The Ones: Tonia Calderon
The visual artist talks about going from business school to painting.
Words: Tara Aquino
“The Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.
There’s no single way to break into the art world or “make it” as a visual artist. Tonia Calderon knows this firsthand, having built a painting career tied to her love of music and street culture without following conventional ideas of artistic success. While some artists would be content to only show work in big-name galleries or museums, Tonia is more focused on having great relationships with her (sometimes famous) collectors and getting her art onto outdoor walls and the hallways of important offices.
A Bay Area native, Tonia grew up with three siblings including a twin sister. Her entrepreneurial parents inspired her to study business in college, and painting only entered the picture as a creative break from crunching numbers and hitting the books. Her casual hobby, which includes a focus on portraits of musicians, soon turned into her calling. She developed a style of portraiture that includes debossed words on top of her subjects’ faces.
Tonia often paints in Air Jordans, so it makes sense that she’s a fan of the Air Jordan I Rebel XX and Air Jordan I Jester. When it comes to the future, she says, “I’m just working on making bigger and better art that will be harder and harder to ignore.”
How did you originally get into sneakers?
Well, before I even got into art, I was always really into sports. I played volleyball and did track & field. Growing up, I wore Nike head-to-toe while competing. In college, I’d walk to class in 90-degree weather wearing a full tracksuit! I had a pair of baby Air Jordan IVs hanging in the rearview mirror of my first car. My original AOL email was NikeGirl, too. [Laughs]
Baby Jordans on a rearview feels like a California staple, for sure. How did you get into painting portraits of West Coast musicians and rappers?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know… It connected with me when I was younger, and it stuck.
When I first started painting, I wanted all of my work to have music involved. My first-ever portraits had lyrics written over the faces. I was never good at music myself, so being able to bring art and music together has been a way to stay involved in something I love.
Tonia, who has Mexican, Dutch and Indonesian heritage, is equally proud to be a Californian. It’s apparent in her musical taste, the sense of freedom she displays in her art and her open outlook on life, as well. When she speaks, her candor is sunny and optimistic, especially as she describes the interconnectedness between her passions.
When did you discover your talent for art?
Since I was little, I was always the better artist in my classes. I never took it seriously. I was distracted by sports. I didn’t realize how much art was a part of me. When I was in college, I wanted to do something creative. One day, I just decided to paint.
How has your diverse background shaped you as an artist?
As an artist, and as a person in general, having such a multicultural background has helped me be able to relate to so many different kinds of people. I grew up seeing and experiencing poverty, wealth and everything in between. I’m thankful for everything I went through growing up; it’s helped me to have a better outlook on everything.
I grew up watching my parents open their own businesses, which I always viewed as a form of creativity. When I was younger, they had a chain of kids’ hair salons. At one point, they were redoing antiques. They’re the reason why I initially majored in business.
There’s an undeniable boldness in your work. What does defiance mean to you?
It’s very important to both stand up and stand out as an individual. A lot of different artists ask me for advice. The only advice I can give is to be genuine to yourself. If you’re not doing that, it’s not going to last.
I’ve always been focused on sticking with my style — my brand. I used to think that I had to do that by simply painting in the same way over and over. That approach can cause a lot of restrictions and creative blocks. I’ve pushed that aside, and I’m all for creating whatever feels right. It’s important that all artists expand and touch whatever they want to tap into.
Though Tonia admits that her art career started later than most, she’s clear about her commitment to set an example for the generations that follow her. She hopes to inspire the next great painter to take up the craft as early or as late as they want. Whenever she gets the chance, she gives advice to young artists and is big on the power of spreading genuine messages in one’s art.
Your work is full of statements, both literally and figuratively. Is there a single, underlying message throughout all of it?
When I started doing music portraits, they were pretty straightforward and all about my love for music. When I started adding different symbolic elements in my work, I realized how important it was for me to tell stories and connect with people on a more emotional level.
I use the word “you” in my work a lot. People read it and initially think that it’s supposed to be about themselves. I actually use it to reflect the opposite. We need to recognize that everyone is important and have more compassion for other people.
As you grow and evolve as a person, how have your values and art transformed along with you?
I’ve always kept the same values. Art reminds you about the importance of patience and all creative processes. Anything that anyone makes is important, whether it be the person making your coffee or the person fixing your sink. Everything is connected, and every form of creativity is important.
How do you want to level up your art? Where do you want to take it from here?
For me, it’s important to keep creating bigger and better things. I always try to remind myself that if something is great enough, it won’t be ignored. I always try to trust the concepts in my mind. I’ve been painting professionally for 11 years, and I still feel like this is just the beginning.
The Air Jordan I Rebel XX and Air Jordan I Jester are now available from select retailers.