By Jill Thayer, Ph.D.
In my podcast, “The Art of Life” on Voice of Paso Internet radio, I had the opportunity to interview Henry A. J. Ramos, Chief Curator and Artistic Director at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, California. In addition to his role for the non-profit cultural organization, Henry is an artist and a multi-disciplinary scholar, which greatly informed our lively discussion. Following, is the transcript from our podcast and a link to the audio program.
“A Conversation with Henry A. J. Ramos.” Full Audio Program (30:47), “The Art of Life” with Dr. Jill Thayer on the Voice of Paso.
Paso Robles Mayor Steven Martin, Producer of Voice of Paso: And now, the Voice Of Paso presents Dr. Jill Thayer with The Art Of Life.
Jill Thayer: This is Dr. Jill Thayer, and today I’m speaking with Henry A. J. Ramos, Artistic Director and Chief Curator on Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, California. Studios on the Park is a 501C3 nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a creative, educational and transformational experience to enhance understanding and appreciation of the visual arts.
Hi, Henry. Thanks for joining me. I understand that you were raised in Santa Monica and educated at UC Berkeley and Harvard University, and you’re also an accomplished artist. Kindly share your background and what led you to the central coast and your work at Studios on the Park.
Henry Ramos: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I’m excited to be a first time visitor and hope that you’ll have me back. I hope I will earn that during the course of our exchange.
HR: But to your question. Yes, I was raised in Southern California, on the beach in Santa Monica, around a lot of creative people. I was never trained formally in the arts, although I took many, many arts courses throughout all of my public school education and my college career. But my grandmother, ironically, on my father’s side, was my early inspiration. From the time I was three, four or five years old, I was doing crafts and painting work with her. She introduced me because she had a marvelous garden. It was all about food. She was a Mexican born immigrant and she was just rich in the culture. All of that kind of wore off on me and found its way into a strong sense of creativity. Then later in my life, as an adult, I started producing and showing art both in New York and here in California, and then in Europe where I lived for a time. I found that people gravitated to it and actually were willing to buy it, and it became a real passion and a centerpiece of my life.
JT: I see that you’ve exhibited your paintings in Los Angeles at the Arco Plaza, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bonn, Germany, and other venues internationally. Tell me about that.
HR: I was very curious intellectually as a young person, and in my early formation, while in law school, I decided to study abroad in Europe and I went to Switzerland and to France and met my wife of now 30 years, who is a German citizen who was raised in French speaking Switzerland. Her father was a professor, involved in languages and also an artist himself, a very talented watercolorist.
We would tour the major museums of Europe. We would go to Berlin and we would go to Paris and we would see excellent works in Switzerland, Italy, and other places over there. It just blew my mind as it does anyone’s who’s had that opportunity to see those works firsthand. Then because of my Mexican heritage and kind of fate as it would have it, I was offered the opportunity at an important inflection point in my creative career to meet and work with the daughter of Diego Rivera, Dr. Guadalupe Rivera Marin, who is not an artist, but who is a strong champion of the arts in Mexico and a former senator in the Mexican government.
She involved me very centrally in a lot of her planning around the Diego Rivera Foundation, which was committed to supporting public art and particularly mural arts. Along my journey as a 17 year old in my high school, I took the leadership in creating a series of murals that were recognized by the LA city schools and the Los Angeles Times. I received many accolades for that, so the later connection to Rivera–one of my early icons, through his daughter–was just amazing.
JT: What a fantastic experience to have, one-on-one. I can only imagine. I’m sure that informed some of your later works culturally.
HR: No doubt, and it’s interesting the force of culture and history. As I said, I’m Latino, Mexican American, third generation, very proud of that, but I was raised in West Los Angeles in a very comfortable socioeconomic environment. I was successful at school. Frankly, we never spoke Spanish at home. We didn’t really had, I guess, what you would call a typical reality going on in our lives. Art ironically brought me to a kind of intimacy with my history and my culture that I think my natural pathway was separating me from, and that’s another reason why I find it such an enriching and highly personal journey that I’ve been on with my art, because it’s connected me to where my family started.
