“I just want to inspire people around me. Take that inspiration, take that life, and show people how I see it.”
There are a lot of people out there that want to be great but aren’t willing to put in the work.
Rio Baxter isn’t one of those people.
Rio is young, creative, and determined.
She’s a large scale figurative artist from Pomona, California that does everything from paintings to theatrical scenic design.
I was so impressed by her enthusiasm to seek opportunity and her serious workaholic attitude at just 18-years-old.
When I had met with Rio, she had just finished her part-time job being an art teacher which meant that this was her first time in six years without having a job. She was oddly distraught about it which isn’t what I would expect from a teen. However, the more I talked to Rio, the more it became clear that this girl is serious about what she’s doing. From getting into the honors program at DePaul University to hosting her very own solo exhibit, she will stop at nothing for art and she wants you to know that.
You have an interesting name, why did your parents pick Rio?
“I don’t really believe their story but they told me that my mom was hanging out with her sisters and they went to the Rio Grande to watch the sunset. She told all of her sisters that she was pregnant and then she decided whether or not it’s a boy or a girl, [she was] gonna name it Rio. That’s where they say it comes from but I’m having a hard time believing that I wasn’t conceived to a Duran Duran song.” (laughs)
You were home-schooled up until eighth grade, whose choice was this? You or your parents?
“It was definitely my parents. I was into it for like, first grade. Then I found out that I wanted more of a social life and I wasn’t really enjoying how secluded I was but being home-schooled for that long made me super self disciplined and it kinda made me grow up really fast. It wasn’t my choice but I’m still grateful for it.”
Do you think it had a negative effect on your upbringing?
“Overall, it’s positive. There’s definitely negative things about it. For example, I didn’t know what sex was until eighth grade. I have a hard time keeping friends because when you’re home-schooled, you’re around people once a week at like church or whatever. Those are definitely negative things that will impact me for the rest of my life but the fact that I can sit down and teach myself how to do something, because that’s how I was raised, that’s an invaluable skill. You can’t teach someone how to teach themselves, that’s something you have to be brought up doing. So I would say overall, it’s positive.”
Why did you decide to go to college rather than work on your craft on your own terms?
“That’s a good question. I would say that I want to be very specific about what I get myself into because I have a lot of confidence in myself. I think, whatever I want to do, I can. So I’m just afraid that without going to school that I would kind of get sucked into a job because it was available, rather than just waiting and choosing. It’s really about where I want to work. Yesterday was my first time without a part-time job since I was 12-years-old and this is because I’m going to college. I’m going to be able to focus on what I want to learn and how I want to develop myself rather than how I can make the most money in the shortest amount of time. So it’s doing what I love rather than what’s going to make me the most money.”
What’re you going to be studying?
“I’m going to the theatre conservatory at DePaul University and I’m studying scenic design. I also got into their honors program — it’s crazy.”
How did you get into stage design?
“I have been painting walls since I could hold a roller, my mom put me to work real good. I got stuck in the theatre one day and the head honcho was like, ‘Alright, you know how to paint so you’re paintin’ my walls.’ So I was just painting things like black-and-white, gray, whatever — normal things. Then he was like, “You know what, you’re the most hardworking student I have and you have an eye for design.” So then he started to pull me into the theatre aspects of it. I just made this 8 ft. peach for James and The Giant Peach and it was super fun. It’s challenging, that’s why I love doing it. It’s not an 18×24 canvas, it’s a 35-foot-long and 18-foot-high canvas, it’s crazy.”
Is the canvas size the most challenging aspect of stage design?
“Not so much the size but it has to be cohesive to the text. So it’s like an added challenge because you have to make this thing, and it has to time-period specific, it has to follow the story, and it also has to have certain components like if a character is going to walk through a door, you have to make sure that door is there or else the story’s not going to make sense. So it’s like taking someone else’s art form and adding your own, and it just makes this big beautiful thing. I think theatre is the most collaborative kind of art form there is.”
If you could design a stage for any live theatre performance, what would it be?
“Oooh, that’s hard. Honestly, I don’t have a show in mind. I love musicals, I would want to do a musical. I wouldn’t want to do something that’s already been done. I would want to do a new play.”
So something original?
“Yeah like the guy that did the stage for Wicked, now every single theatre that puts on Wicked, has to use his stage and he gets money for it. So it would be something like that. I would want to do something that a bunch of other people would try and have to replicate.”
What’s your favorite musical?
