Captured Gestures

Cristina Paulos returns to her Strip caricature roots with a portrait show

If you’ve been hanging out at The Beat Coffeehouse inside the downtown Emergency Arts building lately, you’ve probably seen her. She’s the lady in a sundress sitting on the floor, creating rapid-fire watercolor portraits of local characters such as artist Jerry Misko and writer/comics guy/drummer Pj Perez. She chitchats with her subjects all the while, sometimes discarding a paper canvas after a few strokes, at other times laboring intensively over a portrait as if it were a math formula. Her name is Cristina Paulos, and she’s been a Las Vegas artist and First Friday fixture for the better part of a decade. This week, she unveils her first solo exhibit in more than four years.

Paulos, 30, grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, land of shopping malls, arcades, parking lots, Hollywood-wannabes and porn stars.

“The Hollywood influence was everywhere,” she says. “In high school, there were two degrees of separation from you and many child stars whom you’d see in TV and the movies. You’d watch other friends from high school go on to work in porn. But you don’t see how certain areas of L.A. shape you until you leave.”

Paulos spent summers with family in Japan and Hawaii, exploring the landscapes and watching cartoons in other languages. Although she has plenty of other inspirations (Aubrey Beardsley, Betty Boop), the experience has shaped her imagination and is evident in her watercolor work, which is equal parts U.S. pop culture and Asian animation.

Still, despite such diverse influences, Paulos became an artist because of her ability to watch and observe others. “I think there’s too many walls in L.A. I was isolated, even though I was surrounded by people,” she says. “So I became very interested as a kid in passing through life in a car, driving through life and being safe in our surroundings.”

For this and other reasons, when Paulos moved to Las Vegas in 2002 to be with her family, she didn’t require much adaptation. Vegas had the same layout as San Fernando and, even better, jobs for aspiring artists. She went to work on the Strip as a caricaturist, a job that helped her learn to love interaction.

“I loved the job, but I didn’t like to do that kind of work for money,” she says. “I had to make happy portraits all the time, and so I didn’t always like the product.”

She did the job for two years, saving enough money to go to the California Institute of the Arts. There she was awarded a Sesame Street Award, and she worked with the company to make a short film.

“With Sesame Street, it’s not institutional learning; it’s a visual, creative experience,” she says. “To create something that young people could learn from was such an interesting and involved process. I learned how much goes into everything you see on Sesame Street, and it’s a lot.”

After completing her degree, Paulos returned to Las Vegas to begin working on an original, untitled web-comic. “They’re just ideas I’m exploring,” she says. “Sometimes there are recurring characters. People say my comics don’t make linear sense, that they’re ‘surreal,’ though I hate that word.”

But Paulos wanted to draw people again, to create portraits, but with more freedom. With a Jackpot grant of a few hundred bucks from the Nevada Arts Council and a Community Support Grant from Cirque du Soleil, she had enough money to exhibit her show at Blackbird Studios, which she affectionately calls “a clubhouse for artists.”

“I used to think of Vegas as a vacation town,” she says. “But now I can really see how there’s a community of artists and art lovers working together to create something powerful.”

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