Linda Vallejo and Los Cielos: Reaching for the Heavens

By Susan Rinderle

When we gaze up into the sunlit sky, we see an expanse of blue and think of flight, clean air and limitless possibilities. By night, we witness an indigo eternity sprinkled with distant stars, full of romance, dreams and the unknown.

Although each person may observe something different and feel distinctly, we all see and feel something profound in the heavens. Such is the premise behind Linda Vallejo’s Los Cielos/The Heavens, the artist’s latest, most stunning suite of paintings on display at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) Gallery in Venice, California, September 30 through November 4, 2000.  Selected from approximately fifty pieces in the suite, the exhibit invites the viewer to connect with collective human consciousness through Vallejo’s two decades of experience with indigenous ceremony, nature and personal healing through both, manifested in glorious images of the sky, at turns tempestuous and dark or peaceful and serene, sometimes graced with human forms.

A classically trained painter with an MFA from California State University at Long Beach who has traveled, studied and exhibited her work across the U.S. and in Europe and Mexico, Vallejo says she is not interested in playing mind games with herself or her audience by over-intellectualizing her work. Instead, her main inspiration comes from nature and she strives to express experience – namely the experience of indigenous ceremony in the case of Los Cielos.

Indigenous ceremony is central to the spiritual core Vallejo has striven to build for herself since she decided to become a painter at age seven. She studied Maya and Aztec dance for several years and has participated in and supported Chicano and Native American ceremonies in California, South Dakota and Arizona. She has provided sweat lodge ceremony to the women of the California prison systems, including 14 years of service to the Native American Religious Society of the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco.

In her Los Cielos series, Vallejo does not aim to record the accoutrements or artifacts of ceremony, but rather strives to transfer the feeling of ceremony and resulting emotional and spiritual growth onto canvas. Such feeling is often indescribable in words, but easily recognized by kindred spirits. “The women who I sweat with and do ceremonies with understand [these paintings] immediately,” she says, “I could explain them for two hours using art history, but that’s not important.”  She reports that people experience a wide range of emotions and share personal stories upon viewing Los Cielos images.

Vallejo, 49, has an impressive resume including national awards, mention in major publications, teaching and lecturing positions at universities and museums throughout California, and exhibits at venues such as the Armand Hammer Museum, Museum of Modem Art New York, and the Mexico City Modem Art Museum. However, she believes Los Cielos is the culmination of her development as an artist thus far.

One of the reasons is the technical discipline the paintings demanded. Vallejo says her academic training and decades of painting experience did not prepare her to paint the sky. Annual trips to Hawaii to gaze at the heavens for each of the six years she has dedicated to Los Cielos provide necessary stimulation since she abandoned painting from photos four years ago and her native Los Angeles skies fail to inspire. Vallejo says she didn’t realize how many colors were in the sky until she tried to paint it, and doing so is painstaking; each acrylic on canvas and masonite painting in Los Cielos regardless of size took twelve to eighteen months to complete and involves over 100 layers of paint. One, “Full Moon,” particularly frustrated her until she mixed an “ugly, Frankenstein, dirty army truck” green on her palette which supplied the finishing touch on a mysterious midnight sky.

Another challenge for Vallejo was painting large canvases, as most artists agree that painting big and painting well is extremely difficult. The Los Cielos pieces range in size from intimate 8 X 10s to expansive five-by-seven-foot images. However, curators and collectors alike testify that Vallejo’s work is high quality. “I have made an intense effort to express myself and I have been successful, even on a large scale and in a difficult medium,” she says.

Los Cielos is also pivotal in Vallejo’s maturation as an artist because through these works she has finally achieved her goal of touching the viewer through art and speaking to universal strains in all people.  “Beauty is the answer for me, as an artist and as a woman,” she says. “So much in the world is tragedy. And the place I find beauty is nature. “ Perhaps it is no accident then that universal, natural, indigenous themes such as the four elements – fire, earth, air and water – are a common theme in Vallejo’s work, and that the Los Cielos paintings emphasize and synthesize the four elements and their intimate, powerful relationship. “Anyone can paint a sky,” says Vallejo, “But here it’s the emotional context. These are beautiful paintings, but they give a feeling, and that feeling is from nature and ceremony combined with technical [painting] expertise.”

SPARC, a well-respected center for community art and social advocacy since 1976, is the ideal venue to display Vallejo’s culminating suite of works. SPARC founder and Artistic Director Judy Baca approached long-time friend Vallejo at a local art opening about doing a one-woman show at SPARC as part of a series of one-person shows hosted by the gallery this year. Vallejo enthusiastically accepted. “SPARC is a Chicano icon,” she says, “As a woman of color, I have few opportunities to have a one-woman show in my own community.  It’s wonderful to be supported by Judy Baca, and I’m among good company.” The “good company” includes renowned figures in the Chicano/Latino art world scheduled to appear at SPARC this year such as Baca herself and Willie Herrón.

Meanwhile, Vallejo is still working on Los Cielos. “I’m done when I’m done,” she says. “I’ve never struggled so hard with anything in my life, but a really good painting takes time. I’m not satisfied until I’m satisfied.” But more projects involving the heavens peek over the horizon. Vallejo and her family are moving to Topanga Canyon this year, where she will have more regular access to nature and after-dark views of the Milky Way. “I imagine myself sitting beneath the sky and soaking it up to see what comes out,” she says. “I have to experience life, not intellectualize it, I have to see and do, experience my environment and let it brew. It takes time.”

For more information, contact Linda Vallejo at (562) 423-6204 or SPARC at (310) 822-9560 or visit Linda’s exhibit on SPARC’s Web site at  

Susan Rinderle has over 15 years of personal and professional experience in the area of intercultural and interracial relations. She has worked as a social worker, social programs coordinator, high school teacher, community mediator, and journalist. She has lived, studied, researched, managed a university program, and done business consulting in Mexico. Susan currently provides services related to international intercultural relations, domestic diversity and conflict resolution, with an emphasis on Mexico and U.S. Latinos. She is fluent in English and Spanish. Ms. Rinderle holds a B.A. in Sociology (magna cum laude).

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