“Probably The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s a real funny one, it’s about this drunk chick.”
How was it being an art teacher?
“I had a third grade class and an eighth grade class and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole entire life. You do not know stress until you have 25 third graders all trying to get a question answered. It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done but I learned a lot about myself and a lot about kids too — God knows I’ll use birth control. (laughs) Basically, every single day, I would have to come up with a lesson. They didn’t give me any curriculum, it was all on me. My classes were an hour and a half long, full of third graders, which is a long time for third graders. It’s not like you can just give them an assignment and they work on it diligently for an hour and a half. You need like three or four different tasks to do and so it helped me be very creative with the assignments that I was giving. The eighth graders would ask me things and I’d be like, oh shit, I don’t even know the answer to that. So I got to find out what I don’t know.”
Generally speaking, how do children today view art?
“I had quite a few third graders that said they wanted to be professional artists which warmed my heart so much, I was so happy about that. A lot of them are really excited about making things and seeing [art]. I brought them through my gallery and they all flipped out, they thought it was really cool. When I saw art when I was a little kid, I don’t think I had that same reaction. I think I was just like, ‘Oh well, that’s a painting. That’s nice.’ It seems like a lot of these kids are genuinely excited about it and I’m not sure if that’s the emphasis their parents are putting on it but I think it’s definitely a more hyped-up thing than a boring thing which is exciting for the next generation.”
When did you start doing art?
“As soon as I could pick up a pencil. I’ve been doing it ever since I was really little and then I got real serious about my art career my freshmen year of high school. I started making all these paintings and they were shitty. I started off doing all these hippie suns and they’d have faces on them, they looked high as fuck. Then people started buying them off me, I sold them for like $20. It just kept going after that. I started painting different styles. I’ve always been selling art ever since that point and it’s kind of just cool that people that I’ve known throughout my life have pieces of my art. I’ve made probably over 300 or 400 pieces since then. Right now, I probably have 15 in my house. So the rest of them are just scattered throughout people I’ve known and the people that are interested in my work. It’s amazing, it’s amazing that I have that much support.”
What’s your favorite medium to work with?
“I’m a fan of oil. It’s a bitch to work with but I like working with oil. I kind of like do this sin of art, you’re never supposed to do it but I combine acrylic paint with oil paint. I don’t know why that’s such a big no-no but I do that all the time and I really love the look of it.”
Does it make a weird texture?
“I guess. I think just because it’s a water-based paint and an oil-based paint and it mixes weird so the colors don’t combine all the way but I really like the look of that.”
What’s your interpretation of the youth in the modern art world?
“It’s interesting over the past few years how it’s changed. It kinda is starting to feel like everyone’s an artist. It’s just like so many people are working on so many different things. I love it but it’s a real over-saturation of art. It’s great and bad at the same time. I’m very serious about what I’m doing and it’s hard when people have all these images of people that they’ve seen on the internet making art, and you know they haven’t worked very hard on it. There’s kinda like a stigma out there that everyone’s a painter now, everybody’s an artist. Everybody can be but it makes it difficult to stand out and so that’s something that’s really hard for the modern young artists. Also, I really love how everybody’s displaying themselves through their art. I think it’s wonderful, I think art is a very therapeutic thing. I love how everybody shares it, everybody is supportive of each other but it’s just so much. It’s kinda like one of those things where everyone’s unique so nobody’s unique.”
Do you think this has to do with the internet making it easier to create niche communities with other people?
“I think so for sure. Especially because there’s like a romanticized image of an artist. Everybody likes to be like yeah, I can do [all] this and I’m an artist too. I think art is a huge trend right now and I don’t think it’ll die down any time soon but you know, trends eventually do die down and I’m kinda scared when that happens because then all these people are just gonna lose interest in the thing that so many other people are just like to-die-for passionate about. So that’s something weird that’s going on.”
You recently held a solo exhibit, was this your first one?
“Mhmm, my very first solo exhibition. It went really well, I couldn’t have asked for it to go better. Over 1,500 people came throughout the two nights that it was open and I sold like 75 percent of what I had. I had bands playing and it was super fun. I was really happy with it. It was basically everything that I have. I held on to certain things because I was like, ‘This is really good, I don’t want to sell this for $20.’ So it was basically all my best work that I’ve kept since 2013, when I first started getting serious about it.
The name of your exhibit was “Femme Reflections,” what does this mean to you?
