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Artist pays homage to L.A.'s unseen workers

Ramiro Gomez's cardboard cutouts of nannies, gardeners, valets and housekeepers have appeared, in silent tribute, around the wealthy districts of the city.

June 04, 2012|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

Their faces are vague, the color of coffee beans, but before Ramiro Gomez heads out with pliers and wire to install them, he gives each one a name.

There was Guillermina, named for his Aunt Guille, a housekeeper at a casino hotel; Maria Elena, after his mom, a janitor at an elementary school; and Luis, like Uncle Luis, who delivers meat for a carniceria.

For the last eight months, Gomez, an artist from West Hollywood, has made the invisible visible by installing life-size cardboard cutouts of nannies, gardeners, valet workers and housekeepers in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills and other wealthy areas.

PHOTOS: Cardboard cutouts

His acrylic paintings appear unexpectedly around the Westside, like pop-ups from a children's book. Gomez puts them on display to raise provocative questions.

"We see the beautiful homes. The hedges are trimmed, the gardens are perfect, the children are cared for," Gomez said. "We've come to expect it to be this way. But who maintains all this? Who looks after it? And do we treat the workers with the dignity they deserve? Do we stop and notice them?"

Often, people zoom right by Gomez's cardboard creations. So he puts them in places that get plenty of foot traffic — busy intersections, parking lots and parks.

Recently, the 25-year-old tried his luck outside the Beverly Hills Hotel.

He propped a housekeeper named Ana against a hedge near the entrance. She stood facing forward, clutching her purse with both hands. Within a day she had been removed by hotel staff.

When President Obama came to town for a fundraiser at George Clooney's home in Studio City, Gomez installed four gardeners wielding a giant water hose a few blocks away. He was soon ordered to remove them by the Secret Service.

Most pieces last a day or two if Gomez is lucky. Once, a valet parker he planted outside a lot near the Sunset Strip made it four days.

Gomez writes his contact information on the back of each piece so people can tell him where the art ended up. So far, no one has reached out.

At first it was tough to let go. He'd stand by for a while to see people's reactions, then take the cutout down and lug it back home.

But then Gomez realized it was not his place to keep public art out of view.

So he learned to walk away.

These days he goes to a Best Buy store every Monday in search of cardboard. He sifts through the dumpster for TV boxes. The 70-inchers allow his laborers to stand at least 5 feet tall.

He hauls the boxes home to the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner of six years, a film editor whose latest project is "Beverly Hills Chihuahua Part 3."

In a bedroom that doubles as a studio, his Juanitas, Adolfos and Candelarios quietly come to life.

The idea for his project came a few years back, after he dropped out of art school.

He needed money so he took a job as a nanny, caring for a 9-year-old and 8-month-old twins in the Hollywood Hills. He worked in a home with sweeping views of the hills along Laurel Canyon. His boss kept plenty of home decor magazines around, which later came in handy.

Gomez got to know the workers in the neighborhood. He followed the same routine as the nannies: play time, lunch, nap, a trip to the park, then dinner and bath time.

At the park in West Hollywood, the nannies were a tight-knit bunch. Aminata was from Haiti and Lulu from Britain. The rest were Central American and Mexican. They had worked in the hills for years, some for decades.

When they saw Gomez, they didn't know what to make of him. A male nanny? A gay male nanny?

But Gomez soon fell into their daily talk about favorite soap opera stars, their children's progress in school, their bus rides and their bosses.

Some of the bosses were nice, some weren't. The same for the children. Notorious among them was a little girl from Beverly Hills who no one wanted to take care of. The girl's mother was a Hollywood bigwig, they said, known for her sharp tongue. She often chased away nannies after only a month.

They talked constantly about trying to get better pay and hours.

Soon the decor magazines that had entertained Gomez began to take on another meaning. He saw the posh living rooms, the fancy kitchens and immaculate gardens, but there was no mention of the workers who took care of them.

"They were invisible," Gomez said. "As if the homes just magically cleaned themselves."

So he began to insert the workers himself. He cut out the full-page ads of luxurious settings and with fine brush strokes painted in a housekeeper or gardener — brown figures bent over lawn mowers, dust cloths and mops.

He painted dozens of pages, transforming each into a thought-provoking statement.

He wanted to take his message public, splash it on the walls like the muralist Diego Rivera or popular graffiti artist Banksy. But he didn't want problems with police.

So he turned to cardboard cutouts. The Westside's pristine mansions and fancy cars provided a perfect backdrop.

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