“The ability to visually recreate what nature has provided, in all its beauty (or ugliness), empowers me at a soul level.”
Lori Escalera is an Artist (“Artist” with a capital “A”!) born in 1957 and definitely a Baby Boomer. She grew up in a suburb in West Los Angeles where life was like the 1990’s TV show The Wonder Years (a series about life in the 1960s and filmed on the street where Escalera grew up). Gas was 29¢ a gallon and a set of beverage glasses came with every tank of gas. The attendant would fill the gas for you, give you your change, and wash your car windows. There were no cell phones or answering machines, digital electronics or home computers. Art was created on a drafting table. The highlight of a school day was art and Lori looked forward to creating a picture to go along with every class assignment.
Her father was an aerospace Artist. He did technical drawing during the day and Commercial Art at night. He was a Master Artist at perspective drawing who drew helicopter and aerospace engines so engineers could build them to go into space. Her mother was a homemaker, but she really loved going to work and was able to do so again when Lori was in second grade. She was an extremely competent executive secretary and very well organized. Lori became the evolution of both her parents, while also inheriting their negatives. She was not patient enough for technical art like her father, but she was very good in designing and color. Her organizational skills were good, like her mother’s, who also kept an immaculately clean house – a skill Lori never could master!
Escalera did not always get along with her parents and left home at 18. She worked, paid her own way through college and lived on her own (more easily done in 1975!) She got a great intellectual education from San Diego State University for three years but dropped out from fear of not having a career path to follow. She next attended Los Angeles Trade Technical College and had an amazing experience which prepared her for not only being professional, but for going into business a few years later. Attending a university in order to get an intellectual education, and attending a trade school for hand skills, was the best of both worlds. In 1981, Lori went into business at the age of 23 and experienced a lot of financial success for the next fifteen years in advertising design.
Her career paid very well, allowing her to move over to other fields of art when her corporate business disappeared during the Los Angeles 1990 economic downturn. She went back to college and completed a B.A. in Graphic Design and Communication and received another A.A. in Art in the process. She really enjoyed going to school in her early 30’s as a single mom. She realized she really enjoyed humanities, culture and arts. She started an art group, sat on an environmental nonprofit, started writing grants, doing community murals and taught art.
In 1994, Lori began street painting (pavement art) and loved it so much that she started a small annual chalk festival in Culver City. In 2004, CTIA hired her as a pavement Artist, launching her next decade as a travelling “Madonnari.” (Madonnari is the Italian term for chalk artists who traveled to church festivals chalking the Madonna and ex-votos beginning during the Renaissance.) At home,
Lori taught tile glazing, created community murals, painted in her studio, exhibited, and went where the Fine Arts took her. Although she wanted to focus on painting, the universe had other plans.
Lori's husband left (along with a stable secondary income), eldercare called, and her failing joints required three major surgeries. There is a 15 year “hole” where life got in the way, so she wrote four academic papers and began offering workshops. There was always something new to be done!
Networking with painting artists became important.
Traversing the seventh decade of her life, Lori Escalera now can reflect upon the diversity and breadth of her Art making. Inherent in her pursuits was a curiosity to explore and “know” everything about artmaking. It may have been motivated by a deep need to acquire competency because she was a woman trying to compete in a man’s world 50 years ago. Since she did not conform to a particular career path, she feels fortunate that her diversity allowed opportunities to find their way to her doorstep. The “Art Versatility Award” she won at the very start of her career portended the
engine which would drive her success. The drawback was she never felt comfortable writing “Artist” on her calling card. Lori tried every adjective along the way, and finally surrendered in her fifty’s to “just” refer to herself as: “Artist.” Before then, she focused on the connotation of words like “Graphic Designer,” “Art Specialist,” “Art Instructor,” “Commercial Artist”, “Consultant,” “Print Broker,” and “Street Painter” (someone actually thought she painted those little numbers on the curb); but after a career in Artmaking, she found that “Artist” was a shoe she could comfortably
"Before I even realized it, I had many different careers in Art. Now, it is time to distill the wisdom acquired along the way, and to give back in honor of those who gave me so much. One interesting thing I have observed is that no two creative careers look alike. No one possesses anyone else’s creative DNA nor their talent DNA. That might be the biggest take away from this interview. I make this point because I spent a lifetime trying to “become” an Artist. It is not something you “become” like a doctor or a plumber. It is not an occupation which has a specific set of skillsets and a license to match. An Artist is a creative occupation. It is not always an occupation, many times it is a preoccupation! Being an Artist is a creative endeavor which sometimes requires you to wear a hat unlike any other. It may take courage to wear that hat as well."