“It was about the modern woman and it was a different spin on how they’re usually portrayed in art. I’m super into the Guerrilla Girls, they go around counting how many naked women are in exhibits. They count how many women are in the pictures rather than how many women made the pictures, it’s really interesting. They’re my favorite political art group and they inspired me to be like wow, all these women are portrayed as sexualized beings. A lot of them you can barely even see their faces because they’re just bodies in the paintings. I wanted to make a statement of not including any bodies in the paintings. It was mostly just women’s faces and showing a strong, powerful, emotion. My thing is I’m tired of being seen as like a sexual object rather than just myself. So it was just like me being fed up, portraying it through my paintings, and throwing it all together. I think it really made a statement that women are more than just their bodies. Women are strong, beautiful, creative, intellectual people that deserve to be seen as more.”
I liked your installation piece, “Controlled Movement.” How would you describe the creative process for this piece?
“My parents own a picture framing shop, very convenient for me. (laughs) So they have all these extra glass palettes and they just throw them away and it makes me sad because you know, who gets all these little glass squares? It’s a cool thing to have, so I started hoarding them and I use them as my palettes for paintings. So every single painting in my solo exhibition was made on these glass palettes. I chose it as my center piece, tied them all together, and if you looked really hard you could see which ones belonged to each painting. It entertained me, it was something that was really fun for me. It was a utilitarian thing, made into art, and I really enjoy that.”
What inspires you to create?
“I’m inspired by the people around me. A lot of the times it’s an emotional reaction. I had one of my friends commit suicide about two years ago and so I created like tons of art then to cope with it and get through it. It’s just what goes on in my day-to-day life; things I admire, things I hate. It’s definitely a really emotional thing for me. Talking to me, I’m not that emotional of a person, I really bottle myself up but it’s not a problem with me because I let it all out in different things. I write songs, I draw pictures, or I’ll write stories.”
Are there any certain people that inspire you?
“A lot of it is my friends. I’m also pretty inspired by women. I don’t really have that many girl friends, I’m mostly surrounded by dudes and that’s because growing up I only had my brother when I was homeschooled. Only being around a guy, six days a week, you get used to it. And it’s the same thing with him, he only has friends that are girls, it’s super weird. Even to this day I’m just not used to hanging out with girls because I never grew up around them. It’s kinda like a foreign thing to me. I’ll have like one friend that’s a girl at a time, which is weird but women inspire me. I’m inspired by my mom, I’m inspired by the women in my life — even if we’re not close. Girls are just way beautiful and way better than guys.”
Do you have any tips for people that want to take their art to a larger scale?
“I would say just find a wall that nobody cares about, that you don’t need permission to paint on, and just fuck it up. Just go for it. I started doing a mural and that was the first time I painted like anything over two feet. Learning how to do this mural, it didn’t really matter because I could always paint over it, it was just a wall, who cares?”
How would you describe the local art scene here in the San Gabriel Valley?
“I think they embrace every artist. I think it’s beautiful, they’re so supportive. I have a really great friend group and they’re musicians, they’re artists, they’re writers, and it’s really awesome for everyone to do their own kind of art form and know that you’re going to have people supporting you even if sucks.”
Have you received any hate or backlash for your Frida jackets?
“I haven’t. I definitely thought I would. The Frida thing is a trend, for sure. I felt a little unauthentic to myself when I painted that because it was a commission. Any kind of commission painting, it’s not going to be exactly what you want to make. I thought I would get hate for it but I really didn’t. It blew up on Twitter and nobody said anything bad which is really tight because if something gets more than a thousand favorites, you know someone’s gonna hate it.”
What’s the end goal for Rio?
“I just want to be like a renaissance man in art. I enjoy painting, I enjoy doing sets for theatre, I enjoy singing, songwriting, playing piano, playing guitar. I just really love doing anything that’s creative. It’s just like being able to hone all those talents and maybe even combine them into one, if that’s possible, and make them into something great. I just want to inspire people around me. Take that inspiration, take that life, and show people how I see it.”
Anything else you want to add before we wrap it up?
“I just started this series called Painting Backwards and you basically just take a cloth piece of canvas and you do a painting on the back and whatever bleeds through on the front is the art piece. So it’s basically taking a painting but doing it in reverse. It’s a really fun thing that I’ve been working on because you have no idea how it’s gonna turn out. So keep an eye out for that because I’m gonna start doing that a lot more.”
INTERVIEW by CHROMESPINNIN.
PHOTOS by CHROMESPINNIN.