Ricardo Paniagua comes from earthly beginnings. His last name literally means “bread and water.” His medium is mostly wood and paint. He is an autodidact who dropped out of high school, and who used free materials in a community space to begin creating.
Yet, Paniagua’s career is transcendent. His work has been shown in New York, Zurich, and all over the world. Cities and municipalities call him to create massive geometric masterpieces. And his goals are no less ambitious: to create a foundation that helps to ease human suffering through fighting childhood hunger.
Since childhood, Paniagua has been tuned into the frequency of another realm. The visions he’s experienced since childhood—asleep or awake—have blossomed through the artist’s craft into something that has the ability to transcend his hometown, or even time. The geometric sculptures and 3D murals he began to create could be categorized as Op-Art, Contemporary Islamic Art, Minimalism, or Internet/Post-Internet Art—before he was even aware that these genres existed.
As magical as it sounds, Paniagua has no qualms about putting art in its place. “Art is a luxury,” he says. We had the honor of sitting down with him and talking about his dream-fueled project list, and how his upbringing in extreme poverty informs his life’s goals.
Meow Wolf was started by a collective of artists who felt like they didn’t have a space to exhibit their work in their hometown of Santa Fe. It seems like you’ve experienced some of that in your own personal story. How were you able to find your platform to become an internationally renowned artist?
I still don’t feel like I’m able to flourish because I still live in Dallas, and I still don’t get any support here. Most of your support as an artist is probably going to come from where you live if you depend on the gallery system. So I still feel a little down on my luck. But the successes I’ve had outside of Dallas have superseded or transcended Dallas.
I did resonate with the story of Meow Wolf because they’re artists and they’re finding their own way and success on their own terms.
The way that I was able to get out of Dallas was kind of the only possible way: submitting to open jury exhibitions that were outside of my city. I would surprisingly get accepted into a lot of shows. That’s pretty much how I got my work out there: paying money to submit to juried exhibitions. Then slowly but surely word of mouth began, and then I’d get some random emails because someone saw my work at some shows outside of Dallas. It slowly grew in that way.
How would you describe your art to someone new in terms of style, medium, and even theme?
The way that I found art was in a community center that happened to have free art supplies [I was about 20 years old]. The community center was at this place called Job Corps, a vocational school. It’s a federal school for underprivileged youth. I guess I was going for a trade, learning to paint houses. I took a test that said I would be a good painter of houses, so I was going to school for that. It’s a dormitory type of thing and it’s kind of like a prison because there are barbed wire fences and you can’t leave.
They try to get you ready for the real world, so your school hours are typical work hours. At the end of the day, you have your chores, but then you can do extracurricular activities. There happened to be an art room at that location. When I walked in there there were all these free art supplies.
I didn’t know anything about art because I dropped out of high school. And I just started making art. I actually had my first exhibition in the gym room because the president of the school asked me to. They were renovating the dorms. So I did 16 8x4 foot paintings because there was free plywood to paint on.
My artwork has changed throughout the years from learning about art history and developing my skills as a craftsperson.
Now you have these giant geometric sculptures and murals.
Yeah, I started painting, and then one day I was in this post office in the Deep Ellum District of Dallas. I walked outside and it was so depressing—it was supposed to be a cultural district, and there were just police signs and buildings. I was like, I gotta call up this property owner and ask them if I can paint their entire building, all four sides, and she let me. It was my first mural and it ended up being three-dimensional, like Trompe-l'œil. Then years later I had this dream about one of these 3D shapes that I painted, and it had stripes all over it, and I made it… and then I started to get into geometric sculpture. I did that for a long time, and eventually some city or municipality was like, “Hey, can you make a giant one of those?” That was only in 2018, so it seems to have become something more people are going to be calling me about.
Your story is very inspiring, how you got your start.
It was pretty dark, like walking through a dark swamp. Wow.
So where does your inspiration come from? I noticed you mentioned that you got an idea from a dream.
I dream every day, I remember my dreams every day. I pretty much have a backlog of art assignments from my dreams. Where they come from exactly, I have no idea. But the dreams of the art assignments range from painting to sculpture to now, jewelry. That backlog of projects from my dreams, it keeps me going every day and it’s the nucleus to my inspirational body.
