Victor Bono is as much of an artist as he is an advocate for changing lives. His words are much like his copper work in the fact that they’re both subtle yet powerful, both delicate yet strong. He’s an artist that takes the same pride in his work as he does his culture and his soft-spoken voice is one that commands the attention that so many demand.
As a former inmate, Victor Bono has held his fair share of classes teaching the art of copper working and his hopes are that it will one day change the lives of others as it did for him. With a current waiting list of six months to get one of his pieces, Victor Bono is one of the best-kept secrets in the world of copper portraiture and plaques. From corner to corner, his pieces even come with copper frames and his attention to detail is unparalleled.
Yet it’s the same common love for his Chicano culture and his art that leaves each of his pieces infused with elements of it’s illustrious historical timeline. But just as his art has become therapy it also serves as a tool to speak to others both old and young. As a frequent guest speaker to both children and inmates at correctional facilities he’s here to share the art, spread the word and pass on the craft that he’s mastered.
In what is a very rare interview with an artist that has fallen beneath the radar we talk to coppersmith Victor Bono as he talks about art and the changing effects it’s had on his life.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from the Chicano Barrio La Colonia in Watts, California. That’s important to me and I go there all the time and never forget my roots.
How did you get introduced to the art of working with copper?
It was during an after-school program in grammar school when a group called the Woodcraft Rangers came in and introduced our class to the art and it’s stuck with me since.
You’ve been into this art for well over 30 years. How has the price of copper changed since you’ve first started purchasing materials?
It’s changed a lot. I used to get a roll of copper for $50 but now that same roll will cost me $380.
How was the transition from drawing on paper to creating art on copper? Was it awkward? Was there a huge learning curve you had to go through?
It wasn’t difficult for me and luckily it all came naturally.
What is the most significant part of creating each piece?
It has to be the depth of each piece. What I create is on a single dimensional plane or what starts off as a flat piece of copper so I need to create the right angles and give it the right curvature to create depth and intensity. Things need to pop out and speak.
What is the one characteristic that you feel every artist needs?
To be a successful artist you have to have detail and the ability to create life from each piece. As an artist you have to be able to move people and touch the senses, and when people look at your piece it has to speak to them.
A lot of your pieces have a Chicano theme? What nationality are you?
My father was Sicilian and my mother was Mexican (she was a zoot suiter) but my dad says I looked like the Milk Man. [laughing]. But in all seriousness, I treat my culture with pride. Chicano Mexican culture is all in me and that’s all I care about. I want kids to know about the history. I talk to the kids and I would like for the artists that emerge from the introduction to the craft to create something that comes from their art. I want them to express their pride, expose the history and create a reference to their ancestry.
Why has it become so important for you to teach children to explore and investigate their cultures?
Over here in school they put an extra large emphasis on Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and all these other people that had nothing to do with most of us so I want the kids to understand and appreciate their own heritage regardless if you’re Chicano or not. I always tell the kids that when the white man was coming out this way and came to the desert and saw cactus, sand, rabbits and water they saw a death trap, but to the native Americans they saw a supermarket. This teaches you that it’s not about what you find, it’s all about what you’re capable of doing with it-the mind can either help or poison you.
What has been your biggest downfall in life?
The biggest downfall in my life was in 1967 when I was sent to Federal Prison. I ended up spending 31 years there and watched my four kids grow up through photographs. What was just as painful was never being able to attend the funerals of aunts, uncles and even my father when he passed.
How did a sentence to prison bring you back to the craft you remembered as a child?
When I went to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, they had rolls of copper out in prison industries. They were using them on the machines for the punch press so I asked the priest if he could talk to the supervisor to get me some copper so I could make him a picture of the Lady of Guadalupe for the chapel. The next thing you know, he got me the copper, I delivered the the piece and after that, I started a copper class inside and used what was taught to me as a child to teach others inside the prison system.
What is your definition of success?
Coming out of prison and introducing myself to the art community and being able to stand there with my form of art, with no one to compete with, is my definition of success. But ultimately, I want someone who practices the same craft to stand there with me.
What was the initial response to your work when you first displayed?
When I first started displaying in Santa Monica/ Venice, California, a lot of artists were annoyed with me being there, but once they saw the positive reaction from the general public it changed their minds. Later I became a welcomed and invited guest and I’m actually the only member of the Catalina Art Association that deals with art.
Aside from taking the time out to speak to children, you also spend time talking to inmates at various correctional facilities. What is their reaction to you not only bringing a speech but also your unique form of art?
Right off the bat they love the art and it helps me get their attention, but I always tell them the truth. I tell them that the people on the outside are struggling for jobs and that things could be rough once they get out. I try to instill into them the mentality that when there is no job, you create a job-there is no such thing as NO jobs. I tell them to start getting creative and honing their skills by sending their loved ones treasures from both the heart and the art instead of having loved ones come and visit or make phone calls -all of which end up costly. To add to that, each piece of art that is sent is heartfelt, and even better is that they’re not only crafting keepsakes, but also skills which can potentially land them work if they continue to grow it.
What is your advice to young and aspiring artists?
If you see something you like, you want to record it in some way, shape or form; if you’re interested in something then dive into it and explore the historical background of what you love and spread the word and the vision through your art.
What is the best way for our readers to get a hold of you?
If you would like to purchase, commission or just say hello, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any last words?
First of all, I’d like to thank my wife Virgie and my kids for being supportive all these years, and the staff at Arte for letting me show my art to the world.