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Aileen Rodriguez Imperatrice lives art to the point that it’s impossible to distinguish between her art and her life… and that’s just the way she likes it.
Born and raised in Fresno, Aileen’s decision in the ‘90s to go all-in as an artist has had sweeping implications for Fresno’s art scene. Her career has grown alongside, and intertwined with, Fresno’s vibrant arts community. In her former position at the Fresno Arts Council, she was instrumental in shaping ArtHop into the juggernaut it is today. She also was an early supporter of the Rogue Festival and Fresno Reel Pride, and helped other artists launch their careers while running her own gallery, Ashtree Studios, for many years.
“I love this art community—all my friends, all the fellow artists. And I’m not just talking visual artists, but musicians and actors, and all the other people that are in the creative arts. We’re all kind of the same tribe, and so we hang out and influence each other and critique each other,” Aileen explains.
The myriad personal connections she’s made through her decades of involvement in the arts have proven not only personally and artistically inspiring to her, but in a very real way, they’ve helped her survive the biggest challenge of her life: a recent surgery to donate a kidney to help her husband, Tony Imperatrice.
Art as a full-time, emotional job
Aileen and Tony have been married for 26 years. They met when Aileen was a youth group leader and choir member at church and Tony came onboard as the choir’s organist. “We both had artistic ideals and we both had goals of being in a creative community, and so we could relate to each other,” Aileen says of their courtship. That first spark of interest evolved into a symbiotic relationship in which each supported the other in their respective lives and careers.
For Aileen, a major turning point came in 1998 when she left her job at The Fresno Bee and decided, with Tony’s encouragement, to pursue art as her full-time career. “It is a full-time job,” Aileen says, “because it’s keeping up with all the artists calls, keeping up with creating new art, putting up shows, getting introduced to different people, and going to different events. So it’s a lot of work.”
From early on, Aileen’s personal emotional experience has been the subject of her work. “I was very known for awhile for doing paintings with chairs in them, and it wasn’t about just looking at a chair. It was about what that chair represented,” she explains. “I had done a whole series in 2006. I was going through a lot of turmoil at the time and I suddenly realized that I was a chair, because I felt like I was weathered and taken for granted and all this other stuff that goes along with. Especially wooden chairs. They weather like human beings.
“When I first started painting, I was doing some happy things. I was just so happy to be free and painting. But then I started realizing I was starting to do things that were more emotionally driven and more personal, and then when I saw people relating to that more, I thought, ‘Okay, that’s where I need to go, that’s what I need to embrace.’ And instead of being afraid of that, I needed to just jump into it and be willing to expose myself in a way that I hadn’t done before.”
Finding a donor
In 2002, Tony was diagnosed with kidney disease. From that point, it was a matter of anxiously watching the progression of Tony’s illness while the couple proactively sprang into action, throwing themselves into the process of finding him a healthy kidney, hoping to avoid eventual dialysis. Aileen stepped up and offered one of her own kidneys, but was rejected. She persisted in her inquiries, undergoing a more extensive battery of tests at UCSF, and ultimately was deemed an eligible donor. Moreover, thanks to scientific advancements, their differing blood types were no longer a deal-breaker, and she was a match for Tony. “That was the biggest relief I’ve ever felt in my life because we knew that no matter what happened, I could save his life.”
Within the last seven years, the prospect of doing a paired exchange presented itself. In this scenario, Aileen explains, “You can come in as a living donor and offer a kidney; if you are not a match for the person you’re hoping to donate to, you can still help them because you can go into a larger pool. They can find a match for your kidney and they can find a better match for the person that you were trying to donate to in the first place. It’s a big chain of people that all connect together, and kidneys are swapped all over the country.”
Now that they were in a database that could search everyone on the waiting list at transplant centers across the country, cross-matching kidney tissue information, blood type, etc., it was just a matter of waiting for Tony’s kidney function to deteriorate to the level at which transplants are officially authorized.
Meanwhile, Aileen continued to tell her inner story through her paintings. “We knew the surgery was imminent; then it became all we talked about and all we thought about because it was all of his pain and everything that he was going through and also all the preparation we were doing for the surgeries.
“It consumed our lives completely, and so naturally it was part of my art,” she recalls. “I did a series called ‘Human Nature’ in 2014, and that has a whole bunch of pieces where every picture has a human organ in it. And it was really my reflection on how frail and fragile we all are, and how reliant we are on our human organs, and if something goes wrong—anything goes wrong—our lives are so dramatically changed.”
