At first glance, the vibrant paintings from Ivan Camarena and Abel Garza look like a mix of electric color and play. Yet a story lies in every detail; the art mirrors the men behind the brushes. Like a vintage vehicle, Abel is a smooth talker and charmer with an endearing, gentle side. Ivan is cosmic cool and trendy—always rocking a contagious smile that makes you want to smile, too. Individually, their art personifies their creative journeys. But together, they are painting a much grander story. It is the tale of two men who discovered their callings, the power of persistence, and the magic of collaboration and creative energy.
Their stories start in unsuspecting places: the offices of Enron and the U.S. border near Tijuana.
Enchantment at Enron in the Early 2000s
With a stack of papers in hand, Abel rushes through the underground tunnels of Houston. He cruises between lawyers’ offices to transport legal documents as a runner for Enron.
A young employee, Abel doesn’t catch any of the scandals unfolding, but something else catches his eye: the art.
“Whenever I would go to different offices I would see these huge art installations. And I would think, these are fantastic,” Abel recalls.
While his colleagues at Enron focused on the glamorous life of making money, Abel felt a bit of a disconnect.
“People would talk about retiring at 35, but I feel like everyone is made to work. To keep your sanity, you have to do something you love.”
When Enron collapsed, Abel took his severance package and headed west to pursue something he loved: surfing. His fascination with art lingered, and soon he found himself in the art program at San Diego State University.
Meanwhile, In Mexico…
Ivan sits in a beige ‘86 Volvo station wagon with a sketchbook in his lap and his hands on the wheel. He inches through the line to get across the U.S. border to San Diego. When the traffic slows to a halt, he flips open his sketchbook and draws cartoon characters wrestling in the sand–capturing the horizon that surrounds him.
The ride is familiar and routine. As a U.S. citizen residing in Tijuana, Ivan crosses the border every day to attend school in San Diego.
Yet he tells no one.
For the first 18 years of his life, not a single soul, friend or teacher knows the secret residency he keeps. He stays quiet around his California classmates by day and skateboards with his Tijuana friends by night. Each day the Camarena car moves through the line, and Ivan draws on.
His father notices his interest in sketching and encourages him to keep drawing.
“My dad worked a steady job for 35 years until retirement. That was my example of what I was supposed to do. But, my dad was very open minded. He nurtured my desire to want to do art,” Ivan says.
With his father’s support, Ivan heads to San Diego State University to study art.
Two Guys Collide, One Day for An Art Show
In the openness of a college environment, Ivan no longer wants to carry the secret that weighed heavy on his identity through childhood.
“I start telling people I’m batman,” Ivan laughs as he reminisces on revealing his double life for the first time.
He continues the commute between Tijuana and San Diego, quietly gathering inspiration and building his creative confidence on his sketchbooks.
Two years in, Ivan books an art gallery in San Diego with his buddy. But when his friend cancels, he freaks out.
“I was stuck with a whole room to fill, and I was on my own. I had some work but I wasn’t confident enough to fill the whole room!” Ivan says.
The show must go on, so he reaches out to a talented artist whose work he saw in an art class. It was Abel.
“Abel, dude you have a couple pieces already–you’re a solid artist. If you’d like to show, I have a gallery booked next week,” Ivan writes to Abel.
“Nah bro, that’s too soon,” Abel replies.
“I’ll tell you what dude when you’re not home I’m going to cruise over there and snag your stuff,” Ivan writes back. “I’m not taking no for an answer.”
When the gallery doors open a week later, Abel’s art hangs alongside Ivan’s. Sometimes a little fire is all people need to rise to the occasion.
Step Brothers, Art Gallery Edition
For Abel and Ivan, things just clicked.
“We were tight right away,” Abel says.
“Our show was a great hit–a lot of people showed up. So, we took that vibe and went to the cultural institute in my hometown of Tijuana,” Ivan says. “The director invited us to bring our show south of the border.”
From Fast Stars to Food Stamps
Abel walked out of college and fell haphazardly into the 2008 recession.
“Not even 3 months after graduating, I was on food stamps,” Abel says.
Soon Ivan joined him in the workforce, and they both found themselves working random jobs just to make ends meet. Filling art galleries became a dream of the distant past.
“The hype of the art show was great, but the disillusion of not being able to live off of it was very devastating,” Ivan says. “The reality of having to work a 9-5 was one of those things that they don’t teach you in school.”
A Ray of Hope During the Recession
After 10 years trying to make it in California, Abel heads back to Texas and lands an opportunity in a field he never saw himself in—education.
“I left San Diego doing art galleries and shows…and entered a completely different atmosphere,” Abel says.
At the front of an elementary classroom, Abel begins teaching children how to paint murals.
“It exposed me to art education and how to teach to people of all ages,” Abel says. “You have to know how to talk to people. It’s a trip.”
With a warm and goofy personality, Abel mesmerized his 8-year-old students. The people that saw him in action took note. Soon, the demand for his art classes became more than he could fill.
Like clockwork, Ivan called out of the blue.
“I went back home to Tijuana…I wasn’t painting for myself, I was just working. Financially things weren’t good,” Ivan says. “I told Abel my new plan to work in Real Estate.”
“As soon as I heard that, I said ‘Dude. Seriously? Do you want to work as an artist? I’ve got people that will pay you right now,’” Abel says.
Within 3 weeks, Ivan packed his pickup truck, got a loan from his dad, and drove 1,530 miles to meet Abel in Galveston. Together, they would figure out a way to live and work doing what they love—creating art.
Sticking with Art and Making It Sustainable
Fast forward to today, three years after Ivan took the leap to Texas, and you will find the duo at the center of a snowball. Together, they are pooling their creative energy and gaining momentum as they impact the lives of everyone in their path. From the classroom to the studio, they are guiding others through the creative process and deepening their craft.
As Abel and Ivan lead children through each vivid stroke of color, they teach lessons that run far deeper than the paint.
“Art is for everyone”, they say as they explore the canvas as a medium for communicating and storytelling.
They lead by example, though they too are still writing their stories.
“It’s been great to focus on education and reproduce our images. Each year we’ve been getting new markets,” says Abel.
Together, they are helping each other grow as artists. Though Abel and Ivan create uniquely different pieces of art—their work continues to become more vibrant as they work together.
“Before I met Abel, the colors I used were very muted. I remember thinking this red car [pictured in Portable Shelter below] was too much. I was like, ‘Woh now! Don’t want anyone getting too excited here!” Ivan laughs.
One look at Ivan’s newest pictures and the influence of Abel’s vibrant color use becomes evident.
Thanks to their unrelenting practice and persistence, these two artists are finally paving their own path to financial security and creative freedom.
Advice for Other Artists
For others trying to pave their own way and make art a sustainable lifestyle, Abel and Ivan say, “Keep going. You have to keep creating.”
Their dedication to art has proven to be not only a positive example for students, but also for the other people in their lives.
“My dad retired and is going back to school. He’s one year away from finishing his bachelor’s in painting. I’m so proud of him!” Ivan says with a smile. “He’s following in my footsteps as an artist.”
That’s the true magic of collaboration and creative energy. The more you embody it–the more contagious and empowering it becomes.
Thank you, Ivan and Abel, for sharing your art, sticking with it, and empowering the next generation with the endless possibilities of a blank canvas.