Martin Saldaña was born December 11, 1874, at the Rancho Nuevo which is forty miles north of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. His grandfather started Rancho Nuevo and as his sons married, he had each of them build a house on the ranch so they would stay. Martin was one of nine children. He was the smallest in the family and was not expected to live. All his siblings were six feet tall. His father was a cattle dealer and rancher.
As life on a ranch dictates, Martin was working at a young age. At eight he was taking care of the pigs and by ten he had his own horse named Pistol which he rode with his brothers to help herd cattle.
At fifteen he managed a large flower garden at the ranch which was one of his favorite pastimes. He was was resourceful at finding jobs. He sold wood to raise money so he could go to San Antonio to get a job picking cotton. Once he saved 350.00 he went to Tampico, Mexico where he got a job as a stoker on a ship shoveling coal. He had to stand in water all day which he said was bad on his legs. With the money he earned he and a few other men pooled their funds and bought two mules so they could peddle dishes to woman in the mountains above the mining town of Pacuoco. It was there he saw the bodies of four men that had been killed by mountain lions. To be sure, he and his friends always made large fires at night to keep away the mountain lions.
He decided to try his hand at cooking. His first job was on a fishing boat in Mexico. He then moved to the United States, and got a cooking job in Alabama. He moved to Kentucky and found a job at an Italian restaurant there. In Tennessee he got a job in a Greek restaurant. He said, in Tennessee the waitresses were blonde and wore lovely silk white dresses. The image was memorable and later was used in his paintings.
In 1912 Martin finally gets to Denver and works at Sister of Mercy Hospital again as a cook. That lasts a few years and in 1915 at the age of 41 he starts his long career cooking at the Denver landmark, the Brown Palace. In 1950 he is able to afford a one room gets a room nearby.
It was then, at 76 he is accidentally invited to join a children's watercolor class at the Denver Art Museum. He is allowed to participate, and ends up being adored by the children and the teacher. He then joins the Emily Griffith School of Opportunity so to take more art classes. It was here that Martin meets and works under the tutalege of Lester Bridaham. Bridaham loved Saldana’s whimsical art and he buys every painting that Martin ever painted. He became his patron, teacher, and his greatest promoter of his work. Bridham worked to get Saldana’s works in galleries and museums around the world. In 1953 Life Magazine wrote an article titled “An Old Cook’s New Art” about Saldaña and his art practice.
Saldaña only painted for fifteen years, working entirely by memory and imagination. On occasion he would work from a postcard he found but almost all of his work is of his memories from childhood in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, portraying ranch life, landscapes, his great love of animals and especially his wonderful flower garden. Saldaña painted every day, completing a new piece about every three days and although he painted for a relatively short amount of time, he amassed an impressive body of work.
Saldaña’s vibrant palette and geometric figures are reminiscent of the tapestries and embroidered garments of his Mexican heritage and the paintings, primarily in oil, are endearing.
Saldaña died September 5, 1995 at the age of 91.
Works Held: Denver Art Museum, University of Wyoming Art Museum, The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, International Folk Art Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Neuss in Aberthaw Museum (London), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam)