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Crafting a new art

Mixed-media artist Diane Ramos is working on a piece that uses the white gloves her grandmother's generation considered essential when dressing up. She calls the work "Three Little Kittens Have Lost Their Mittens and Don't Know Where to Find Them." -- photos by Ruth Nerhaugen1 / 2
Mixed-media artist Diane Ramos is working on a piece that uses the white gloves her grandmother's generation considered essential when dressing up. She calls the work "Three Little Kittens Have Lost Their Mittens and Don't Know Where to Find Them."2 / 2

She's trained in photography and painting, but Diane Ramos is using very different tools while she's in residence this month at the Anderson Center.

Ramos will be the first to explain that her art and her career are, simply put, in transition.

"It's extremely exciting," she said, that the opportunity to spend a month at an artist community came when she most needed time to explore her options.

"I don't want to teach anymore," Ramos said; she had been a photography instructor at Lorain County (Ohio) Community College, Bowling Green State University and other schools since 2008. "This residency could help" her decide where to go next.

In addition, "My art work is just starting to take off -- this new body of work. This could help take it to another level," she said.

Ramos was selected by the National Alliance of Artists Communities for Midwestern Voices and Visions III because of the promise she has demonstrated. She was given the month stay at Tower View in Red Wing and a cash award.

The program is designed to support and promote the work of exceptional Midwestern artists of color "whose work may still be unfamiliar, but whose compelling visions will help define the region and the country in the next decades," officials said.

Her new work in mixed media is emerging from her relationship with her 95-year-old grandmother, who has dementia.

"This body of work is totally different than what my background was, my education," Ramos said. "But the craft itself is very old to me." Ramos explained that she learned many domestic traditions from her grandmother, including sewing and crocheting, cooking and baking. Her current art uses items from those traditions.

"Creating work that revolves around the tragedy that is my grandmother's dementia is extremely depressing for me," she said. "However, I also find it comforting that I am able to use the techniques that she taught me in ways that are relevant and contemporary."

In doing so, she also feels she is re-establishing a connection with her grandmother "in a new and profound way."

Ramos' first steps toward this new body of art involved taking photographs of her grandmother's things -- jewelry, kitchen gadgets and dishes that her grandmother wanted her to have and enjoy now rather than waiting until inheriting them.

Now Ramos recognizes that those images were "important pieces to get to the point where I am now."

The big leap in her transition was "Atrophy," a large piece reminiscent of an afghan her grandmother made her. Ramos crocheted some colorful "granny squares" edged in black, but connected them in a way that represents the synapses in the brain.

"Her brain cells are breaking down; those connections are being lost," Ramos said. In the artwork, negative spaces exist where everything once was closely linked.

Her studio in the Anderson Center is filled with things she associates with her grandmother -- all items she is using to create new works of art.

Ramos is giving a lot of thought to fact that her work can be viewed as "crafty."

"That's kind of the scary part of it," she said. "In the art world, will this be accepted or not? More and more I'm beginning to think that yes, it will."

Many artists seem to be exploring old practices to create something new, she pointed out, such as fiber artists and photographers who are going back to shooting film.

When she leaves Red Wing, Ramos will return to a relatively new job as an assistant to city officials in Oberlin, Ohio, and continued involvement in her big brother's political aspirations.

But first Ramos must give her first public presentation about her new body of work. She will be guest speaker May 15 in Kristin Bray's art class at Red Wing High School.

Ramos said she is pretty certain that the young people will understand what she is going through.

Red Wing youths accustomed to eating Scandinavian cookies at Christmastime will identify with the Eastern European treats her grandmother always made for the holidays, Ramos said, and people everywhere can relate to the challenges facing families as one generation ages and the next takes on a caretaker role.

That's what they'll see in her art.

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