May 24, 2016
'I can't let go of my practice'
By Clint O’Connor
Elmi found his art in America.
Growing up in El Salvador, Elmi Leodan Ventura Mata seemed destined to work in the corn and bean fields near his small rural village. Instead, earlier this month, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a double major in painting and drawing from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Now he is lighting the fuse to a promising future as a painter.
“I am the first one in my family to graduate from high school and get a college degree,” says Elmi. “My parents had very little formal education. My mom, I think, finished second grade.”
In April, he won the prestigious Grand Award in the annual Excellence in the Visual Arts competition presented by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio. His work was included an exhibition at the Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery in Columbus. Several of his paintings are on display at the Art Spot in Cleveland Heights, and next year he will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Maria Neil Art Project in Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts District.
Elmi also has work in the Summer Student Show at CIA’s Reinberger Gallery through August 5.
“We’re incredibly proud of Elmi,” says Lane Cooper, chair of CIA’s painting department. “I can’t say enough about his passion and his commitment to the practice of painting. There are a lot of things that contribute to a student’s eventual success as an artist, but the number one thing is their willingness to work and to be in the studio. Whether he stays in Cleveland or moves to another metropolitan center, you’re going to be hearing about him.”
Elmi’s figurative paintings often feature the daily struggles of immigrants and minorities. His senior thesis, titled “Americanized,” featured two large, vibrant paintings focusing on working class folks. One, a collage-like street scene with adults and children called “Near Compton and Inglewood,” grew out of a visit to Los Angeles last summer.
“Compton and Inglewood are these sort of really rough areas where Latino and black populations have very little opportunity,” Elmi says. “There are so many struggles. I am interested in how many generations it takes for an immigrant to sort of say, ‘I cannot take this anymore. I need to better my life, instead of living in this chaotic world.’ It questions this whole Americanization and how we deal with that.”
One thing he definitely misses about El Salvador: sunshine and bright blue skies. To counterbalance the ominous gray of Cleveland winters, he created his own light.
“I use a lot of bright colors in my paintings,” Elmi says. “My palette is amped up to the blues and the yellows. The blues represent this ideal sky in El Salvador and the yellow is the sunshine. That’s how I kind of divide my palette because I think we need that here in Cleveland.”
Charming, enthusiastic, and quick to smile, Elmi says he can’t believe how old he is going to be. (He turns 23 in June.) His path to painting began in 2001 when he moved to the United States. He was raised largely by his grandmother in the Morazán region of northeast El Salvador until he was 8. His parents had left the country to find work in America, and he joined them in 2001 in Elizabeth, N.J.
“They both worked in factories in low-paying manual labor jobs with hardly any benefits,” he says. “Growing up, we heard these fairy tales about America, about gold in the streets. But instead of gold, I found snow in the streets and cold winters. It was just horrible.”
As a young teenager, his world was rocked in 2007 when his parents split up. He found salvation in an after-school program called Restore Ministries, where mentors steered him toward a new obsession: drawing. Thanks to a scholarship, he also landed at a summer art camp called Appel Farm, where he held a paintbrush for the first time.
“I was able to look outside the box and see that the United Stated was much larger than Elizabeth, New Jersey, and my family. It was really surreal. Appel Farm was like a small, protective world where I could block everything out and just draw and paint.”
He started at CIA in the fall of 2012. “Being at CIA has not only given me time to build my skills, it has allowed me to have a goal in mind and see where I want to be in 10 or 20 years,” he says. “The instructors here have drilled into me that once I graduate from CIA, I can’t let go of my practice.”
Graduate school is a likely destination one day, but his more immediate plans involve returning to El Salvador and teaching villagers about sustainable living.
As it is, he is never too far removed from thoughts of his birth country. Six recent oil paintings, part of his “Americanized” project, peer into the souls of beleaguered characters, displaced El Salvadorans, their skin etched with flecks of browns and blacks. In contrast to the vibrant colors and energy of his more complex works, these smaller paintings are stark and more personal. The main figure in “The Ways of a Man” stares straight ahead with a world-weary gaze. You can’t help but be drawn to him.
“We love his work, says John Farina, co-owner of the Maria Neil Art Project. “You can sense in some of the paintings that there’s feeling there, that something is going on. And the more time you spend with them, the more you see. I can only imagine where he’s going to go from here.”
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