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Tropico de nopal is enchanting. The slender, two-story art gallery — once the home to a printing company — has the gentle curves found in so many Streamline Moderne buildings from the late 1940s. Sunlight streams in through the upstairs windows, bathing the wood floors in light. On the roof, 50-year-old painter and charcoal artist Reyes Rodriguez has a dramatic 360-degree view of the city.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)Rodriguez bought the building on Beverly Boulevard in 1997, thinking it would be a perfect artist’s studio. But the one-time Hollywood set builder soon realized he’d be happier sharing the space, and over the course of a decade transformed his solitary studio into a gallery for Latino and Chicano artists — a communal space that effortlessly mixes art, music, fashion, words and video.
“For me, it’s a space where ideas can be shared,” says Rodriguez, “where you feel like you’re a part of creating culture, and challenging it at the same time. We sort of make it up as we go along.”
That philosophy might explain the lengthy artists’ residency by Ozomatli, which participated in the gallery’s “Furious Conversations” show in 2005, a series of events that inspired some of the songs on the group’s new album Don’t Mess With the Dragon. Rodriguez hosts outdoor readings on the gallery’s backyard stage, where patrons can see the Los Angeles skyline while listening to poetry under the stars. Then there’s the annual “Three Kings” exhibit, where nearly two dozen artists use different media to riff on the celebration of Epiphany — the Christian holiday that also happens to be Rodriguez’s birthday. His first name means kings, after all.
Rodriguez, who lives in the hills of Monterey Park with his wife, Marialice Jacob, was born in Tijuana on January 6, 1957, the son of a jack-of-all-trades who brought his family to East L.A. As a young adult, Rodriguez grew up going to the MeChicano Art Center and Self-Help Graphics, getting summer jobs painting murals or silk-screening T-shirts. His mother was the anchor of the family, running a small market near their home on Indiana Avenue.
“I think I got her work ethic,” he says. “She only closed her store like three days in 10 years, and one of those was when we buried my dad. She persevered. She’s my hero. She always had a dime in her pocket and I always said, ‘I want a part of that magic.’”
Rodriguez’s mother now helps him during gallery openings, putting her homemade nopalitos (cactus) salad on the counter next to the chips and the red wine. And Rodriguez got his wish, because the place is indeed magical, celebrating culture and community in a way that happens too rarely in Los Angeles.
Even the gallery’s location is fluid, sitting at the junction of Westlake, Echo Park and Historic Filipinotown. On certain days, neighborhood activists convene in the gallery to discuss plans for a new park across the street. On others, Rodriguez runs a photographic exhibit from last year’s Calavera Fashion Show, where artists designed Día de los Muertos costumes inspired by a wide range of sources — from pop artists Keith Haring and Andy Warhol to la llorona, ?the fabled figure who cries for children lost in the ?Los Angeles River.
Despite his focus on his own gallery, Rodriguez will have a show of his own work in September, at the Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park. Meanwhile, Tropical de Nopal is focusing on showcasing younger artists, like painter Shizu Saldamando and multimedia artist Arturo Ernesto Romo.
As Rodriguez says, “There’s a whole new generation of artists that need a voice.”