JT: Of course. As an artist, I can assume that you understand not only the sensibilities in your curatorial approach at Studios on the Park, but also the methodologies and cultural contexts you present through your exhibitions. Share a little bit about what led you to the Central Coast and your work at Studios.
HR: Prior to moving here, I had been living in Manhattan in New York City for the prior decade. My wife and I had a beautiful two bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, near Gracie Mansion. I was affiliated with the gallery of graphic arts in New York City, which I still remain connected to, and was doing shows with them and working both nationally and internationally in my business. I reached that point that we get to at more advanced stages, where you start reflecting on what’s ahead of you in the relatively short span of a lifetime. I decided that once and always a Californian. I felt at that inflection point of my life–I was about to turn 50 years old, it was really vital for me to get back to basics and get back to where I started and gratefully, my wife just loves California, and we had long been talking about a way to simplify.
So we decided to move back. But our first instinct was to move to one of the big cities where we had lived in Los Angeles or the Bay area. Then as it turned out, we came out and we took a drive from the Bay area down to Los Angeles to see family. Along the way, we just were noticing the beauty of the central coast. We just were completely taken aback by the raw physical beauty. Then as we stopped in to eat, dine and visit various establishments, and noticed the kindness of the people, the openness and the fluidity of the culture, and let’s face it, the incredible wine and the great food didn’t hurt. We had one of those kind of aha moments, like, “Why not here?” And sure enough, we looked into possibilities for purchasing a property. We found a lovely little 10 acre ranch, a very far cry from our two bedroom condominium on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and we’ve never looked back.
We’ve really been as happy as you can imagine being here and very early in my journey, once here, I was introduced to Anne Laddon, the founder of Studios on the Park who became a quick friend along with her entire family, Jim Irving, her husband. Jim Irving is a former planning commission member and her daughter, Sasha Irving, who for many years, ran Studios on the Park. They invited me early on to become one of the founding artists and to join the board of directors subsequently, which I did happily. I did a number of projects over the years with the resident artists, with a lot of the local youth involving partnerships with our police force, with our schools, some of the youth serving organizations, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
JT: Anne and Sasha are amazing women. I have the utmost respect for them, as we’ve worked together on many different levels. They have done so much for the culture in our community. What a coup for you all to work together in this venue.
HR: It was my great fortune. They did me a huge favor to introduce themselves to me and to invite me into that party. They have done great service to our community and our culture.
JT: Kindly described the mission and offerings of Studios on the Park including the organization’s initiatives, such as your artists in residence and ongoing events. I understand the pandemic, of course, has affected the organization, audience engagement and public interaction. Perhaps you can speak to that.
HR: Well, we’re all about exposing people to fine art and not just the finished product, but the process of making that art and consequently, we have a very robust resident artist program. Multiple talented artists have working space at Studios on the Park, which is located right on the east side of the central park in downtown Paso Robles. We have artists working in various media. Some of them are painters. Some of them are into drawing, printmaking or multimedia creations. Some use more advanced technologies. Some of them are traditionalists.
We’re also committed to the educational process of not only exposing people to art, particularly young people, but also to generate excitement about the possibilities that art creates. And not just in the creative spaces, but art we see is a gateway to creative thinking of all kinds that can have application in industry and science and other aspects of our lives that are quite important in their own right. So for the last decade, plus we have been offering as best we can all manner of public engagement opportunities to learn about, to engage in and to appreciate the arts.
JT: One thing I’ve noticed about Studios on the Park, is it engages multicultural, intergenerational audiences. Each time I visit, there’s something new for everyone. I’ve been on the Central Coast about six years now, and had the privilege to curate two shows there a few years back.
