Vicente “Vinnie” Gonzalez was in a painting class at Virginia Commonwealth University when he got some advice. “Think big, and one day you will create big,” said his teacher, Javier Tapia.
Gonzalez followed that advice, and then some. He is an artist who channels passion into many media. He creates large-scale acrylic paintings; he’s a photographer; he’s a theatrical set designer and an actor.
“I was a kid who had too much energy, pre-Ritalin,” he said with a grin. “My parents didn’t know what to do.” Gonzalez grew up in Prince George County, where his father was stationed at Fort Lee. “There were some Hispanics there,” he recalled, “but we gravitated more toward other cultures. We grew up around country people. I never saw myself as a part of a minority. I wasn’t what was depicted on TV as a Hispanic.”
Gonzalez’s parents were born in Colorado; his father was an adoptee, of Mexican-Indian heritage, and his mother’s family included Spanish, French, Italian and German forebears.
“I took some art in high school,” Gonzalez, 43, said. “When I was a senior, within the first week of school, the teacher let me and another student work on our own projects, because we already knew what we were doing. She believed in me.” He had natural drawing talent and a particular interest in stippling and pointillism.
Theater, too, became an interest at Prince George High School in 1989. “From my first musical, ‘Fame,’ I was energized,” he recalled. There was no part for him in the next show, “Greater Tuna,” but his teacher suggested he co-direct. “Then I fell in love with theater, onstage and behind the stage.”
His brother attended Richard Bland College, and Gonzalez learned that professor David Majewski needed assistance on a college show. “I helped,” Gonzalez said, “and then I went to Bland and worked on sets, took set construction classes, took part in every show. I learned how to make stock flats and reuse them, to buy paint in bulk and mix your own colors, to reach out to thrift stores and antique shops to borrow furniture.”
After graduating from Bland in 1995, he went for a bachelor’s degree in theater at VCU. “I was able to get a job at Theatre IV, building sets while I was in school,” he said. Meanwhile, a roommate talked him into taking a painting class, and that’s where Javier Tapia saw his aptitude. “What you’ve accomplished in one term usually takes students two years,” said Tapia, his professor. But Gonzalez chose to stick with theater.
After graduating from VCU, he moved to Chicago to pursue theater, but found that “in a new place, you start all over again, start at the bottom.” After some frustration, he abandoned theater and took a job in retail and returned to pointillism in his spare time. He saw the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat at the Art Institute of Chicago and “fell in love again” with the work.
Gonzalez began to paint again, experimenting with different tools. He tied twine around round brushes to make a fine point, but he wasn’t satisfied. Then he saw a paint applicator at an art supply store — a small plastic squeeze bottle with a mechanical-pencil tip. “It gave an effect similar to pen and ink,” he said. “I used it to move to more realistic pieces — a Buddha, a jellyfish. To get the realistic effect you have to control the paint, placing it where it needs to go. Then, using the bottles, I started to let the paint fall where it wanted. I found you can let the work get much larger. You don’t have to control it.”
He returned to Richmond in 2006, and later heard that Richmond Triangle Players was looking for Hispanic actors for its production of Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out.” Gonzalez’s performance was well-received, and his former VCU classmate Jennie Meharg urged him to try out for the Triangle Players-Henley Street Theatre production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’ fierce 2005 drama. Director Bo Wilson cast him as Satan — an expansive, charismatic character that Gonzalez inhabited with gusto.
“The moment he walked in,” Wilson recalled, “(artistic director) James Ricks and I sat up — he was reading for Satan, and he had that darkly attractive look, the piercing eyes, the casually wry humor. And the piece itself was an ensemble piece, and Vinnie understood very well the job of fitting in as one among many.”
Meharg appeared in the play as well; Gonzalez and Meharg, who live in Church Hill, have been a couple since 2011.
“I haven’t done much acting since then,” Gonzalez said. “Most shows in town don’t require a Hispanic, and not everyone is able to get past ethnic types. I only audition for things I’m passionate about.”
About three years ago, his visual artwork evolved again, as he began to use larger plastic bottles filled with metallic and pearlescent paints.
Gonzalez has had a studio at Plant Zero for six years. “I’d love to be here every day,” he said, “but I can’t.” To make ends meet he designs theatrical sets and lights, does carpentry and house painting. He’s thinking about incorporating some of his large paintings into furniture pieces, using his carpentry skills. And he’s moving again toward a more realistic aesthetic.
“I’m starting,” he said, “to help the paint find its way.”
Susan Haubenstock is a Henrico County-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.