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Wisdom Beyond Words: The Art of Sylvia Fragoso

As a kid from a suburb of San Francisco I never had a reason to take the train to Richmond. The farthest north I had ever ventured on public transit was downtown Berkeley for a field trip. Richmond was just a place my family drove by on the way to Point Reyes. The media derided it as another post-boom industrial city with nothing to offer except crime and chemical spills. It was the last place I expected to find a studio like NIAD.

NIAD Art Center was founded in 1982 and helps artists with disabilities refine their skills and sell their work. Situated near the corner of 23rd St. and Roosevelt Ave., the center seems out of place among the surrounding garages and gas stations, but Gallery Director Tim Buckwalter was quick with an explanation.

“In the sixties, 23rd Street was where all the car dealers were. In the late sixties they built Hilltop Mall, which attracted all the dealerships. So our building was a parts showroom. That’s why everybody has these great big spaces.”

NIAD is indeed great and big. It houses a bookstore, gift shop, two gallery spaces, six art stations, flat file storage rooms, an administrative office, conference room, and a kitchen. The staff works with a group of forty artists five days a week, offering not only art instruction but also classes on independent living and cooking. Needless to say, the atmosphere inside NIAD is anything but subdued.

Buckwalter took over as NIAD’s Gallery Director two years ago and has been instrumental in expanding the exhibition opportunities for the center’s artists. Under Buckwalter’s leadership, NIAD has gone from offering one exhibition a year to six or seven. Most of the showings are local, but some artists have their work displayed in galleries as far away as Los Angeles and Atlanta.

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Sylvia Fragoso is a NIAD veteran. Her work has been on display at Art Inside the Beltway, an invitation-only exhibition in Washington D.C., as well as at the Musée de la Création Franche in France, where Fragoso had a solo exhibition of over thirty drawings. She is known for her vibrant patchwork illustrations, quilts, and abstract ceramic structures. As Buckwalter introduced us, I noticed that Fragoso’s T-shirt was a print of one of her drawings. At its center was a figure, who, like Fragoso, was all smiles.

I was eager to learn about Fragoso’s process and where she found her inspiration. Once Fragoso and I were situated in NIAD’s conference room, Buckwalter took his leave and I asked Fragoso where she grew up. I could not make out her response, so I asked if she grew up in the area. This time I received a clear “yeah,” so I pressed for specifics, listing nearby cities and boroughs. “California” was her reply.

"Untitled", Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 13" x 21".

“Untitled”, Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 13″ x 21″.

Fragoso has limited language skills, but that did not stop us from communicating. As we got a feel for one another, I learned about her inclinations and inspirations as an artist.

The first surprise was that despite the attention her drawings receive, Fragoso’s favorite medium is clay. Every time the word was mentioned, she would smile and almost instinctively rub her hands together. Fragoso credits her ceramics teacher, Brynda, with helping her navigate the finicky medium. Brynda’s instruction was invaluable to Fragoso when she decided to make a series of ceramic birdhouses. Fragoso’s avian dwellings resemble medieval watchtowers, each one built from small clay logs, meticulously rolled to a uniform length and diameter. Some are symmetric with clear levels and patterns, while others are amorphous with tendril-like growths protruding from their walls. Their most striking quality, however, is their color. Fragoso coated each of her houses in mixtures of organic tones, imparting a raw, earthy quality, which makes it look as though the structures sprouted from the ground.

"Untitled", Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 22" x 28".

“Untitled”, Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 22″ x 28″.

Fragoso’s latest creation, however, is a snake that she intends to paint brown, which, along with purple, is her favorite color. Using the drawing on her shirt as an improvised color wheel, she pointed out the specific shade of purple so I would not be confused. But Fragoso does not play favorites. The colorful mosaics that she incorporates into her work contain hues from across the spectrum. As she explained, all colors make her happy.

Movement is another trademark of Fragoso’s drawings. Sweeping lines intersect and weave across her canvases, the gaps filled with dense polychromatic grids that bend and strain against each other, giving an ordered chaos to her work. Her quilts are equally complex, employing a similar method of color grouping, with thread replacing graphite.

"Untitled", (unique quilt), 48" x 43".

“Untitled”, (unique quilt), 48″ x 43″.

But when it comes to the most critical aspect of her art, Fragoso holds her family above color, movement, and even clay. She mentioned them repeatedly throughout the interview, often disregarding my questions in favor of telling an anecdote or fact about a loved one. So it came as no surprise when Fragoso explained that her family serves as the subject for most of her art. For instance, the girl that appears in a number of works is her niece, Sarena. Angels also influence Fragoso’s art. Fragoso was first exposed to the celestial figures at church, where their wings captivated her. Fragoso’s favorite piece, a ceramic angel, combines both influences, as it was crafted as a tribute to her father, who passed away from a heart attack.

"Untitled", Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 22" x 28".

“Untitled”, Colored Pencil on Colored Paper, 29″ x 20″.

As we shared plans for the upcoming weekend, Fragoso informed me about her impending birthday party. There would be chocolate cake, presents, and most importantly dancing. Fragoso was most excited to celebrate with her family, whose names and relation she made sure I understood before allowing me to conclude the interview. When I asked Fragoso how old she would be, she replied that she was turning 33. A staff member later informed me that she would actually be 53, but Fragoso’s number is far more indicative of her personality and her exuberance for a life filled with art and family love.