JT: One show featured a few of artists that I represented in my gallery who were from Los Angeles and Nevada. The other showcased original art from WWI and WWII in an exhibit entitled, “The Military Experience in Art.” As curator for Estrella Warbirds Museum, I was able to bring in pieces from the collection, and work with Camp Roberts and Studios on the Park to and curate this big show. Anne and Sasha were so supportive in our efforts that broadened the critical discourse and engaged new audiences.
The diversity you offer at Studios on the Park is always engaging and inspiring. You contribute so much to our culture and have a lot of community support. A few years ago, Paso Pops, the annual Paderewski Festival-sponsored concert and Independence Day celebration benefited Studios. I was at one of the VIP tables with the Warbirds. They did the flyover for the event during the national anthem. We were so pleased to support the cause! It’s great to have the community rally behind you in your work. Maybe can you speak to some of these initiatives?
HR: Well, that is really great feedback, and I’m grateful that you’re feeling that love, because that is intentional. That is part of the purpose of Studios on the Park is to be of service and to be a place that is safe for people of various persuasions to come and find their particular vehicle for expression. We live in a multicultural society and let’s face it, let’s be honest about what we all know. These are really hard times. Politically, we’re divided. There’s a lot of rancor in our public discourse. You would hope that something like COVID-19 would unite us. I think people are generally trying to find ways to do that, but even still we find ourselves in tense moments. The arts is just a natural vehicle to help people come to a common understanding of what we share in common, as opposed to the things that tend to separate us.
There’s a power to this approach that is, I think, highly undervalued in our society and much in need of elevation. That’s what we’re trying to do through our work. So we will have not only shows that feature work that hangs on walls or that sits in our atrium, and that is designed to be appreciated by people. But we amplify on that through educational and public exchanges that involve people coming in and actually sharing ideas, even if they agree to disagree about some of those ideas. We’ve had shows on efforts to honor our Veterans of the armed services who are certainly due that recognition. We’ve had Veterans participate with us on multiple occasions to lift up their point of view. We’ve worked with mental health professionals and people that are suffering from mental health challenges. We have worked with recent immigrants and immigrant-artists that are at risk in our community.
We’ve done mural projects and other public engagement projects with young kids that were either homeless or struggling with domestic violence issues at home or substance abuse issues, school dropout. We’ve covered a broad gamut. Increasingly, I’m proud to say we are much more in dialogue and much more in synchronicity with many of our other anchor civic and arts organizations. As I said earlier, we work closely with the city leadership in Paso Robles, the police department. Chief Ty Lewis has been just a terrific ally for us. The leadership and the public schools, Dr. James Brescia and his colleagues throughout, as well as organizations like the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs and other anchor institutions that serve our young people. This is where we think the need is greatest and where we think our value is highest.
KidsArt Smart Program and Youth Art Projects
For more information on Kids Art Smart coordinated by Michelle Rollins.
JT: I think it is important to bring the educational aspect of the Arts into the community. I remember growing up in Sacramento, we had an exceptional Arts education program. We made regular visits to the Crocker Art Museum, and guest artists who visited the classrooms would encourage students to become involved in not only the visual, but the performing arts. I think these early influences sparked my interest in the transdisciplinary areas I am involved with today.
It’s wonderful what Studios on the Park offers the community, as Humanities and the Arts stimulate critical thinking, broaden understanding, and inspire an appreciation for creative expression. It’s great that you engage the community and integrate education in your programs. What approaches are you taking to re-engage the public and donors as a nonprofit cultural institution? Have you given thought to that in your strategic planning?
HR: Well, we’re still trying to figure a lot of that out, as many institutions and leaders are. It’s a very fluid environment, constant changes are in play in the sense of what’s the best next step. What we’re really going to be planning on is a very, very slow and staged reopening. It’s not going to be just like business as usual. We’re going to be very mindful of the social distancing advisories that we’re getting from our public health leaders. We’re going to be limiting the number of people that can enter at any given time, and while we have not yet figured it out, we are contemplating the possibility of having almost like a restaurant, with a reservation type system, so that we can have cohorts of, say, eight to 10 people that can cluster at any given time.
