Oakland artist bringing color to art and activism

It seems appropriate that in her colorful, native Oakland, where street murals and graffiti are exacted in a rainbow of hues, Favianna Rodriguez’s own West Oakland studio would bathe her in yet even more color.

The daylight streaming through the industrial warehouse windows lit up the artist and her artworks — images crafted from pieces of colored paper — disparate elements fused together to form images of flowers, people, animals and natural landscapes.  

“In a lot of my work you will see butterflies,” Rodriguez said, “you will see trees, you’ll see an appreciation for the natural world.” 

Dipping into the world of the artist’s childhood, it’s easy to see where Rodriguez’s palette formed; she was raised in a Latin American household, the daughter of immigrants, surrounded in a gritty world imbued with colors that would find their way into her works. 

“It just made me realize, that though my neighborhood was a hard place to grow up in,” she said, “art was always something positive and I could bring a lot of color and joy into the world through the creation of things.”

While one could trace a logical path from the environment into Rodriguez’s art, it’s a little trickier tracking her journey toward becoming a professional artist. As a kid there were few Latinos portrayed in cartoons or on television to serve as artistic inspiration. She didn’t hear much about her own culture in school. Her parents didn’t nudge her toward an art career. She had to make her own way. 

“For me becoming an artist was a way to find my voice and express myself,” Rodriguez said. 

Rodriguez’s works are intensely public feats — large public works created for the City of San Francisco or the Presidio National Park. She’s partnered to create art with Ben and Jerry’s, Old Navy and even Playboy Magazine. 

But more importantly, Rodriguez has partnered her art with her sense of activism — her interests ranging from social justice to racial reckoning to climate in crisis. On the latter issue, she delivered an impassioned speech on the subject at the United Nations Climate Summit. Last month she visited the Amazon with a climate delegation to meet with water protectors on the Tapajós River. 

“So when I see wildfires and floods and extreme weather,” Rodriguez said, “to me it inspires me to create art that really awakens people to know that we have a responsibility.” 

It’s why her art is filled with an abundance of references to nature — the kind surrounding us, the kind often overlooked, the kind being destroyed. 

“I make art about the redwoods, I make art about rivers,” she said, “I make art about different kinds of species that are no longer here because they’ve gone extinct.” 

Last year as the Presidio National Park opened its new long-awaited Tunnel Tops Park, Rodriguez was asked to create art to usher in the new site. She used paper to create a ground mural called “Ancestral Futurism” depicting leaves, trees as well as grizzly bears which were once common in the state but wiped out by hunting and development. 

“When I collaborated with the Presidio National Park,” she said, “my goal was to make the park more inviting and welcoming to communities of color.” 

Her activism has become as essential to her as her art — the two, in fact, forged into a singular gesture of expression. Her work is as much informed by the murals she witnessed as a child, as it is from the social injustices she witnessed as a kid in Oakland’s streets. In that sense, her words are as sharp a tool as her scissors. 

“I believe that as artists we can also change the world,” Rodriguez said, “because we have the potential to open up people’s hearts and imaginations.” 

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