Monday, April 8, 2019
David Amoroso is a long-time Columbia Pike area resident. A noted local artist, much of his work focuses on and incorporates Latino culture.
I came to Arlington in 1998. I grew up in Northern Virginia and wanted to live in DC, because it was edgy, multicultural and had interesting restaurants. I also wanted to be able to park my car in front of my house, so I chose South Arlington because it had some of the same “sabor” flavor. Back then, different neighborhoods offered authentic Indian, Vietnamese, and other international options. I also loved that there was a botánica within walking distance of my house.
I live in the Douglas Park neighborhood, between Columbia Pike, Glebe Road and Walter Reed. My street is comprised of duplexes, and there was a sense of history at the time because many of the owners had bought their homes when they were first built. I had a first generation Italian-American neighbor who was the heartbeat of the street. If you started the grill, she would see the smoke and come over. She loved interacting with my friends and always tried to speak Spanish. She mixed Italian, English and a little bit Spanish, and everyone loved her. She was 93 at my last Cinco de Mayo cookout.
I bought my home because it was a great price at the time and just a few minutes from DC. I was always hoping to quit my day job and focus on my art, so I wanted to buy a place that I could afford to maintain if I had a lower income. I would have never guessed that the price would quadruple within ten years. Maybe I am not seeing the big picture, but I see increased property value as increased taxes. At times, I feel as though I am being priced out of my own neighborhood. My property tax has increased from less than a thousand dollars per year to over $5,000. When all is said and done, I will stay in Arlington because it is a great area and very supportive of the arts. I just wish that it could remain the affordable little haven that it used to be. Fortunately, I can still walk to Abi’s on the Pike and buy pupusas.
I didn't start out to become an artist. As a child, I always drew. When I thought about how much I liked it, I think I had the typical parental response, that art is not really a good profession. I think I've always been visual, but I just sort of went from drawing to photography. Then I used photography to help promote other aspects of my life. When I went into a band I could do the photography for the band, design the flyers and be creative that way.
The concept of being an artist kicked in after I first went to Mexico. Back in the late 1990’s I made a trip there and I felt like my entire life came together. I felt super comfortable for the first time. Even in the chaos of a huge city with so many extremes, it just seemed like everything made sense. Everything I saw fascinated me. It could be just the color on paint that had chipped away with different hues peeking through, or the aesthetic of retro advertising at that point. Products looked kitschy and that appealed to me.
I think my visual sense got heightened on that trip. I shot roll after roll after roll of photos. I liked the pictures, but I didn't feel like anything really captured what I felt. I thought it would be clever to try to create a painting that had all these elements included. The things I saw, the religious iconography, the insane colors, the Day of the Dead stuff, the bullfights. I thought maybe I can make something with all that stuff in it. And I did my first painting. I still have it. I've exhibited it, but I've never wanted to sell it. I tried to include everything in that one, but as it became more and more chaotic, it wasn't working. At first I thought it's going to look like a collage and I thought that sounded interesting. But it just looked like a mess. So I simplified some of the areas that were just over the top, and then created a second painting and a third painting. And within a very short period of time I put together probably about fifteen paintings. I was completely self-taught. I mean I've always drawn, and I did paint by numbers as a child. So I’d held a paintbrush. Back at that time, I actually blended things more and working with texture. My style now is more blocks of color.
At first I just wanted one thing to put on the wall and now I've got all this. Friends told me, “hey, my friend's the owner of El Tamarindo and they've got a lot of walls. I think he's had artwork there. Why don't you take some paintings down there?” I said okay. I took the stuff down there, they did a little reception, and more than half the stuff sold. I had a great turnout because it was a lot of friends, and they all wanted to support me. But then people I didn't know started buying the stuff. I thought “I guess I can paint.” Or maybe better said, “I guess I will continue painting.” So it was just sort of an accidental thing.
My background is not Latino. I'm adopted. I know nothing of my genetic heritage. I’m terrified of the DNA tests, because I think I would be very sad if there wasn't something interesting, or what I deem interesting. I think my little active fantasy world is yes, there's some Latino in me because honestly, when I hit Mexico City, that was the first time I felt like ah, I felt like myself. I learned the language. I was comfortably fluent in about two years, and by three years you could drop me anywhere and I felt very at ease.