Not that they would be anything but socially distanced, but we could invite in eight to 10 people at a time for given periods. Half an hour, and then we would turn that over to a next group. So we are still really trying to examine what’s realistic, what’s most safe, and what the public is going to most respond to. But we’re mindful that it’s not going to be business as usual. It’s not going to be like going back to the day before the shutdown.
JT: At the museum, we’re looking at what museums are doing on a national and international level, some of the protocols, how they’re approaching things, how they’re engaging with the public and different initiatives. There’s a new slant and approach to engagement with the Arts in sharing history and bringing our heritage to the community in this day and age. It’s quite remarkable what’s been going on in the last few months. Wouldn’t you agree?
HR: I would agree. I think that’s a powerful observation and we too, I think, in our small way but with big intentions, have been trying to contribute to that new modality of how we actually engage with each other around arts and culture in the current prohibitive environment. Like so many, we have gone to virtual discussions and virtual exhibits. I’ve just done a series of interviews, small, 10 to 15 minute exchanges with some of the leading artists in our county that have been airing sequentially on our website and other places. We have people that are really showing tremendous resolve and we have a lot of our folks and others in the arts community making masks, to help ensure public safety and the price affordability of those products.
We also have a lot of educational content to offer via these new media. Anne Laddon, our founder, and Michelle Rollins, who runs our children’s program, Kids Art Smart, have produced remarkable online tutorials that are available to any member of the public and any family during this period of shutdown. So we are trying to use the available technologies as innovatively and as robustly as we can to be of service, even in the complicated moment like now.
JT: Henry, let’s get back to your education. Tell me a little about the takeaways from your academic experiences that informed your approach at Studios on the Park.
HR: First and foremost, like you, I benefited from a multidisciplinary education. I went to college at UC Berkeley and really benefited from access in my study course to many different departments. I could range from art and architecture to political science, economics, and a lot of things in between. So I think that rounded education really prepared me as a creative person to understand that we find impulses and inspiration from multiple sources. While there is, I guess, ultimately the search for truth, and that’s what art, like science, is ultimately all about, there’s a lot of different truths coexisting side-by-side in our times. There are a lot of different experiences.
I think that milieu of multiculturalism and multidisciplinary study that I’ve benefited from, both at Berkeley and at Harvard, really informed me of those realities. Then finally, I would say that because those two places historically have been hotbeds of social activism and progressive efforts by young students to become engaged in the issues of their times, I learned the import of art as a component of civic education and civic engagement in a democracy. I realize and appreciate still today how undervalued art is as a means of pulling people together in times of challenge and of helping us to problem solve together as opposed to kind of going out on our own and trying to figure it out in isolation from others in society.
JT: Art certainly crosses cultural boundaries and languages. It is extraordinary as it connects us globally. Absolutely, I would agree. Could you share your thoughts on the state of the arts locally and regionally? I know we’ve gone through this incredible transition in the last few months. It seems that we were building up to a crescendo prior to the pandemic, as things were really hopping in the economy and engagement in the Arts here on the Central Coast. Can you share your thoughts on what’s going on now, locally and regionally, and where you see it heading?
HR: I’m very concerned and I’m sorry to be a bit of a downer on this response, but speaking with intellectual honesty, I think all of us need to be very concerned that many of our arts organizations are suffering and frankly many are not going to make it through this without heroic and sheroic efforts to rethink the way that we are organized. Perhaps there will be mergers. There may be some integration of efforts and some alignments that didn’t exist before the shutdown, but there may be just outright closures. We have a tale of two cities. Right before the shutdown we had major institutions like Studios on the Park and the Paso Robles Youth Arts Foundation, SLO Repertory Theatre and others sort of really finding their way into their zone. We’ve had other arts organizations like ARTS Obispo and our museum SLOMA (San Luis Obispo Museum of Art) that have been weighed down by new challenges, and this development has not helped. We need those institutions to be strong for all of our artists and creative communities to flourish.
So I think, when you look at the anchor organizations that any community needs to be vibrant as a civic culture, it’s vital that our business leadership, our political leadership and individuals of means really understand the time is now to step up, to support these institutions. Should we not do that, it not only will have a longterm downward impact on our quality of life as a civic culture and as an arts center, but frankly it will ultimately diminish our economic magnetism as a region that can attract talent, and that can really keep people here in a way that can add value to the rest of us.
JT: Well said. It is vital to work with other nonprofit cultural institutions and community organizations to see how they’re approaching things in reaching their goals, and how we’re all working together. We are a part of the North County Co-Op Historical Society that includes regional museums and historical societies. The group looks at the direction of our historical context and approaches for the future in our stewardship. It provides a really nice anchor balance that acknowledges where we’ve been and envision where we are going. It’s that reflexivity that helps us grow during this time. Thank you for sharing those thoughts.
JT: I remember the days of the Paso ArtsFest and Studios on the Park. For about three or four years, I was a judge for the Festival.
HR: Thank you for your contribution!
JT: It was such a privilege to work with Sasha and other colleagues as we looked at the plethora of incredible talent in the region.
HR: Those were the days!
JT: When I first came into town, I was thrilled to be asked to judge the competition. It great to see the talent here. Much of it from artists who had relocated to the Central Coast. We have many artists in the area who retired from education as professors in Los Angeles and others who relocated here in their retirement. They are creating new dialogues and interesting areas of engagement. Studios on the Park has captured this on so many levels. What advice would you give emerging artists today?
HR: Well, it’s a very tough time to be emerging as an artist. Let’s put it that way. On the other hand, we’ve probably never had from these younger, emerging practitioners, more fascinating content to examine and to help the rest of us understand what’s going on from their particular points of view. With the evolving technology that we have and the globalization that has taken shape in our culture, I think, there’s no doubt that the sky’s the limit for the kind and quality of art that we’re likely to see coming forward. I think my biggest challenge in a constructive sense for the emerging arts practitioner is to maybe question and rethink some of the emphasis that we’ve placed on monetizing creative value, focusing more on the substance and the relevance of that product to our times. That’s asking a lot because artists traditionally are known as folks who have to struggle economically, the so called “struggling artist.”
It’s never been easy to be an artist unless you’re at the top of the food chain. But I do worry that in the reality that existed a day before the shutdown, we were very marketized and very driven to a dollar value in the way that we understood what’s important in art. I think, frankly, right now, what I would say is the most important art is not the most expensive art that you’re going to find in big galleries or in big institutions. It’s art that’s coming from people on the ground in places like San Luis Obispo. So it’s worth paying attention to what’s out there.
JT: You make a really good point. My dissertation explored the mechanisms of artist emergence in contemporary culture. I interviewed a number of Southern California artists who were recognized internationally. One, was Karl Benjamin who was an Abstract Classicist who was a pioneer of Geometric Abstraction. Incredible Karl Benjamin. I was one of the last people to capture his voice before he passed away. Going to his studio and listening to his recollections of the art world a half a century earlier was remarkable. What led to his successful career, all that he has given us, and the inspiration he brought to the fore. People may look at art in the value of its exchange rate. In my graduate studies, I researched Theodor Adorno and his theories on the value of art. I compared that to those of critic Dave Hickey, his insights on the value of art, and how art stimulates change. Art creates that change in the social consciousness. You look at art for art’s sake, just simply, art for art’s sake. Art can be a sociopolitical statement or a form of advocacy. There are so many issues that art addresses. Art is truth, as you mentioned. Indeed, art is truth. The fact that Studios is developing this platform, this construct of thought beyond the monetary consumption of it to mass culture… that art has value inherently and intrinsically. I find that notable. So thank you for sharing that.
HR: Thank you for that acknowledgement. It’s really heartwarming to know that people are resonant with that message. If you lay it down there and invite people to come in, people want to be a part of that exchange,
JT: They absolutely do. Henry, what factors have led to your success?
