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Style of scientist-turned-artist finds a place in Leucadia

Santos Orellana stands in front of some of his artwork, a marriage between American street art and iconography of past Mesoamerican cultures. His art is atypical of Leucadia, but locals have since come around to the style, he said.
Santos Orellana stands in front of some of his artwork, a marriage between American street art and iconography of past Mesoamerican cultures. His art is atypical of Leucadia, but locals have since come around to the style, he said.
( / Jared Whitlock)

Amid a sea of ocean-centric art in Leucadia, Santos Orellana’s work didn’t exactly fit in at first.

A scientist-turned-artist, in 2010 Orellana opened Santos Fine Art Galleries, featuring his Mesoamerican-inspired paintings. Although he was starting to gain international attention, some locally weren’t sure what to think.

After all, his paintings weren’t beachy. And his space, on Coast Highway 101, was once a larger surf shop.

“People would walk in my gallery and here I was, this bearded, long-haired guy without shoes on, painting something that wasn’t marine or surfing-related,” Orellana said. “It’s incorrect to say they didn’t like the place. It was just unexpected.”

But Orellana said the community has come around to his paintings and murals. He’s celebrating the gallery’s fourth anniversary during a public party there from 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 2.

“I’m less of a mystery,” said Orellana, whose relaxed tone makes him seem perpetually at ease. “And they’re more familiar with my style.”

The party will mark another milestone: his eighth year as an artist, an unlikely transformation.

Orellana once had a steady job in biotech. However, at the age of 32, he found himself devoting more and more time to painting, a self-taught, fledgling hobby. Without trying too hard, he sold a few pieces for modest sums. Still, he wondered whether he could support himself as a full-time artist.

It wasn’t the first time he had to choose between two divergent paths.

Orellana was born in Honduras and moved to Newburgh, N.Y., with family at age 11. Money was tight growing up. But he was able to put himself through college by playing tennis.

After graduating from Marist College with a degree in chemistry, he chose a job in biotech over a career as a tennis pro, because the financial prospects were better. Yet eight years ago, he opted to roll the dice and become an artist.

“There’s something to be said for playing it safe financially,” Orellana said. “But I threw that aside.”

While financially risky, the transition, he said, wasn’t as tough as some might expect.

“The best chemists are artists,” Orellana said. “The best artists are scientists. It was easier to bridge than people might think.”

He added: “I believe everything you do is a platform for the next thing, no matter if they seem different.”

His art draws upon his childhood in Honduras, where he was immersed in the iconography and symbolism of past Mesoamerican cultures. He marries this influence with urban street art.

“The lines in my pieces are telling a story,” Orellana said. “I want people to pay attention to those, and not just the colors.”

Orellana added that his aim is to tap into the freewheeling, subconscious portion of his brain.

“It’s kind of like going to therapy for eight hours a day,” he said with a laugh.

He got his start in San Diego’s Spanish Art Village, and he later opened a gallery in Solana Beach. When he outgrew that, he moved to Leucadia.

“It was like going from crawling to walking to running,” Santos said of the progression.

Being an outsider in Leucadia had its advantages. For one, he felt freed from public opinion.

“Since I was already doing something outside the norm, it empowered me to say, ‘I’m going to create whatever,’” he said. “I had the freedom to develop. Reaction hasn’t always been positive, but many have dug it.”

Carris Rhodes, the executive director of the Leucadia 101 Main Street Association, said Leucadia is increasingly home to artists with a range of styles. Rhodes added Santos is a good example of the trend.

“It’s more diverse than in the past,” Rhodes said.

As a testament to this, she pointed to the various murals popping up around town, like Orellana’s mural at Café Ipe and the recent 7-Eleven mural from comic book artist and pop surrealist Mary Fleener.

“The community has embraced them,” Rhodes said, adding that the mix of Orellana’s gallery and neighboring Surfy Surfy have added character to the community.

If Orellana was a bit out of place in Leucadia, he was a total fish out of water when he traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in late 2010 to paint a large mural near an inner-city playground.

Locals had invited him, but murals are often heavily censored or frowned upon there, making them rare.

“It was a big risk,” he said. “A lot of friends told me not to do it. I didn’t paint with headphones on because I wanted to be aware of any potential danger lurking around the corner.”

A photograph of him working on the mural made newspapers across the region. Some saw it as evidence of relaxed attitudes toward public art.

Orellana believes his mural, along with another two years later in Saudi Arabia, helped spur more art across the region. And in only a short time, he’s seen the form rapidly progress there, adding that some “very smart, subversive stuff” is popping up.

“I’m this crazy guy who kicked the ball just a little and others have kicked the ball a lot farther,” he said.

“Once you fall into these cracks of what art really means, it’s like, I don’t care if I starve. I could potentially be responsible for changing that part of the world, even a little bit.”

On that note, he now aims to kick-start more art in North County. Last year, he partnered with Mission Middle School in Escondido, where he led a student mural project.

“It’s a way of giving back to something that’s been good to me,” Orellana said.


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