by Mara Soloway , I Start Wondering Columnist
Raquel Ocando, 66, likes to look ahead and consider how different aspects of a situation might play out over time. This talent for conceptualizing has served her well in her careers, first as an architect and now as an artist – a painter and sculptor with a flair for interior design and remodeling.
Her approach also has given the artist access to people, opportunities, and places that she never imagined. “You never know when you’re going to find an opportunity,” Raquel said.
While earning her degree in architecture at the University of Zulia in her native Venezuela. in 1983, Ocando imagined what she might accomplish in her career. She practiced architecture for 22 years in Maracaibo, designing buildings for the city and also working with clients in a private group practice. Raquel’s building and housing designs were inspired by the colorful and individualized style that gives Maracaibo, located adjacent to Lake Maracaibo, its beauty.
She met her husband, Texas native Garett Duncan, there. They moved to Mexico where she practiced architecture from 2001 to 2004. “The architecture in Mexico is very similar to that of Venezuela, with beautiful, bright colors,” Raquel said.
When the couple settled in the Houston area in 2004, Raquel turned her attention to other interests—including reimagining her own home. In a place where one subdivision looks like the next, her home sets her apart. She redesigned the kitchen with an image in her mind of what it should look like. First-time visitors know immediately that Raquel wasn’t raised on the monochromatic rooms popular on HGTV. She has painted the interiors in rich hues and covered the walls with works by Latin American and other artists, along with some of her own paintings.
Raquel had just begun painting at this time. She enjoyed the challenge of putting her imagination together with her architectural talents of conceptualizing and building models, perspective and shading, use of color, and the refined eye that gives her work its vibrancy. Her first works were in the surrealist style.
“This is the moment when I discovered I have talent as an artist. When I put my art pieces on the walls of my house, my friends told me, ’These are beautiful!’ and they bought many of my works,” she explained. “I started to think I should be more formal about this career.”.
Envisioning the Future
As usual, she thought ahead about where to study and what the future would look like.
“When I started to study art, I was thinking maybe in 10 years I’m going to be famous,” Raquel said. She was right – today, she has become well-known and respected in the Houston art scene. She has participated in several art exhibitions in Texas and several invitational and juried exhibitions, receiving several art awards.
In the process, she continually refined her artistic vision. “A work of art requires a little mystery, some inaccuracies, and a bit of fantasy,” Raquel said. “Everything I learned as an architect in Venezuela is represented in my art, like a stamp or a trademark.” The viewer can sense the nods to architecture, with what looks like views of buildings and cityscapes from different angles, among other aspects in her works.
While still in her early days of painting, she was encouraged to study at the college level by Garett and her mother-in-law and enrolled in Lone Star College from 2008 to 2011. She remembered, “In Lone Star, my art teacher Laura Fischer, who has passed away from breast cancer, asked me to come out of the classroom with her. I didn’t know why she wanted to talk to me privately. She said, ‘I can’t believe your level of talent – you have a lot of potentials. You need to keep going.’ I’m never going to forget that day.”
Yet Raquel’s artistry also grew outside of the classroom. Another woman who had a transformative effect on Raquel’s career is Ana Villaronga Roman, director and curator of Art Museum TX. At the time Raquel and Ana met, Ana had just left a career in the Houston art gallery scene to begin creating community museums in the suburbs.
“I met Ana because we shared the same group of friends. At the time, I was studying art at Lone Star College, and Ana saw some of my paintings and was interested,” Raquel said. “After I started studying art at the Glassell School, she invited me to participate in my first art exhibition at Babaloo Gallery in Katy, Texas, where she was director. Later, when she was the director of the Katy Museum of Contemporary Art, I was invited to do several art exhibitions.”
In the midst of showing her work at exhibits, Ana suggested Raquel switch from surrealism to abstract art. Not being one to shy from challenges, Raquel made the switch, which became a turning point in her work.
These exhibits proved successful as the museum’s patrons purchased much of her work. Raquel credits this artistic success to the visibility and counsel that Ana provided. “Ana will always be my mentor, the person who believes in my art,” she said.
Looking Farther Ahead
Raquel was encouraged further to attend Glassell School of Art, which is part of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. She enrolled in 2011 and was put in an upper-level course because of her obvious mastery of perspective and color. She studied there through 2013.
At Glassell, Raquel met art professor Arielle Masson, an artist who has extensively exhibited in museums and galleries throughout Texas, France and Mexico. She is a past Core Fellow at Glassell and has been teaching at the school since 1998.
Arielle quickly recognized Raquel’s potential and inspired her to widen her artistic horizons. “Raquel impressed me with her dedication to applying herself to get deeper into her study of art and painting. That’s how she arrived at the Glassell, and she studied with me for several semesters between 2011 and 2013, which is not long considering I have people who stay with me for five years,” Arielle said.
The Glassell teacher encouraged the artist to deepen her work. “It’s quite nice to have architects taking painting classes,” Arielle said. “It’s like we have the same lingo, we see the same way, we talk the same way. And she did good work and it was interesting.”
At the time, Arielle had very few Latin American women students at Glassell. The numbers began increasing for various reasons over the years, and in 2017, Arielle decided it was time her current and former female Latin American students got to know each other.
Her impetus for this was personal: as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant who raised Arielle in Europe, the Glassell faculty member could relate to what her students were going through. “I saw my mother in all of them, struggling with the language, the cultural isolation, having to adapt to surroundings and this computer-driven society,” she said.
In 2017, Arielle organized a brunch she called El Cotorreo, which means a place to speak. Even though they hadn’t seen each other for several years, Arielle included Raquel on the invitation list. “My original intention was for my students to get to know each other. Latin American women need to talk a lot among themselves. That’s one of the things they might miss the most – sharing with all the women in their lives: all their sisters, mothers, aunts, family, and friends,” Arielle said.
The women were excited about having a professional women’s artist group to support their learning, their careers, and their life in a new country – to give them a voice in the Houston arts community. By the second meeting, El Cotorreo had become LAWAH – Latin American Women Artists of Houston. Since 2017, the support group has been in four exhibitions and a billboard campaign together. Arielle appreciates that Raquel remains an active participant in LAWAH, leading conversations on WhatsApp and taking charge of bringing art to the group to critique. “LAWAH is a really great experience and helpful in my career,” Raquel said. “I have gotten to meet and learn from others because all of the LAWAH members have different styles.”
Raquel is always thinking about something new and different, from buildings to art and beyond. Right now, she is enjoying success fueled by her creative vision.
“My artwork promotes happiness and stability. It reminds me how fun it can be to dream of art and to create it. I wish this for all women. Women who are retired should take some time to find a creative outlet, whatever you want to do,” she said.
“It’s the perfect stage because you can focus on yourself – you have time for you.”
TX Artist Directory: https://www.txartistdirectory.com/home/2018/9/24/raquel-ocando?rq=raquel