Regional Mythologist: Daniel Luna, Jr.

Daniel Luna, Jr. with his beautiful partner in life, Paula Leek (assayer of meteorites) — Photo by D. Thomas

I met the Luna family in 1970 when I entered Vista and was sent to Pueblo, Colorado.

My Vista assignment was the Mexican American Service Agency (MASA). MASA was an all-Chicano organization, perhaps thirty members, each focusing on a different area of community life: education, labor, economic development, cultural affairs, and so on.

At MASA, I met (among others) its chair, Wilfred Martinez, the best community organizer I have ever known and Dan Luna, Sr., the first Chicano elected to an office in the City of Pueblo. Although I was to be MASA’s “coordinator”, it would be more accurate to say that I was an assistant to these two remarkable men (and there were others, men and women). I learned from them, followed their directions, and found myself immersed in what can only be described as a graduate internship in community development.

The Luna Family took me in along with my girlfriend at the time, later my wife. We spent countless hours with Dan, Jesse (Dan’s wife), and their six children (five sons and one daughter).

The move to Denver

After thirteen months in Pueblo, my Vista assignment over, my girlfriend and I moved to Denver where I took a job at the University of Colorado Medical Center in what was then one of the top human biofeedback laboratories in the country. It was in that laboratory that some of the early and now classic work with biofeedback and stress-related disease was done; in particular, the work with tension headache and sleep onset insomnia.

It so happened that at the same time, Dan Luna, Sr., was asked by the Governor of Colorado to fill a position in the Governor’s Cabinet. Dan accepted the position and so, the Luna family moved to Denver where we continued our close friendship.

When I had my Gallery Installation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (1986), the Luna Family was one of the exhibits. Some of what follows was written at that time. I include it here to tell additional aspects of the Luna story (though I should add that I have remained particularly close to the oldest son, Dan Luna, Jr., and later, the focus of this exhibit is on his work).

Jesse Luna

Jesse Luna was well known in Southern Colorado and along the Eastern Slope for both her artistry and her activism. She was involved with any number of community organizations but she was, before all, an artist. It was her Images of Women show for which she became most widely known.

Jesse had been jogging with a friend and when she returned, she did not feel quite like herself. For reasons that eluded her, she began making cloth dolls, forty-six in all, all of women. It was shortly after finishing her last doll that she underwent cancer surgery. The operation went well and with newborn energy she traveled the Southwest with her Images of Women show. The show was remarkable—insightful and provocative…a sociological mapping of female types from Jesse’s point of view. The show’s purpose was to raise money for her daughter’s education.

Unfortunately, within a year, the cancer returned. Jesse refused all invasive treatments and elected to remain at home, cared for by her family.

Jesse with her “images of women” dolls

Dan Luna, Sr.

In the mid-1950s, Dan Luna, Sr. played tennis for the University of Colorado. He became the Big Seven Men’s Singles Tennis Champion two years running. “Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura were my heroes,” Dan Luna, Sr. said. “In my judgment, they were among the greatest players of all time. Gonzales may have been the greatest of all.” Following college, Dan, Sr. returned to Pueblo and became, after some years, the first Chicano elected to an office in the history of the city. Later, at the Governor’s request, he moved his family to Denver in order to take a position in the Governor’s cabinet.

When they were students at the University of Colorado, Dan and Jesse were invited into the upper-middle class milieu of university life. This introduced them to a world for which their barrio upbringing had hardly prepared them. Of course, the milieu in question was not prepared for Dan and Jesse, either.

The Luna boys

The Luna boys went through a period in which each was a warrior of his own making. Powered by loss but also by lofty ideals, they resembled Cheech and Chong (or a variation thereof), out to make their mark in one art form or another.

What have you boys decided to be? Great painters and sculptors. So, what’s the problem? There’s a hole in our Mae West! How is it repaired? With crass humor! How can you make people happy? By winking at them.

According to the Luna boys, the artist plays a role not unlike the sixth man in basketball. The artist observes the ongoing game, whatever the game might be, and then attempts to provide what’s missing, the image, the idea, whatever will allow the picture to be more complete.

Five boys and one girl, five sons and a daughter… All inherited their mother’s love of art and their father’s respect for learning and for service. The loss of their mother (“there’s a hole in our Mae West”) was a blow each had to integrate in his or her own way.

by Daniel Luna, Jr.

Many lives touched and inspired

Jessie Luna died in 1984. She was 45. The boys built and painted her casket while her sisters and daughter prepared the body. Jessie’s body was driven to La Jara, Colorado, a small community in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and buried within the 48 hours during which one may be buried without being embalmed. Daniel Luna, Jr. shaved his head to mark the period of mourning.

Dan Luna, Sr. died in October of 2020. He had traveled a long way from his upbringing in Pueblo. His parents moved from Mexico to Pueblo where his father worked in the Pueblo steel mill. He received both a debate and tennis scholarship to the University of Colorado and later, in the course of his career, served in the administrations of Mayor William McNichols and Governors Dick Lamm and Roy Romer.

