1. RICARDO VICENTE JOSE RUIZ - June 21 & 22, 2017
I met with Ricardo twice in the process of documenting his space and his story. The former is tidy and pragmatic, a word he uses often but sparingly, almost lovingly. The latter is sprawling, warm, and tangled, pieces of it strewn throughout his intimate space, left to the visitor to sort through, or for his patient and excited explanations to unravel.
Ricardo’s one bedroom apartment is tucked away in a small courtyard off one of Richmond’s larger streets, a quaint red brick carriage-house-turned-apartment-building. He leads us up the front steps, flanked by two large bushes and a few neglected potted plants, to the building’s red front door. As he walks us inside, he remarks how nice it is to finally have a home base, a place for his things, as he’s been traveling and spending time in institutions, universities, for the past 6 years. He explains how he’s currently in the process of moving the last of his possessions out of his old studio and into this new space, which he first moved into at the beginning of the month.
His apartment is the first door immediately on the right, painted white. Upon entering, it is instantly clear that Ricardo has a knack for collecting, cultivating. The open, combined living room and kitchen space is beautifully organized and curated, stuffed but not cluttered with Latin American and indigenous artifacts and treasures he’s picked up at swap meets and antique stores during his extensive travels throughout Mexico and the U.S.
Artwork of various sizes and styles is hung expertly around the room, along with several mirrors, a black-and-white photograph of his grandparents on their wedding day, carved horned masks - the head of a bull and a few variations on the devil. There are several chairs and seats in the small space - all beautiful, rustic and pilfered from some far-off place or overfunded university program. Everything in the space looks historic, ancestral - repurposed, passed down, dripping with sentiment and surely full of stories, as Ricardo is.
He has a story, an explanation for everything we pick up or point at. A small head carved from bone sits on his windowsill, which he found at a swap meet outside of Marfa, Texas. He believes it to have been modeled after a deity, although it is unclear which one as the face is damaged and hair is missing. Next to it lies a small collection of variously sized, wooden representations of the Virgin Mary, an intricate, heavy-looking iron crucifix, and three silver pistols that he explains are non-functioning and were designed as toys. While we pore over the items in his front room, he excitedly retreats into his bedroom momentarily and returns, bringing a strange cane with him. It is made of a length of thin bamboo, painted black, and topped with a carved wooden Red drum fish. He explains how his great uncle, a shaman currently drifting around southern California, cursed this cane to hover above the ground if the devil ever entered into the room. When Ricardo was 15, his mother came running into his bedroom, crying profusely and claiming that the cane had been floating in the living room. He hasn’t heard of its leaving the ground since that afternoon.
A large bookshelf covers the expanse of the wall opposite the front door, filled almost entirely with art books and photography monographs. Ricardo pulls a few out to show them to us, one with work by Bruegal, a famous Dutch Renaissance painter from the 1500’s, and another by Iri and Toshi Maruki, a Japanese couple who produced huge canvass panels depicting the horrors that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second World War, another with work by Enrique Metinides, a Mexican crime photographer. Ricardo’s connection to his book collection is nothing if not sentimental.
He recalls looking through similar art books as a child with his father, a classically trained painter who has been working as a professional artist for the past 40 years - “or whatever that means,” Ricardo adds wryly.
His father’s paintings are scattered around the apartment - vivid portraits and battle scenes - which Ricardo regards with pride as he points them out among the rest of his collected works. Him and his dad attended the same undergraduate program, both getting degrees in painting at Texas A&M - Corpus Christi. He describes his years there with fondness, noting how the professors and chairs all knew his dad, praising the pragmatic aspects of the program.
Ricardo is still new to Richmond, being born and raised in Corpus, as it is colloquially referred to. It is that place, his family, its history, and his heritage that form the large basis of inspiration for his work. He describes his style of painting, and the colors he uses, as an emulation of a desert sunset. He tells me how he’s been going for walks for lately, being as he just finished up his Masters in Fine Arts at VCU and has more free time on his hands now.
