Alicia Rojas—Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

Alicia Rojas
Edited for the web

A painter who uses photography and mixed mediums to express her emotions in the form of self-portraits, Alicia Rojas has been interested in art since she was a young girl. But it was at age 27 that Rojas’ work became more personal and intimate.

“I suffered what I’d thought was a mental breakdown,” she said. “For a year all I could do was paint, and all I could paint was myself. I felt like maybe this way I couldn’t be ignored, my feelings couldn’t be put under the rug and I could tell the world what was really going on deep inside me. It was raw, loud and colorful. It could not be ignored anymore.”

Rojas recalls that her experiences emigrating from Bogota, Colombia to America provided a series of blessings and challenges that have influenced her work as an expressionistic painter. “My art is a self-explosion of years of suppressed emotions,” she confides. “These are emotions that were tucked away because of social and cultural stigmas and because of family responsibility.”

Influenced by artists such as Dan Keplinger, Frida Khalo, and Vincent Van Gogh, Rojas describes acrylics as her “best friends” in the early stages of her artistic expression, because they dry quickly and accommodated her initial need to paint from impulse. In an interview with ABILITY Magazine, Rojas reflected on her progression from anxiety and depression to a sense of greater wholeness as an artist and as a woman—a journey from mental illness to mental health.

ABILITY Magazine: Let’s start by thinking back to one of your first experiences with art, maybe even in childhood. Something that really stood out for you as important in a vivid way. Does anything come to mind?

Alicia Rojas: Art has always been a part of who I am, though my need for it to be a part of my life has become stronger as I’ve grown older. Some of my strongest memories as a child involve looking at my father’s paintings. It was years before I had realized that one of the paintings we had in our living room had actually been painted by my father. When I was five or six years old, I became really curious about why my dad didn’t paint anymore. That’s one of my first vivid memories.

As far as my actual experiences with creating art are concerned, I was always drawing, and I started with photography at an early age. But I never really started focusing on art as a serious hobby until high school, at which point I took an art class and had an art teacher who was a very encouraging person. That changed my perception of what art could be in my life.

AM: What was your father’s painting of?

Rojas: That painting in the living room? It was of a drunken clown. It was of a clown leaning on a post, an old lamppost, on a street that looked sort of European.

AM: Was that clown anyone whom your father might have known?

Rojas: I’ve never asked him. Now I’m going to have to.

AM: Where was this? Where were you living?

Rojas: In Colombia. The painting used to hang in my grandfather’s living room, and then it became my dad’s after my grandfather passed away. But my dad was the one who had painted it.

AM: What a sweet story. Much of the artwork I have from you—I have your later work and not some of your earlier pieces—are self-portraits and, therefore, somewhat autobiographical. What do you want to tell us through your self-portraits?

Rojas: You know, in the beginning, I didn’t want to tell a story. The pieces you have are a demonstration of how my art has evolved. I’d like to send you a couple of my first raw self-portraits.

I actually started painting out of some sort of personal necessity. It just happened. I can’t put it into words. I had to get it all out. I remember that someone had given me a little kit, years ago, with oils and paints and little canvases and things like that. As soon as I saw it, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to draw! I’m going to paint now!” I just started painting myself from the mirror. I was going through a very bad depression, and it was the only thing that I wanted to do. I painted over 100 paintings over a year. Not all of them made it, but yeah, I painted a lot.

AM: When you’re painting, what are you generally feeling?

Rojas: That’s changed over time, actually. I feel as if I have a couple of faces now. Now, I’m more self-conscious about my work. I have a clearer understanding of what I’m doing. I’m more critical of myself.

I’ve learned more about painting through my own experience of doing it than through anything else. I’ve never really taken a painting class, but I’ve taken art classes and I have an associate’s degree in graphic design and photography. So nearly everything I’ve learned has been from experimenting with my own methods. But there’s still a big emotional attachment to my work and to my process that I’m still trying to understand.

There was about a year in which I couldn’t paint, which was really difficult. But my old process, the one I employed when I first started, stemmed from a very bad depression. I guess you could say I was lost. And painting kind of found me, I found it, and I felt like painting myself. That’s all I could do. It was all pretty emotional and raw and depressing, and there were a lot of self-portraits of sadness. But I guess the process itself was a healthy one. I survived it.

