When you walk through the door of the Colorwheel Gallery in South Minneapolis, owner, artist and hair stylist Tammy Ortegon will greet you with a warm smile and an invitation to passionately discuss the state of the world.
Tammy opened the Colorwheel in 2003, both to earn a living as a hair stylist and to display her art. Gradually, as friends brought their own handcrafts and art to her shop, the salon chair was moved to the back of the store to make room for paintings, pottery, jewelry, natural products and, scattered throughout, serious and satirical items promoting progressive politics and social change. Today you can still get a haircut at Colorwheel, but it will come with a hefty side of art and politics.
Tammy’s mother and grandmother were talented artists, but neither had the opportunity to live by their art. Tammy was determined to break that cycle. Largely self-taught, Tammy’s work can be described as “naïve art,” an art genre now represented in museums and galleries throughout the world. Like other naïve artists, Tammy ignores traditional rules of perspective, composition, focal point and values. Her narrative style and intuitive colors put her in the company of such noted naïve artists as Henri Rousseau, Alfred Wallis and Frida Kahlo, and her paintings have much in common with Minnesota Hmong artist Cy Thao.
What makes Tammy’s work distinct is its sense of social consciousness. She paints scenes of Twin Cities’ neighborhoods, but her art is really about community and diversity. In her vision of society, inner city neighborhoods are not crime-ridden places to fear, but dynamic spaces, full of human relationships and activities.
Tammy packs a lot of cultural and class values into every painting. Her “Local Inspiration” series focuses on working class neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and “is inspired by the passion of residents to improve their community while cultivating its uniqueness.” This series includes paintings of Loring Park, East Lake Street, Kingfield, Powderhorn, Midtown Global Market and Lowertown St. Paul.
The people she portrays in her paintings are her friends, or actual people she sketches on-site, but their bodies and faces are stylized. Tammy is more interested in the relationships and communication between people than in the details of their faces. Still, her figures are not empty cartoons—they speak to us. They say a lot about who they are, what they do for a living, what their cultural background is, and how they relate to one another and to their urban environment.
In “St. Paul Farmer’s Market,” we see a frenzy of activity by people from all ethnicities, painted against a background of familiar sites like the AZ Gallery and Black Dog Café. The people are engaged in ordinary activities: shopping, playing music, selling wares, conversing and caring for children. Tammy’s jewel-like primary colors enhance the dynamics of the scene, and her flowing design keeps our eyes moving through the canvas—we don’t want to miss any of the action. In fact, this painting draws us into the action and we become part of the humanity swirling around us.
“East Lake Street” is a calmer scene, both in color and movement. We see Tammy’s concern for portraying cultural diversity in the figures she scatters throughout the painting and the row of ethnic shops she places in the background: Scandinavian, Mexican, African, Vietnamese and Chinese. Although her scenes are not always literally true—the shops on Lake Street are not lined up as in the painting—her work captures the essence of the place and gives us a truthful sense of real people in real neighborhoods.
Tammy is often told that she paints neighborhoods that “nobody wants to buy,” and she admits that she could easily sell more paintings if she painted scenes of Lake Harriet and upscale neighborhoods. But working-class urban neighborhoods are the heart of society, and Tammy sees them as places where people from different cultural backgrounds can meet, talk, share information and understand one another.
Through her painting, Tammy moves beyond the stereotype of inner-city neighborhoods as mired in violence, drugs and poverty, and offers another reality of these neighborhoods as communities—beautiful, vibrant, culturally diverse communities.
The Colorwheel Gallery is located at West 46th St. & Grand Avenue in South Minneapolis. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit Tammy’s website for more information about her art.
Janet Contursi has been a freelance writer for more than 23 years. She writes an art column for Southside Pride and art blogs for the Examiner and TC Daily Planet. Visit her ArtsMinnesota website and follow ArtsMinnesota on Facebook.