“My relationship to the horizon here is very different,” he explains, noting how where he’s from, the buildings are generally low, 1-story structures, giving him wide, expansive views of the sunset, sunrise, land spreading away in all directions. Here, the buildings are taller, especially here in the city’s center, blocking the horizon from view.
When pressed about his recent experience at VCU, he explains how he’s never met anyone who claims to love grad school. He graduated from the program about a month ago, and objects to making any definitive statements about his time there, saying that it happened too recently and that he hasn’t been able to process that time quite yet. But he comments on his appreciation for the two years he was able to set aside for his work, the adoration he has for his peers, the chance to be in conversation with different people from different environments and backgrounds.
I wander into his bedroom, peek around the corner into the bathroom, see no sign of his works in progress, or his painting materials. When I ask if he has a separate studio space, he points to the coffee table in the center of the living room - a low, plywood-topped rectangle. Ricardo explains that he keeps all of his work and supplies within its confines, opting to create pieces that are small, more accessible. He doesn’t want his work to occupy a lot of space, or for his pieces to become “souvenirs for wealthy people.”
He then launches in on the inaccessibility of the fine art world to lower-income families, explaining how the space, language, and ideas used can be alienating and uncomfortable for the working class. He dislikes the use of words to remove people from conversation, and says he has seen a lot of this in his experience at university. His own art is filled with and interspersed with language, words, Spanish and English, type and cursive. He explains this motif, wanting his own art to be inclusive, something that someone from his own neighborhood could understand, using language to bring the viewer into the conversation, rather than exclude.
He begins to open one of the three wide, shallow metal drawers, pulling piece after piece from within. There are a few from his thesis - vivid, deep paintings of characters he’s created, drawn from folklore, or his own experiences. He shows us one of his gramatita, a stout, graying woman in a black and red cloak, with searching and sad, yellowing eyes, leaning forward, holding something in her hand, a wand, a feather, I forgot to ask what. Ricardo explains how his grandmother would go into trances for weeks at a time, feverishly knitting quilts, creating haunting images depicting her own oncoming death.
He shows us another - a snake-like figure with a mermaid’s tail, thin bat-like wings, and the head of a man - gray, hairless, skeletal - with a large bird perched at a bend in its tail. Ricardo explains how Corpus has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, how a friend of his became involved with an older man, someone who could provide for her, but who brought a dark and threatening presence into her life.
Ricardo sifts through his work, telling story after story, emphasizing his desire to preserve his local history and tell the stories of underrepresented groups. He uses cheap paper, cheap watercolors, opting to work quickly, efficiently, impatiently. I ask him about his recent move, from the VCU studio to this new space. He explains how his old studio space was not a home - he describes it as a hallway with high ceilings that he slowly filled with junk.
Here he says he can focus more, the space feels more thoughtful. His current work space consists of a wooden panel that he keeps stored below his small, two-person couch, a jar of brown water beside his feet on the floor for washing his brushes, a set square and a few tubes of paint on the table in front of him. It is a convertible, shifting, changing space, small but intimate, recently taken over.
The second time I visit him, he lets me photograph him while he works, offers me a sparkling water, Topo Chico, and asks me if I am superstitious. When I shake my head no, he begins detailing a few of his family’s rituals - sparkling mineral water and honey throughout the day for good health, the drinking of mezcal to eliminate anything harmful in the body, their belief that seeing lightning strike was the same as seeing God, equating instant peril. He describes the image of his mother and her siblings huddled and shaking beneath a blanket during a thunderstorm, all rapidly praying aloud, begging for the storm to subside. He explains that they did this until they were in their 30’s at least, remarking on the strength of their beliefs, the lasting impressions they had on him.
Ricardo asks me if I wouldn’t mind photographing him on his front steps for his mother, who has not seen his new place. He tells me how she took her very first trip outside of Texas just last month, when she visited Richmond for his graduation. Ricardo smiles, looks pensive, shifts his gaze away from the camera. He is an endless well of stories, family tragedies, Mexican superstition, folktales, and myths, he stands here so far from his home, forming the bridge between that place, that story, and this one.
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