“I know how to draw faces!” Ramiro Gomez insists with a grin, dabbing brown paint onto a glossy white magazine page with a slender brush. Shoulders and arms appear in a coppery sheen, then a head topped with thick black hair. But no face, at least not this time.
“I’m not trying to focus on the real person,” Gomez says, peering at the portrait in his Glassell Park studio. The 27-year-old artist instead wants to emphasize “the things that your eye can’t see.”
The original magazine photo showed a white-walled museum, and he’s painted a janitor mopping its floor. The man’s shoulders, stooped into a back-crunching curve, suggest decades of manual labor.
Los Angeles’ legions of custodians, nannies and gardeners deserve recognition, Gomez says – for their contributions to the city, and for their tireless efforts to raise children destined for better lives.
“I’m trying to get you to sympathize, connect, understand, question … just engage,” he says of his work.
Gomez grew up in San Bernardino County, the son of Mexican immigrants. His father, a Costco truck driver, made it to sixth grade before dropping out to work on the family ranch. His mother, a school janitor, completed some high school.
Their son, who painted with his mother’s lipsticks as a toddler, loved school and enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts for college. But he left halfway through, feeling out of place. Desperate for a job and ready to abandon the art world, Gomez took the same step as countless Latinos before him: He became a nanny.
At his job caring for two children in an affluent West Hollywood home, Gomez would flip through old magazines showcasing flashy dining rooms, tidy children’s bedrooms and lush gardens. He would wonder: Where were the maids and nannies and gardeners? Where were the people like him?
He began to paint them onto the magazine pages – scrubbing floors, cooking dinner and caring for toddlers, always with stooped shoulders and blank faces.
Gomez eventually decided to put his characters into the real world – on tall pieces of cardboard so that they could stand up, nearly life-size, on West Hollywood lawns and at Beverly Hills tourist spots. He would lean the cardboard cutouts against a hedge and leave, knowing that he might never see them again.
This project, begun so quietly in 2011, has since drawn the attention of academics, activists and art dealers, blossoming into new opportunities for Gomez.
The artist no longer works as a nanny. Instead he spends his days painting at his new studio. His canvases, cardboard, magazines and paints had outgrown his bedroom in the West Hollywood apartment he shares with his partner of eight years – especially since he has needed to keep up with growing demand. A couple months ago, Gomez sold paintings at his first solo gallery show at Charlie James Gallery in Chinatown, and two museums have bought his work. His works are at Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art through July 9, in an exhibition with other emerging L.A. artists.
But Gomez wants to continue bringing his art to public spaces beyond gallery and museum walls. He wants the faceless people of his paintings to see his work, and to recognize the dignity of their labor expressed in the strokes of a paintbrush.
“It’s sad to think how many generations of immigrants struggling with surviving here in this country get lost to time,” Gomez says. “But all that isn’t in vain.”
One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly’s People 2014 issue. Check out our entire People 2014 issue.