Picture this: A little girl scribbling and drawing as soon as she could grasp a crayon in her tiny fingers.
And before she could even walk or talk.
A little girl who jumped out of bed every morning at dawn so she could fill in the spaces in her coloring books and work on her art before the rest of the world opened its eyes to see them.
That’s the portrait that Al Ruiz paints of herself and the one she keeps adding finishing touches to as she sets out to make her mark on the world.
Painting portraits, which is what Al was born to do, is an intimate process that requires digging deep into the depths of each subject’s personality and psyche.
It’s an art that goes far beyond the canvas, and to do it effectively, Al first had to understand herself.
Which is why we’re going to start in Astoria, where her parents, Ecuadorean immigrants, settled and where Al was born.
Al, whose face is framed by copious, cascading curls, learned all about art from her father, who was a designer for a garment print shop in the neighborhood.
As it so happened, he often brought work home to finish, an endeavor that entranced Al, who started emulating him.
“I can’t remember when I first lifted a pencil, but I do remember that he taught me to draw and to sharpen pencils with an X-Acto knife,” she says.
From the beginning, Al knew that art would be her life and her livelihood.
She painted her way through Pratt Institute, where she earned a degree in illustration.
Al was all set to pursue a career as a portrait painter or a graphic designer, so no one was more surprised than she when she dropped out of the art world as soon as she was awarded her diploma.
“I wasn’t seeing things pan out the way I had planned,” she says and shrugs. “And I didn’t like all the competition among my peers for the same opportunities.”
For several years, Al worked a variety of what she considered boring office and retail jobs.
Even when she got positions that involved art, including as an intern with a sculpture gallery/furniture shop and as a graphic designer for a greeting card company, she never pursued her own work.
That changed a decade ago when a friend who was an artist encouraged her to submit drawings of neighborhood landmarks to an Astoria art festival.
It worked: Not only was Al back in the game, but she also has never looked back, becoming a freelance painter, muralist and graphic designer this year.
It was her introduction to the world of commercial art as a ghost painter for a famous artist that convinced her that she could make it on her own.
“I knew I could make a living if I taught myself speed and how to use acrylic paint, which dries faster than oil paint,” she says.
Al’s done a number of murals in the city.
In Astoria, her portrait of basketball great Kobe Bryant graces one of the walls at Hard Knox, and her mural of Nazca Lines defines the Peruvian/Asian restaurant Ancla.
For Astoria Taco Factory, Al designed and painted the signage.
When she’s not completing commissions for clients, Al’s working on her own passion-project portraits in the hopes of getting some attention from galleries.
Al maintains a deep connection to Ecuador, where her father and other family members live, and it’s her goal and hope to get one of her murals in a public space there as well as in other venues around the world.
“I love knowing that I can create something that is aesthetically pleasing,” she says. “It may not be aesthetically pleasing to everybody, but knowing that I have made one person happy means the world to me. And if it makes only me happy, that’s all I need.”
She pauses and reflects on her self-portrait, which she’s happy to note is still a work in progress.
“I like where I’m going,” she says.
Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling