Ramona Otto Goes “Inside the Jewel Box”

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Above, detail from the work of Ramona Otto.

Artist Ramona Otto’s solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Building in downtown Los Angeles is a glittering look at found art.

The cathedral-like interior of the 1917-era Fine Arts Building is a spot-on perfect venue for Otto’s 17 jeweled sculptures which evoke Faberge eggs and intricate mosaics. The show, curated by Nancy Larrew, runs through July 8th.

The lush, sparkling, and layered works began, Otto says, with her search for vintage treasures at flea markets, yard sales, and antique shops, found pieces for her dynamic artistic puzzles.

Otto intends her art work to complement the architecture of her exhibition space, and she does, with both location and art quite literally dazzling. The Santa Monica-based artist has been crafting her found-art works for over twenty years, as well as working as an elementary school teacher for gifted children.

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There are some swirling, rich works here that Otto says represents the body of her work. “I have always used vintage pieces in my art. I like the history and the stories associated with the pieces that I find.  The sculptures in this body of work are assemblages made from vintage jewelry. However, I continue to make other art that is made from a wide range of vintage and antique materials. I made most of the furniture in our house, and in the exhibit, you’ll see a cabinet from my studio that is made from vintage signs, yardsticks, hardware from an antique printer’s type case, and a hand carved folk art carving of an angel that my husband gave me.” As well as her jeweled “Dog is My Co-Pilot,” below.

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Otto says her work is all about her love for a “treasure hunt” and the “preparation, organization, and research involved in finding something illusive, the excitement of searching for hidden gems, the thrill of finding the unexpected, and the payoff of completing a time-consuming endeavor.” 

She says that collecting the materials for each themed piece can take many years. “It provides me with many ‘thrill-of-the-hunt’ moments. Each time I find a piece that will work perfectly, my heart skips a beat. My studio contains several ‘cabinets of wonder’ to keep everything organized.”

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Above, a look at Otto’s studio.

If finding the pieces to complete her art is a long experience, so is crafting each work.

The actual making of the piece is very labor intensive, taking many months to over a year. When I work on a piece, I surround myself with piles of jewelry with a combination of infinite possibilities. Searching for pieces with the right shape to convey the right idea is very much like completing a puzzle without a picture to guide me.”

The exhibit itself takes its title and approach from the exhibit space, in a tribute that is as involved as Otto’s art-making process.

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Above, interior of the exhibition space.

“When I visited The Fine Arts Building for the first time, memories from my childhood came rushing back to me. Growing up in Grinnell, Iowa, we had a great deal of civic pride over an architectural gem that we felt lucky to have in our small hometown. It was common knowledge that a famous architect, Louis Sullivan, had designed the Jewel Box Bank.” She notes that in that moment she had her first artistic experience with architecture.


Above, interior of the Grinnell bank. Courtesy of BarBBlog

“I loved the intricate terra-cotta carvings on the façade, the griffins that stood guard over the entrance, the soaring ceilings, the gleaming brass cages where we cashed checks, and the stained glass windows that filled the space with a rainbow of colors. When I saw The LA Fine Arts Building for the first time, I was immediately struck by how many of the architectural components were reminiscent of the ones in the building that I loved as a child.”

Otto says she was thrilled to have found the perfect venue for her sculptures, including it’s child-friendly attributes. “As a former teacher of gifted students, it was always very important to me to inspire creativity in my students. I love that the venue of the Fine Arts Building is child friendly. Everything is behind glass so parents don’t have to worry about small hands reaching out to touch the art.”


Otto also loves inspiring viewer curiosity, including many hidden “Easter eggs” in her work.  In short, along with the beauty of her works, the intricacy of their creation is carried through to the intricacy of the finished design, challenging and meaningful, playful yet thoughtful.

Ramona More 2 Pearl Before Swine by Ramona OttoHer “Pearls Before Swine” features a vintage art deco mannequin followed by fiberglass and wooden pigs, riffing on everything from “lipstick on a pig” to “silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and of course, “when pigs fly.”

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Meanwhile her “Easter Bunny Delivers a Faberge Egg” takes on Easter themes with a wooden rabbit and an egg mounted on an art deco light fixture. Note the “easter eggs” within this spring-themed confection, below.

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Otto also cites her piece “Elephant in the Room;” created of white rhinestones, the piece includes letters that spell out ‘ignore me,’ with its circus headgear referencing  the mistreatment of elephants when they worked in the circus, as well as hidden references to the parable of “The Elephant and the Blind Man,” Dr. Seuss’ “Horton” character, and Jean de Brunhoff’s “Babar” among others.

While these incredibly clever references and word play are terrific, more to the point is the deeply involved visual layers that Otto uses. The richness of her color palette, the tactile texture of her work, and the rather astonishing combinations of items that she fits together are enormously compelling. To look at a piece is to dive beneath its jeweled surface and into a hidden depth of shimmering light. 

Saturday, July 1st, the gallery will host a reception from 3- 6 p.m., with an artist’s talk at 3. There will also be a second closing reception on Sunday July 2nd, from 2-4 p.m.  The Fine Art Building gallery is open regularly 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. It’s located at 811 W. 7th Street in DTLA.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: courtesy of the artist and by Leonard Monje; Grinnell Merchant Bank courtesy of BarBBlog.


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