René Romero Schuler recently pulled up her Chicago stakes and relocated to Carmel-by-the-Sea, becoming the latest in a long line of talented and successful artists who have heeded this bohemian village’s siren call to creative spirits. Schuler’s evocative, thought-provoking oil paintings and sculptures of ephemeral female figures grace the walls of museums, galleries and elegant homes worldwide. She has set up her studio in a vast, high-ceilinged commercial building in downtown Monterey where the walls are lined with works in progress.
Her early years weren’t ideal; she overcame a challenging childhood and teenage homelessness to arrive at her current level of achievement. She had her sights set on this career path at a tender age. “I lived with my grandparents in Ecuador for a time,” Schuler says. “I did a little crayon drawing, and my kindergarten teacher was ebullient about it. When you find someone in your life who gives you a little bit of praise, it can fill your soul.” That encouragement set the course of her life. “I wrote a letter to my parents back in Chicago, saying that when I grow up, I’m going to be a famous artist, have my work in museums and drive a Rolls Royce—because those cars have my initials all over them. I was five.” The first two goals have been met: how about the Rolls? “I’ve driven one,” she laughs.
Schuler sold her first painting to a fellow high school student for $150. Realizing that it was possible to earn money with a paint brush, she started randomly calling businesses, offering her art services. “That’s how it started. It was all commission work and that segued into decorative painting. Some would say, ‘Well, I don’t want a painting, but can you make this wall look like marble?’ ‘Sure. I can do that.'” And she was very good at it. “There was no style I couldn’t emulate.” Soon she was the “go to” for restaurant and nightclub decor. “I did some massive stuff: whole sides of buildings, a 40-foot-tall bas relief sculpture that framed the entrance to a nightclub…I had a blast. It was the best education.”
Speaking of education, viewing the exquisite technique and craftsmanship in her work, one would naturally think this painter spent years studying at prestigious art schools. But no, she is an autodidact. “I got my GED and enrolled in some college art classes. All they wanted me to do was paint Willem de Kooning copies. I said, ‘I’ve already done that. You’re just wasting my money.'”
“It took me a long time to zero in on my own style, my own body of work, because I was locked into commercial work for a long time. But I was happy to be making a living with a paint brush in my hand.” That epiphany came a few years later, after she had transitioned to fine art, specifically abstract figurative painting.
“I was working on a painting one day; had a bunch of paint all mixed up and ready to go,” Schuler recalls. “My then-infant son started crying and I had to go tend to him. I had a kind of meltdown, was mad at the painting and mad at being interrupted. I took all the paint and started scraping it all over the canvas with a palette knife. It was just a fleeting moment, a tantrum.” She returned the following day and saw a face on the canvas. “So, I mixed up some more paint and started working on it with the palette knife. I was having so much fun. Prior to that moment, painting had been a painstaking, ritualistic thing. Now, it was fun, and I was so into it.” As she worked, Schuler realized that she was unraveling a story from her past. “I’ve experienced some dark times, and some of that was coming through as I worked. I just let loose. It was bizarre. I was onto something here, something powerful, liberating…an indescribable feeling.” She looked at the finished painting and said, “This is good. That was the first time anyone would have heard that phrase come out of my mouth.” Schuler felt freed of a psychic burden that she didn’t know she was carrying. “When you see a therapist, just when you get to something important your time is up and you have to wait until the next session. With these paintings I didn’t have to wait. I went gangbusters and did 39 more.” She kept that first one, and today it’s her iPhone wallpaper.
When she was a homeless waif on the streets of Chicago, Schuler visited all the city’s art galleries and forged relationships with their owners. “Over the years, I’d show my work and they would say ‘no, you’re not ready yet,’ but they encouraged me.” She showed this body of work to her two favorite galleries and for the first time the reaction was: “You’re onto something. But it’s too dark. It’s great work, but we can’t show it.”
“That was all I needed to hear,” the artist says. “Okay. That’s not a ‘no.’ A couple of months later I got my first show. It sold out.”
That early, darker style has evolved into Schuler’s current light, airy and friendlier approach, but she still considers them highly personal parts of her personality. Perhaps that’s a function of age, of being more settled and comfortable in life. Her paintings depict willowy, standing female figures (that look somewhat like the artist herself), but lately—since she’s moved to Carmel—Schuler has begun creating seated figures. “I haven’t done that in years. I’ll continue to produce the standing figures at this point because that’s what I’m known for and they continue to feed my soul, but I will continue to branch out into other things I want to do.”
One of those “other things” is sculpture. At one point, Schuler started experimenting with clay, seeing if she could bring her vision into the three-dimensional world. “But I didn’t start with an armature, so the figures sagged,” she recalls. Once she started making armatures out of wire, she had a revelation: they could be works of their own. “Making the armature for the piece really got to me. The wire reminded me of the knife marks in my paintings, and I loved the idea of being able to see through them. They’re more ethereal beings. I’m into the idea that we are spiritual beings in temporary bodies and these sculptures illustrate that.” She continues to make these sculptures—it’s an extremely time consuming, painstaking, even physically painful process—but she says, “Painting is and has always been my go-to.”
“My vision is for my paintings to still be around a thousand years from now. So, I put a lot of work into them.” Schuler begins a canvas with four layers of prep, then many layers of oil paint, applied with a palette knife. Each stage requires a drying process. From start to finish, her paintings take up to 12 weeks to complete. “Once they’re thoroughly dry, I apply a process called ‘oiling out,’ a mixture of resin and solvent that bonds the paint layers. They’re solid works by the time they’re finished.”
Schuler has recently partnered with Relativity Textiles to create wallpapers and custom fabrics that feature her iconic imagery. “I see this collection as a way for those who would like to bring my work into their homes in new ways.”
Has living in Carmel affected her work? “I feel relaxed, serene, reflective,” Schuler says. “Some-thing new has come out in me since I’ve been here. My energy is different, definitely. I feel really good. I’m in paradise.”
For more information and to view more of Schuler’s work, visit www.reneromeroschuler.com.