Lori Escalera’s creations are as beautiful as her soul. Simply listening to her words and the way she
shares the journey she’s embarked upon for her art is nothing shy of inspiring. An incredible talent
pours out of her and is clearly visible in each and every one of her pieces. Escalera has gone from
almost legally blind to having a very clear and powerful vision, which she uses masterfully to alter
our perceptions on several subjects. Her art is colorful and original and definitely bold. Lori creates
art, in hopes of creating change.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it.
A. I feel like my style is ever evolving. But others say they can see my style with consistency. Overall,
it is probably a cross between impressionism and realism. Sometimes I want my art to look like a
painting from the Baroque Period. I might finish a session, stand back, tilt my head, and study what
is painted, and it looks nothing like anything from the Baroque Period! It is loose and energetic. In
the end I paint like “me” whatever that is, and that is all I can ever do. We must do art despite
ourselves and get out of our own way as Artists. When I return to a piece years later, tilt my head
and look, I am more accepting of my work, and realize I was too hard on myself.
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career.
A. My favorite highlights were doing corporate advertising. I loved the fact I could do every aspect of
the work myself! Creating designs, producing Camera-Ready Art, directing photoshoots, copywriting,
adjusting color on press, realizing the client’s dreams – it came very easy to me and was very
exciting. I had a hard time when it came to doing my personal work after because it was like…what?
You want me to put in all these hours doing something for free, pay for office space, materials and
you don’t want to pay me a living wage to do it?
Street painting has also been awesome. Reproducing Master Paintings (which is my favorite thing to
do!) and sitting on the pavement making chalk art is exciting. It is one of those things that flows
easily when I am in the street. The audience is always so grateful, and I don’t have to sell them any
product, either. It was the way I made my income for ten years.
I feel pressure when I return to easel work to create something permanent. Upon completion, the
ephemeral stuff gets washed away and the performance is complete. I’ve been featured in many
places in the USA, Canada, Mexico and China over the years. If you google my name, you can view
my best work and where it’s been executed. Every project over 26 years is equally amazing – The
people I interact with, my hosts, are remarkable, and the audience – always grateful. Chalking in
China was probably the most intense and rich experience I have ever had. I was there during the
Cheng Du earthquake. The most interesting thing was to see how the USA looks through Chinese
media – not any different than the USA tries to paint about China. People are not their government…
that was an eyeopener for sure, and the Chinese people are lovely.
I’ve had some wonderful gallery shows that were super fun. I made them into big cultural events. In
Banning (CA), I organized a Goddess Exhibit in 2006. This was coordinated with three other artists
who had appropriate supporting painting. We had food, belly dancers, live music and everyone had a
great time! They drove for miles to attend. Solana Beach Civic Center Gallery (CA) let me do the
same thing in a more expanded way. I had a spring festival that included an astrologer, psychic, high
tea, a drumming circle, belly dancers, live music and the Artists spoke about their body of work. I
really like the cultural aspect to the exhibits because it takes the pressure off of selling. The event
itself is a ton of fun for everyone involved.
Q. What role does the Artist/ Painter have in society?
A. The Artist is the visionary. The Artist “informs” others about thoughts and images that might not
have occurred before the Artist assembled the artwork. Professor Carlos Ramos (WLA College) once
said: “Art should change you.” Therefore, the purpose of the Artist is to alter perceptions. In a good
way, the artist will introduce new paradigms of thinking, bring the viewer to a new place they
haven’t been, bring evolutionary thinking and behaviors, and deconstruct the viewer from negative
ideas they might not even know they have. For example, the Artist possesses the power to get
people to be concerned about environmental pollution or to be a mirror for racism.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. My best childhood memory was “playing” outside on the street when I was little and “hanging
out” on the street as a teen. In the 60’s and 70’s we were very independent. Our parents would
throw us outside for fresh air (which it wasn’t, as it was pretty polluted in those days before
emission controls) and we were inventive. I loved board games and cards. Never got enough of card
games! Especially hearts or spades as a teenager. Slumber parties, games, dancing and being silly
with the neighbor kids!
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. Well, when I was a child there was no thought of growing up to become an Artist if you were a
woman, only secretarial and menial jobs – therefore, I could only want to be an Art teacher, of
course! I always practiced art at home during any spare moment. I felt lucky as an adult to have that
desire manifested when asked to create creative recreational Art classes/camps, in which I have
incorporated my thinking on nature, craft, photography, drawing, painting and imagination - for kids
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. Yes! And, actually, I still have the first art I remember making. It was a camel I made when I was
four. If I can dig it out, I will take a photo. I have photos of me drawing as soon as I got my glasses at
3 years of age. Unfortunately, my parents did not realize I was severely myopic, so I went around
mostly blind until then. After that, people have told me, there was always a pencil in my hand!
