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Da Gallery exhibit illustrates artist’s journey out of darkness

“Allegories of an Invisible Brown Boy,” at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona, is an arresting 20-year retrospective of painter and sculptor Raul Pizarro’s moving and deeply personal work.

The wide-ranging show, opening Sunday with a free artist reception from 4 to 9 p.m. at the dA, 252 N. Main St., #D, is also an apt representation of the Pomona institution’s ethos.

“Raul is the ultimate portrait of what is so spectacular about the dA, because we really are that place for the 99 percent,” said Margaret Aichele, executive director of the art center.

The 44-year-old Mr. Pizarro, who was born in Mexico, grew up in Pomona. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age four.

The Montclair resident made his first painting, “De Noche,” in 1998.

“De Noche,” and a portion of the dazzling work that he’s created since, make up “Allegories of an Invisible Brown Boy.” The show includes more than 50 pieces and focuses on three phases of Mr. Pizarro’s career.

The first, “early work,” includes nascent images of invisibility, withdrawal, feelings of not belonging, and eventually a move toward understanding.

The second, “Songs for a Deaf God,” explores what it means to live in his body, being reminded of being “broken,” and painfully takes apart this thinking over a decade until eventually arriving at peace.

Finally, “Feral Allegories,” is an especially moving series about his relationship with his young nephew that evolves over time into something that changes both of their lives forever.

“My nephew was non-verbal when he was really small,” Mr. Pizarro said. “Seeing that he loved animals, especially pandas, I started asking him what he wanted me to draw for him. He’d use patched together words, telling me what they should be doing, whether it was sleeping, reading or his favorite, ‘dancing panda.’”

The unlikely pair were soon inseparable. Their daily informal art therapy sessions, initially meant to assist the youngster with his verbal skills, ended up helping them both.

“It just became one of my favorite things to do,” Mr. Pizarro said. “He started speaking a lot more over time. I’m not sure if it was from our drawing sessions, but it was one of my favorite moments of my life.”

But Mr. Pizarro’s disease was progressing, his body growing weaker. Painting—long his refuge—was becoming more difficult, and depression began creeping in.

“While drawing bears and seeing how they were expanding his voice, I started to find mine as well,” he said. “Those drawing sessions turned out to be therapy for me as well. I found a different kind of strength. Doing something for someone else pulled me out of the darkness just long enough to give me clarity.”

Over the years Mr. Pizzaro has ventured into many areas, both stylistically and emotionally. Looking through the catalog for “Allegories” makes one thing clear: his work has always contained an undeniable emotional wallop.

“Allegories of an Invisible Brown Boy” “is about not being seen,” he said.

“Growing up most people knew me as just the little brown boy who was disabled. This retrospective is a way of coming out of sorts, a way to unburden my unseen stories. It feels good to represent someone you wouldn’t normally see in a gallery; I’m brown, queer and disabled and taking up space.”

He gravitated to art organically. “The first memory of painting I have was the first day of kindergarten,” Mr. Pizarro said. “I didn’t understand what the teacher or other kids were saying: I only spoke Spanish.”

While the other children learned about colors, numbers and the alphabet, his teacher put him in a corner and gave him paint and paper.

“Drawing the toys and cartoons I liked connected me to the kids that spoke a different language,” Mr. Pizarro said. “This was the first time painting became my preferred language.”

His involvement with the dA began in 2012. “ One of my friends who has since passed away found the dA Center for the Arts and showed my work to them without telling me,” he said. “He then surprised me telling me they would love to include my work in their Aztlan show.”

“I felt celebrating Raul and his accomplishments was long overdue,” Ms. Aichele said. “I asked him if he would ever consider a [solo] exhibit, and he was very gracious and accepted.”

Art, especially fine art and gallery shows, is often stigmatized as elitist, something Ms. Aichele is working hard to overcome.

“We are really dedicated to eradicating the elitism in art and prioritizing equitable art experiences for all, making sure that it’s an accessible conversation, and making sure that it’s empathetic and inclusive,” Ms. Aichele said.

“If you were to have a Go-Pro camera for a week at the dA, you would find that were are that verb ‘inclusive.’ I don’t know that you always find that in cultural centers.”

Art isn’t a luxury for the moneyed few, but nourishment for all, as Ms. Aichele sees it. “It ignites our soul and can be transformational in ways that we need it, especially during these stressful times we’re living in,” she said.

Mr. Pizarro’s immediate goals are to keep doing what he appears to have been put here to do: “My accomplishment is to continue to find a way to contribute to life through art, despite my muscles slowly disappearing,” he said.

It’s perhaps most fitting to close with Mr. Pizarro’s artist statement for “Allegories of an Invisible Brown Boy”:

“The paintings in this exhibit are dedicated to those who believe in hope. The space is for those who know adversity and aren’t sure what is on the other side. These paintings are moments of my life that broke me and the acceptance that saved me. They are the unexpected gift of peace and inner wellness in knowing how fleeting life can be.”

The opening reception for takes place from 4 to 9 p.m. this Sunday, December 15, at the dA Center for the Arts, 252 Main St. #D, Pomona. The show is up through January 11, 2020. More information is at dacenter.org or raulpizarro.com.

Mr. Pizarro’s next show is scheduled for April 2020 at Pain Sugar Gallery in Riverside.

—Mick Rhodes



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