Here is a portion of what former Governor Lamm and his wife wrote upon Dan Sr.’s death: …we want to send both our sympathy and our appreciation for Dan and the amazing life he lived. He was such a thoughtful and perceptive addition to the Lamm administration… even more important was his role in building and cherishing his community… We can’t imagine how many hundreds of lives he must have inspired in his various coaching and teaching roles! We feel privileged to have known Dan and so many of his wonderful descendants. We rejoice in his giving heart and his incredible sense of humor. …his spirit will linger and last for all those his life has touched.

Daniel Luna, Jr.

Daniel Luna, Jr. is one of Denver’s prominent artists. He paints the world that is lived in mythic time, often surreal images of men, women and children going about their lives in a world that has not lost its magical quality.

From the very beginning, Daniel Luna, Jr. was an artist. Actually, in high school, he was also a football player and a wrestler. After that, however, his focus was entirely on art, art and the life of the mind. Even when times were bad, there was the painting of the world around him and, as well, the effort to make sense of that world, its cruelty and its moments of unexpected joy.

Daniel Luna, Jr.’s life has been a mythic journey. There are too many adventures and misadventures to relate here. There should be a book. What I will say is that he was fortunate to have had Pete Fox as his companion. Pete Fox was Daniel Luna, Jr.’s alter ego.  Often, I would receive packages in the mail filled with drawings by Daniel Luna, Jr., accompanied by the musings, poems, and journal entries of Pete Fox.

From a party attended by Daniel Luna, Jr… attended also by members of his extended family…children, cousins, couples, elders:

“Pete Fox always felt wonderful when the children looked at him with that curious knowledge that Pete Fox was not like the other adults, and in their acknowledgment his befuddlement became refreshing.

“At the end of the party, the oldest of the clan sauntered over in her graceful age, she playfully placed her arm over Pete Fox’s shoulder, hugging him close with a laughter that had not changed since his or her youth.

“She no longer carried her medicine pouch, and when she smiled and touched Pete Fox on his cheek, he knew her medicine pouch had become her touch. The old one then asked if she could look into his pouch. Pete Fox laughed, for his pouch had disappeared and become their embrace.” — Pete Fox

The mythic journey is perilous but the only option for some. It results in an insightful, vulnerable, brave, funny, often hilarious person, a person sober of mind with no rush or “hurry” to get elsewhere (unless the time has come to do so). Daniel Luna, Jr., is an artist.

How fortunate he was, then, to find Paula Leek. She is an assayer of meteorites. A student of timeframes that reach into the distant past. From around the world scientists and collectors send her meteorites, rocks from before the solar system formed. If the scientists in question live in the area, they may come to the house to observe the deciphering of mineral content, perhaps to look through the microscope at the rainbow of colors that meet the eye. Professors of the Geophysical Sciences wait patiently, surrounded by the mythic and surreal artwork of Daniel Luna, Jr., as Pete Fox marvels at the worlds brought together under one roof.


What follows is an exhibit of paintings by Daniel Luna, Jr. along with excerpts from his artist statement. The resolution of the photographs accompanying the artist statement is not particularly good but improves with Gallery II.

On style

People always ask what my style of painting is called. Is it Southwest, Chicano, Modern? Most of my paintings have a story behind and in them. I was raised in this area of the world (Southern Colorado and Denver) and with the help of my father we conceived of the following:

I, Daniel Luna, am a Regional Mythologist.

Why do I use the black line in all of my paintings? A lot of people make the mistake of seeing the black line as an outline. If it were just an outline, it wouldn’t be fun to do. The black outline is the final carving on the blocks of color I use to entice the viewer’s use of their imagination. It also leaves the viewer no choice other than to accept the reality of the possibility of the existence of the vision I have presented them. Whether they like it or not is of no consequence. What I want is for a moment to share the beautiful magic of dreaming while awake. I like to mix the erotic with the commonplace objects of existence because I see no difference. A broken cup, an electrical outlet, deteriorating bricks, all have a theatrical essence that is the core of the erotic; and the Erotic, as a healthy state of being, should be as common in our existence as electrical outlets.

On women

Why do I paint so many women? I am so curious about how women view the world. I have this haunting knowledge that everything I perceive is viewed in a different manner by the other creatures of the world, women. By painting the beauty and strength of women, I pay homage to that other unique view that exists simultaneously with my male view.

On putting a price on art

People ask me why the price of my art is so low. How funny that is to me. My price is what is fair to me. Being fair makes me feel good and makes my spirit feel healthy. The audacity of some folks telling me to raise my prices. I want to tell them, “Hey, you go make something and you can charge whatever you want for it.” I think it is very important for people to exercise their style of existence. And by being able to afford a unique piece of art from another human being bonds us to the magic of us as creative, powerful creatures. Maybe the artwork is like little night lights for people to put by their beds of imagination to keep away the bogy men of mediocrity.

On scary images and daily affirmations

I paint things that are highly improbable but not impossible, like fun. I have fun painting very scary things and I have fun painting beautiful things that include the strangeness of the fact that beautiful things do not in themselves know their beauty. I like to screw with the viewer’s arrogance about what should be. And to do this, my skills have to be constantly honed. I paint and draw every day and try to have fun every day. I think it’s funny when I feel I’m not having fun.

Gallery II

The Whale Hunters — gift from D. Luna, Jr.

Daniel Luna, Jr. can be reached at [email protected]


David Thomas, PhD