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. Everything was in stages, I always liked art: creating, expressing, coloring, decorating, being crafty.
All my teachers were very encouraging. It was like a compulsion, like breathing to create
something… a greeting card, a puppet show, a picture. Unfortunately, when it came time to be
“seriously” interested in Art my parents frowned on any future prospect of being a Fine Artist. Since
my father was a technical/commercial Artist he frowned on “airy fairy starving fine artists” and
disapproved of drawing for art’s sake. There had to be a purpose. My mother was not supportive
because she only saw men as working Artists. In the 1960s women were supposed to grow up to be
wives, and then they could stay at home water coloring flower arrangements. My mom hated my
nudes, she was humiliated that her daughter would draw naked people and then show them! My
dad was “linear”, and I was “organic”, so he always disapproved. I had a big solo exhibit in Santa
Monica in 2011, which my 86 year old father attended. I asked him what he thought, and he said,
“there is too much color and it’s not tight enough.” I was proud anyway, my Art looked great. On his
deathbed he communicated what I needed to hear most: that he was proud of me – that was all that
I wanted from my most important Art mentor.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. My focus is expressing quality in form, composition, color and aesthetic. So, part of my painting is
about the aesthetic. It doesn’t really matter if it is a vase of flowers or an array of vegetables. But my
painting is also about women and cultural expressions. I like to take photos at the fairs and festivals
and then translate the culture I capture into paintings. I also am at the stage of life where activism is
becoming important in my painting. I am currently on the cusp of figuring out how to paint what is
important. Not just what is important in the latest news cycle but what has been and continues to be
important over a longer time frame. So much of painting I feel is trite. I’d rather not paint if it’s not
going to be important and be part of my legacy as an artist, so “social narrative” painting is rattling
around in my head just waiting to explode.
Q. If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?
A. There is an Artist for every season, so it would be hard to pick just one. Maybe Artemisia
Gentileschi. Probably because she was a super strong woman (she was raped by her father’s
associate as a teenager). Her painting expresses her resilience and rage at what happened. She
stands for all women’s dignity. She is a great model of leadership. Also, because her painting is
masterful in a classically academic way, she is an excellent example of Northern Italian Baroque
painting and all it gave us. From composition, form, color and lighting, to all the Caravaggesque
qualities Gentileschi embraced.
Q. What is your favorite artwork of all time?
A. Wow, now that’s a really hard question! Prado Museum: Peter Paul Rubens, Saint John the
Evangelist (Link)? And Italy’s National Museum: Giovanni Baglione’s Sacred and Profane Love (Link). Both of these I saw and drooled. But there are so many more I’ve seen that make me melt. Gerrit Van Honthorst, Frans Halls, Caravaggio, The Pre-Raphaelites, Bouguereau, Sargent, Soraya; I could go on and on!!!
Q. What inspires you?
A. The other Artists I mentioned. Seeing really GREAT artwork. That is the most inspiring… I always want to run home and paint after having been to the museum!
Q. What medium(s) do you work with?
A. I can work with everything! My faves are oil and gouache. Oh, and what I really LOVE is Mische technique. It is white tempera paint which you make and then sandwich it in between transparent glaze layers of oil paint. It took me three years to do my first painting in that technique, but it was well worth the result. The painting will never be sold at a yard sale, LOL. It has an eerie light which radiates from within. Here’s a website to explain. It has to be built up in layers (Link).
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. Oh, that is easy: it is my forthrightness. I am just too honest and don’t know when to keep my
honesty to myself. Second and close behind is my nonconformity. Both have ruined so much in my life. But, yet, both are just as often the means to my success. Strange the way that works…
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. Yes, of course. All Artists do. I have had to sacrifice my time and keep my commitment to myself.
So, when there are things going on that I would like to be a part of, I must decline because being an
Artist means you have a commitment to a devotion. It can’t be squeezed into something else…
something else in your life must be cut out.
