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12 Quick Questions For Cheech Marin

The comedian's art museum in California features more than 500 pieces from his collection

Cheech Marin

Alan Amato

 

Cheech Marin is many things: an actor, a comedian, a musician, an entrepreneur, and —  most famously — half of the beloved counterculture stoner duo Cheech and Chong. Turns out, he’s also a passionate art collector, having spent nearly 40 years amassing more than 700 prized works and showing many of them in traveling exhibitions.

Out of that massive collection, he gifted more than 500 to The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum, aka The Cheech. The Riverside, California-based museum is giving Marin, the Los Angeles-born son of Mexican American parents, an opportunity to showcase Chicano art’s powerful story.

The impressive trove of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures, now housed in a former public library, is believed to be the largest such collection in the world.

 

The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture entrance in Riverside, California.

Courtesy The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture

The Cheech is in Riverside, California, and houses more than 500 pieces of art from Cheech Marin's collection.


 

How do you define Chicano art?

It’s traditionally a Mexican American-based art of people that were born here in the United States or came here and spent the majority of their life in the United States. Not every Mexican American is Chicano, because Chicano is a voluntary category. It came out of an insult [from] Mexicans to other Mexicans living in this country, to Mexicans who [had] moved across the border or [were] living in shacks along the border, [who] were no longer true Mexicanos [in their eyes]. They were something smaller; they were something less: They were Chicanos. It was always an insult. My father, who died at 93 several years ago, always referred to himself as a Chicano. That’s where I first heard it. That’s who I am and I'm really comfortable with that description.

 

Is this a dream come true for you?

I never dreamed this dream because for me it was an impossible dream. People had mentioned this to me over the course of the collecting. They said, “You should have your own museum.” Yeah, I should have my own jet plane too. I just didn't stop to think about it. I just never stopped collecting. The city of Riverside — it was their involvement that was essential — came to me with this offer, which is unheard of. At first, I didn’t understand it. I said, “You want me to buy a museum. I don’t know about that.” “No, no, we want to give you a museum. You give us the collection, and we’ll house it here and look after it and proselytize it as much as possible.”

 

How did you get started in collecting Chicano art?

I bought three pieces at the same time from the Robert Berman Gallery (in Santa Monica, California), paintings by George Yepes, Frank Romero and Carlos Almaraz.

 

What inspired you to buy those pieces?

I understood the basis upon which they were making this art. It was varied because all these artists were either art school or university trained, so they were exposed to world art from a very young age — contemporary art, historic art — and I saw how they referenced that in their paintings, but it was with a Chicano accent, just like the Beatles when you first heard them. That was rock and roll, but it was with an English accent. You can tell the antecedents; it was very obvious.

 

What led to the interest in art?

I was self-educated from a very early age because this group of cousins that I had, we assigned each other subjects to learn about to bring back to the group. I got assigned art, so I started learning about it. From maybe age 11, going to the library and taking out all the art books, I acquainted myself with that. Just like any other area of artistic endeavor, the common knowledge is you have to have either 10,000 times you played this or 10,000 images you’ve seen. That’s kind of held up true. I’ve seen 10,000 images.

 

Advice to people who may want to buy their first piece of art?

Get books, collect information about the artists, about the art that you are interested in. There’s generally information about any type of movement. Study that and then go see them in person. Paintings have to be seen in person to get the whole benefit of it.

 

Painting. Sunset Crash by Carlos Almaraz.

Courtesy The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture

"Sunset Crash" painting by Carlos Almaraz, 1982. Paintings should be seen in person, Cheech Marin says.


 

Who are some artists you think are underappreciated?

They all are. That’s why we need our own museum. There was a review that came up that said this is “a red-letter day” for Southern California art. I think it is.

 

Do you have any artistic talent?

Not in painting. Graphics, I suck at. I was a professional potter for some years, and I can do that pretty well still.

 

Do you have a favorite museum?

Every time I’m in Washington D.C., I always go to the National Gallery [of Art]. The inspiration to have a show of small paintings from my collection, “Chicanitas: Small Paintings From the Cheech Marin Collection {size doesn’t matter},” came after visiting the National Gallery of Art, where I saw smaller works on display by other artists that engaged and drew me closer to view them. I was really intrigued to see that type of collection. I was in D.C. for about a week, so I went three times, and every time I went there I would see a lot of the same people go there multiple times because there’s something particularly enduring and personal to small paintings.

 

Cannabis is now legal in many states. What are your thoughts?

Isn’t that amazing? When Tommy and I used to say after we got pushback — “Hey you’re promoting drugs” — from straight society, “Well, what if we’re right? What if it’s good for you? What if there are some benefits to marijuana that are medical?” Who’s laughing now? 

 

Tommy Chong, left, and Cheech Marin, as “Cheech & Chong in Concert” in 1973.

ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Tommy Chong, left, and Cheech Marin perform as “Cheech & Chong in Concert” in 1973. The duo recorded several studio albums and starred in a variety of comedic movies.


 

Are you still interested in acting?

Last year I had a big year — made three movies. I don’t go out actively searching for roles. They seem to come to me when I need them. All I have to do is say, “I’m retiring,” then I get a lot of offers. That’s how it works!

 

Anything left on your bucket list?

I’d like to be a great grandparent. To live that long. I’m gaining on it. My oldest grandkids are 15 now. It’s right around the bend.


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