Los Angeles

Sonia Romero: From her Print Studio in North East LA, an Artist Depicts and Adorns her Imagination and the Public Life of a City

West Lake MacArthur.jpg

Artist Sonia Romero's newest print series is called "Revolving Landscape" and in some ways, it's the story of her whole life and career -- a story of a diversity of intertwined and overlapping influences, from her parents (both painters) to her neighborhood (North East LA) to her education (Rhode Island School of Design) that have each left indelible marks on who she is and what she is about. And that is, the fusion of those influences into a deeply personal, deliberately accessible modern traditionalism, expressing itself in the romantic, thorny, fabulist urban storytelling that has made her one of the brightest rising stars in the local visual-culture firmament.

The fine and public art she makes is not always about Los Angeles, although sometimes it quite literally is; but there is always a certain sense that it could not have been made anywhere else. In its formal qualities reside the unmistakable stylistic flourishes of the great Latin American and Chicano printmaking genius, with thick black lines and taste for magic spells and daily life. This she folds in with a coded language familiar to fans of the broader indie culture's light-hearted nostalgia and penchant for updating folklore into a fresh-faced world view.

Mermaid and Sailor. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

Mermaid. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

The "Revolving Landscape" is a like a never-ending stage set with a constantly changing and growing cast of characters. The outdoor landscapes of mountains or trees for example that form the backdrops fit together when placed side by side in any order; the characters range from mermaids to guitar players and sailors, all based on real people she's met and photographed. Imagery repeats between scenes, but no two are exactly alike. It's all rendered in a gorgeous dusty blue Romero described as a "faded willow china tea set," in a fittingly nostalgic gesture. This sense of preciousness is reinforced by the very limited print run of each image -- just 10. She uses a classic linoleum-cut block-printing technique on French rag paper, which speaks directly to the inherited and analog history of printmaking most will recognize. But it's the subtle humor and playfulness of the interchangeable, DIY storyline that's so at home in the current moment of retro-gaming and collectibility frenzy.

Her busy studio, called She Rides the Lion, is in a part of town rich with its own long history of artistic innovation. From it she oversees projects ranging from limited edition print concepts like the ongoing "Revolving Landscape" series; to larger pieces and mixed media works such as were shown last year at the Vincent Price Art Museum; collaborative projects with organizations like Self-Help Graphics; and navigation of the vagaries of the County Arts Commission and Community Redevelopment Agency in order to create public art installations including her celebrated work for the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro Station. I asked her how she juggles it all, and whether she thinks of her personal versus public art-making any differently.

Jarocho Willow. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

"I did not learn much about printmaking until I majored in it at RISD. Before RISD I always considered myself a painter. Both my parents are painters, so I grew up with the medium. When it came time to choose a major, I thought why not challenge myself and do something unexpected? This has proven to be a great choice, because my devotion to block printing has helped me develop a unique style in my painting. Ultimately, my artistic vision is alive and flexible. I create art to be of service, both to myself and to my community. Luckily I've found that I work well with city bureaucracy. Part of this is my education, I've learned to write proposals, put together presentations, and change my design if it's rejected by the community. The key is to realize, they aren't rejecting me as a person. The imagery simply might not reflect their culture. It's healthy as an artist to learn to separate one's artwork from one's self. And it's important to learn aspects of business and professionalism. My paintings -- or fine art -- come from a personal place, and reflect my current interests. My printmaking is faster, lighter in subject, and accessible in pricing. I can make multiples, explore and experiment the craft, and make whatever pops into my head. My public art is more designed-based, since I'm working for a client, be it a neighborhood council or government agency. Instead of plopping my personal ideas on top of public place, I must weave my ideas through what's already there."

Baby Girl. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

Woman's Torso. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

This she has accomplished to well-deserved acclaim in her installation at the MacArthur Park Metro Station. It's the very height of what public art can be at its best, if you consider celebrating local history to be of equal importance to originality and beauty in the equation. On two facing walls, one tiled in deep blue and the other in vibrant red, a row of half a dozen squares about 4 x 4 feet each depict in the same thick, expressive black lines that we recognize from the block-printing, a series of scenes from the history of the park and surrounding neighborhood. Children and families play, folks eat at Langer's Deli, architectural landmarks are erected, parkland wildlife flourishes. They are impressive and beautiful and even educational, and they make you think about where you are when you're in front of them.

Inner Landscape. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

Here's a short video of Sonia speaking at a recent art and music forum at the Rubix, where she goes into much greater detail about her technical process, and tells the heartbreaking but wonderful story of the Langer's part of the project.

When Romero is just left to her own creative devices in the studio, though, her mind roams a bit more freely and far afield. Her work is populated with semi-mythical characters and symbolism from the animal world that seems important to understand -- deer, bees, fish. But Romero avoids giving too much away on the order of specific meaning. "I don't know why I started making my "Pile" series (for example), but I've decided it reflects our culture of plenty. We have plenty of stuff due to assembly line style manufacturing, and we also have plenty of waste. I'm not sure why I'm attracted to animal imagery, but I think it has to do with a city person's longing for nature. I always go to the nature for inspiration. I grew up going to the countryside quite often. I also read a lot of story-books that feature animals as wonderful, imaginative key elements. I made a mermaid in this recent series because I met a woman I wanted to use as a model, and she was so obviously a mermaid kind of gal!"

"Revolving Landscape," featuring loads of mermaids, is up now through August 5th at Avenue 50 Studio: 131 North Avenue 50 Highland Park, CA 90042.

Angie. | Photo courtesy of Sonia Romero

Bride Dollar Dance. | Photo  courtesy of Sonia Romero

Macarthur Park Metro. | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot

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Top Image: 'Westlake Theatre' at Macarthur Park Metro. | Photo: Shana Nys Dambrot

About the Author

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles.
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