The air inside Omar d'Leon's studio is fresh. It billows through sheets, hung over windows to cut the sun's strength, and mixes with waxen odors rising from a pile of tubed oil paints.
"The air, the light, it is like the Mediterranean," said d'Leon, seated before an easel.
For d'Leon, the light surrounding his work has not always been so bright. The Nicaraguan artist survived an earthquake that leveled his homeland gallery-museum in 1972. His work was looted twice--once after the earthquake and again in 1979 during the Sandinista revolution. Since leaving Nicaragua in 1979, four months before the fall of Anastasio Somoza, d'Leon has toiled in his home studio in Camarillo, refusing to ponder the upheavals that brought him to this country.
Because of his experience, d'Leon is fervently anti-Sandinista. "Before it happened I was leaning toward the revolution and I even hung my paintings in a left-wing gallery." But his sentiments changed once he lost everything. But he insists that his opposition has nothing to do with politics.
"I can't talk about social justice, I can only talk about art," he said. "When they machine-gunned my house and robbed me, I can't forget that."
The transition from famous Nicaraguan artist to unknown American artist is a continuing challenge for d'Leon. "I was a little depressed," he said. "But I work always. You begin again. I don't have time to cry, I just have time to absorb, learn more and just do it.
"To tell you the truth, it is easy. I just walk to the easel every day and pick up the brush."
After arriving in Camarillo, d'Leon began to frequent area art galleries and eventually entered county contests. He became an American citizen in 1986.
Today, a thick strand of red and blue ribbons labeled "Camarillo Art Club" and "Ventura County Fair" are strung in a far corner of his studio. The ribbons seem modest, even amateurish in comparison to his accomplishments since arriving: His work has been auctioned at Christie's and Sotheby's, and his paintings hang in numerous galleries, as well as in the White House Presidential Collection. In June, d'Leon's niece opened a new gallery in Managua, "Museo-Galeria Omar d'Leon," devoted to her uncle's work.
Critics started calling his current body of work, "Realismo Magico," a term generally applied to the writings of Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chilean writer Isabel Allende and Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo, but it is one that d'Leon is comfortable enough to claim as his own. In his work, he achieves an almost hyper-serenity in his depictions of Central Americans in everyday settings.
"I'm now painting life and the beauty of life," d'Leon said. "I threw away the hell, the war. Now I paint the paradise."
Charlotte Levi, a local artist who has known d'Leon for 10 years, said he goes through a painstaking process to create his work. "His technique is extremely skilled."
D'Leon paints about seven hours each day and fills his evenings by writing poetry and a novel. He estimates that he has written an astounding 30,000 poems, some printed in anthologies, and has completed thousands of paintings.
"How does a man on cocaine deny his habit? He loves it. He can't stop. That's why I paint, because I love it, because I cannot stop," d'Leon said.
"The Fall of the Great Whore," d'Leon's work-in-progress, leans against an easel in his estudio, as he calls it. "I have already destroyed it 11 times, to get it right," he said.
Other areas of the artist's home contain depictions of his current period: an assortment of fruit is nestled in a bowl, young women walk near an ocean and a woman cradles a child. The figures are amply rounded, richly colored voluminous beings, one of d'Leon's trademarks.
"I always try to find the mystery of the color--the magic," d'Leon said. "I try to find more vibrant colors--always more mystique."
Born in Managua in the late 1930s, d'Leon, a fourth-generation member of the landed gentry, spent an idyllic childhood riding horses, wandering among acres of fruit orchards and nurturing an interest in botany and archeology.
"At the age of 9, I wanted to dedicate my life to art, to be a formal artist," d'Leon said in his rapid-fire accented English. "It was not considered a good idea--it was considered Bohemian."
At age 18, d'Leon entered Nicaragua's "Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes" where he spent nine years immersed in the study of art, anatomy, classical music and poetry. Later he toured Europe, visiting artists as he traveled. Back in Nicaragua, he was a regular member in artists' circles.
At that time, Nicaragua was under the rule of Somoza. D'Leon said he experienced none of the right-wing dictator's repression. Although condemning Somoza's tyranny, d'Leon said he was far better off before the revolution than after. "Somoza never taxed my paintings," he said. "I could sell them for $10,000 and keep all the money."