Spotlight on the Artist is a new column written by Lety Keller, exclusively for Artists Underground. If you know an artist who deserves a day in the spotlight, please contact Lety at WriterLetyKeller@gmail.com.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Sonia Romero in early March at her Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park. Sonia and I have the same high school alma mater— Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA). Although she was in the Visual Arts department and I was in the Theater department, LACHSA was such a small school that everyone knew each other. We have kept in touch via Facebook, but we hadn’t laid eyes on each other since our graduation at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1998. I swear, she looks exactly the same. She kindly said the same of me— but she was just being nice. Sonia is a visual artist who specializes in mixed media printmaking, painting, and public art.
Sonia always knew she was going to be an artist, ever since she was a little girl. Although both her parents were artists, it was a choice she made on her own. She attended LACHSA and went on to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She chose RISD because her family has a tradition of heading to the east coast for college. In art school, the first year is a foundation year and afterward students choose a major or specialization. Her original plan was to major in painting. However, she switched her major to printmaking, which was an unexpected choice at the time. She took printmaking at LACHSA, but did not develop an attachment at that time. At RISD, the painting major focused on theory and conceptual art, whereas Sonia was seeking a technique-based education. That goal limited her choices to printmaking or illustration, and printmaking was a smaller, more intimate department. Plus, she wanted to something that separated her as an artist from her family. Both of her parents are artists and her father, Frank Romero, is a well-known muralist.
Sonia spent her RISD senior year in Rome, Italy. She focused on her sketchbook, working outside, and that is when she came up with the piece She Rides the Lion, which was inspired by her niece. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That is all tied to her whimsical early phase. She was drawing little girls living in a fantasy world. She believes that inspiration grew out of her sheltered upbringing which caused her to engage in the fantasy world. Now that she is more socially conscious and engaged, she does not delve in that kind of fantasy world work.
She chose Avenue 50 for her studio after she had a show in the Avenue 50 gallery in 2007. The studio space was empty, so she made the leap to having her own space. Right now she is working on a large project using her father’s studio because there is a lot of tile work which she needs to fire and he has a kiln. Read on to find out more about this exciting project.
Sonia’s art often comes in series. Her work is driven by the things she is passionate about and interested in during that time period of art creation. Some inspiration comes from what she is reading about.
She loves traveling because as soon as she leaves her day-to-day life, the inspiration just pours in. She notes that frankly, routine is not inspiring at all. She advises any “stuck” artist to go on adventures, because artist’s block happens. She has learned to avoid artist’s block by forcing herself out of her routine every once in a while.
Sonia’s Art Practice Structure
Sonia is always working on different projects with different financial gains. She tries to always have a big project in the pipeline, which allows her to make her fine art without financial pressure. She has tiered her practice so there are smaller works for the audience who cannot afford large pieces and larger pieces of fine art for serious collectors. Finally, she has large scale public art projects which are accessible to many. Sometimes she works with galleries, but she is not currently signed with a gallery.
Her current assistant, Christian, helps her with anything she needs in the studio and is currently assisting her with the public art project with the tiles. Her assistant apprentices tend to wander in and out of her life. It can be hard to work with her because she does not have a set schedule and she needs someone who can flow with that. Christian describes himself as “a homie helping out.”
The first thing Sonia did when she returned home from RISD was to set about finding her community of artists/artist network. She interned for another artist in 2003 for a year. She also made sure to show up at all the gallery openings she could find, where she would meet people and hand out business cards. Any opportunity she had with her art was because someone advocated for her and her work. In her experience, an artist just has to meet one person who believes in their work and the rest snowballs from there.
Sonia’s Advice for New Artists
Her #1 advice? SHOW UP! Show up to everything. Support other artists and find out what they are working on. Attach yourself to another artist whose art you enjoy and try to learn from them—even if you have work for free. You can see how that artist has managed to achieve their success and model your career upon theirs.
Education was very important to Sonia. She learned things that she would have never thought to learn. Of course, once an artist makes it out of the arts education system some things must be unlearned. Outside of school an artist must rely on intuition to make choices.
