Longstanding Chicano artist Jose Ramirez is using his art to start a dialogue around social change. This weekend his studio is open to all.
Growing up in East Los Angeles in the ‘70s, Jose Ramirez would drive around his neighborhood and see the endless sprawl of Chicano murals covering the streets of his community. When he visited his family in Jalisco, Mexico during the summer, he watched as his uncles painted their own canvases. Little did he know at the time that Chicano art would become his life’s work.
The bright colors. Dark lines. Social justice messages. Ramirez says he identified with the murals in El Sereno and Lincoln Heights during a time when he didn’t see Mexican-Americans like him reflected in the news or on TV shows.
“We would see each other as criminals or house cleaners, not as people in positions of power,” Ramirez says. “The Chicano movement was really important in bringing these issues to light. It was important in making us present because, otherwise, we wouldn’t have been around.”
In ninth grade, Ramirez received a scholarship to attend Verde Valley, a boarding school in Sedona, Arizona. He was recruited at his middle school in El Sereno through a program called A Better Chance, which aims to diversify private schools across the country.
It was at Verde Valley that Ramirez took his first art class. And he pursued the arts throughout high school, taking photography, ceramics and drawing courses.
“I was excited to leave home, but it was nothing like what I expected it to be,” he says. “It was very white, a lot of wealthy kids, small too. I was really quiet and I wasn’t very academically prepared for it. It was good that I had art. A good way for me to come to terms with where I was and understand it, a way to document what I was experiencing at school.”
After graduating high school, Ramirez started college at UC Berkeley in 1985. He focused on ceramics and sculpting during his undergraduate years, working at a studio established by internationally renowned ceramicist Peter Voulkos.
It wasn’t until Ramirez returned to graduate school at Berkeley in 1991 that he had more of a direction for his art and was challenged for what he was doing with it.
“When I went back, I knew I was a Chicano artist,” he says. “I knew that I was going to be working more with clay but still painting. But in the early ‘90s, a lot of the professors I had in the graduate program were mostly white … and they didn’t really understand Chicano art. They didn’t know how to talk to me about my art, so their reaction was: ‘We don’t understand this.’ ‘We don’t know what you’re doing.’ ‘It looks scary.’ ‘It looks like the work of a serial killer.’ ‘It’s too Mexican.’”
Instead of changing his work to please his professors, Ramirez sought out allies in visiting artists like Chicano poet Jose Montoya and Chicana muralist Juana Alicia.
“They put my work into context and helped me understand that my audience was not an academic elite, ivory tower type of art,” Ramirez says. “My art was going to be valued somewhere else, it had a higher calling than just staying in that art department.”
After receiving his MFA in art in 1993, Ramirez moved back to Los Angeles and started exhibiting his work. Deeply rooted in his Mexican-American heritage, his paintings feature humble workers, teachers, children and ancient warriors often surrounded by the metropolitan fabric of Los Angeles. He begins with modest line drawings and slowly builds up to bright primary colors and dark black lines for contrast. Over the years, he’s exhibited at the Los Angeles Central Library, the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C., Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park and Homegirl Café in Los Angeles.
He also received his teaching credentials in 1995 from Cal State L.A. and started teaching in South Central, eventually transferring to Esperanza Elementary School in Pico-Union, where he’s been for the past 20 years. He’s currently teaching third grade.
“When I see my students, I see myself because I’m a product of L.A. Unified,” he says.
His students fuel much of the social justice messaging in his art.
“I’m a school teacher in Pico-Union, which is a very marginalized community with a lot of immigrants,” he says. “Last year, I had six immigrant students from Central America. They’re all from that neighborhood, so I hear and I see and I work with the students, and I hear what they go through, so sometimes those stories make their way into my paintings.”
This year, Ramirez released a collection of paintings inspired by his teaching experiences. They showed protesters holding signs bearing messages like “Invest in Public Education” and “Kids First!”
Ramirez says the work coming out of the East L.A. community centers Self Help Graphics and Plaza de la Raza — both cornerstones in L.A.’s Mexican American art community — inspire him as well. And his experiences living in Boyle Heights as a wave of gentrification sweeps the area naturally make their way into his art.
“I always want East L.A. to be central to my work because I’m so close to it,” Ramirez says. “I see that it’s really hard for people to find affordable housing … a lot of people who made this neighborhood what it is are getting pushed out. And people who are moving in don’t understand what was here before and appear to have no desire to really respect or think about that. There’s a lot that’s getting lost and it’s happening at a really fast pace.”
Ramirez is currently working on ideas for a children’s book based on the history of Boyle Heights — and it will no doubt have his signature vibrant Chicano style.
“If I can get someone who’s not your average person who looks for art to stop and look and maybe be attracted by the bright colors and then look closer and see a new perspective about what’s happening in the world, then I’ve done my job,” Ramirez says. “Art has power to change things.”
On Sunday, Dec. 15, Jose Ramirez is opening his art studio to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can reach out to him on Instagram @joseramirezart, or his website at ramirezart.com for more information.