In conversation with Avia Rose Ramm

by Kendall Jacob, December 2021

website | @piggish666

Avia in her studio, 2021
photo courtesy of Daniel Lang 

Avia (aw-vee-uh) Rose Ramm is an artist born and raised in San Diego and currently living in Los Angeles, California. She aims to portray vulnerability and the melancholy of living through a fidgety relationship between herself and animals. She takes elements from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Impressionist art periods, as well as her Catholic upbringing, and integrates into them her work to address issues of extreme anxiety, depression, and documenting the journey of self-acceptance. Her primary mediums are oil painting and digital animation. She received her BA in Studio Arts from San Diego State University and is currently working at Good Faith Gallery

What would you say your roots in painting are?

I've been painting since I was a little kid. I lived in a really conservative household. I couldn’t be loud or really express myself, so painting was the perfect thing to do. Painting doesn't involve noise, so I could do it quietly in my room. Because I was so quiet and so shy, I ended up talking to my animals and my pets more than the people around me. So I think that kind of led me to be interested in the relationship between animals and people. There’s no language involved in that relationship and I think that's really cool. Painting and visual art have also become a nonverbal language that I can speak through.

I didn't start taking painting seriously until I was in college. I was a business major at first, which is ridiculous. I took Calculus and economics and shit… I don't remember anything from it! I ended up switching my major without telling my folks. They were dramatic about it, but somehow I convinced them to support me still. Thankfully it worked out because I'm doing pretty good.

No Exit, ceramic, about 12” tall, 2018.

So how did school go after the switch?

I kind of discovered my process in school. I was taking a painting class with this really cool guy, Carlos Castro-Arias, who is the stereotypical painting Professor. He would blast The Stooges during class and encourage us to prime our canvases with our naked bodies.… that kind of guy. I had to do a report on Caravaggio, and I just fell in love with his compositions. That’s what my style combines to make my own language: my relationship with animals and these biblical compositions of the past.

I was raised very Catholic, but when I was high school I realized I didn’t believe in that anymore. It was huge… I basically lost my whole foundation as a person. If you're raised in an ultra conservative religious household and then you realize you don't want to do that anymore, it’s easy to become kind of lost. You have to learn how to repent yourself and reach yourself and, thankfully, art has been this great thing for me. So to cope with that, I take these stories and symbols from the Bible and make them my own thing. Turning this God and religion I knew into this more comforting thing brought me a lot of peace. In my opinion, the Christian God is kind of evil and mean and selfish. Those are things I don’t want to represent.

Procession of Grief/Garden of Eden,  oil on canvas, 108x48”, 2021.

If you’re recontextualizing classical paintings, what is it that you’re trying to show instead?

I guess most of my ideas usually come from looking at my surroundings. I’m really inspired by photos of animals doing their own thing, especially how that's sort of untouched by humans... how animals mate or how they kill each other and that's just part of it all. I went through a phase, and I think I'm still in that phase, where I'm painting a lot of sheep, especially with their mothers and their kids. It’s a very cute thing to see these sheep just birth out their babies and immediately start cleaning them, and caring for them. Then they just follow along with each other. I know people like to use the sheep thing as an insult, but I think it's kind of beautiful that they stick together, support, and protect each other. Western/American ideals have made us so individual to the point that we don't want to help each other. So I just paint a lot of sheep and kind of try to get in their mindset because it just seems a lot more simple and wholesome than being a human.

Product of Love, acrylic on panel, 75x50”, 2021.

Journey to Self-Acceptance 2 (left),  oil, dirt, and hair on panel, 36x48”, 2021.

Journey to Self-Acceptance 1 (right), oil, dirt, and hair on panel, 36x48”, 2021.

I was actually going to ask about the type of symbolism you’ve developed for yourself by repetitiously painting all these animals. Many of them already have historical and religious significance, but what type of meaning have you personally gained from them?

That definitely ties into the rewriting of my religion. The sheep is super symbolic in the Bible and so is the unicorn. I'm really into unicorns and donkeys right now. In the medieval period, they turned unicorns into this allegory for Christ, which is this perfect rare creature, but doesn’t represent what Jesus was. He was a poor Jewish man of color and he rode on a donkey. It reminds me of how society makes us unicorns when we're all actually donkeys... and that's okay!

I didn’t know Jesus was represented as a unicorn!

Yeah, it was a really brief moment in art history. And it's so cool to see that over the years that symbol has turned into a queer icon. Now it’s unicorns with rainbows, and I really like that switch. I'm trying to do that switch with the other creatures in the Bible. When I was in college and I was battling depression…the animals were mean to me and were telling me to off myself. But now, over the years, I've been trying to make them animals of comfort. A few years ago, my work had sheep spitting on me or animals pissing on me….

