March 3 2014 08:10 PM

San Diego artist and professor leaves behind impactful art and a standout approach to education

Ernest Silva
Photo by Monica Nouwens

Ernest Silva's Facebook page has been transformed into an emotional online memorial. The artist died last week, and the page has since been filling up with comments posted by students, colleagues, fans and others who've been touched by the internationally known painter and sculptor.

"Ernie was a celebrated and distinctive artist, to be sure, but he was also a warm, generous man," writes John Menier, a friend and colleague. "He had that admirable quality of taking his work seriously but not himself, as evidenced by his sly sense of humor and lack of pretension. Ernie's passing is a profound loss..."

Silva, 65, was found dead in his home on Feb. 24. According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, suicide was the cause. Several friends say Silva was struggling with Parkinson's disease, which made his hands tremble visibly.

One of Silva's greatest legacies is "The Rain House," the immersive permanent installation at the New Children's Museum that invites families to climb inside the artistic playhouse and enjoy vivid imagery and a larger-than-life floor puzzle while rain from a sprinkler patters down onto the corrugated roof. The original version of the piece was on view in the first iteration of the Children's Museum and was brought back by popular demand. It has since achieved local-art-icon status.

"'The Rain House' is really accessible," says longtime local art critic Robert Pincus, who describes Silva's artwork as "visual poetry" in an online tribute on Culture Buzz. "I think his ability was to see the different ways in which he could evoke his feelings as a visual metaphor. The house is like a walk-in metaphor... It's so unrealistic, and yet it's so real."

A professor emeritus in the UCSD Department of Visual Arts, Silva joined the school in 1979 and retired in July 2013. While he enjoyed many notable worldwide exhibitions and was one of the original creators of inSITE, a binational arts exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana, one of his most lasting impacts has been on his students.

"If anyone was more suited to guide young artists back out into the real world, I haven't met him or her yet," says former student Louis M. Schmidt.

Another former student, Jewel Castro, says Silva was extraordinarily generous with his time and always willing to talk to his students at length and in person.

"I loved that he was approachable, accessible and generous with perspectives about the process of art-making," Castro says. "He had an edgy quietness about him but also was quick to laugh."

A public memorial for Silva will be held in the Atkinson Pavilion of the Faculty Club at UCSD at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 4.

"The Rain House" by Ernest Silva
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

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