Mission Loc@l: Where did you grow up?
Ricardo Cartagena: I grew up in El Salvador, and came over illegally in ’94. All of my family was over here — I was trying to find them. All my family is artists. My brothers are painters and work internationally.
ML: So is that how you started painting?
RC: I started painting in the cemetery. On November 2, the Day of the Dead, people would come to see their family that was there. Children would go to the cemetery to make money by painting tombs and crosses for people. I got started painting angels for people, because I liked painting angels, and people said “Oh, you’re so artistic!” But I just liked painting angels.
ML: Was your mom an artist, too?
RC: My mom did embroidery, which she learned in the convent. She would sit and embroider these big tablecloths. That was my first experience with color, because she would have me helping her. I would sit beside her with all her thread. I would also do little paintings for her, for her friends, to pay them back for things.
ML: Did you want to be an artist when you were younger?
RC: I didn’t know I would be an artist. My mom always told me, whatever you do, do it beautifully, like it is for me. And I took her advice. All I do, I make it beautiful. But when I came over here people kept saying I was an artist. I paint because I like the painting. I don’t know if I am an artist.
ML: Did you know about a lot of artists when you were younger?
RC: Yeah — people used to come to the frame shop to put reproductions in frames, and that’s how I met a lot of artists. I would see them there, and now I look at the art and know who they are by.
ML: How did you start painting over here?
RC: When I got my first check I went and I bought acrylic and canvas, and I went and worked by my mom where she was. I worked on bits of cardboard and whatever I could find, and people kept asking for more. So I got a studio in a garage, but got evicted, and had to find another place. But I kept getting evicted from garages. It’s a big problem for artists: We don’t have money to rent spaces, so have to go to garages. But if you want to paint you just do it!
ML: Where do you go for inspiration?
RC: I am a very spiritual person, and keeping spirituality is very important. Not religious, it doesn’t have to be religious, just a spirit. Trying to see the love in everything.
One thing I see in beginners is that they think, “What can I paint?” My inspiration is everything that I see every day. I pay attention to everything, and everything becomes my inspiration.
How I find ideas is, when I’m working doing houses and restoration, I am working but also thinking and trying to find ideas for my next painting. And you have to try and be humble. Too many people do beautiful drawings and paintings and feel arrogant about it.
ML: Why do you paint mainly in monochromatic colors?
RC: In the beginning I was broke, so I was only able to buy two or three colors of paint. And people saw my paintings and said, “Oh, you’re monochrome!” They recognized that. So now I save money, and also I see too many complications with colors.
My guardian angels provoked these accidents, but now people know me this way.
ML: Is there anywhere else you’d like to go to be an artist?
RC: I like to be in San Francisco. It’s a good opportunity for artists. In Latin America there is not enough support for artists.
And I like the Mission because I am Latino and it is a Latino community, and it is like home. There’s something magical here. People come here and tourists come here for the food and to visit but at the same time they see the Latino side. There’s not as much of an opportunity like this other places.
ML: When do you paint?
RC: After my job, usually. I don’t go to bars after work. Too many of my friends waste time going to bars and to parties. I go home and paint, and I feel free. It’s a way to release my stress. It’s my therapy.
ML: Which painters do you admire?
RC: I would say Frida Kahlo. I like her because she is always painting her life. I feel like we have this kind of stuff in common.
ML: Any last pieces of advice?
RC: Don’t try to fix your economic problems with art. You have to support yourself doing something else on the side. And you can’t expect others to support you.
And my magic word: every day. Keep in the discipline every day. Work constantly.