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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

He tied the cutouts with aluminum wire to trees, poles and hedges, then announced installation locations on his blog, Happy Hills.

Before long, people began to notice: other bloggers, artists and college students. The family he worked for appreciated his project.

A gallery in Culver City called Koplin Del Rio heard about Gomez and contacted him.

"We looked at him as this wonderful little diamond in the rough," said gallery co-director Sugar Brown. "Here was this idea just germinating within him and he was exploring it himself, from a new place, not the same rhetoric we've heard again and again."

Academics also took interest.

UCLA began to archive his magazine pieces and photos of his cutouts. (It plans to have an exhibit of his work next spring.) And George Lipsitz, a UC Santa Barbara professor of American Studies, began to mention Gomez in his lectures. He thought the young man's art offered a unique look at immigrant labor.

"Here are these simple forms, acrylic on cardboard," he said, "asking us, in a very disarming way, to step back and think about the important work these workers do."

On the streets, it's not entirely clear how the public regards the images.

Sometimes people pause. They'll snap a photo and say things like: What do you think it's for? I wonder who put it here. Most walk by. They're in a hurry, don't get it or don't care.

Gomez has no idea if his pieces end up on display in people's homes or at the bottom of dumpsters.

Until now, the only resistance he's faced has come, surprisingly, from Latinos.

An angry worker confronted him recently at a Beverly Hills intersection. Gomez had just installed a cutout of a vendor selling maps of stars' homes across the street from a real vendor.

As soon as the man saw the piece, he forced Gomez to take it down. He had enough attention from homeowners, police and the city, he told Gomez. The last thing he needed was a painted doppelganger.

"It was uncomfortable to hear," Gomez said. "But I learned from it."

One day, he hopes to see his workers showcased in galleries or perhaps on a mural in Beverly Hills — though he's well aware that more attention is sure to bring more criticism.

For now, he doesn't make money from his art, and he continues to care for kids, this time for a different family.

On a recent morning he put the final touches on a piece he's had in mind for a while: a nanny. He gave her a pink shirt, black pants and a state-of-the-art stroller. He named her Sylvia, after an aunt.

He set out from his apartment with his pliers and twine, excited and nervous. He planned to install Sylvia at West Hollywood Park, where the nannies gather. He didn't know how they were going to react.

The moment Gomez showed up, the women watched him. He checked the sun, the wind, the visibility, until finally, he found the perfect spot.

Maria Teresa Martinez, a nanny he didn't know, came over with her charge, a blond, curly-haired boy named Charlie. She took a look, threw her head back and laughed. She was wearing a pink shirt and black pants.

"Will you look at that!" Martinez said.

At 63, the Salvadoran has worked as a nanny for 30 years. She was helping raise Charlie now, and years before, she had helped raised Charlie's mother. The family was good and she was lucky, she said.

Looking up and down at the cutout, she let out a long sigh.

"This is good," she said, backing up her stroller to head home. "We have so many stories to tell, so many, we could write a book."

PHOTOS: Cardboard cutouts

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