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Ascending to the Heavens

Antonio Rael: Art, acting, activism, entrepreneurship...and angels

By Dora Munguia
Published on LatinoLA: August 17, 2002


Ascending to the Heavens


Antonio Rael couldn't have asked for better product placement. His latest artistic creation, 'Angel of Natural Beauty' is just in front of the Bodhi Tree, L.A.'s preeminent resource for all things spiritual.

It's just where you'd expect to find a 6'3" tall angel.

Rael, 40, is a UCLA-trained artist, teacher, actor, and since April, the proprietor of Latino Pop Shop, a brightly colored store inside the French Market in Hollywood. He's tall and attractive (just like in las novelas), but his compassionate, talkative, workaholic nature illuminates his deeper self.

Friends introduced him to A Community of Angels project last year. His submission, entitled 'Fiesta Angel,' was dipped in festive colors and clad in folkloric dress, with the city sketched on its wing. This year, Rael used a different stroke, although he almost didn't get a chance to finish his work because a French Market patron complained about the paint's toxicity. (Rael utilized non-toxic acrylic.)

In spite of this, Rael beams as he remembers: 'Just when I was talking to the French Market owners [about refusing] to remove my angel, LA City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo was in here. He told me that if I needed a petition signed to let him know, because the angel was going to stay.'

It's hard to see why anyone would complain about 'Angel of Natural Beauty.' The statue is like a vision out of Milton, with hair that trails off in masses of golden brown tresses. Hot pink roses and golden sunflowers grow around her wings. She clutches a bouquet of roses, while a mixed-flowered wreath adorns her head and a vine of roses extends upwards past her heart. As Rael intended, she radiates an inner beauty. And although there aren't any overt elements in this celestial statue, a Latino inspiration permeates through his use of vibrant colors.

Rael's angel is part of the Community of Angel's public art project that began last year, with established and emerging artists alike adding their personal vision to one of 170 seraphim statues placed throughout downtown Los Angeles, San Fernando, San Gabriel, Hollywood, and Westwood areas. This year, the program continues and hopes to have more than 200 statues placed throughout the city. It's one of L.A.'s largest public art project and has had remarkable critical and popular success.

Last year, the project was lauded as 'Good Ideas We'd Like to See More of Them,' and 'Best Art Exhibit.' Initiated by The Volunteers of America initiated, a charity that supports vital youth programs such as Head Start, Respite Care (child care for the disabled) and Upward Bound, the angels bring notice to local talent and promotes sponsor's businesses and organizations. In October, all angels will be auctioned off and proceeds will go to youth organizations.

A Community of Angels celebrates the magnificence and history of the city while it radiates the diversity and distinctiveness of LA.

Rael's unquenchable desire to integrate his Mexican heritage into his artwork ' as well as his invaluable inspiration of teaching children for 17 years ' has propelled him into one of the current leading Latino artists. Antonio, along with two of his images, will be featured among the top 150 influential Latino artists in a forthcoming book by Arizona State University.

Angelic in his own right, when he's not filming a recurring role on "The Bold and the Beautiful" daytime soap opera, doing commercials, teaching and tutoring children, he is out in the community beautifying it with his knowledge, skills and art. The United States Congress, California State Assembly, and the City of Los Angeles have awarded him with recognition for his contributions in teaching kids and donations in helping the fight against AIDS.

Born in Monterey Park and raised in Pasadena, Rael is third generation Mexican American. He recalls having to learn Spanish on his own because it wasn't spoken at home. 'It's not because my parents were ashamed but because my mom and dad were born here. My grandparents (my mother's parents) are from Guadalajara and they spoke it freely.' He's grateful that he learned Spanish because it's benefited him. Rael is an interpreter for the Latin Grammys and he even got to sing the background for Nelly Furtado and Juanes at the recent ALMA Awards.

'I think a lot of new people, especially immigrants, are ashamed [of their culture] because they are illegal' or maybe they are afraid of being deported,' he states. Rael intends to prove immigrants otherwise, by explaining that their struggle and influence has had a positive resonance. 'This is why I include everybody ' little artisans, manufacturers and products ' with the images of (my) art.'

Unlike many artists, he sees nothing wrong with mass-producing his work. Antonio explains: 'I know there's a lot of artists that might criticize mass production, but my goal is to get my artwork out to as many people possible, and if they can't afford an original ' which a lot of people can't ' they can afford a magnet or a t-shirt, just as long as the images are out there.'

'I was going to sell mostly just art, but I started getting all these items and I'm like 'No, they need to be exposed to all this', because actually people do make associations. They see the artwork and they see the cans and they love the fact that we have canned Juanita's menudo in here with the artwork.' Rael laughs at the ironic connection to Juanita's soup cans ' he grew up on Juanita Street.

Along with your soup cans, there are other Latino Pop Shop 'American products with Latin imagery' or eye candy, for the shopper. Rael believes that 'candy is part of our pop culture.' Immediately passing the entrance a table amassed with Canela gums, tamarindo treats, and other assortments of sweets await to be consumed. Other racks holds artfully enhanced veladoras and holy statues. On a different shelf are magnets, t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, greeting cards, the controversial Homie figurines, key chains, loteria games and handcrafted jewelry, AA tokens. And all around, the walls are covered with artwork.

He helps emerging artists as well. 'Instead of [just] my artwork covering the four walls, I want people to be exposed to other artists as well' about five to 10 artists a day walk in through here to show me their artwork,' Rael explains.

'I'm trying to make it a community place. My friends keep telling me 'You have to stop bringing in artists.' I ask 'Why'' because it just brings more people. If I can squeeze it or hang it from the ceiling [it's okay]'I just have to expand'[and] have people excited about it. That is why I've been getting four hours of sleep every night,' says Rael.

But Rael has managed his time well enough to draw up another entry design for the Angel project.

Angel de la Lucha, which has yet to be accepted, was fueled by September 11th. He explains, 'On my Angel de la Lucha design, one arm bears a tattoo that says 'Love of country' with a heart, while on the other arm there's a Mexican flag with an eagle.' Rael recognizes the mysticism but also insists 'There's cultural symbolism in the United States of Lucha Libre, [it's had an] influence on the WWF.'

'I've included the 'Pow!' ''Ay, ya, yay!' and ''Hijole!' cartoon-like qualities because I wanted to be whimsical, yet having that subliminal point about fighting for the United States'[Latinos] should be proud [of their struggles]," he says.

He describes his style as 'Latino-flavored pop art,' a direct line from Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Claes Oldenburg who 'represented the popular culture that exists here ' [however] nothing was Latin. And the kids that I taught for 17 years, a lot of whom were Latino, would look at me confused, asking about the burritos, tacos and the Tapatio sauce'I thought I'd do an extension of the pop artists and start a Latino Pop Art [movement]'that is why I have menudo, pozole'these are like our Andy Warhol soup cans.'

'I look forward to [seeing my movement] continually grow and expand throughout the United States,' Rael says.

'I would advise struggling Latino artists to take the chance' and get their art work out there. [And also do] not think of criticism, but to create for themselves and share it with others by exhibiting.'

'I'm not going to end here, this is only the beginning,' Rael says.

Visit Rael's website at http://www.AntonioRael.com

The Latino Pop Shop is inside the French Market at 7985 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 102. (323) 822-9583 or http://www.LatinoPopShop.com.

For more information on A Community of Angel's upcoming events including tours of angels, county fair, and gala auction go to: http://www.AcommunityofAngels.com or visit their store at 735 South Figueroa #135. (213) 622-7801.





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