Upon one’s first encounter with John Ornelas’s artwork, one notices the stark, raw materials that are used for his sculptures and paintings. Some pieces seem to be harvested right off of a street corner and then welded, painted, or matched with its significant other pairing.
Ornelas’s connection to the streets began in his childhood. Born in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970’s, Ornelas describes his younger self as a “latchkey kid”. “I had a chain with a key around my neck, my parents would leave in the morning for work and come back at night.”
His creative tendencies took place while scavenging alleyways. He collected anything that looked interesting to him. “I didn’t realize what I was doing. I was just a kid having a good time.”
At the age of 22, after serving in the Marine Corps, Ornelas decided to pursue his passion of sculpture art, though it did not go as planned. “Within a couple of years, [it] just wasn’t panning out. I actually said ‘I’m not going to be an artist.’ I made a conscious decision to stop doing it. Stop sculpting, stop any metal, stop all of that, and get a real job and a career.”
Ornelas did just that. He began working in the film industry successfully for the next 25 years as a Property Master, which involves handling detailed props in filmed scenes. Despite his efforts of practicality, Ornelas realized his creativity could not be suppressed. “What I found after a conscious effort to quit doing it, was that I found myself sitting around doing it absentmindedly anyway. It dawned on me that it was something that I didn’t really have a choice in not doing… I couldn’t stop doing it if I wanted to.”
Now retired and revived with a second creative wind, Ornelas has gone back to his roots as a latchkey kid, picking up the most unlikely treasures and working them into something new. “I’ll find something that is just junk or laying on the street and I’ll find it interesting… I might hold on it for six months [to] five years. I mean I have stuff all over my studio that I found interesting and [just] haven’t found its mate yet.”
Ornelas’s work features industrial materials such as sheets of metal functioning as canvases of roughly detailed dogs, manhole lids that have been converted into coffee tables, blocks of concrete supporting thoughtfully sculpted metal twine.
Ornelas also plays with the contrast of Earth and industrial materials. For example, he often works with logs of wood and pieces it with a boat sculpture, giving it a dramatic flair of the juxtaposition of land and sea.
“I’m consciously looking for things that normally wouldn’t go together or don’t seem to go together.” Ornelas explains that when he matches materials harmoniously, “It’s sort of Zen. I get really relaxed… Somehow the pieces go together, as if they were meant to be.”
The artwork put out by Ornelas is in no way political or philosophical, but materials that we interact with, within our everyday lives seen in a deconstructed light. “Art is everywhere. It’s in everything around us. It’s in the simplest forms, the simplest shapes, it’s accidental, it’s on purpose. Anybody can do it.”