Otto in Wonderland

Otto in Wonderland

Ramona Otto In Studio

Ramona Otto, surrounded by the delightfully eclectic raw materials she constantly collects for her artwork. “People ask me, ‘Do you think of the idea and then go looking, or does something inspire you?’ And it’s both.”

Douglas Kirkland

I am a collector of interesting objects, and I think of my house and studio as an art environment,” says Ramona Otto, who has made her Los Angeles home a warm and cheerful showcase for the things she loves, including her own deeply personal expressions. A longtime elementary schoolteacher and self-taught maker, Otto, 66, has been an exhibiting artist for about a decade now, with a one-woman show at LA’s Craft & Folk Art Museum in 2007. Hearts, hands, and American flags abound in her work, which might be best described as contemporary mixed media in the folk art tradition. She’ll take an existing form, often an animal figure (maybe a turtle garden ornament or a fish mount her set-designer neighbor once used on an episode of The X-Files), and cover it with maybe thousands of tiny odds and ends – vintage costume jewelry, buttons, knickknacks, souvenirs, glass and ceramic shards, junk fragments, plus every other kind of found object or throwaway you could possibly imagine. Or she’ll gather collections of specific everyday items – hotel key cards, Scrabble letters, cut-up Bloomingdale’s bags, you name it – and create original assemblages from those.

Each piece has a theme, which Otto (a teacher, after all) articulates in both visual and verbal ways: Change in the Economy (2005) is a composition of coin wrappers; Read, White and Blue (2005) is made from the spines of books with Americana themes; Lucky Duck (2010) is a decoy bedecked in charms, jewelry, and other fortune-themed doodads.

Enchanting and clever as they are, Otto’s pieces are also purposeful and intellectually challenging. They invite us to think – really think – about big ideas: love, justice, spirituality, patriotism, culture. There is subtle social commentary and occasional sharp irony, but it’s always delivered in a playful way, with heartfelt optimism.

It’s not surprising, then, that the house she shares with Steve, her audiologist husband, radiates happiness and good vibes.

Everywhere on the walls, shelves, and surfaces of the quaint, cottage interior are objects to boggle the mind, melt the heart, and drop the jaw – yet it all manages to feel orderly and uncluttered. In the small living room stands the fiberglass Holy Cow: Pray for Peaceful Coexistence (2009), lovingly covered by Otto in the iconography of religion and peace. The bedroom features a chest she made of pencils and yardsticks, and her fanciful bed frame depicting furry friends and dreamy memes (catnap, flower bed, dog-tired, puppy love). Upstairs is the bright art studio she custom-built for herself a few years ago, with a special section for her beloved Disneyland memorabilia. And in the backyard is her tour de force, a 6-by-54-foot mosaic wall depicting themes such as “raining cats and dogs” and “baseball, motherhood, and apple pie.” It is, in short, a wonderland.

“One of the great joys of going over to Ramona’s studio is that I know I will laugh. And in this cynical world, we need all the smiles we can get,” says her friend Graham Nash, the singer-songwriter who knows a thing or two about very, very, very fine houses. He adds, “Ramona crosses that beautifully thin line between ‘folk’ and ‘now.’ And, yes, she’s always been one of the ‘now’ artists.”

Ramona, surely you’re used to people being astonished by your work – the detail, creativity, and sheer persistence that goes into making these pieces. How do you do it, and why?
I love the thrill of the hunt when it comes to collecting vintage treasures, and I’m not at all bothered by the thought that I might have to search for years to get enough pieces to complete my vision. I feel very lucky that Steve enjoys going to yard sales, flea markets, and antique shops. Much of the joy in living with a completed piece is the memories that are evoked from the bits and pieces found on a fun adventure we had together. 

One of the biggest challenges for me is organization. I have dozens of vintage boxes and drawers for projects, because I have to save pieces for several years. When I come home from a flea market, it’s not unusual for me to spend three hours getting everything to the right drawer. Another big challenge is storage space. I see art potential in everything. I even bring home found objects from hikes. It’s a constant struggle to keep the piles of infinite possibilities under control.

Each work you make is full of meaning and memory.
Several of my artworks contain family pieces and things friends have given me, so they become a sort of 3D scrapbook of my life. My mom’s bracelet, a souvenir from a date with Steve when we were teenagers, a ceramic handmade bear from a student I taught – all have made their way into art pieces. None of it is expensive, but all of it is priceless in recollection.

