Piece by Colorful Piece, An Artist Emerges

Ben Bateman
By Ben Bateman March 15, 2012 12:00

Julie Gonzales is running out of space. Expansive mosaics crowd her walls with bright shapes and colors, incorporating bamboo, costume jewelry, sticks of incense, and anything else she can fit into a frame.

“I made too many!” says Gonzales, 71. “I want to get rid of them, sell them, whatever. I need to make more room.”

She’s only half-joking. Her love of mosaic, the art of creating images by arranging smaller objects, began five years ago. She’s been prolific, and she’s clearly running out of room.

The house’s isolated location and simple wood exterior belie its vibrant interior. Every room bursts with striking color. The living room is a wash of oranges and greens, the kitchen full of baby blues, and the bedroom bright with sage and gold. Each is filled with Gonzales’ art and homemade decorations. Her curtain rods are rough oak branches draped with bolts of cloth. Colorful teapots perch everywhere.

As she walks the house, Gonzales points to notable pieces. There are reproductions of Van Gogh on backgrounds of Popsicle sticks. Books fill a shelf decorated with an intricate pattern of multicolored dots. The silhouette of a large dragon, made from thousands of gold glass beads sewn to teal cloth, highlights the living room wall.

“It took three months,” Gonzales says as she moves into the kitchen. Paintbrushes rest on a desk in a nook. A carved bear painted with jean overalls stands on the counter. “He was naked,” Julie smiles, “so I painted shorts on him.”

Tweaking found objects is central to Gonzales’ art. It’s exemplified in her mosaics, which incorporate anything that can be grouted, wired, or otherwise cajoled into a frame. Gonzales has brought in objects from her yard, thrift stores, and the woods.

Her kitchen workbench holds leftover potpourri lids she’s repainting. The finished products, a combination of whatever’s available and beautiful, can take any form. Spirals, crosses, colorful waves with birds exploding forth, even – her husband’s favorite – a giant squid.

Gonzales’ obsession began inauspiciously. “I’d always liked tile,” Gonzales says. “I’d seen tile work in magazines, but everything was so formal and straight. So I decided to break plates.”

She worked the fragments into a frame, then added parts of a broken piggy bank, glass beads, and shells. Her pattern complete, she began to grout. By then she was hooked.

“I did five in the beginning,” Gonzales says, “and then before I knew it I was running out of walls.”

Though it’s difficult for her to explain the origin of this obsession, it’s no surprise that she’s fallen in love with a visual medium. She’s lived most of her life without sound.

“Imagine you’re deep underwater,” Gonzales says, describing her muted world – she lost 80 percent of her hearing from a near-fatal fever at the age of two. It’s not readily apparent. She is friendly and approachable, and carries on most conversations by lip reading. “I can hear you better by looking at you,” she explains.

While some activities, like talking on the phone, are difficult, there are parts of deafness Gonzales enjoys. “I like the serenity,” she says. “I don’t want to deal with too much noise.”

Nonetheless, it made her childhood difficult. She was born Julieta Dominguez in Mexico in December of 1940. Her family came to the United States in 1951, when Julie was 10. She returned to Mexico herself to take eighth, ninth, and tenth grades at Colegio la Paz, a Catholic school in Tijuana that offers special teaching for the deaf.

Julie returned to the states to complete high school, and soon after graduating met her husband-to-be, Frank Gonzales, at a dance in Modesto. The two were married on February 25, 1962, and celebrated their 50th anniversary this year. They lived for 40 years in Modesto, raising four children. Julie worked with a friend making drapes, and Frank worked as a butcher.

Julie retired to their current home, a secluded house on the River Ranch Campground, in 2002. Eight miles northeast of Tuolumne, the campground is managed by her son, Frank Jr. It’s at the site of a decommissioned fish hatchery, on the north fork of the Tuolumne River.

Her husband stayed in Modesto to work for another five years, but came to visit Julie nearly every weekend. Julie found the mountain forests a welcome change from Modesto. Though she enjoyed the city, she had been ready to leave. “Modesto is growing, more people, and I just felt like they wanted me out of there.”

Both enjoy life at the campground. Frank maintains the grounds, Julie works on her art, and for half the year they’re neighbors to thousands of campers who pass through on their way to Cherry Lake, Yosemite, and the Stanislaus National Forest. They regularly invite campers into their home, and their guests are surprised and often delighted with Julie’s art. The particularly smitten buy one of her mosaics as a souvenir. These campers are her only customers so far, but their enthusiasm has encouraged her to consider a wider audience.

For Gonzales, experiencing art is overshadowed only by the joy of creating it.

Interpreting Van Gogh with Popsicle sticks

“It’s mental therapy,” she says of her art and the creative process. “It’s like a light coming out from you.”

Even at her rapid pace, Gonzales always has ideas for new projects. While friends have told her to write them down, Gonzales balks at the idea.

“I don’t have time,” she says. “I just do it.”

It keeps her busy – she spends most days at her workbench – but more importantly has forged a spiritual connection to nature that she finds energizing. And amazing, given her relatively late start in life.

“I just turned 71,” Gonzales smiles, “and I feel like I’m 51.”

Though her husband was surprised when, after 45 years of marriage, Julie discovered this passion, he’s supportive – and amazed by her talent. “It’s fantastic,” he says.

She has no plans to slow down, and is excited about the new works she sees in her future.

“I have to do something to make me happy,” Gonzales says. “And this feels good.”

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Ben Bateman
By Ben Bateman March 15, 2012 12:00