In this series, anatomically realistic representations of organs appear in unexpected places—a kidney snuggled in a nest, a stomach floating in a sandbox, a brain topping a tree—and against abstract backgrounds of jarring colors and dramatic brushstrokes.
“It’s the realness of the parts of the body, but then the chaos… the surreal feeling that we had as we were going through all this. There’s all that concern and just outright fear of what the unknown is. And so with all that, I’m just trying to channel that into my artwork so that I’m letting some of that feeling of overwhelmingness go out so I’m not just dealing with it in my own little head,” Aileen remembers.
Forming the chain
In the process of creating such pieces, Aileen found new ways to connect with her audience. “I can do these pieces and then when people ask me, ‘Wow, why did you do a stomach in a sandbox?’ I can talk about the whole thing and say why I was feeling these things and why I wanted to put that into my work. And so it’s a real releasing process for the artist to be able to put that out there and then talk about it with people, and then, again, having people tell you their own stories about things they’re going through. And it just builds a bigger community of being there for each other.”
The years of waiting and anticipating came to an abrupt climax this past July when Tony and Aileen received word that the time had come for surgery. “You’re preparing for it for years, but when it finally is there, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is major surgery!’” Aileen describes the last-minute flurry of paperwork and directives to sign, in case of death, whereupon “the magnitude starts to set in. But the thing is, there’s no option, because if we didn’t do this he would definitely die, because the waiting list for a deceased donor is at least 10 years. He wouldn’t last that long on dialysis. So it was a matter of ‘There’s no way I’m not doing this, because I don’t want him to die, and this is the only way to stop that from happening.’”
When it came down to that moment of truth, Aileen wasn’t fearing for her own life. “I was so scared about losing my husband that that was all I thought about. That was the only thing I was focusing on, so I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that I’m giving up an organ—until they wheeled me into the hospital room, then I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going for surgery, and they’re taking my organ out.’”
Still, she humbly dismisses being characterized as a hero. “When you’re given the opportunity and you know you can do something to save someone’s life, how could you not do it? I just couldn’t imagine. And when I was given that opportunity to actually be a donor, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care about myself; I care about doing something that’s going to save someone’s life.’ And I knew it was going to save my husband’s life. Even before I knew that I was a direct match to him, I thought the fact that I’m going in as a living donor, he’s gonna get a kidney, and he’s gonna be able to live. And that was all I cared about.”
In a last-minute twist, the donation chain that Tony and Aileen were part of fell apart, but another chain was quickly put together. Aileen’s universal-donor kidney was paired with a hard-to-match patient (a young wife and mother of two in Iowa who’d been lingering on death’s door for years without hope; she recently contacted Aileen with her thanks), while Tony would receive an even better match than that which had previously been scheduled.
In all, 18 couples—36 people—were involved that day in a miraculously and beautifully orchestrated sequence of events that began in the wee hours of the morning in Hawaii. Aileen sums up the profundity of the experience as “the most important thing that I’ve ever been a part of in my life. If you know you can actually be an active part in saving someone’s life, my God, what an incredible gift to have that opportunity to do that.
“I’ve had an interesting life, to say the least, so I’ve had plenty of inspiration for trying to create things that help me deal with any experience that I’ve been through, whether it be positive or negative, and then also to grow as a person and as an artist,” Aileen reflects. “This especially has even added more perspective to realizing how valuable every day is and how much art has really been a huge part of my life.”
Recent works such as “Reasons Why,” “Sanctuary,” “Holding Together,” and “Protecting Order in Chaos” are reflective of the uncertainty and the struggle to stay in one piece while making life-and-death decisions, facing the unknown and grappling with the question of survival.
“Where Do We Go From Here?”
In the aftermath of July’s surgery, Tony was almost instantly feeling better than ever. He recently performed with the Fresno Philharmonic, conducted by new Music Director Rei Hotoda. Tony and Aileen also made it out to The Big Fresno Fair where three of Aileen’s pieces appeared in the Fine Arts Building, and Tony, for the first time in many years, was able to “enjoy whatever food he wanted,” according to Aileen’s Facebook page. “And what he wanted was a Polish corndog!”
As Aileen’s remaining kidney learns to do double duty, she’s learned to accept the frustratingly long recovery time that caused her to miss opportunities here in town as well as in Los Angeles, where in the last couple of years she’s been establishing herself as a regular exhibitor in venues such as DTLA’s Studio C Gallery and Los Angeles Art Association’s Gallery 825. She’s eager to get back into the swing of things and, happily, she’s steadily returning to full force, as demonstrated by her recent showing at the fair as well as her current piece, “Where Do We Go from Here?” now appearing at Fresno’s Arte Américas as part of “Tributo,” its Día de los Muertos exhibit. She’s creating new work daily, such as “Persistence” and “Nourishment,” that offer a window into her present state of mind.
