Born and raised in Las Vegas, N.M., Póla López nows lives in Los Angeles and is one of the best-loved painters in contemporary Chicanx art. She’s back in New Mexico this week, as one of her pieces is being featured in the Qué Chola Exhibit at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. Like the rest of her work, the painting is richly evocative, making use of vivid, shocking color to tell stories of women’s empowerment and Chicana identity.
López began her journey as an artist at the age of 6, when she had an inexplicable spiritual experience with color, where she felt herself literally fall into color and swim there. Since that day she began drawing whenever she could. But it wasn’t until high school that she realized painting could be a career and a movement.
When Póla was a senior at West Las Vegas High School, the Brown Berets began to occupy some of the buildings on campus. “Our parents all told us—you know, back then, they didn’t all think the word Chicano was a good thing,” said López by phone from her Los Angeles apartment last week, as she prepared for the trip to Albuquerque. “So they told us to stay home. But I was a rebel.”
López decided to sneak into the gym and courtyard at the school, to see what was going on. It was here that Póla had one of her most profound experiences with art. She witnessed the Brown Berets painting large murals which included empowering Aztec imagery she’d never seen before. “I was hooked,” she said. The Brown Berets invited her to paint with them, and it was in that moment she realized that she wanted to pursue art as a career.
After applying to New Mexico Highlands University, López decided to forgo college. Her father, a businessman and business owner, struck up a deal with her. He loaned her one of his buildings, in the old Las Vegas plaza, with one stipulation: She’d have to run it as a business, on her own. If she could manage that without a degree, he wouldn’t make her go to college.
It was in this building that Póla began to sell art supplies to the local community, because there was no other business doing so in Las Vegas at the time. Through this business Póla learned the ins and outs of being an artist, from an unlikely source: her sales rep. “He taught me all about the materials, and what was used with what.”
López began to exhibit her work in the front of the store. One day, a group of Chicanx artists from Santa Fe stopped by. Seeing her beautiful paintings, and shocked they’d never heard of her, these artists, members of Luis Tapia’s acclaimed collective La Cofradía de Artes Y Artesanos Hispanicos, invited her to join them. Shortly after, Póla packed up and decided to move to Santa Fe and the rest, as they say, was history.
Eventually López made her way to Los Angeles, where she yearned to become part of the Chicanx art scene. Though López felt like an outsider, she eventually became a staple in the art scene, and has been since.
López describes herself as a selfish artist who primarily paints for herself, though she has often been commissioned to make art pieces and murals throughout the country. Most recently she has been asked to create several grand murals in Los Angeles itself.
Breaking the fourth wall here for a moment, I’d like to say that for me, as a musician, writer and actors who is also from Las Vegas, N.M., what’s most amazing about López as an artist is the fact that she was self-taught. Though she learned from many talented artists throughout her years López was not influenced early on by technique or standards, and was, instead, influenced directly by the shapes and colors of the northern New Mexico landscape. This gave her to one of the most unique art styles in the Chicanx art scene.
The profound symbolism found in López’s art covers topics such as the tree of life, the cosmic Earth mother, and the balancing of the masculine and feminine energies of the Earth.
López says her muse resides here in New Mexico, and always will. She visits home twice a year, at least, and continues to have a beautiful relationship with our state. She says she must visit this place in order to spiritually recharge before returning to the big city. The endless bright blue, moody New Mexico skies, the hot white stars, the zesty food and her family are all things that connect Póla to her spirit, and it is with her spirit that she creates her art.
As an autodidact who went to the same high school as this incredible painter, I’m truly inspired by López’ journey as an artist. She has proven to me that regardless of where you’re from or the circumstances that life throws your way, you can overcome anything and be successful. López truly taught me a lot, and I will always take from the interview she gave me the two rules that she lives by: One, don’t judge anything or anyone; and two, just enjoy it; and if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it at all.
López is one of 26 artists featured in the National Hispanic Center’s upcoming Qué Chola exhibit, spotlighting “cholas and homegirls in art and pop culture.” According to NHCC, La Chola is “a significant figure in the Latina imagination for the ways she represents a feminine strength, power and resilience in the face of racial, gender and economic adversity. She is a figure that many young Latinas in the U.S. admire and emulate.” There will be an opening reception on Friday, March 8 from 6 to 9pm at NHCC (1701 Fourth Street SW). This event is free and open to the public. Qué Chola runs through Aug. 4.