A successful artist must be very self-motivated. If not, you will not last one day as an artist.
Sonia doesn’t have a 5 year or 10 year plan, but right now she is really excited about public art. She will always continue her fine art practice alongside her public art practice because her fine art helps her figure out her ideas and what she wants to say publicly. Her public art is very accessible. For example, a million plus people a year pass through the MacArthur Park subway station. They are viewing art she made when she was 27 years old.
She doesn’t even have her next year mapped out. She tries to remain flexible and fluid. She suggests that if an artist is not making money with art, there is nothing wrong with having a job because putting monetary pressure on your art can have devastating effects on the art itself. On the other hand, an all consuming job that saps all creative energy will not work either. She has seen so many people consumed with making money that they destroyed their art. If an artist is living month-to-month and struggling for cash, it influences their art a lot. The artist starts pandering to what they think will sell and it usually backfires and does NOT sell because it is not coming from a creative place. Sometimes artist mothers feel that pressure to make money so that it’s justified— this time they are spending away from their families. That is ridiculous because the only reason you are making art is because it is important to you. Art has to come from an authentic place. There are easier ways to make money if that is all a person is interested in doing.
Being an artist was the only thing she saw herself doing. She started out being an artist in Los Angeles. And now, she is, well, an artist in Los Angeles. The biggest roadblock is an artist’s own mind and the best advice she can give a new artist is to know you are creating your own path and it does not look like anyone else’s path.
On her website, there is video footage of a talk she did describing what motivated her when she was fresh out of college. She was very ambitious. She wanted to “make it” as an artist, which meant to be recognized and accepted by the artistic community, and also to have high sales. However, she had a quarter-life crisis in her mid-twenties when that motivation left her. She had to find different things to motivate her because she lost her original drive. She never really explored the questions of “why do we make art?,” “what is the purpose of art?,” or “how does art function in society?” Those are questions she had to answer in order to keep going. She started looking for answers and that is when she started the practice of writing every day, which is now a really big part of her art practice. She got this idea from the book The Artist’s Way. The author suggests a purge in the morning of all the mind “busyness” so thoughts are less hectic and the mind is more empty and more receptive to receiving ideas from the creative universe. As an artist, there exists a responsibility to create art. When an artist believes that the source of creativity comes from something greater than herself, it is very freeing because she is just a vessel for this creative energy.
Sonia’s Typical Day
On a typical day Sonia gets up in the morning, but does not enter the studio until noon. She spends most of her morning making her life healthy— cooking, writing, and exercising. This practice puts her in the right frame of mind to create artwork. She sets up deadlines with institutions, commissions, or shows. If no deadline is looming, then she has time to play and experiment. Typically, she stays in the studio for at least 8 hours. However, if there is a big deadline coming up, then she will be at the studio around the clock.
In the last 5 years, she has begun her public art career. She never dreamed she would have a public art career but now that comprises approximately fifty percent of her art practice.
Her first large scale public art piece is at the Westlake/MacArthur Park Metro Station in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Metro (Metro) always has a competitive process for any artwork. The Metro first became familiar with Sonia when she applied to a Metro poster contest, which she won. After that, the Metro was familiar with her work, and a Metro committee asked to review her portfolio. As a finalist for a particular Metro project, an artist is paid a certain amount to make a design and then the committee chooses the winning design. However, the Metro only pays the artist for the design. The actual fabrication is done by someone else, which also is pursuant to a competitive process. For example, her pieces were fabricated in Montreal, Canada. Now that Sonia is working on her fifth large scale public art project, she handles the fabrication herself because she understands the whole process.
When Sonia is ready to make prints of her designs, she keeps her runs small so they are more collectible. Sometimes it depends on the medium. For example, with silk screen (serigraph) it is easy to make a lot of prints, so she will make more. However, hand-printing in the studio with linocut is very time consuming because she has to do it all her self. For example, for the SoulPancake piece she only made five prints because the process was delicate and time consuming.
