When Angelina Villalobos was asked to paint a piano for Pianos in the Park in 2017, she did not paint just any piano. She passed over the uprights she was shown and went straight for a grand piano. She adorned the instrument with her signature color palette inspired by nature. Leafy greens, browns and soft mauves curled up the legs and across the curved body of the piano.
“I love a challenge when it comes to difficult spaces,” she said about painting all the nooks and crannies of a full-sized grand. “Oftentimes, difficult people, difficult spaces, difficult situations — people tend to shy away from them.” The finished piano was installed at Seattle’s Alki Beach, looking out over the blue waters all summer long.
Villalobos’ style is illustrative and vibrant; color is everything. Even in her studio, her pens are color coordinated. When she paints murals, her paints are organized along the ROYGBIV color scale. This penchant for color came from Villalobos’ early years spent in the Yakima Valley, where her father was a farmworker. Those years were characterized by the colors of the landscape — mainly, the yellows of the fields — and the organic shapes and flow of nature that surrounded Villalobos and captured her imagination.
Villalobos sees herself as a mix of country mouse and city rat. She was only in the Valley for four years and came to stay with her grandparents in Seattle after her father, who had been undocumented, was deported to Mexico and her mother became addicted to drugs. Walking through Seattle, through the warehouses in Belltown and the gray concrete of the city, Villalobos yearned for color and form. “I wanted to see my experience in Yakima on those fields and on those adventures we’d take with my sister there,” she said.
Evolve like revolution
Villalobos was an introverted child who found solace and adventure in books. “I’m really quiet and shy; I was chubby; I had glasses; I was awkward. So art gave me an escape: I’m going to read my book and I am going to draw what I read,” she said, adding that this is still the case.
Anything from “The Little Mermaid” to “The Ugly Duckling” captured her imagination, a common thread being the idea of transformation, especially when something tiny becomes something much larger. Comics, anime, folklore and fantasy meshed together for her to create a unique, illustrative style.
Villalobos characterizes her style as nature overgrowing a dystopian futurescape. Take the public mural she painted for the sodo track that runs along the Link light rail route: Blues and greens bloom across a gray warehouse, soothing an industrial landscape with an earthen touch. Yet she sees nature being overgrown by the ever-expanding city.
Villalobos often borrows magical contexts to subvert and question the roles of women and religion that are not only prevalent in society but have been omnipresent forces in her own life.
Both of Villalobos’ parents came from Mexican Catholic backgrounds, and she often explores the nuances of this identity through her art. Her family expected women to adhere to gender roles, and she went to church every Sunday with her grandmother while the men of the family could stay home and indulge in watching sports.
The Bible takes center stage, where she questions the angelic image and message of perfection placed upon Mary and Jesus. Villalobos created a series of black-and-white illustrations titled “Pray for Me” and “Offering” for a zine. These pieces depict the Madonna and baby Jesus as vulnerable characters who are not beyond the human experience.
“In a lot of [my] illustrations you see him crying because when you look at the Madonna, he looks so serene. In one drawing, I switched roles and I had Jesus be a gruffy dad with a cigar and sailor tattoos and the virgin Mary as the little girl, so just picking at what these characters actually are because they are really just characters in a story,” Villalobos said. Chuckling, she added, “My grandpa’s going to be like, ‘That is blasphemous’!”
For Villalobos, elders in her family would suggest that the ideal life for her included a stable marriage, fulltime motherhood or becoming a secretary. Villalobos pushed back and followed the artist’s path. She completed a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, but later realized she didn’t enjoy working on computers so much and turned back to doing art by her own two hands. That choice was not easy.
“You don’t want to disappoint the people you love. You don’t want to feel like you are betraying anybody’s expectations for you to be successful,” she said, “but you have to be true to yourself, and at some point, you have to be stubborn.”
Justice as accessibility
Central to Villalobos’ philosophy is social justice and the accessibility of art for all people. That took shape in high school, when she imbued her love of art with activism. At the time, she was attending programs at El Centro De La Raza in Beacon Hill, the neighborhood where she grew up. “They were really instrumental in making me aware of social justice and empowering me in making poetry,” she said. “I kind of merged those two worlds, so that is how I got into doing street art.”
Villalobos has three mediums: a black-and-white, line-drawing style; street art and mural work; and acrylic painting, where she gets to experiment more with color and shape. Recently, she realized she does not like painting in small spaces. “My major hang-up with canvases is it’s only accessible to people who can immediately see it.” She says that a piece of art only affecting one household or one person “is almost counterproductive to the mural work I do because I want art to be accessible to everyone.” That is why she makes plenty of affordable prints and $5 archival cards, so that even if someone cannot purchase the original design due to a financial barrier, they have other ways to connect to the work.
Also, Villalobos constantly looks for ways to uplift fellow artists, especially young people of color who may not have access to and opportunity in the art world. She helps other new artists prepare their portfolios, artist statements and biographies to get started on their own paths to success. Her desire to help other artists comes from remembering what it was like to struggle through the ins and outs of the industry on her own.
“When you think about who has access to art school — or, in my industry, street artists — who are those people? Usually, they are white males,” she said.
“What is the point of paving a path for other artists to follow if you don’t look behind and make sure that they are coming along with you?”
Villalobos wants to see more people of color in arts spaces and often works with youth in partnership with Urban Arts. She has clever ways of teaching them about color theory and imparting life lessons when students act up. She tells them their destiny is in their own hands; they can do something in reaction to a negative person or situation in life or in spite of it.
Villalobos mentions how dehumanizing the idea of being a “starving artist” can be and thinks of the stigma she and her parents have faced because of her parents. “Other people look at me, the daughter of an illegal immigrant and a mother that is addicted to drugs her whole life — I think I am doing pretty good, and when you say [starving artist], it’s actually pretty condescending. It’s invalidating.”
Villalobos has painted beautiful commissioned murals with private clients, such as Microsoft and Starbucks, as well as city and community art projects. Many of her murals feature animals, which she often decorates to signify that they are precious creatures. Her bright colors that play with contrast splash nature on walls across the city.
Villalobos finds herself caught between wanting to create work with a message and simply creating something aesthetically beautiful. “When I deal with the city, when I do public works of art, I want it to mean something,” she said.
The catch for her is being part of a generation that is so attached to being able to make money from their passions, which makes it challenging to refute the idea that everything one does has to make value or have a purpose.
A mural she did in White Center broke this open for her. “I remember doing it and thinking, ‘I’ll just do happy little fish; a koi pond can be here; something beautiful can exist here.’ So I put these little goldfish,” she said. Villalobos painted the mural for free, but it became one of her most photographed and tagged pieces on social media.
“It’s hard, because we think of getting that [monetary] check as the validation versus … tagging me in a photo they took with their little kids in front of the mural — how do you put money on that? Obviously, the attention and the love the community is showing is worth the weight of the mural in gold.”
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the May 20-26, 2020 issue.