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Artist’s work can be seen in a big Claremont way

Alba Honoré Cisneros has pieced together a life doing what she loves.

The sun is glinting on the glass tiles of some prominent new public art projects she has created, including a mural celebrating the area’s natural beauty and agricultural history at the Citrus Glen housing development on the corner of Monte Vista and Base Line.

The mosaic features lemon trees, neat rows of crops and hardy native plants thriving in fertile blonde soil, while the San Gabriel Mountains stretch towards a clean blue sky.

You can also see Ms. Cisneros’ craftsmanship at Mt. SAC, where she recently completed four 6-foot-by-6-foot mosaic reproductions of Karl Benjamin’s electrically-charged abstract paintings. The first series of the project was unveiled in mid-May. The college is currently fundraising so that Ms. Cisneros can recreate four more Benjamin canvases. When the project was conceived several years ago, Mr. Benjamin himself, who died in July 2012, suggested Ms. Cisneros do the job.

Ms. Cisneros grew up with Mr. Benjamin as a neighbor, admiring his easy parenting skills and gentle sociability along with his work, so it was a real honor.

“His color choices are absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “Nothing stirs your brain like Karl’s paintings. Sometimes they are vibrating right off the walls, and other times they suck you into the color.”

Recreating his canvases was also a significant challenge, because mosaics are an organic, ever-shifting artwork while Mr. Benjamin is known for the precision of his lines.

Other happenings in Ms. Cisneros’ busy artistic year include installing another project celebrating the citrus industry at Bonita Living on the corner of Bonita and Towne avenues in Pomona and being honored last month by Pilgrim Place for her 1986 mosaic of a Japanese crane, which hangs outside of the retirement community’s Petterson Museum.

 “After all these years, business is booming,” Ms. Cisneros marveled.

Commission work is her bread and butter, always has been. But she’s got a welcome break from the big undertakings that have kept her busy, and she’s looking forward to working on some of her own ideas.

Whatever she makes, Ms. Cisneros will use a sure skill that she honed during 17 years working in the Claremont studio of Millard Sheets, helping the artist with 80 of his famous Home Savings bank art installations.

Ms. Cisneros graduated from high school in 1972, headed for Alaska for two years and then returned to Claremont. She had just got back into town and was working at Jenson’s Bakery when she encountered Denis O’Connor, an artist who along with Sue Hertel was part of the crew at Sheets’ studio. Emboldened by youth or by the fact that she had grown up with Mr. O’Connor living just up the street, she asked if there was an opening. She got the job and got down to work.

It may sound like Ms. Cisneros stumbled into being a glass artist, but in fact she grew up in a family, and a community, that was a cultural oasis.

 Her father, Nate Cisneros, came from East LA to Pomona College because his grandfather was working at the school and was able to get him a discount. He studied sociology and went onto become one of the nation’s first Chicano studies professors, teaching at Pitzer among other institutions.

Ms. Cisneros’ mother, Helene Honoré, was an art student at Pomona College. The couple was married and moved to one of the block homes on Brooks Avenue, in a neighborhood that at the time was considered the barrio of Claremont. Many of her neighbors were performers at the Padua Hills Theatre, which featured lively performances of Mexican song and dance. Others were now-legendary members of the city’s artistic community—people like Mr. O’Connor, Mr. Benjamin and Paul Darrow—who found time between teaching at the Claremont Colleges and raising families to make art.

Mr. Cisneros played jazz piano and made a lot of big drawings. The elder Ms. Cisneros continued to paint until one fateful day when one of her four children, Barry, put his hands in oil paint and smeared it all over the wall. Considering that he, along with his brother Tony and sisters Alba and Eva, grew up to be an artist, it was an apocryphal moment.

Helene put away her oil paints and eventually went back to school at Claremont Graduate University, becoming a teacher with the Pomona Unified School District. She always, however, made sure that there was a steady supply of art materials and projects to keep her busy brood occupied. Ms. Cisneros recalls stringing yards of popcorn garlands to put on the Christmas tree each holiday season. Her mother also improvised a regionally-flavored holiday decoration by spraying tumbleweeds with gold paint.

“We would go to Mt. Baldy and pick bouquets of wildflowers and thistles, which would wander through the house,” Ms. Cisneros recalled. “Art and music permeated our lives.”

Ms. Cisneros’ schooling also helped nurture creativity. Having dyslexia at a time when the learning disability was little understood, Ms. Cisneros might well have fallen through the educational cracks. But she attended Sycamore Elementary School, which emphasized activities like music, art and dance, and allowed young Alba to thrive.

“If I hadn’t had Sycamore, I don’t know what I’d be doing today,” she said. “That school saves lives.”

Over the years, she and her peers took many field trips to see art exhibits at the Claremont Colleges. The most momentous was when Ms. Cisneros went with her class to Garrison Theater, one of the stops in a traveling exhibit of The Dead Sea Scrolls.

She was hugely impressed by the three 30-foot-high mosaics that graced the red granite façade of the theater, depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. It was a sight that helped cement her growing dream of becoming an artist.

 “I loved the color and the way it was put together. It is the first memory I had of Millard Sheets,” she said.

When Mr. Sheets died and his studio closed, Ms. Cisneros went back to school, majoring in landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Before she graduated, she began working with one of her professors, Rod Tapp, who owns a land design business out of Pomona. It’s a professional association that continues to this day.

Ms. Cisneros, who in December was part of a group show by Claremont Heritage, that showcased the talent of the entire Cisneros family, is glad for her career longevity and glad to have some breathing room for her own creative pursuits.

How do you sprinkle fairy dust on a project? Use the tools of a master.

In her north Claremont studio, Ms. Cisneros has a cache of stained-glass squares in every imaginable hue, housed in dozens of large metal coffee cans, which once belonged to Millard Sheets. She acquired the glass a few years ago, borrowing money so that she could keep these tiny pieces of her mentor’s legacy from being scattered to the winds.

The rainbow of tiles will serve as puzzle pieces making up art for years to come. Ms. Cisneros loves what she does, but stresses that you have to be persistent to excel at mosaic work.

“It takes a lot of patience, but I can sit for hours working on a piece,” she said. “It’s like my meditation.”

—Sarah Torribio





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