Renowned muralist and Walla Walla native Daniel DeSiga lived his life as a celebration of Latino culture and heritage through art.
“My dad lived and breathed art, and he saw art in everything he looked at,” said daughter Corina DeSiga.
The artist died last week from medical complications in New Mexico.
He once told a group of Western Washington students at Edmonds Community College, a recording of which lives on in the archives of YouTube, that he liked to paint nonstop, so he would sometimes paint for two or three days, and nights too.
These passionate days and nights of expression on whatever canvas he was using are some of the best memories of him recalled by his younger brother, David DeSiga.
“Watching Danny do his artwork was always exciting and fascinating to see,” David DeSiga said Sunday from his home in Kent. “He was born with this God-given gift and was always drawing and painting. … His goal was to capture the history of the Mexican farmworker.”
Daniel DeSiga was part of the 1960-70s Chicano movement aimed at the empowerment of Mexican Americans.
The 1967 Walla Walla High School graduate’s art, often depicting Latino migrant workers, was featured in a Los Angeles Times article in 1991 highlighting the cultural revolution spurred by the farmworker activist César Chávez — seeing that article was one of daughter Corina DeSiga’s proudest moments.
The artist was also once was chairman of the art department of the Colegio César Chávez in Mount Angel, Ore.
Daniel DeSiga painted brightly colored murals of the Latino experience and lifestyle — always incorporating images that highlighted a love of his native Pacific Northwest — on walls from Toppenish and Fresno, Calif., to the historic El Centro de la Raza in Seattle.
In this Seattle building, he joined other young adults in 1972, while completing an arts degree at the University of Washington, as the group peacefully occupied the abandoned Beacon Hill School and founded a multicultural resource center that has continued to this day.
One of Daniel DeSiga’s most famous murals, “Explosion of Chicano Creativity,” continues to greet visitors to El Centro.
He has art in many celebrated galleries and collections from the Denver Art Museum to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Wight Art Gallery at the University of California, Los Angeles.
His collectors include actor Lou Diamond Phillips and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was given one of the man’s paintings as a gift when he visited Yakima in 2006.
But before this celebrated and influential life, before he became a working artist traveling from here and Dayton to Seattle and Yakima to California, Oregon and New Mexico, Mr. DeSiga spent his childhood in the Walla Walla Valley.
The middle child of Philip and Grace DeSiga, Daniel DeSiga was born on Dec. 12, 1948. From the beginning, he was enraptured by art.
He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. While very young, he spent time in the hospital in a full body cast. This was in the 1950s, so no TV was in the room.
A doctor told him one day, as the artist told the story in several online interviews, “You know, you can leave this room anytime.” And the young boy, about 10 at the time, said, “I can?” The doctor then explained how the youth could use his mind to go anywhere he wanted to go.
“Just close your eyes and imagine,” the doctor told him. Mr. DeSiga did, and that’s when his art really began to take off, he explained in interviews.
“We had a house on Poplar Street,” said brother David DeSiga, who is nearly 10 years younger. “Danny’s room was in the basement, and I remember he started painting these murals, things from that era, and he filled the whole room. And I would just watch him.”
The siblings, Daniel and David, were very close with their older sister, Bonnie. Her married name was Schoenauer; she died in 2018.
David DeSiga graduated from Dayton High School after the family moved there in the early 1970s.
Their parents were migrant workers who moved from Texas to the Walla Walla Valley as part of the braceros program to provide workers during World War II, according to a Walla Walla Public School publication in 2009. As a young boy, Daniel DeSiga worked in the fields with his family.
Philip and Grace DeSiga were able to secure more permanent jobs in Walla Walla. He worked as a nurse’s aide at the veteran’s hospital, while she worked for 17 years at Rogers Cannery.
Family stories, and the stories of families like his across the country, grew to be central to Daniel DeSiga’s life and work.
“My dad was amazing,” Corina DeSiga said. “He loved to give. He would give his art away all the time. He wanted to see people putting his art up.”
Her father didn’t care about material things, she said. He just liked doing his art, and watching movies or listening to them in the background. The artist was always happy, always smiling. Always taking time to talk, to listen. A good person, with many, many friends, Corina recalled.
“He loved his coffee in the mornings, and he loved to fish,” she said.
He also always wanted to be “put together,” as she put it. Hardly any photos or videos of Daniel DeSiga online show him without one of his signature hats on — always with the brim tilted just a little bit to the right, his daughter remembered — and often wearing a suit.
“And so many beautiful shoes,” Corina DeSiga said. “But he always had paint somewhere, on his hands or his clothes or the bottom of his shoes. Even his computer, you could see paint where he would open it up every time.”
The artist never got rid of his paint — those bright yellows, blues and greens — or his paintbrushes. Some barely had any bristles left, his daughter said.
“Jars and jars and jars of them,” she said. “Those were his tools. They meant something to him; they weren’t just a paintbrush.”
After a lifetime of creating art as a way to share the Chicano experience in America, Daniel DeSiga’s last days were spent with family.
He had battled with diabetes and heart conditions, his brother said. And then the 71-year-old artist fell about a month ago and broke his hip.
Doctors were planning to do surgery, so family members flew to New Mexico to see him. David DeSiga was nervous, he said, because they’d had a “disconnection” in recent years.
“But it was good, it was a great meeting, like nothing had ever happened,” he said.
Daniel DeSiga never left the hospital. His medical conditions were too debilitating, and he died.
“I’m so glad I got to see him,” his brother said. “And now my niece has been texting me about all the memories she’s finding among his things. He had clippings even of me that I don’t remember, but he had them. It’s shown me how much he really loved his family, and we loved him too.”
His family, and the greater arts and Latino community, will remember him as his legacy lives on through the beauty he’s left behind.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the (Walla Walla) Union-Bulletin. Find the full story here.