There’s something deeply familiar about the seven paintings by Ruby Barrientos adorning the front café area at Reno’s Coffeebar. Not that I’ve seen them before, necessarily, but they speak to history and memory — both hers and, in a way, even my own. They evoke my memories of being an elementary school student, learning about ancient civilizations and the brilliant colors and symbols used by Indigenous people. The works feel ancient yet contemporary, primitive but complex, challenging but also comforting.
Barrientos’ work is impressive on its own, but even more so when I learn that she is self-taught and has only been truly working as an artist since 2017. Barrientos and her four siblings are first-generation Salvadoran Americans whose parents immigrated to Reno from El Salvador as refugees from that country’s civil war.
Thirty-four-year-old Barrientos says she has always felt the artistic urge to draw and paint, since childhood, and devoted time while in high school to exploring it. Yet the loss of her father and the desire to contribute to sustaining her large family and getting a “real job” kept her from pursuing art in earnest. In her mid-20s, she started to reconnect with art, dabbling only informally, without academic training. But it wasn’t until 2017 when a little nudging from a friend led her to take the next step.
“I’d hang out at Sol Kava at the West Street Market, which was owned one of my friends,” she recalls. “I would just hang out and draw, and she would see my drawings. So one day, she saw my work and said, ‘That would be a cool coloring book.’ So we ended up making a coloring book together, and then I felt like I had some confidence to start painting.”
Soon she had a small-but-growing body of works — the earliest of which are now on display at Coffeebar — and the sense that she had truly found her purpose. Committed to making a go of it, she devoted time to making art, attending gallery shows, introducing herself to others in the business, and asking for opportunities to show her work. It paid off — that same year, she landed her first show, an exhibit of drawings made with Micron pens, at The Generator’s original Sparks location. On the heels of that came more shows at West Street Market, Reno Art Works on Dickerson Road, Coffeebar and more.
Most recently, her success has culminated in being appointed by the City of Reno as City Artist for 2021-’22, with her first City show, Nuwave Mayan Ancestros, taking place at Reno City Hall’s Metro Gallery, Sept. 13-Nov. 26, 2021, with an artist’s reception scheduled for Oct. 14.
Since that first year, her work evolved to painting as well as some mixed media, which will be part of her upcoming Metro Gallery show. She began finding her style, which she calls Nuwave Mayan, in which she explores her ancestral Mayan roots while adding her own modern twist. “Connecting to my culture is what inspires me,” she says, pointing to several paintings here at Coffeebar that are part of an 18-piece series she calls SÍMBOLOS, which resemble ancient Mayan codices — some of civilization’s first books — with their thick lines, primary colors, and intricate block designs. Look closely enough and you can see the faces of deities, symbols that look like religious crosses or warriors’ spears. “When I went to El Salvador and got to visit the Mayan ruins, I felt immersed in my roots, and there’s a lot of symbolism in that ancient art,” Barrientos said. “I wanted to create my own symbolism … I wanted to create something that was inspired by the ancient artists but in a way that feels connected to me, to show that I’m the continuation of that, the new generation creating something new that also honors what came before. ”
In Nuwave Mayan Ancestros, Barrientos is experimenting with an assortment of new media, including cutouts of Plexiglas, thanks to a friend’s CNC router machine, that when painted take on a stained-glass appearance.
Her evolution has even extended to the way she signs her paintings — with a symbol that incorporates her father’s initials, MAB, to encapsulate the influence of her family heritage on her work.
“Being Salvadoran American, there is some erasure there,” she says. “And I’m proud that I can show that personal journey of connecting through my artwork. It’s about connecting to my spirit, feeding my soul, and honoring my ancestors, keeping their memory alive, so they’re not forgotten. I hope that I can still continue to bring them alive in this world, connecting the past to the present.”
Barrientos is also proud to be one of the three organizers, along with Josue Valadez and Carees Gonzalez Delavega, of Animarte Reno, a primarily BIPOC collective, operating out of The Holland Project and currently seeking non-profit status, that is devoted to humanities-based exploration, instruction, and activism for underserved communities and at-risk youth. Through her art classes, Barrientos says, “I hope that I can inspire other artists to not only work on their own individual art, but to remember that being artists also means we can bring people together, to use that gift to connect to each other and elevate our communities.”
Ruby Barrientos and Animarte Reno will set up a free, outdoor exhibition and host an array of hands-on activities for all ages at the McKinley Arts & Culture Center on Sat., Oct. 2.
To see more of Barrientos’ work, visit the Metro Gallery at Reno City Hall, Sept. 13-Nov. 26. You can also see it on her website or Instagram.