AM: What inspires you? Is it something internal, or do you need external stimuli to—

Rojas: When I’d first started, it was all coming from an internal, emotional place. It was all pain. That’s what drove me. But now there is actually art and curiosity and a general sense of wanting to learn more about artists and what I see. I take my process more seriously now, and I guess that can sometimes be an impediment, too. When I was crazy, or not completely there, I didn’t care about the work. It just needed to come out. I wasn’t looking for any kind of approval or recognition. Because I was not completely there, psychologically, there was no consciousness of what my work looked like or what people thought of it. It didn’t really matter to me. I just ended up at a gallery by chance.

AM: How did the art get you from there to here? It seems as if it was very much part of your transition.

Rojas: I had found my calling. I had always known I was going to be involved in some kind of art because I love art. I love photography. I love community. I love an awareness of things. But it’s also a tool for healing. I think I’m going to have to do it forever. In my worst states, on my worst days, art comes out all the time. It has changed, though, because I’m not the crying girl any more. So it’s kind of difficult, because my art initially came from a lot of pain, and now I’m trying to find other sources. I’ve come to realize the emotional sources that put me on this artistic path don’t have to be so painful, because that phase of my life is kind of over.

AM: It sounds as if art helped widen your worldview.

Rojas: I think art saved me, because art could listen and not talk back or not be critical or be judgmental. It was purely for me. It was a nakedness, it was how I showed who was really me. And I guess I had really bad communication issues, early on, so this was my only way of expressing myself. I couldn’t really speak what I felt. This was my only way to communicate to whomever what I was feeling.

AM: It’s powerful. I really like your work.

Rojas: Thank you.

AM: Why did you make the decision to paint yourself in black and white and the background in color?

Rojas: Initially I used bold and lively colors to express myself, so I'm not sure how that transition to black and white happened. Maybe, at some level, I was unaware that I wanted to let my inhibitions out. The use of color lets them come out, loud and clear. As I painted this, I felt that this time my feelings couldn’t be ignored, could not be put under the rug and I could tell the world what had been really going on deep inside me—and it was raw and loud and colorful.

As years have progressed—and as I have learned about my depression and its connection to my childhood, to my immigrant experiences as a young teen—I've come to understand how some of those events were traumatic enough to affect my psyche in long-term ways. My lack of communication skills due to the circumstances of my youth led me to organically and beautifully paint what I had been feeling.

The black and white you see in my current work is now, I think, my mourning, my understanding of that child, of that little girl. My work is my process of coming to terms with what happened to her and to finally be okay with it all. I understand that was my past, and today I am in the now. Just as mourning that child is represented by the the black and white in the foreground, the color in the background represents that my new life is just waiting to happen. It's all happening.

AM: What artists influence you now?

Rojas: There are many, but I was very lucky to meet one, through ABILITY Magazine, and I think that day completely blew my mind. His name is Dan Keplinger. I don’t know if you have ever heard of him.

AM: I haven’t.

Rojas: He was at the center of a documentary, King .... continued in ABILITY Magazine

Articles in the Daryl "Chill" Mitchell Issue; Humor — Laziness is the Key to; Ashley’s Column — ESPY Time!; Timothy & Anthony Shriver — Eunice’s Legacy; ABILITY Facebook Contest — “This is How We Roll”; Augie Nieto — Excerpt from Reciprocity, Incorporated; Dr. Ericha Scott — The Fine Art of Addiction Therapy; Alicia Rojas — Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman; Daryl “Chill” Mitchell — Cool, Calm and Collected; Spinal Cord Injury — Stem Cell Research Gaining Ground; Medicare — Competitive Bidding and Cost Reduction; Anthem Blue Cross — The Patient Safety First Project; It’s Our Story — A New Chapter in Disability Representation; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Aug/Sept 2010

Excerpts from the Daryl “Chill” Mitchell Issue:

Daryl "Chill" Mitchell — Interview

Alicia Rojas — Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

Timothy & Anthony Shriver — Eunice’s Legacy

Anthem Blue Cross — The Patient Safety First Project

Spinal Cord Injury — Stem Cell Research Gaining Ground

Itís Our Story — A New Chapter in Disability Representation

Humor — Laziness is the Key to

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