I saw the one of them pissing on you on your website, it really stood out to me.

Yeah, it's a good metaphor I guess for how I feel. Sometimes it's just fucking farm animals pissing on me.

Allegory for Embarassment/Comfort in Nausea, oil on panel, 18x24”, 2021.

So, would you say that the relationships between you and the animals in your paintings symbolize your emotional state and how it's changing?

Yeah, and it's so cool to see the development of that over the years and it makes me proud of myself of how far I've traveled in terms of growth in my mental state. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a solo show of all of my work at Weird Hues Gallery, and at the time my work was very dark. At that time in my life, I still thought I was gonna be dead in a few years…. This year, I had another show at Swish Projects called Comfort in Nausea. I gave it that title because it was about how I finally took the time and energy to sit with myself and really process these dark feelings. Through that, I was able to become a functioning person. I'm realizing I have a lot of years left to live now and that's a very overwhelming, but also very awesome feeling. It’s super cool that it's reflected in my work now. I don't want to paint sad things all the time. My work is for people also suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts, and I don't want to send out a message that those feelings will never go away. I'm trying to send a message that you're a lot stronger than you think, and that it's worth the time and effort to change the pathways in your brain. For me, personally, it's become just making these characters in my head that are constantly comforting me. In that way, art is really powerful and therapeutic.

Comfort in Nausea, installation at Swish Projects
photo courtesy of Sam King

I’m very touched by what you're saying. I understand feeling like it's all over. There's so many times that it feels like life is so short… but then having the reflection time, or maybe even a coming of age realization that there's actually so many years to live, create, and expand our minds. That’s really beautiful, and it's really cool to see the way the characters in your work are shifting.

Thank you, and that's why I like the art world so much is because I think what pulled me out of what felt like an inescapable hole was the art community. To an extent, we all think kind of similarly and we're all on this ride together creating stuff. That’s why I just tell everyone to make art because you'll find the community and they're usually really supportive.

I’ve been teaching kids art and that is the most fulfilling thing of my life. I mainly teach 8 to 10 year olds. So they’re about to hit puberty and realize that not everything they make is amazing. I’m trying to teach them that art can be their therapy and it's a way they can express themselves. It's so exciting because I'm gonna let these kids go and I might never see them again, but I really hope they hold on to art as a thing of therapy. I didn't realize how therapeutic it was for me when I was their age and I think if I knew that sooner I would have dived into it a lot more. When you get to middle school and high school, that's when they cut arts and crafts and teach you more math and science. I guess that's a problem with the education system, which is a whole other thing.

Avia in studio, 2021
photo courtesy of Natalie Schoenbrunner

Can we talk a little more about your painting process? The blue is so mesmerizing and it's cool to see the paintings in progress behind you. You use the color blue to do your underpainting?

I have a weird philosophy in my mind about color. Blue is one of the coolest colors in terms of human history because it's obviously been around….The ocean is blue, the sky is blue… but the Greeks and the Romans never wrote down the color blue. They've always described it as something else. Which is something I find so cool because it seems like a mystery.

What would they describe blue things as then?

In the Odyssey, I think they just describe the ocean as a wine color. Then in the Medieval and Renaissance period, the color blue was the most expensive color you could make. So when you see an old European painting with blue in it, you know the patron had a lot of money. Usually the most important figures were blue. So Mary or Jesus would have blue. For me to use the color blue makes me like Mary or Jesus….I’m that important. And the viewers are that important!

Picasso had his blue period… That’s the one thing that really bothers me is that when people see I use blue, they say I’m like Picasso…. And I fucking hate that guy. He called women doormats. He made some cool drawings and now everyone thinks he's a genius, but he was a horrible person. Then there's Yves Klein who painted women in his patented Yves Klein Blue, and then made them roll on the floor and called it Art….which is cool but I still find it weird that he never used men or anyone else. So for me to take this color that has been dominated by men and put it in my own lens is really empowering. It’s pretty but also I have this really personal attachment to it.

There are so many shades, but right now I'm using Ultramarine Blue. And yeah, I use it for the underpainting and sometimes as a background or I have the blue peek through. We teach kids blue means sad and red means angry… but blue isn't a sad color. To me, it can be, but I think it's also calm. We see blue in the sky every day, and when you're stuck in your head all the time and then look up and you're just in this blue marble…it's just so comforting to me that there's this blue blanket, kind of holding us in. So the comforting qualities of blue is why I like to use it in all my paintings. I like to do the blue underpainting, but do you know what glazing is?