Now that you’re an artist, looking back at your childhood, were there signs that made you think you’ve always been an artist?
When I was a teenager, before I’d say I was an artist, I’d say, ‘What even is an artist?’ One day, I was at this New Agey type of church and I picked up a book called A Tree Full of Angels. Just randomly opened to a page. The sentence read, “Artists are like visionaries and poets. They have visions from God.” Ever since I was a kid, I had these divine visions. That’s when I accepted the fact that I’m an artist. And that’s the inspiration that keeps me going as an artist when things feel hopeless.
You seem to identify as a visionary before identifying as an artist.
Oh yeah. Ever since I was four or five years old, I can remember these visions I’d have.
How do the visions happen? Do they come to you while you’re just sitting there, or in dreams?
Both. Consciously and unconsciously.
These art assignments, I can’t take credit for them because I honestly don’t think I was smart enough to come up with them. [laughs]
Don’t sell yourself short! But, I understand what you’re saying about channeling. So how has the art affected the visions? Have they increased or decreased?
With these art projects, I’ll have a vision and it might spur an entire body of work that goes on for two years. Then I’ll move on to something else and come back to it two years later and it will evolve into another plane. There’s definitely this back and forth as far as actual studio production goes and this supernatural ongoing conversation, or dialogue.
Do you see art as the vehicle to communicate this visionary dialogue, or might it change someday to poetry or some other medium?
I see art as being everything from cooking to jewelry-making to painting and sculpture to designing temples—anything that has to do with design is art. And so if you become a conduit for these principles that are beyond human capacity for scientifically explaining things, I think that whatever shape or form art takes it will have the capacity to touch someone in the far distant future. You never know why you make this stuff or feel compelled to do it at the time.
I love something that you said about art being a conduit to explore something that science can’t explain.
Art is timeless. You look at it and it transports you somehow. Maybe you've been looking at it for a couple seconds, and all of a sudden museum staff is like, “It’s time to go.” Great art is timeless, and you can’t sit there and write a thesis about the time gap you just experienced and make it make sense to the scientific world.
It’s like a language of the divine.
You’ve been having these visions almost your entire life. Has it been long enough that you can almost gauge the overarching message of what you’re supposed to be saying to the world?
Yes. Recently, I had a dream where I was very close to death because I was 80-something. I was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to build my own museum in Detroit and it would also include a design that I made for a playground for kids. It was very vivid. Then I was watching 60 Minutes about a month after that and found out that the new president of the Ford Foundation is the first Black LGBTQ president who is selling all the old collection and building a diverse new collection. That’s something that immediately comes to my mind when you ask that.
These dreams are conversations you have with people, and connections happening at the right time, and that’s when you know it’s real and it’s actually serving a good purpose.
It's interesting that you had that dream not even knowing about the new president.
It’s very interesting; it’s mind-blowing.
Do you have goals, or do you prefer to stay in the present?
My goals are to be busier with monumental public sculpture. That’s a more sustainable way of operating and supporting myself as an artist, and also a way to get closer to feasibly attaining the capital to fund my own foundation. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to create a foundation that would ease human planetary suffering. Big projects affect people because they’re in the public sphere. Ideally, that would help me relax a bit.
If you were to have this foundation, how would you try to ease human suffering?
The number one thing is tackling hunger because a hungry kid can’t learn. A second objective would be educational pursuits. I think that probably stems from my childhood because a lot of times I was hungry, and I wasn’t in school because of the severe poverty. From direct experience, if you give a kid food and a good learning environment, that kid can do a lot more with those basic things than a hungry kid can even dream of.
I’m sorry you experienced that. Would you ever consider adding to your foundation the goals of artist support, and if you did, how would you support artists in a way that you wish you had been supported?
I don’t think supporting artists is as important as hungry kids. Art is a luxury that a starving kid won’t even be able to imagine because that kid’s eyes are full of tears. Art is for privileged people. I’d rather focus on underprivileged people.