Q. Who are your biggest influences. Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in
A. In contemporary artists, F. Scott Hess. He is my fave male Artist and Pam Wilson is my fave female
Artist. I am blessed to have spent time with them. They are so extraordinarily skilled, committed, talented and awesome. Scott is a very generous person. He taught me the “Mische Technique.” I love the way his mind works. Very complex narratives. Crazy detailed work. He is true genius. Pam’s work really gets to my heart. I just click with her artwork, it is so meaningful to me. I can look at her work for hours on end - so beautifully sensual and lush! When I first seriously got into painting, I was impressed with Michael Steirnagle’s naturalistic approach to realism. It had an impressionistic edge to it.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. For me, the alone time is the only way. I am lucky because when I do pavement art, I get 1000’s if
not hundreds of 1000’s of people over a weekend of artmaking. I am SO ready to go back into hiding after that! I figure it's a balance. Honestly, I get a little weary of being with people unless they are Artists. If they are Artists, they don’t really want to be with you either; you both know what you’d rather be doing!
Q. Apart from your art, what do you love doing?
A. I love doing EVERYTHING. I love researching my family history and adding generations of dead people to my family tree. I also love meeting the new people I’ve found through DNA. I don’t have much family alive so the extended family I meet through DNA is wonderful. I also like my flowers and
vegetables, so yard work is a must, even with allergies. I love reading about history and artists. Gotta eat, so fortunately cooking is another Art form I’ve cultivated over the years!
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. My philosophy in matters of art, I have summed up in my own quote: “All Art is expression; but not all expression is Art!” Meaning that Art must have visual “qualities” unlike expression which can be any form of expression. In the 1990’s, I made a matrix which has a gazillion items which make up visual Art. I.e., concept, design, use of color, form, narrative, uniqueness, execution – all “qualities” of visual work. Then I assign a value from one to ten. I can rate the quality of artwork that way.
Sometimes an Artwork might be a total “10” in the concept, and not rate much more in the rest of the index (an example would be reappropriated artworks). But if the “concept” is a zinger, it is successful by the matrix, even when it holds no value on hand skills execution, and its overall value ascertained. People try to make Art “one thing.” Which it is not. Art is many things, and each aspect has qualities objectively observed.
Q. What does "success" mean to you?
A. Success is feeling good about the job, project or activity. It can be finishing an artwork, feeling
secure and feeling financially stable; it can mean being able to help others and being able to give
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. The biggest things in life are being patient, hanging in there during bad the times until the good times roll back around, remembering perfection is out of reach and it is “the practice” towards your goals. Goals are obtainable, perfection is not. The very biggest thing is that there may be a plan for my life, but I don’t have privy to it; life will unfold when it is ready. The living of a good life is in attitude – things can be quite trying at times, but a good attitude, being grateful even when things are dire, is how to get through the rough patches.
You might not be able to control the house falling down around you but you can control your attitude. And when you can’t… turn off the phone, pour a calming beverage, and take a bubble bath.
It will still be there when you return, but your attitude will be better!
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. The best piece of advice was given to me by my first employer Ben Mayer, ARCA/ASID. He told me
to take notes of my phone calls. To write down the date, time, person with whom I spoke and keep it
on an 8/5 x 11” sheet of paper (so it doesn’t get lost). That has come in so handy over the years.
Also, don’t give the milk away for free, because no one will buy the cow. That of course, came from
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. The advice I would give the next generation is to read history. People are quite ignorant when
they don’t know what humans did before them. They are doomed to repeat the bad stuff. I see
much bad stuff that gets repeated because people don’t learn what history offered. That is how bad
people get elected and how people get treated poorly. Use authorities found in books, and many
books on any subject, and then the internet. People who are authorities write books. But books
don’t stay current, so the internet is great.
Q. What has been your biggest hurdle in working as an artist?
A. Two things. One is conducting business as a woman. When I was young I did not like 1970s
Feminism, thinking it was a bunch of shrill women who did not like men. I realized many years later
that Feminists were fighting for ME. They were fighting for my equality, the right to have authority
over my own reproductive rights/health care, they were fighting for me to be respected as an
authority, for equal pay, to own property, bank accounts in my name, and the right to own my
name. I didn’t realize when I was young that I was riding on a wave of good looks and charm and
how that opened doors. Later, when I wanted to be taken seriously, I realized that women have to
work twice as hard to receive half of the respect men do. Women have come so very far, but we still
have more work to do.
My other Achilles’ heel is my versatility. My versatility helped me always make money in the arts
because there were so many things I could do. But the drawback was that I wasn’t clearly
identifiable in one field. There is no substitute for not having spent a lifetime doing one singular
thing. I know very successful painters and they have worked a lifetime at their craft – and it shows!
But, I can be a master of “versatility.” I must take heart in that as an Artist. We each have our own
path to navigate. It’s harder to pursue the things we love, as eyesight and body stamina wear out
with aging. That can be something substantial to deal with. But as long as I remember my “attitude”
I’ll be fine in the long run. I will always be devoted to Art and I am going to pursue it as best I can,
until I can’t!