HR: Wow, well, I think hard work and stick-to-itiveness, having a certain degree of tenacity is vital to creative success. The way I express it most, Jill, is that I think in the nature of being an artist, the only way that we are able to transform our inner ideas and world onto a canvas or into a sculpture or into a beautiful piece of music, is to be able to dream it first. If you can dream it, you can make it happen. You can create it. So we are by definition–and must remain–dreamers. I think that what happens too often in our lives, as young kids, especially, get into the workaday world and the world of competitive reality, is that they’re unwittingly discouraged, both directly and indirectly by our culture to keep dreaming, to keep believing, to keep the authentic voice in them alive.
We cannot afford to stamp out that creative impulse in our authentic voice. We have to fight for our rights to make that voice part of the cultural conversation. That’s what it means to be part of a creative community. But more importantly, that’s also what it means to be part of a democracy where we can understand that even if we agree to disagree on certain fundamental issues, we are made better by our participation and honest expression. We are lifted up to the extent that we can celebrate what we have in common with the arts at the center of gravity. That’s what makes us human. That’s what gives us a common identity that is worth living and fighting for.
JT: There is nothing more rewarding than the realization of appreciating the Arts. You said that so eloquently. Share about your position at Studios as a Chief Curator and Artistic Director, perhaps some of the projects you’re working on. What is your approach? How do you assess the talent and how it will engage the public?
HR: Well, thank you for asking that. I think that what I do is a combination of borrowing from traditions that we’ve established over recent years and looking at what has worked and what’s resonated with our audiences to try, where possible, to recreate that. Then on the other hand, I seek to challenge our audiences with new and different opportunities for learning, and even for disagreeing if they don’t like it quite so much. It involves trying to acknowledge that we want to lift up and celebrate as much locally-produced art as we have available to us, and you’re right, we have a remarkably robust and talented artistic community. At the same time, we feel that we have a somewhat unique role to play in terms of introducing our audiences to some of the really important centers of artistic gravity in the Bay area, in Los Angeles, and in another regional venues like Portland or Seattle–other places that are producing what we would say is important art for our region to understand, to know about and to benefit from.
We’re always looking for talent, both within the region, but also outside of the region, in order to provide a nice balance and mix as we go forward. We also are interested in mixing it up, not having the same shows over and over again, and also not overly replicating what is already easily found in the region from other sources. We have a very robust community of watercolorists, plein air artists and other more traditional visual imageries that are presented through our artistic producers. We celebrate that and we include shows that do that too; but we also want to move increasingly towards more modernist works, abstract works, multimedia works and installations that take us to new and different destinations.
So we’re always looking to have a broad diversity, and then also and finally, as we’ve alluded in the conversation to this point, we are very interested, where possible, in matching great art and artistic execution with public conversations that we think we need to be having on the important issues of our times. Issues that affect all the people in our community and that, while we may have different viewpoints about what to do about them, ultimately unite us as opposed to pulling us apart. So, all of those things combine to establish the criteria and the framework around which we like to produce our shows and present our work.
Jill Thayer, Ph.D. is an artist, educator, marketing strategist, curator, art historian, podcaster, and writer. As owner of a design and marketing firm for over two decades, she worked with regional and global clientele including Disney, Carnation, Nestle Dairies, NBC Burbank, and Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company. Jill Thayer Galleries at the Fox exhibited emerging and international artists for 15 years receiving critical review. Jill brings insight to the contemporary dialogue by exploring the narratives of people and their contributions to the culture. She received her Doctorate in Cultural Studies and Museum Studies from Claremont Graduate University with transdisciplinary study in Global Strategy and Trade at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford, UK. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” her post-doctoral fellowship series of Claremont Graduate University Art alumni, professors, and professors emeritus is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. Jill teaches online courses for colleges and universities nationally in areas of art history, global visual culture, marketing, management, and integrative communication strategies. She is a contributing writer for art publications internationally and produces “The Art of Life,” a podcast for Voice of Paso Internet radio on the Central Coast in California where she lives and works. www.jillthayer.com