collection of oral histories for the Smithsonian. "I was escaping myself and trying to comply with, you know, external wishes."

Salinas set him straight. During a 1964 visit to his studio, he praised one of Castellon's prints, only to be met with "Please, not a word. I don't want to hear about it." Determined to get his point across, Salinas told Castellon that his prints reflected the man who made them. "I can sense a person who feels certain things, who has a view of life that is totally his own and individual," Salinas told the troubled lithographer.

Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."

His words made a difference.

"I felt, for Christ's sake, he's describing everything that I thought I was getting away from," Castellon said. "From then on, I began doing what it was in me to do and I loved every moment of it. I looked forward to my work. I wanted to do more and more and more and more and I said, 'The hell with the public,' you know. Most of the time it doesn't know its ass from its elbow. So if they like it, they like it. If they don't, they don't. What am I going to do? So I think I owe that to Marcel, the confirmation of what I am and what I want to do."

Bledsoe, who became one of Circle Galleries' stars, says she owes her career to Salinas, whom she met in 1968. A deadline loomed, and she was getting nowhere in the print shop where Salinas was also working.

"It wasn't his print shop, but he was the life and breath of it," she recalls. "I had a commission to do some lithographs, and I didn't know how to do them. Nothing worked out. I was ready to give it all up. I heard this nice voice -- he has exactly the same voice; it's never changed. I looked up, and there was this man with twinkly, sparkly eyes with a checked shirt and a woolen tie. He said, 'Do you need any help? Is something wrong?' I said, 'I'm going to kill myself.' He came over and said, 'No, don't do that.'

"So he came and he said, oh, that can easily be fixed up with this, that and the other thing. It was just the right thing that he said. And I learned all that I knew about lithographs just from him. He was there like Zorro, always bailing me out. He's a wonderful teacher because you feel as if you're learning it yourself, you see. He doesn't tell you what to do.

"It's magic."

Nine years ago, Salinas was lying in a Paris hospital bed, recovering from a hernia operation, when he saw a television news report about flooding in Iowa. He picked up the phone and called Jack Scharr, owner of Fine Art Limited in Chesterfield.

Fifty-seven of his paintings and more than 100 lithographs were stored in Scharr's vault. Salinas, who had moved to New York in the late 1970s after an exorbitant rent increase forced him out of his Paris studio, didn't have space for the works in his room at the Chelsea Hotel, so Scharr had offered to store them at the end of a show in his gallery. With the water rising, Salinas was worried. He called Scharr several times, imploring him to move his work to higher ground. But Scharr assured him that there would be no flood.

"He said the government said there would be no problem," Salinas recalls. "Right then, I knew I had big problem."

Scharr says his insurer, Lloyd's of London, told him that any works that were moved wouldn't be insured. "So we just kind of bided our time," he says. "The morning of the flood, at nine o'clock in the morning, we were given word by the city of Chesterfield that maybe we should get things out of there. But there's no quick way to move artwork, and we've got a lot of artwork here."

Salinas' work was under water for twelve days. His lithographs were destroyed. Many of his paintings were also damaged beyond repair. "What can you do?" he shrugs. "You can cry." Instead, Salinas rolled up his sleeves. Nine years later, he is still fixing the damage.

Scharr made a suggestion: Why don't you move to St. Louis? Rent is cheaper than in New York. You can get an apartment with plenty of space for a studio. You can restore or repaint the damaged paintings.

It sounded good. "He had all of his artwork, all of his canvases, in this hotel room at the Chelsea," LeShufy says. "He couldn't turn around. He didn't have space to paint or unpack his things. It was living like a gypsy." And so Salinas moved to St. Louis, arriving here in 1995. Several friends say the move was a mistake.

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