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A Retired Elementary School Teacher Turned Her Home Into a Folksy Fine Art Mecca

For many years, Ramona Otto was an elementary school teacher. Full disclosure: She waselementary school teacher. She'd often ask her students to bring in certain items for projects she was working on. Rulers, pencils and pins were often on her "treasure list."
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For many years, Ramona Otto was an elementary school teacher. Full disclosure: She was my elementary school teacher.

She'd often ask her students to bring in certain items for projects she was working on. Rulers, pencils and pins were often on her "treasure list." She'd work the found items into intricate found-object sculptures -- sculptures that, to her fifth grade class, were nothing short of magical. Our battered pencils would transform into a set of drawers, the colors of each somehow converging to depict a pencil. A pencil made of of pencils! I didn't know much about art, but it was clear something very strange and very special was afoot. Something that brought my discarded writing utensil together with other similar tools from widely different owners, owners who would never meet, though the pencils would rest next to each other for years and years and years to come, as art.

In the years since, Otto has established herself as a contemporary sculptor working in Los Angeles. She's also retired from teaching. Her solo exhibition "An American Love Story: The Art of Ramona Otto" showed at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, and a series of her American Flags was displayed in a solo show at Los Angeles City Hall. But Otto's most spectacular artistic achievement is her home, jam-packed with her imaginative, folk-inspired creations. "I've always like vintage and flea markets and naive kind of things, I guess," Otto explained. "I like to think that my art is contemporary mixed media with an influence in American folk art because I like all the themes -- hearts and hands and American flags, which are all very nostalgic to me. You find a lot of that in American folk art, but I don't feel like I am really a folk artist."

Otto scours everywhere from flea markets to neighborhood garbage bins to find her materials. It can take over five years for her to collect the pieces needed for a single artwork. "When I'm out looking, I have in my brain probably 10 or 15 projects I'm looking for all at once," Otto explains. She stores the materials in drawers divided into categories like "Christmas" and "Flowers" to keep track. The drawers are like artworks in themselves.

"I am attracted to surfaces -- like on broom handles, I love the worn surfaces and the way the paint has worn off," said Otto. "Something that's been used and loved is something that appeals to me." Otto walked me through a series of her favorite creations, with descriptions of the precious found objects embedded in each. Note the pun-laden titles for the full experience.

Write On America

write on

This is made with vintage pencils from flea markets and yard sales and gathered by [my students] over a couple of years. One class actually gave me a gift certificate (as a surprise end of year gift) for a carpenter to make the chest to my specifications. They wanted to be a part of it which was very sweet. The antique yardsticks were mostly found in Iowa when I went back to see my parents. Each panel is framed in the metal eraser holder part of the pencils, and the handles are flat carpenter's pencils.

The inspiration came from the antique Adirondack twig furniture. The pencils are the same size as the twigs and it has the added qualities of color and interesting advertising.

American Childhood


This one is made from red, white and blue plastic toys as found at yard sales. It included lots of iconic characters and other things kid-friendly things like McDonald's toys.

Dog Bless America

This is a wooden dog encrusted with vintage American jewelry.

Tin Triptych


Three panels made from vintage tin containers. Each state is cut from a tin that has something to do with the state's history. For example, the hearts in Oregon are because it got its statehood on Valentine's Day. The silver background was made to represent the rivets on an Airstream Trailer or an airplane to tie in with the word play on Triptych and a trip across the United States.

The World Looking Through Rose Colored Glasses


This was made for the Zimmer Children's Museum charity art show. It is made from a vintage globe, wooden bowl, and rose glasses. The words are the lyrics to "What a Wonderful World" made with an antique printer's set from the turn of the century.

Cat Nap/ Dog Tired


The broom handles were collected over a period of six years from cruising the streets on garbage day. You can tell when someone is throwing out a broom because it sticks out of the can. They are as found. I don't paint them. The carvings and cutouts are called Shop Art and are from the 1940s when boys made them in Industrial Arts classes at school (bookends, yard art, etc.) There are a couple of game boards as well. The lettering is made with an antique printing set from the turn of the century.

Flower Child


This is a 1920s or 1930s child mannequin encrusted with vintage flower pins (and bumblebees, butterflies, and other jewelry insects).

Gardenian Angel


This is a panel from a my large installation called "The Great Wall of China," made from vintage plates, salt and pepper shakers, a teapot and a lazy Susan relish tray.

My Type Of Guy


A Valentine to my husband made from antique typewriter parts. The head is a tin toy typewriter from the 1940s, the legs are early wooden typewriter shipping crates, the arms are old typewriter advertising rules, ribbon spools, and keys that spell out right and left. The card is my typing report card from junior high school back in Iowa, the body is a portable typewriting case, keys, space bars etc.

Holy Cow: Pray for Peaceful Co-Existence

holy cow

A fiberglass cow from Susan and Graham Nash's backyard -- yes, from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. They gave it to me when they moved so I could make it into an art piece. It sits on a vintage wooden store display encrusted with vintage charms from all the major religions of world along with peace reference (Ghandi, Martin Luther King, etc).

Before You Go

Giorgos Rigas, First Elementary School, (2007). oil on linen 24 x 36 inches Courtesy C. Grimaldis Gallery
Henry Darger, Are Seized by Pursueing [sic] Glandelinians. 19 x 48 inches overall (image is detail of one panel) carbon transfer and watercolor on paper Courtesy Carl Hammer Gallery
Melvin Edward Nelson, Planetscape #2, n/d. mineral pigment, watercolor on paper 18 x 24 inches / 45.7 x 61 cm Courtesy Cavin-Morris Gallery
Andrew Frieder, Untitled (Fish Man), 2007. mixed media on paper 16 x 20 inches Courtesy The Good Luck Gallery
Alcides Pereira dos Santos, A boat cabin, 1995. Acrylic on canvas 28.74 x 85.04 inches Courtesy Galeria Estação
Mary Whitfield, Fleeing Darfur, n/d. watercolor and gouache on Arches paper 16 x 15 inches Courtesy Galerie Bonheur
Manuel Bonifacio, Untitled, c.2013. crayon on paper 12 x 16 inches Courtesy Henry Boxer Gallery
Jerry The Marble Faun, Pairs (Big Edie and Little Edie), 2009. Limestone and moss 13 1/2 x 19 x 6 ½ inches Courtesy Jackie Klempay
Larry John Palsson (1948-2010), Untitled, n.d., acrylic on art board 11.25 x 14.5 inches Courtesy J. Compton Gallery
Gerard Cambon, Peek Frean's, 2006. mixed media 9 x 16 x 4 inches Courtesy Judy A. Saslow Gallery
“Uncle Pete” Drgac, Untitled, 1972. enamel on paper 14 x 22 inches Courtesy The Pardee Collection
Martín Ramírez, Untitled, (Stag on mound with fireworks), c.1952-53. graphite, tempera and crayon on paper 32 x 19 1/2 inches; 81.3 x 49.5 cm Courtesy Ricco Maresca
Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982. 12 x 7 inches diameter Courtesy The Ames Gallery
Howard Finster, I AM A Gourd, 1982. 12 x 7 inches diameter Courtesy The Ames Gallery
John Brill (b. 1951 NJ), Plasma, 2013. pigmented inkjet print on 100% cotton paper, with UV-shielding varnish image c. 5" x 4½"; sheet 8½“ x 11” Courtesy Kent Fine Art

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