Beyond Vassar

Border of Inspiration

By Corinne Militello '98

"I paint because I don't know what else to do. I love the process of painting," said Denver, Colorado, artist Leticia (Letty) Villarreal '98, whose abstract paintings present visual tales of the environments where she has lived and worked. The experience Villarreal, a studio art major, gained working in the computer center at Vassar led her to a job in information technology in Denver, where she is pursuing her goal of becoming a "career artist."

Villarreal grew up in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexico border. This area has been a source of inspiration for many of her paintings, which depict stories of borders and the disparate environments they are designed to separate. "I did not realize how different growing up in the borderlands was from the rest of the United States until I left for school," Villarreal said in a lecture she gave at Vassar earlier this year, when she was brought to campus by the student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, an organization supporting pan-Latino and other pan-ethnic issues).

Some of the themes found in the landscapes she paints include danger, drought, border patrol agents, and checkpoints, and the illegal drug trade. Villarreal often uses pastels of blue, green, and gray - reminiscent, she said, of the color palette of many Mexican houses. Her paintings average about 4' by 4' in size.

Referencing the writer Gloria Anzaldua, Villarreal describes the borders as an "open wound" where the third world collides with the first world to create its own unique culture. "It is difficult to explain if you are still there and never left, or if you have never lived there long enough to become part of it," Villareal said. "It is the perceptual experience of the border and the cultures around it that have greatly influenced my work in the last eight years."

Soon after she moved to Denver, Villarreal said she had a conversation with a man in a bar who asked her what inspired her paintings. She mentioned drug trafficking, and the politics of life in the borderlands. Later that week he asked to see some of her paintings and bought one on the spot. He turned out to be the president of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Villarreal said, "Months later I met his wife at an opening of one of my shows and she confessed she was shocked when he told her he had bought a painting from an unknown artist. Not only that, but the painting was about rolling packs of marijuana into trailers. She thought he had lost his mind, supporting a possible drug trafficker posing as an artist. He immediately came to my defense and said he loved the painting - and once she saw it, she did, too."

Vassar Associate Professor of Art Harry Roseman said that often, when an artist gets to the heart of exploring the personal, that understanding becomes universal. Of Villarreal's current work, Roseman commented, "I think it's very ambitious, and the discourse between the universal and the biographical I think is at a very nice pitch." Roseman recalled Villarreal's senior year project, large murals influenced by her father's used car business, which was very autobiographical. "She's managed to hold onto the relationship to her work and broaden it, and ask more difficult questions." Villarreal has recently painted details of computer circuitboards (influenced by her work in the computer industry) and is currently working on a series of musical instruments (having just completed a similar series for a major recording studio in Mexico.) For her latest paintings, Villarreal is starting to explore different, more vibrant color schemes.

As she continues to find success, Villarreal is cautious about being labeled an ethnic artist. "Chicano art has taught me a lot about my roots and where I come from...It's important because it tells us a story of people that don't typically show in museums, " she explained. "I'm proud to be Chicana, but it's hard to get tagged. I think I have found success — it's just at being an artist."

Villarreal is represented by the Fresh Art Gallery in Denver, where her studio is based. To see more work, visit

Photo credit: Photos courtesy of Denver Post/Jerry Cleveland