Painting Portraits in a Bankrupt City

I Moved to San Bernardino to Pursue My Ambitions. I Found a Place That Had Lost All Ambition of Its Own.

Early in 2013, I moved to San Bernardino with my girlfriend at the time and our 1-month-old daughter. I had family there but hadn’t lived in San Bernardino since I was 2. I’d spent the past 23 years of my life in Hesperia, a small high desert town near Barstow. The move was driven by my ambition to build a better life: I’d been admitted to the Cal State University, San Bernardino during the prior summer.

My plan was to study studio art and art education. I hoped to launch an artistic career. However, when I arrived, I found a place that had lost much of its ambition. The city was bankrupt and littered with potholes. Everywhere you looked, stray animals walked the streets without owners, or lay dead in the road. When I visited the parks, there weren’t any trash cans; people left their waste anywhere they pleased. When you looked around the city, it felt like everyone had given up.

More than a year later, I’m still here and I refuse to give up—on myself or on my art.

Ever since I was a kid drawing simple doodles in Hesperia, I’ve found strength in making art. I’ve developed my own style and technique. One inspiration was Pappyland, an art-based TV show for kids with a character named Pappy Drewitt who taught you how to draw simple images. You could even send in your own drawings to be featured during the ending credits. (Sadly, I never sent in mine, because I didn’t understand the importance of having your work displayed for the world to see. I won’t let my daughter make the same mistake.) I worked constantly on cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to refine my skills. Later, I replicated those little stickers you get out of vending machines for my friends at school.

Chavez2Still, it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I took my first art class. I absolutely loved it. The assignment that stuck with me was a monochromatic portrait project. My first subject was a girl I had a crush on at the time. I was a hopeless romantic and figured that if I painted her portrait, she would fall for me. Unfortunately, it never happened but she did end up hanging it at her parents’ house. After that, I was confident that I wanted to pursue an artist’s life. The road has been bumpy, but interesting. In the seven years since I graduated high school, I’ve juggled making portraits and curating art shows in and around Southern California with work, education, and family.

Today, my 1-year-old daughter, Willow, is my top priority; after her, my artwork comes next. To make ends meet, I do everything from art commissions to construction jobs. But I consider art to be my career and calling. I mostly do portraits, and every painting shows my personal attachment to the people I paint.

One painting I absolutely loved was a portrait of Hayley Williams, the lead singer of the band Paramore. I ended up selling it right away. I very rarely keep paintings for myself or even hang them on my wall, but that is one I wish I had held onto. If I kept it, it would be hanging in my house to this day. Recently, I did a series of portraits of my ex-girlfriend, who is also the mother of my daughter. Even with the tough situation that came from the end of our relationship, those are some of the best portraits I have ever created.

I try to show my work wherever I can find people who might enjoy it. If I’m lucky, they’ll even buy a piece. I’ve shown my work in local galleries and at art walks in Riverside, Pomona, and Los Angeles. House parties are another opportunity that I try to capitalize on. I figure these are huge events with lots of people, so why not take advantage and display some art? When it comes to marketing and business, I have a Facebook page that people can visit if they want to commission a portrait or simply buy a piece they like.

I make most of my art right out of my house in San Bernardino. In one small corner are my desk, lamp, and tubs of supplies. Sometimes I use the desk, but other times I lay on the floor and paint. My art classes at CSUSB also provide me access to the studios and equipment there. While in my studio space there, I usually paint with the canvas hung directly on the wall.

Chavez3I must admit that, to do art today in San Bernardino, I have to wall myself off from the city, especially at night. You don’t feel too safe, and there is just no community nightlife presence like there is in Riverside or L.A. I don’t go out much, only to grab groceries or art supplies. It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to embrace San Bernardino, but, at the same time, it doesn’t offer much to embrace.

On the other hand, the lack of an art scene in San Bernardino is a reason to make extra effort to get out there and try to make a difference and revitalize the city. There is no reason why San Bernardino can’t be like other cities that are thriving artistically. I’d love to bring an art walk to San Bernardino’s downtown area like the ones in other cities where I’ve shown my work. Art walks bring a community together and could bring in some of the business and revenue that San Bernardino desperately needs.

I have a vision for a San Bernardino that people flock to visit and settle down. When I’ve completed my studies and my daughter is a little older, I’d like to find a few like-minded artists to help me work on making art important to this city. Life is hard here now. But art can (and will) cure all.

Ruben Chavez is a determined 26-year-old artist living in the city of San Bernardino who is earning his B.F.A at California State University, San Bernardino.

"Living the Arts" is an arts engagement project of Zócalo Public Square and The James Irvine Foundation.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: Becca MacLaren.
*Art by and courtesy of Ruben Chavez.

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