“It’s so important for all of us, whatever you do, that you have some outlet for whatever you’re going through, your inner turmoil and your own thoughts,” Aileen muses. “If you don’t have that, you see people who are really troubled and feel very alone. And for me, this is the most freeing process, to be able to get that out, and then if somebody likes it beyond that, that’s just gravy. Everything I do leads me to the next thing.”
And what’s the next thing for Aileen? “Now, because of all the discrimination that’s going on, and especially against people with brown skin—and I’m one of them,” Aileen says, she feels a growing desire to celebrate her heritage in her work more explicitly than she’s done in the past. “I think the only way any of us are staying positive in all of this, because it can certainly get you down when you see all the horrible violence and all the things that are happening, you try to raise people up. You try to raise yourself up and make everyone aware that we’re all still family, we’re all still part of the same fabric of life. I’m always very careful in my art that I don’t want to be preaching, but in this regard I feel like it’s a way of me sharing my own experience, because I happen to be Mexican. Even though I’m 100% American, my heritage is Mexican. And so why not celebrate it?”
One example of her approach can be seen in her recent “Latina Curves/(Un)intentional Disintegration,” which was inspired, in part, by the passing of one of her aunts. When her mother invited her to go through her aunt’s personal effects, Aileen says she “felt really uncomfortable going through her things, but then I realized I could use some of her stuff and honor her by putting that in my work. She was somebody who loved to sew and embroider and crochet. And I never really did that, but in my art, I thought, ‘I’m gonna embrace that tradition.’ And I started to use fabrics in my work.”
Using her aunt’s fabrics and threads, Aileen sewed directly onto the canvas and, in the process, she preserved not only a bit of her aunt, but also an important piece of their shared culture. The fabric “hangs from the canvas and actually can move in the breeze. I love it when the air conditioning moves the fabric, because it comes alive that way. It’s a great way to honor her. It’s a great way to continue the tradition of fabrics and thread that women have used for years, and use it in a new way.”
A future for Fresno’s arts scene
Aileen will also continue to immerse herself in the life of Fresno’s arts and in the lives of Fresno’s artists, many of whom provided recent support in ways big and small, from organizing fundraisers, both in real life and online, to offering rides, hospitality, and all manner of help and comfort.
“We both are tremendously and endlessly grateful for our friends, our close friends, our arts community,” Aileen effuses. “Everybody who contributed in even the smallest ways, just by lending us emotional support, went a long way in helping us get through this.”
She gleefully relates the awe with which UCSF’s transplant center conveyed the news that some 20 friends had signed up to be donors for Tony in case she hadn’t been an eligible match. “There’s no way you can not be humbled when you have friends that are willing to do that. And then, just to see the bigger picture there, my God, all these people that want to do good in the world! There has to be enough of us out there that still want to make this world a better place, and that’s what you grab onto and say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna keep doing this, and hopefully it’ll get better.’”
Aileen and Tony are currently collaborating on a piece for the 2018 Rogue Festival. This new work will combine elements of their two respective media while telling the story of their transplant saga.
As for Fresno, Aileen offers a positive forecast for its status as a burgeoning arts incubator: “Fresno will do well to continue to embrace its diversity, not only in its arts but in its people, and really celebrate that. We can always use more festivals, we could always use more galleries, we could always use more performances….I love all that because it’s more alive, and I think that Fresno would always do well to embrace and encourage as much of that as possible.”
The power of art is not to be underestimated, according to Aileen. “Art is all around us; we are all art. How we live and what we do and how we choose to influence other people, it’s all part of the arts, because it’s everything that we live for that makes life worth living. And so if we can encourage that through the arts by taking a minute and just stopping and looking at something that’s beautiful, or looking at something even that you think is not necessarily beautiful but connects with you on a deeper level—going to a performance that just really makes you think, challenges you with something that maybe makes you uncomfortable but makes you realize something—that’s making you live. And those are opportunities I just can’t imagine missing, because then you’re not really living life, you’re just existing.”
More of Aileen’s life and work can be seen on her Artist Member Page on the LAAA/Gallery 825 site as well as on her personal website, www.aileenimperatrice.com. You can also keep up with her recent doings and current inspirations by following her Facebook page, on which she intentionally commingles her personal life and her art, candidly revealing the overlap between them and demonstrating how there’s really no distinction between the two.