It's weird because most of my Latino friends will joke that I know more or have seen more about their countries than they have. Often they've come straight to the United States from there and so they never had the opportunity to explore or learn more about their own countries. I think people are sometimes surprised how much I feel for the Latino culture, at a deep level. The culture is not superficial or one-dimensional. I think many people are of surprised that the music, art, the literature, all that, the different cultures in Latin America are so in-depth.
I also used to be in bands. Back in '85, the radio was on and I remember hearing a song and thinking God, this song sucks, I could do a better job than that. So I sat down and I thought, how would I write a song? I started writing lyrics, but didn't play any instruments. I bought a guitar and a keyboard and I said I'm going to learn how to play these things. Through some luck, I saw an ad in the City Paper that a band in Fairfax was looking for a singer. I went there, sang one or two songs. Mind you, I'm not a great singer. In the 80s I had the cool goth hair so I looked the part. I sang well enough, and I was certainly enthusiastic enough, so I got to join a band called Schadenfreude. We won a Battle of the Bands at George Mason University, we played the Bayou, 9:30 Club, DC Space, Sylvan Theater, Fort Reno, a lot of really great gigs back in the day. It was alternative music, all original. We had some tapes and demos that were played on WFHS-FM. I felt like we blended very well with the genre and were doing a great job, but keeping a band together is like being married to five people. The drummer drove everybody nuts and the band eventually split. Then I formed a band called Inside Out and we played DC, Virginia, Maryland for several years. Then we were Glamor Kitty in our last incarnation. After that all ended, I made a decision that I wanted to be creative, but I only wanted to have to answer to myself. So I sort of jumped back into photography a bit, and then did that trip to Mexico, and the door opened.
From there I would go to El Salvador, Guatemala, and got to know other places as well. The first time I went to El Salvador was with a friend of mine from there. I met people that had been deported and they were back there, or the other way around. I worked with several community organizations when I was back here. They would form together to do fundraisers and activities to do projects back home. The money that's raised, is for example, for an ambulance, because they don't have one. Many of the individuals that have come here to Arlington decide that “my kids are back there, I'm working hard here, I'm saving money. Let me do something for the town for when I can go back.” For so many people though, they never go back because once you start making money here and you create that other life, it's hard to return. And for a lot of towns it's just not safe to go back.
I think that the people I was working with most, although they were a little younger than me, now they've got college age kids and their lives have changed dramatically. I think a lot of the enthusiasm for the community work may still be there, but the hours and the manpower, it's just not as active as it had been. I don't want to say it’s stopping, but their kids don't have the same passion. They may go to Central America once a year, if their parents are able to travel. But they're not as passionate about El Salvador. It doesn't matter so much to them. Their identity is here.
As an artist, Arlington has provided ongoing opportunities for both traditional and unusual art venues. I was deeply involved in the annual “Dia de los Muertos” events at The Arlington Arts Center for many years. I participated in exhibits at The Ellipse Gallery back in the day and was also able to share my work at Artisphere in the Mezz Gallery. The gallery was an ideal venue for a series of portraits I had created featuring Latino hip-hop artists.
As I drive down The Pike these days, I marvel at our “million dollar bus stop” and notice businesses replaced by chain stores. We've got Amazon coming. And whether we like it or not, things have changed. I miss Food Star, but I am pleased to see that there are still many independent retailers. Traffic has definitely increased and I wonder if the proposed trolley system could have been effective. Maybe an underground rail system would be better. Could we take advantage of the potholes and constant digging on The Pike to make this a reality?
I remain optimistic that the arts will always be present in Arlington, but we have to find a way for them to be sustainable. Every time I notice an empty retail space, I daydream that a temporary pop-up gallery will fill it until a renter is found. We are definitely in transition and gearing up for significant growth. I hope that we are able to innovate and make art an integral part of it.
Fortunately, Arlington is committed to incorporating Public Arts projects. There is an amazing sculpture, water feature, and park area at Penrose Square. While under construction, I wondered, “Will people want to hang out so close to the street? Will parents let their children play there?” It became clear after it was completed that the design was carefully thought out and very intentional. It became like a zocalo (town center) and reminded me of the small towns in Mexico where people would gather at night to hang out. It was very clever to make the art a central point. People gravitate towards it and children interact with it. In the summer, they show movies and there are plenty of places to grab a bite to eat. I think there are a few other areas that they are planning to develop similarly on The Pike. It will be interesting to see how each new area develops and takes on a life of its own.