A Brush Beyond Borders: Oria Simonini’s Visual ArtistryDec 21, 2023 03:01PM ● By Natalie Veloso
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
In the realm of visual art, Oria Simonini has established herself as a notable Latinx artist and muralist within Omaha’s vibrant arts scene. At the age of 28, she offers an intriguing perspective of artistic evolution, reflecting on the experiences that have influenced her own trajectory. Her path to becoming an artist is marked by untraditional beginnings and a passion for visual expression, yet her affinity for art finds its origins in her formative years.
“I always had my little sketchbook as a kid, and I always drew,” Simonini recalled. “I happened to have gone to an elementary school that was an arts charter school. I feel like I was always making art.”
Born in French Guiana to Argentine parents, the first two years of her life were marked by a nomadic life spent in a sailboat. The restless winds of adventure carried her family to rural Guatemala, where she spent her childhood from ages 2 to 7. Her upbringing in the lush jungle oasis sparked creativity in her young mind, igniting a lifelong passion.
"I think my life has always been about movement and interacting with people who are really different from me, while feeling like I was the 'other,'” she reflected. “I never had a spot that was just my own."
Themes of migration and the cross-country journey many individuals take to pursue their aspirations recur throughout her artistic repertoire. She is particularly drawn to elements like water and the ocean, which resonate with the currents that shaped her childhood.
A pivotal project in Simonini’s career was her involvement in a community mural connecting Schuyler, Nebraska, with Santiago Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, in 2023. The ambitious project envisioned two sister murals in different countries, interconnected by the thematic thread of sparking community-wide, progressive change in both places. Though she had only started her mural journey a few years prior, this venture brought her into communion with other Latinx artists to experience the empowerment of people through art.
“I thought it would be more impactful to not confine this project to Omaha, but to take it somewhere else,” Simonini explained. “It broke free from being this art form that is not contained by traditional white gallery walls and the elitism that often accompanies what is considered ‘fine art.’”
Her memories of Guatemalan towns adorned with similar murals during her childhood lent weight to the endeavor. The project was made possible by funding from The Union For Contemporary Art’s Populus Grant, enabling Simonini to take her art across borders. As one of five 2023 fellows at The Union, the artist described her experience as a quiet year of working and experimenting by utilizing the space and resources offered.
Her own artistic inspirations are as diverse as they are profound. She learns from her peers, but also from classic artists like Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and contemporary artists like Jordan Casteel. Her wellspring of creative influence extends to grassroots street artists in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia.
Simonini also credits her inspiration in part to Byron Anway, an artist, educator, musician, and her former UNL professor, who has known her for over a decade. Anway recalled getting a tip from Simonini’s high school art teacher, Mike Trotter, about her talent and determination, which ultimately led to her becoming Anway’s studio assistant.
“I was making these large-scale crowd paintings out of a dilapidated warehouse in Lincoln and recruited her assistance over the summer as an intern,” Anway noted. “We worked long hours, and her thoughtfulness, patience, reliability, sense of joy, and tremendous skill helped make it the most artistically fruitful year of my career.”
Simonini’s art transcends language and cultural barriers, engaging viewers in a profound human-to-human connection. Her 2016 study abroad experience in Germany coincided with the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, where sharing physical space with the unfolding stark realities left a mark on her artistic sensibilities. In the wake of the tumultuous year of 2020, she once again witnessed the therapeutic power of art. Through her friends’ work in arts organizing, she observed how the simple acts of coloring and drawing could serve as soothing balms for the human spirit.
“Oria's paintings show the bittersweet beauty of people's real lives; she is so empathetic as a person but is also a realist,” Anway said. “Her work celebrates the success of others without being naive to inequity, and I see that in her long-standing themes of people's lives and struggles both hidden from view and in plain sight.”
In her advice to fellow Latinx artists, Simonini emphasized the importance of perseverance and community. "Although it's the hardest thing to do, it's the most rewarding thing to keep at it—you’ll see the commitment pay off," she said. She stressed the value of soliciting feedback from peers while also seeking the embrace of an artistic community, highlighting the need for a thriving Latinx arts scene in Omaha and beyond.
Simonini’s work, deeply interwoven with her cultural roots and personal experiences, serves as a bridge for people and narratives of all walks of life. As she continues to navigate the currents of her artistic journey, one can only await the visual stories she will paint on the canvas of the world.
As for her aspirations for the future, Simonini’s approach is rooted in patient determination. She plans to continue generating ideas and taking artistic risks, acknowledging that despite repeated failures in the creative process, something always sticks.
In her words, “You might get a bunch of ‘no’s’, but the ‘yes’ is so worth it.”