She developed her own paper-cut technique. She feels like people are more responsive to the paper-cuts compared to the prints or linocuts. That inspires her to make original paper-cuts.
The great thing about her studio is that there are openings every month with a flow of 300-400 people in her space. That helps her gauge public reaction to whatever she is doing.
She does group gallery shows a few times a year, with solo shows every couple of years.
She has branched out a bit from the Los Angeles art scene. For example, she’s had shows in San Diego, California, and San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio was really great. She was very welcomed by the artist community there and she had some follow-up shows. People are more willing to buy art than in Los Angeles because of the recession the saturated LA market.
One piece of work that was striking to me was her Cod and Strawberry Pile piece. It was just the weirdest thing. The colors and textures were pretty and I loved the colors, yet the piece was grotesque in a way. I was looking at it, and I thought, “are those fish?” She explained that she went through a food politics phase and that was when she was designing piles of things related to farming and mass production. This particular piece was related to the placement of genetic material from arctic cod fish and into strawberries to withstand the frost. We don’t normally see those two things together and yet we eat it without knowing it.
Something she has learned about herself is that she has trouble drawing the dark side, the ugliness of things. She realized she was trying to make everything beautiful. For example, she has a piece with rotting pigs, but she still made it pretty. That is something she is slowly changing. It is probably related to her sheltered upbringing because she was not exposed to the dark side of life. Although she grew up in Echo Park, she went to a private school. LACHSA was a fantastic experience for her because it was so diverse. It was literally the best thing that ever happened to her because it broadened her horizons.
Cheech Marin collects Chicano paintings, and he has some of Frank Romero’s pieces in his collection. Eventually, Sonia’s work caught his attention and one of the first pieces he bought of hers was placed in his art show Chicanitas, currently at the San Diego Modern Art Museum. The show is traveling around the country and he commissioned little paintings for that. Now that he is familiar with her work, he has purchased a paper-cut piece for his Chicano paper work collection. Cheech Marin believes America and the world need to be shown Chicano art because it is not being put out there by large institutional museums and it is work worth knowing. Therefore, he amassed this collection and it travels around the world. Part of his collection will be going to France later this year.
Little Tokyo Project
Sonia landed this project as another competitive commission through the Community Redevelopment Agency. She was already on the short list for this project and she had other work in the system. They chose her because her paper-cut work has similarities with Japanese artwork. The project was related to create neighborhood signage for people to recognize they were in Little Tokyo. After her original proposal, she did a redesign based on feedback from a small committee from the community’s Business Improvement District. There was another redesign after collecting input from the Little Tokyo Neighborhood Council of about 60 people. After one more final meeting, her designs were finally approved. Community input was very important to this project because the pieces were meant to represent the community.
The pieces were fabricated by digitally powder-coating aluminum. She designed everything by hand and then uploaded the designs to the computer to make them the right size and color. The pieces were actually sent to Canada for fabrication. Generally, she uses the computer as a tool but she starts her designs outside and then finishes them on the computer. This may speak to her generation, half in and half out of the technical age. For example, her students at LACHSA are really comfortable designing directly in the computer.
This is my favorite piece of Sonia’s. The face of the woman is so layered, and I’m not quite sure how she captured that look. From my acting experience, I know how hard it is to communicate more than one thing with your face. The woman is scared but excited— vulnerable, yet strong. Sonia was pleased in my choice. It is one of her favorite pieces as well and one of her most personal and vulnerable pieces. She made it for a feminist show and it’s a piece meant to be viewed by women. In the art world, most of the top artists are men. The piece was shown at the feminist show in San Diego and the LA Woman Show at Forest Lawn. The originals live in her studio and there are no prints.