No, what is glazing?

it's the technique that Renaissance painters use. You basically thin down the oil paint until it's kind of transparent and you put it on the painting so that the underpainting can show through. Renaissance painters usually did brown because it works better with the skin tones, but I like to see the blue pop through the skin because it's there. When painting people, you have to use every color in the rainbow to paint any skin tone. I think that's so cool. The rainbow is in us. We’re so colorful and we don't even know it.

Adam & Eve with Purity & Love, oil on panel, 18x24”, 2020.

Leda and the Swan, oil on loose canvas, 24x50”, 2020.

Yeah, I love to think about that! All this blue talk reminds me of some books I’ve read… Bluets and On Being Blue!

Yeah, if I'm honest, I'm a really bad reader. So, I haven't even read through all of Bluets, but knowing that someone wrote a whole book on the color blue just really pushes me to keep diving into it because I'm not sick of the color yet. I don't think I will be anytime soon, especially because there are whole books written on it. Also, when I was on the East Coast a month ago, I regret not buying this, but I found a book that was on the history of gray and painting. I thought that was so cool because some people find gray to be a boring color, but I think it holds a lot to it.

ink on 18x24” paper

ink on 18x24” paper

Everything interesting comes from gray tones. It has such a large range, and without it we would only have the extremes, total black and white.

Absolutely. And even when I'm painting, I always have to dull down a color. The best way to tone down a color is adding gray or adding the complement of the color… the term is graying it out. I'm so glad we can see the colors. Dogs can’t see, I forget, maybe red or blue? But then there's the mantis shrimp that has about 16 receptors… humans only have 3 or 4…

Can you even imagine what their vision is like?!

That goes back into my fascination with the relationship with humans and animals… I have in my mind when I'm painting, “why do I want to leave this Earth now when there's so much to absorb?”. I don't believe that humans were put on Earth for any reason, but it's still really such a privilege to be here at the same time as a fucking mantis shrimp that can see things in such a cool way.

Yeah, we can learn so much from animals and nature. There's so many ways that we can grow from making space to observe our surroundings. It’s so rewarding and powerful… it can parallel and also give so many metaphors for how society could be. I think it’s important to simplify our mind a little bit to see the complex world humans have constructed in new ways.

My mom got a dog a year ago… and I’ve been telling her that her dog can teach her so much because he's carefree. He's happy whenever his parents come home…. He does his own thing. My mom definitely has depression too, but a lot of boomers don't believe in that. It’s really cool to take what’s around us and use it as a tool to simplify our minds. I don’t think humans were built to think this complicated and here we are... we made stocks, like why the fuck did we make stocks?

ink on 18x24” paper

So true! So, we've talked about the blue, some themes, and what inspires your compositions…  Are you a sketcher? Do you have a sketchbook? Is that how you flush out compositions? Or how do you go about starting a painting?

I used to just paint on the canvas, but now, my diary is my sketchbook. Lately, I've been taking sketches out of my diary and just putting them on the canvas. [Avia points to canvas behind her]. So this was from a sketch when I was sad…this unicorn coming out of me and comforting me. I like to turn this very closed in feeling into an epic, holy-like painting. but yeah, I get a lot of my compositions that way. Or if I see a cool Renaissance painting, I’ll take from it, or find photos of animals that I relate to. I found this photo a few years ago of a sheep that got attacked by a coyote and it had its guts hanging out of its stomach but it was somehow still standing. The article the photo was attached to said that it lived like that for another day or two before eventually succumbing to its injuries. I thought that was like a great metaphor for how I was feeling… Even seeing photos of animals cleaning horses clean themselves is so precious to me. They just come up next to each other and start cleaning each other's necks. That’s what I want. I want someone to care for me and tend to me that way. So that's how I get a lot of my ideas. My process is just observing and then taking, And then painting.

So what do you have going on right now in your studio? Are these all new paintings?

Right now I'm working on two paintings for San Diego State University. It's a cool experience because it’s my alma mater. So I've been doing a lot of client work and I'm moving to Los Angeles next week. At the moment I'm not doing any personal work, which is kind of lame, but I have all these ideas that I want to pursue in LA… I want to make a whole animated film. I've never done that before and I think that'd be super cool. I’ve had this film idea in my mind for over a year, where I really want to make a short film about how we cope in the bathroom. The bathroom is both this public but private space where you can cry comfortably. You can turn the shower on and no one will hear you. Or sit on the toilet for like 15 minutes just to be on your phone instead of working. Yeah, so that's something I'm really looking forward to finally diving in and working on. It's exciting to have something to look forward to working on when I move.

Time will heal time will heal time will heal time, acrylic on panel, 8x10”, 2020.