By STEVE SALDIVAR
Growing up in San Francisco, Cynthia De Losa never lived any one place for very long. It’s a past she prefers to sketch vaguely, saying that she ended up at Mount Saint Joseph convent in Bayview when she was four years old, and then moved to a foster home in Daly City at 14. In those ten years, she landed in juvenile hall nine times.
Now, at 58, De Losa’s artistic pieces involve creating something she never had: a home.
De Losa, the store manager for Precita Eyes Center, opened her apartment on 332 Day Street on a recent weekend to reveal 53 dioramas of home—familiar places from her childhood–hanging in her hallway.
“I ran away most of my life,” she said. “Home is really the neighborhood. Your home is your friends.”
Dolores Park, Mission High School and street corners in the Mission District appear in De Losa’s work. Also prominent in the 8-by-10-inch shadow boxes are the Homie figures, toys small enough to lose in your pocket, created by Richmond artist David Gonzalez in 1998.
De Losa said Gonzalez “caught the look” of neighborhood characters in everyone from Sleepy, who may have narcolepsy, to Cruzer, an arrogant Chicano who drives a 1948 Fleetmaster.
De Losa contextualizes each figure in photographs of the places and social spaces she found welcoming or important as she grew up. “I give them life. They have life again in a new situation. They have mariachis singing, they’re having fun.
“These are my haunts, the places I go, the places I’ve been run over in front of,” said De Losa, referring to Whiz Burgers, a popular hangout spot on 18th and South Van Ness. A car struck the artist in 1968 when she was on her way to a Mission Rebels dance, and De Losa, unharmed, remembers that accident with a certain fondness. “That was my claim to fame,” she said. “I tell people there all the time.”[kml_flashembed movie="http://media.journalism.berkeley.edu/mission/saldivar_sweethomies/soundslider.swf" height="300" width="350" /]
In the eggshell-white hallway of De Losa’s apartment, the lyrics to Sad Girl by the Intruders greeted friends and guests as they arrived. Soon, visitors were humming the music as they examined the art.
De Losa discovered the Homie characters last May when she passed by St. Paul’s Deli on 29th and noticed the bubble-gum machine filled with the popular toy line.
“I was a maniac,” said De Losa. “I felt like I was in Reno. I was on a slot machine. Give me more quarters!” Seven dollars later, De Losa came across El Cubano, a Homie with congas, a rare find.
De Losa gave her first diorama to the owner of the deli, personalizing it by placing photos of the owner’s recently departed parents. That diorama was recently stolen, De Losa said, and the owner has put in a request for another one.
Is there a character De Losa would ask Gonzalez to make if they ever met?
“Let’s make a pregnant Homie,” De Losa said, adding that the dolls represent women well, unlike Barbies. “They’re not so fake. They’re real like the abuelita with the apron on.”
A showing of De Losa’s work can be found on the window display of Precita Eyes and on her website, www.homesforthehomies.com.
The most difficult part for the artist is not making the work, but in brainstorming the themes. “I try to get it humorous,” she said. “They can’t just be standing up. They have to talk to one another.”
Demand for De Losa’s dioramas is high. She has sold 120 pieces in a year and a half with prices that range from $175 to $200. De Losa said they have become more popular even among those who did not grow up with a strong Latino influence.
Recently, she said, she received a request from a sailor who wants a shadow box with Homies manning a miniature version of his sailboat.
“You start thinking, ‘I’m losing the reason that I wanted this whole thing,” she said. “It’s all about the Homies, so why am I trying to change it?”
De Losa shoots all of the photographs and collects materials like grass matting from Home Depot. In some she uses a more multimedia approach, attaching speakers on top of the shadowbox to play sounds of the city.
Despite the number of Homie shadowboxes she sells, she still hasn’t created a diorama to keep for herself.
But when she does, she said, her diorama will be detailed—without room for accidents. She then dashed to the closet and cradled in her arms a package as heavy as a leather-bound Webster’s dictionary.
“I’ve been saving this, well, since I started,” she said, unwrapping from layers of bubble-wrap a glossy box made of beautiful maple wood–a shadowbox unlike the ones used for her other works.
“They don’t make them like this anymore.”
“It’s going to be beautiful,” she said. “Just beautiful.”