After moving to Columbus from California with her family at age 7, Cat Ramos had difficulty finding places where she could connect with her culture (the artist has family roots in both Mexican and El Salvador). One exception, however, were the city’s Mexican restaurants, where she discovered artwork rooted in her ancestry, the murals adorning the walls introducing her to Aztec mythologies such as the tale of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
In the telling, a princess (Iztaccíhuatl) falls in love with one of her father’s warriors (Popocatépetl), only to die of grief after being falsely told that he has died in battle. Upon discovering his lover's body, Popocatépetl carries her to Tenochtitlan and kneels beside her grave, with the gods then transforming the two into mountains – Iztaccíhuatl a languid, snow covered peak and Popocatépetl an active volcano, still steaming and bubbling with rage over the circumstances of her death.
“It essentially is the Aztec ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” Ramos said in a recent interview, describing how her father would regale her with this story while she was a child, packed together in the booth at a Mexican restaurant.
More recently, Ramos revisited the tale for a piece now on display in an exhibit at All People Arts, painting the skeleton of the great warrior with his departed lover in his arms, the two pictured together in front of a towering mountain. “And it was really nice doing that, because it made me think of my dad,” said Ramos, who inherited her fondness for working with her hands from her father, a handyman who crafts metal sculptures in his spare time. “I always went to Mexican restaurants with my dad, and he’s the one who told me the story, so [the painting] is honoring him.”
Ramos said that her artwork often features skeletons, which she attributed to the prevalence of the boney figures within Mexican culture, as well as personal experiences that led her to confront mortality at a young age. (The artist’s older brother died when she was 15, and then her grandmother passed away in El Salvador a few months later.)
“So, death’s kind of always been around,” said Ramos, who recalled drawing her first skeletons as a child, repeatedly sketching the face of Jack Skellington from “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Within Mexican culture, we just look at death different. … When I paint skeletons, it’s more Dia de los Muertos and the afterlife, more celebratory and cheerful than morbid. It’s really always been grief-healing for me to draw skeletons. It’s a way for me to stay connected to my brother, to my ancestors. To honor them.”
The exhibit at South Side gallery All People Arts (“”) is one of two openings taking place on Saturday, Feb. 11, in which Ramos has work on display. Across town at Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North, the artist will display a pair of pieces in “,” a group exhibition rooted in human sexuality. The first is the initial sketch of the mural of Mayahuel that Ramos later painted alongside fellow artists Isabel Francis Bongue and Vrinda Munoz outside at 934 Gallery, the creation of which ignited related to issues of race and censorship. And the second is a full-color painting of Mayahuel done more recently by Ramos in part as a way to reclaim her art and to heal in the aftermath of the controversy.
“It was really therapeutic to repaint it the way I wanted to,” Ramos said.
The experience with 934 Gallery accelerated an evolution that Ramos said was previously underway, rooted partly in her fascination with painter Frida Kahlo, who started to explore her Mexican roots more fully after settling under drab, gray skies in New York – an experience to which Ramos identified, having moved from California to a state where the sun seemingly goes into hiding for half of the year.
“I was already moving in that direction, but [the mural experience] pushed me even more to connect with my Indigenous roots and paint even more either Aztec or Indigenous gods and goddesses,” said Ramos, who is also working to assemble a panel discussion centered on the censorship of Black and Brown artists. “It taught me I can ruffle feathers. And I want to ruffle more feathers, because it’s needed. We need more diverse art. ... So, it’s definitely fueled me, and I don’t know if it’s a rage or a passion. Before, I wanted to paint art people could identify with. But now it’s like, no, I want to paint art that makes a statement, that means something, that can make change."