When I met with Sonia, she was in “fabrication mode” on this project. Los Angeles is putting in an Olympic size pool in East Los Angeles at Belvedere Park. She designed the artwork for the exterior and interior of the building. She also designed underwater swimmers using metal cutouts for the biggest public art project she has ever done. She showed me some of the designs on her computer. Behind each metal cutout are the ceramic tiles she is currently working on fabricating. The swimmers are all neighborhood people whom she photographed underwater. She found these models by posting on Facebook and putting the word out at the pool to lifeguards, classes, and swim teams. She took a lot of pictures and picked the figures which fit the project. She wanted fully submerged figures with a variety of ages and sexes and the figures had to be vertical to fit into the spaces already present in the building architecture. This proved to be somewhat difficult because swimming is generally a horizontal activity.
There is also a lobby piece with painted tiles, for which she used a horizontal figure. One thing she loves about this project is she got to be in charge of the entire thing, hiring her own people, and exercising total control over the process. This project has been in development for about a year, which is pretty fast in the public art world. For the tiles, she is using commercial tile, and will then be silk screening and firing the tiles herself. She started the same day of our interview. Christian will be helping her and she has a ceramic consultant who is setting up the project. She also hired artisans to create the metal figures using her designs. The actual figures will not be covered in glass or plastic, but she is using strong materials so the work can be cleaned. The figures are floated off the tile on metal rods by about an inch or two, which creates some shadow. The figures can also withstand water and humidity.
The Belvedere Pool project opened July 12th to much fanfare, with a ribbon cutting and everything! Los Angeles luminaries, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, were on hand to present this great project to the public.
Sonia teaches a class at LACHSA called Printmaking and Public Art. She invented the class because that is what she wanted to teach. This is her first year teaching the yearlong class. She advises up-and-coming artists to develop their teaching skills because teaching can provide a steady source of income and additional networking opportunities. The first semester of her class focused on how to conceptualize ideas and the mechanics of printmaking. Her students are currently working on a temporary installation for the LACHSA Live event in March. I was able to attend and the pieces were truly stunning. When Sonia was a LACHSA student she entered a contest sponsored by Wells Fargo for a mural at the Gene Autry museum. She won the contest, received a cash prize, and her work was temporarily on display for a year. The Autry enjoyed her piece so much, they decided to make it part of their permanent collection. It is currently on display in a conference room, but is not available for viewing by the public.
Sonia’s current website is an incarnation born of her first two not-so-great websites. She suggests that artists develop their writing, speaking, and photography skills, in addition to the art form they are practicing, because it will all be necessary for the artist’s platform. Technology has finally caught up and the templates available really make it easy. Before she had custom websites but now she uses Squarespace which doesn’t require a web designer. Many people view an artist’s website as an extended business card. Everyone checks her website before they talk to or see her. But, it took her 10 years to build her platform. Some people, such as Mat Gleason, will give you an artists boot camp to learn everything you need in a few weeks. [Keep in mind— Artists Underground has a FREE bootcamp!]
The producers found Sonia on the internet, and approached her about the project. It was a big production that took a long time. SoulPancake’s audience is 15-18 year olds. Young people are learning about artists from following them on instagram, thereby receiving a lot of exposure to contemporary artists. There is a link to the piece on her website, http://www.soniaromero.net/.
Barriers to Entry
Some opportunities, such as certain museum and gallery exhibits, are only available to highly educated artists. If an artist does not have the correct credentials, the artist is not considered. She doesn’t like those barriers, but they exist. Many high-end galleries recruit artists from graduate schools, where the artists are pursuing MFAs. People need to trust an artist’s vision and some people assume if an artist completed a prestigious MFA program your vision is packaged and ready to go. However, this can be detrimental. Just because someone completed an MFA doesn’t mean they are the visionary of our age.
No matter how the artist arrived at the patron’s door, the artist needs to convince the patron that the artist is worth investing time and money. That is why artists need to develop their platforms and communities. For example, Sonia’s public art has opened up more opportunities for her. She doesn’t have one specific patron, she has had many who have come and gone. Many were other artists who believed in her.
She is very open to mentoring and answering questions. Please check out her website: http://www.soniaromero.net/
Photographs by JorgeAraujoPhotography@gmail.com