An artist emphasizes unity

September 13, 2012

Is Rafael Lopez better off than he was four years ago?

The short answer: Definitely. Not only is his career better off, but the California-based artist also thanks President Obama’s 2008 campaign directly for some of his professional hope and change. “Si, se puede,” indeed.

Four years ago, Lopez created election art, titled “Nuestra Voz” (“Our voice”), that caught the eye of the Obama headquarters and became an official campaign poster. Lopez was already an award-winning illustrator and muralist, but the poster helped open up new business opportunities. The U.S. Postal Service came calling, commissioning his hand for a series of five stamps celebrating “Latin Music Legends.” In 2009, he was hired to make three paintings for Oprah Winfrey’s children’s school in South Africa. This year, he painted an official poster for Obama’s 2012 campaign.

And recently, he created the official National Book Festival poster for the Library of Congress. The artist himself will be on hand during the two-day event, signing and shedding light on his creative process.

Beneath the poster’s elegant simplicity and playfulness lie layers of thought. Lopez may paint on wood, but he delights in going against the grain.


The National Book Festival's official poster. (Library of Congress)

“I tried to come up with a completely different look for this year’s poster,” Lopez says by phone from his San Diego studio. After studying past festival posters, he thought: “They’re reaching by picking me. They’ve seen my work and must not be expecting anything realistic — so I’ll be funny and funky and cartoonish. I’ll give it a go.”

Giving it a go meant inverting much of what had been done in the festival’s previous 11 posters. Lopez flipped the usual focal points. “The type became the central character, and all the animals became the border,” he says, “with three kids at the bottom.”

Lopez sent back a quick sketch and was “shocked” when the festival organizers loved the idea. They were wise enough to appreciate a design that’s deeply textured — built up by Lopez’s use of acrylic on wood. “To me, it just feels richer” with this technique, Lopez says.

The Mexican-born artist first applies paint to board, then uses metal to scrape out the second layer before it dries. “Some of the color gets caught in the grooves of the wood, so you get this really interesting texture,” he says. “You take what the wood offers you. . . .You never know exactly what you’re going to get until you drag that metal across.” Lopez’s tools include masking tape, tissue paper (on which he drew the poster’s animals) and even a hair dryer as he “molds” the acrylic.

It is that playful style — one that blends spontaneity and precision — that distinguishes his illustrations for children’s books, and that first caught the attention of the Library of Congress. He has received awards for such picture-rich works as “Book Fiesta!” (written by Pat Mora), “My Name is Celia/Me llamo Celia” (written by Monica Brown) and “Yum! Mmmm! Que Rico!” (also written by Mora).

As the son of Mexican architects, Lopez, 51, has long relished the connection between art and community. After graduating from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in the ’80s, he headed to San Diego’s East Village, where he and his wife — Candice Lopez, who teaches graphic design — organized the Urban Art Trail project, which has fostered the creation of large murals from California to Colorado to Chicago. “It’s not necessarily about decorating the neighborhood,” Lopez says. “It’s an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other and talk to each other and build the kind of knowledge that strengthens ties between community.”

And now, through his National Book Festival poster, Lopez aims to reflect that spirit of coming together — only this time, as a celebration of reading. Is he hopeful that festivalgoers can unite over the shared joy of books?

“Si, se puede,” indeed.

Cavna writes The Washington Post blog Comic Riffs. To read more about Lopez’s artistic process, go to washingtonpost.com/comicriffs.

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