Van Saro got his start on the streets. He grew up in Surrey, British Columbia, not too far from Vancouver, and graffiti art was a big deal. "I would take the bus to the city all the time, take pictures with a disposable camera and try to emulate it," he says. "I was never good as a kid, but, that's where we all started."
Saro was 11 the first time he hit Canadian walls then got pretty heavily into the graffiti world during his teenage years. "Graffiti allowed me to be angry and get out there and paint," he says.
These days, Saro primarily paints with oils, draws with charcoal and displays his works inside galleries. The influence of the streets, though, is still evident in his work. Saro, who has lived in Los Angeles for over a decade, unveiled his latest collection, "What a Wonderful World," at La Luz de Jesus recently. Among the pieces is The Orwellian Life, a 24" x 36" oil on wood depiction of an imagined sidewalk scene. Visions of war pop out from a fictional mural on a tagged wall as a young girl holds on to her Mickey Mouse doll while standing next to a fire hydrant.
It's a world that has appeared in Saro's work before, a photo-realistic, oil painted glimpse into the decaying city facades that were once his canvas. "I find beauty in the decay," he says. With "What a Wonderful World," Saro is moving away from that style-- there's only one such piece in the show-- but it's still indicative of where he's been and where he might be heading.
Back in Canada, Saro was an outsider. He was part of an immigrant family in a town where there weren't many others like him. Additionally, he was sick often. People didn't understand why he fell ill so frequently, why he was in so much physical pain. Art became a sanctuary. "I always gravitated towards drawing and painting," he says. "Drawing, since I was little, was a place where I was always at peace, where I wasn't angry. I wasn't getting into trouble."
it wasn't until Saro was an adult that he learned that he had fibromyalgia. Thanks to an experimental treatment, he finally found relief. Once Saro was well, he took off for Los Angeles. "I needed to get far away from where I was, just to get away from the memories of being sick," says Saro. "As soon as I got out of bed, I got a one-way ticket, left and never came back." He was 21.
Saro had promised himself that, once he was well, he would "go and live life." He made good on that promise, but life in Los Angeles brought about another long cycle of hardships.
For years, Saro lived as an undocumented immigrant in California. He floated from one home to the next, spending time in San Pedro, the San Fernando Valley and parts in between. He headed up to Sacramento for a bit. At one point, not long after his arrival in Los Angeles, he lived on the streets. That lasted for a couple months, until a friend was able to get him a job in a restaurant and Saro had enough money to rent out rooms in other people's homes. "That's basically how I lived for most of the first eight years that I was here," says Saro, "surviving day to day."
He worked the sort of jobs that are typically available to people who don't have papers: dishwashing and landscaping. "Whether I was able to do it or not, I would say yeah I can do it," says Saro. "Survival makes you do things you didn't think you could do."
When Saro was a child, art was a means of survival, a way of dealing with the pain associated with illness and alienation. In Los Angeles, though, art was a luxury. "Buying spray paint cans is not necessarily cheap," he says. Plus, an arrest was the last thing he needed when he was living under the immigration radar.
Still, Saro carved out moments to focus on his art. "I would come home and draw," he says. "It was just an obsession of mine." At one point, he paid a roommate to teach him drawing. His skills improved. Meanwhile, as his economic situation became less dire, he delved further into painting.
"When I started painting again, I was really serious about dedicating my life to being an artist," he says. "It was when I had the luxury of knowing that I would have some food when I got home. I would have a few extra bucks in my pocket to buy a can of paint."
Saro struggled even after his immigration status was sorted and after he started appearing in gallery shows and selling paintings. It wasn't until two years ago that he was able to quit his last day job, delivering pizzas. "I'm surprised that I had the fortitude to do this for that many years," says Saro. "What was I thinking?"
Today, Saro lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and newborn son. His life has settled greatly. Still, there's a deep struggle for survival that exists on his canvases. "What a Wonderful World" reaches into the darkest corners of the political landscape, like war, health care, drug policies. The content might make the title of the show seem more than a bit ironic, but that's not necessarily the case. Saro plans on doing another show as part of the same series with pieces exposing the beautify of life. "Everything is balanced," says Saro. And you can say that about his life in Los Angeles as well.