Getting to know three Latina artists in Sonoma County inspired by their heritage
For these three Latina artists, creating — whether making murals, painting watercolors or inking tattoos — is a way to connect with and recognize their heritage while also passing down the imagery and history of their culture.
Tattoo artist Lucero Vargas digs deep into her ancestral roots, into the pre-Columbian history of Mexico, to create her intricate designs of birds, skulls, flowers and spirals. As a Latina who grew up in the United States, muralist MJ Lindo-Lawyer draws on both the lush colors of the Nicaraguan coast and the ideas she finds in her environment here. Rosa Díaz-Serrano’s surrealistic paintings recall those of famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, but it’s her own memories of her native country that inspire her work.
For more than 60 years, Rosa Díaz-Serrano has been collecting landscapes to store in her memory. The scenes from Mexico to California are visions she later fixes onto watercolor canvases. Her paintings range from realistic flowers, figures and still lifes to dreamlike surrealism. There is one constant in her work: the visual legacy of the Mexican land where she grew up.
On one occasion, she got into the car with her husband Roberto and set out on a road trip from Sonoma County to Baja California. It was winter, and the arid Mexican desert had turned green with the recent rains. Gazing at the vegetation was her only distraction sitting in the passenger seat. With the sunset on the horizon, those upright cacti began to unfold in her imagination. She saw them as long, slender fingers emerging from the bottom of the earth like a sudden invasion of creatures from the underworld struggling to rise to the surface.
As soon as she could get her hands on brushes and watercolors, she shaped that vision on canvas. The result was a boney hand connected to the earth through its roots, with a giant, radiant red sun in the background.
“Color is what I like the most about Mexico. We are very colorful. I dress in dark colors, but I like my work to have clarity and the purity of colors that watercolor can bring,” said Díaz-Serrano, who came to Sonoma County in 1977 with her husband and two daughters.
Since her art student days in Mexico City, watercolor has been one of her favorite techniques. On Sundays she would visit the zoo with her teacher Alberto Beltrán to draw human and animal figures. She later practiced for another two years with one of the most renowned Mexican watercolorists, Gustavo Alanís Pastrana.
“To paint watercolors you need planning, because you paint the other way around than other techniques, starting with the lightest colors, until darkening the darkest tones,” she said. “I paint without white and without black because I like to create images as transparencies.”
Since arriving in Sonoma County, Díaz-Serrano has become involved with arts organizations such as the Santa Rosa Art Guild. Through her Santa Rosa business, Restoration Studio, she restores fine china and ceramics. And she teaches watercolor workshops to the senior community in Windsor, although interaction with students in recent months has been almost nil, with the pandemic, she said.
This is a time to reinvent ourselves, Díaz-Serrano said.
“Artists must evolve and seek new ways of representing what they see or feel,” she said. “It’s not about doing something perfect, but the artists have to find different ways of interpreting what they see, feel and know.”
You can see Díaz-Serrano’s work online at the Steele Lane Community Center’s virtual exhibition or at her website: diaz-serrano.com/home.html
Before the pandemic, MJ Lindo-Lawyer’s dreams of artistic success seemed largely unattainable. Today, however, she has a full schedule of exhibitions all the way through November, from the streets of downtown Santa Rosa to a New York gallery.
Lindo-Lawyer, whose full name is Maria Jose Lindo-Lawyer, had long planned a transition from her customer service job at a coffee roasting company in Santa Rosa to full-time painting. But the move occurred unexpectedly when her employers sent her home “until further notice” in early July due to the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses.
“I had tried in recent years to make a smooth transition to the arts, so COVID could have been the silver lining,” said Lindo-Lawyer, who was born in Miami 32 years ago.
Currently, she has five murals going up on walls throughout Santa Rosa, Roseville, Sacramento and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That’s in addition to five pieces for Stone Sparrow, an art gallery in New York City. And as of March, local Cooperage Brewing has been printing one of her brightly hued paintings on a beer can label called “Moment of Truth” Westcoast IPA.