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 Dr. Ericha Scott, 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.
Dr. Ericha Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: Was that clown anyone whom your father might have known?
Rojas: I’ve never asked him. Now I’m going to have to.
Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: 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.
Scott: It’s powerful. I really like your work.
Rojas: Thank you.
Scott: 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.
Scott: I haven’t.
Rojas: He was at the center of a documentary, King Gimp, through HBO. It won an Emmy. Around the time of that documentary’s release, ABILITY was holding an interview with him. He has both an amazing spirit and a crazy physical impediment, but he still pulled through in showing people his art. I found that to be so inspiring. He has severe cerebral palsy, and it’s really hard to understand him when he speaks. But I was in a weird trance in which I could understand everything he was saying. It was great. I really connected. That conversation changed my life forever. He was my first big influence, for sure, because I had the chance to meet a real artist, to actually meet him, not just to see his work, and then I saw his work and found it amazingly motivating and inspiring.
Scott: Do you remember a particular turning point in your work, at which you realized you weren’t writing out of depression anymore?
Rojas: I painted “It’s All Happening” some time in November, October of last year. I think that was the first one to break me out of my self-portrait tears. [laughs] I think it marked a transition in my understanding of where my depression and anxiety were coming from. I wanted to break away from that place. I wanted to put myself in black and white, representing that I wasn’t really there. The mirror in the painting is the same mirror with which I’ve painted my old self-portraits. It’s a portable mirror that I’ve had forever.
Scott: Is it a triptych mirror that you can stand up? Is it on the wall?
Rojas: Yeah, it’s a little Mexican mirror, and it has little doors that you can close and open. So when they’re closed you can’t see yourself, and as they open, there’s the big center image as well as little side images. That’s the mirror I started painting from, so I felt it was important to include it in my work. I wanted to show my vulnerable side—maybe that’s why I don’t have any clothes or use any color—so that it represents a transition from my old self. A rebirth.
Scott: One of your pieces is titled “Anxiety”. Is that as self-explanatory as it seems?
Rojas: Well, I painted “Anxiety” and “Self-Portrait” very close together, within the same month. I’m always going through anxiety, but at that time, I wanted to represent it physically, what it does to me. The oppressions or suppressions of emotions really affect my digestive system, creating what feels like a burning hollow in the upper pit of my stomach. That’s pretty much it. I actually had a lot of fun with that one, because it stemmed from a sketch I’d done years ago that I wanted to try to put into a painting. I usually don’t sketch and paint, but sometimes it just happens. So this was another evolution, I guess.
After I’d painted “Self-Portrait”, some friends and artists who have known me for a while now felt that it kind of broke the mold of what I had always been painting. I think it’s definitely an evolution. They found it more photo-realistic. They found it to look more like me. Which, in a way, had me a little concerned. I’m not a photo-realistic artist.
Scott: Do you still feel as motivated to paint and create as you once did?
Rojas: Yes. I think art is a big part of humanity and of the communication of it. In the beginning, when I started painting, it was maybe from a narcissistic or selfish place. My work was all about me and my feelings. But then I found out, as I kept painting, that my life really began to happen. I ended up in a gallery and now I’m asked to show my work at other places and things like that.
In the beginning, things were hard because I was working with images of myself. It’s not Laguna Beach in those works, it’s really me. So I was really putting myself out there, and I felt very vulnerable and very self-conscious. But everybody feels this way once in a while. Everybody feels that lonely place, especially people who have suffered through anxiety or depression or through any kind of mental illness, schizophrenia, bipolarity. It’s nice to be able to relate to other people and to say that it’s okay to be whoever you are. Art can really save the world.
Scott: It can! I believe that it’s essential. It’s tragic that it’s being taken out of some schools.
Rojas: It’s very tragic, yeah. Art makes you a better individual, makes you more able to think outside the box and connect to things that are not so rule-directed or taught. I think it helps develop critical problem-solving skills for kids. And it’s unfortunate that art is always the first thing to be kicked from schools, because art can help solve or alleviate so many problems for kids who are having trouble with gangs, with identifying themselves, parents, integration. Art is sometimes the only outlet there is.
Scott: Your work seems to be about you but also very much about the rest of us at the same time.
Rojas: Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m coming into with my work. Everybody has something to share. I want my work to say, “Hey, you’re not alone. These feelings happen to a bunch of us.” There seems to be a need for that, especially now, a need for connection to people and a need for empathy and compassion and understanding. Our feelings shouldn’t be taboo. They are real. Everybody goes through them, and nobody has a perfect way or a perfect path or a perfect life.
I deeply believe that my art not only is a self-healing tool but also a personal responsibility, by creating awareness about mental illness and by sharing my immigrant experience. When I paint now I feel like I go to a place where, for a moment, I don’t exist and my sorrows don’t either. It is an enigmatic trance and, in that space or glance of it, everything fits. I find that overwhelmingly beautiful.
Alicia Rojas’s work is currently exhibited in downtown Santa Ana, CA,
at AvantGarden Art Gallery in the historic Santora Building.