Images of fire, protests, and tear gas from Ferguson, Missouri, Mexico City, and downtown Los Angeles have circled the globe through social media the last six months. They landed in the inbox of painter Sandy Rodriguez, who works out of a studio in South L.A.'s Leimert Park.
Sandy Rodriguez has a 9-to-5 job at the Getty’s education department. During her off hours she paints at a former hair salon converted into an artist studio.
"I'm one of three artists in residence with Art+Practice Foundation here in Leimert Park. This is the first year of the program. It is a 14 month residency so I get to create and just work here for 14 months, started in August of 2014," Rodriguez says.
When she started the residency, she proposed a dozen paintings about Leimert Park’s revitalization. She painted a 1920s home, a street scene, and the nighttime fog of nearby Mar Vista.
(Fog in Mar Vista, a painting by Sandy Rodriguez. Image: KPCC/Maya Sugarman)
And then Ferguson, Missouri happened.
One of her paintings includes an image of a McDonald's restaurant.
"A number of reporters and people had been arrested inside a McDonald's in Ferguson during the first few days of the demonstrations, and they were being accused of trespassing in a public space. You hope that you include just a little bit of information, that it’ll jog recent memory and conversations and think about a lot of topics that come up, right?" Rodriguez says.
(Ferguson, Missouri, in a painting by Sandy Rodriguez. Image: KPCC/Maya Sugarman)
The first time she painted fire? "I remember it was ’92," Rodriguez says. "It was the civil unrest, and it was only through the front page of the LA Times. And I still have old, crumbled LA Times front page images from various kinds of moments that I’ve painted."
It’s a process of mentally cutting and pasting, editing the found images, and channeling the results through her hand, paint brush, and onto the canvas.
Sandy Rodriguez is a Chicana. She grew up in L.A. and Tijuana in a family with three generations of artists and painters. Next to the Ferguson works are paintings of an overturned car bathed in fire and a nighttime scene of Mexico City’s national palace, with crowds circling a burning effigy of the president. The paintings are reactions to the November protests in Mexico over the police killing of 43 young teachers.
What moved her?
“My empathy to the cause and to the work that they were doing, the work that they had hoped to be able to do of educating rural Mexican students that didn’t have the opportunities that they had, right? And there was an absolute sadness and outrage, powerlessness over the scenario, over the scene, and what could I do. Then you’re reading the newspaper. Then you've got tears coming down your face. You’re trying to have breakfast and reading the sources and you’re like, 'Well, what can I do?' I can go to the studio and I can make a painting about this moment so that it’s not forgotten, so that as more news and more horrific, awful things happen, people don’t just forget.”
Sandy Rodriguez is fascinated by fire and the rebirth that follows. Friends know this and send her pictures of fires. She got one of these pictures in the middle of the night in December. It was of Geoff Palmer's massive apartment complex on fire in downtown L.A.
“It was one of those moments, you’re like, 'This is a historic fire. I can’t believe this is happening in my lifetime.' I know it’s not a good thing when a whole entire block goes up in flames, but hopefully they’ll rethink what happens in that same plot of land next.”
Rodriguez doesn’t create alone. She opens up her studio to visitors to hear what they have to say about her work. “There’s an idea that there’s a lone artistic creator, toiling away by themselves in a space, and it’s not in a vacuum. That process is about being a part of a larger community, a larger dialogue, a larger history.”
In June, a curator will pick some of Sandy Rodriguez’s paintings for a group show at the Art + Practice space in L.A.’s Leimert Park. She'll be talking about the art she's created on March 18.