Table of Contents and Queen of Found Objects are two pieces made almost entirely of family and personal objects: my grandma’s heart necklace engraved with all the cousins’ names, license tags from family pets, the nameplate from my college dorm room. They were all things in drawers and boxes, too precious to throw away, but nothing that really fit well into interior design. So I found a way to include them in art, where I enjoy them every day.

Although the pieces I create have whimsical appeal, they contain many historical, literary, and cultural references that not everyone finds. I love intricate detail and using surprising items in my pieces. But the observer must take the time to discover the hidden meaning. I love wordplay; it’s become one of the signatures of my work. 

I know it’s hard to choose, but can you highlight a few of your favorites?
My favorite is usually the one I’m working on. I think it’s important for me to fall in love with my work, so that I put every ounce of creativity into the art. I am fond of my first two Watch Dogs [pooches with timepiece coats]. Years ago they were in an ad campaign for the American Cancer Society that appeared in fullpage spreads in 10 national magazines. It was the first time I ever saw my name in print with the word “artist” next to it. They also remind me of how my style has evolved.

I love Holy Cow: Pray for Peaceful Coexistence, because the message is so important and because the original cow came from the backyard of our friends the Nashes, where I remember it watching over all the fun. I enjoyed the challenge of working in a limited color palette for the first time with Nightmare: The Good Kind – my rocking horse encrusted with vintage jewelry depicting night images, such as stars, moons, planets, and angels.

Lately I’ve been working with vintage mannequins. Flower Child and her big sister, Flower Girl, are covered with flower, butterfly, bumblebee, and garden-related vintage brooches. “Pearl” is an art deco beauty with rare glass eyes. She was in several pieces when I rescued her. Her fingers were in a peanut butter jar. I’m currently working on her, using vintage pearl and rhinestone jewelry.

The major pieces are very time-consuming. They represent years of faithful collecting, and many months or years of dedication to a project.

Much of your imagery and subject matter has to do with America and Americana – Old Glory, Mickey Mouse, Hollywood. What draws you to that?
I grew up in Iowa in the 1950s. My parents were Quaker farmers. We were taught the importance of family, being kind to neighbors, and love of country. Although we were poor, we were happy. It was a Mayberry kind of life, where I learned the importance of a good work ethic. That’s why I have the patience and perseverance I need for my art. Those childhood memories make me smile. My vintage collections take me back to those times, and those iconic American images find their way into my art.

Tell us about your move to Los Angeles and how you made this place your own.
Steve and I were childhood sweethearts. The valentine card he gave me in the sixth grade is framed and hanging in our bedroom. We were married the year we graduated from college, and we moved to California 16 years later to escape the harsh winters in Iowa. Steve’s dream was to live close to the ocean, so we bought a small fixer-upper a mile from the beach. He called it “the best house that we couldn’t afford.” We did all the work ourselves to make it cozy.

For years, I made art on the kitchen table. Steve was always supportive and usually looked the other way when I made my messes – until the piles got too high and he couldn’t find a flat surface. That’s when we decided to build the art studio. I’ve made the collections part of the environment. I had all the doors and cupboards made with recessed panels so I could use vintage broom handles and yardsticks as design elements. The walls around the art sink were reinforced so I could attach the vintage Disneyland signs I’ve collected for years.

There are lots of antique pieces around my studio that may become an art piece someday – or maybe not. I love being there, surrounded by objects that inspire me. I smile every time I walk up the stairs. I’m grateful for the luxury of a designated space in which to create.

Your backyard is amazing, with that wall. How did it evolve?
Our yard is moderately sized, so I wanted to find a way to make it special. I call the backyard fence my Great Wall of China. All the panels are made from vintage china pieces collected at yard sales and flea markets. Most of them were damaged with nicks and cracks, and had little collector’s value, so I love the fact that I gave them a new life. In the section called Triptych Map of the United States, for example, each state is made from representative plates, salt and pepper shakers, cups, and other ceramics. Texas is two McCoy cowboy planters from the 1940s; Iowa is a Field of Dreams mug, along with a pig and corn shaker set.

It took 15 years to make the first half of the fence; my art time was limited. When I recently retired after teaching children for 42 years, I vowed to finish it as my first project.

So you’ve begun a new chapter.
It’s wonderful to have the luxury of time to make the pieces I’ve dreamed about in my head for years. I’m a grateful, happy artist.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.