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Salvadoran muralist's labors bring international recognition

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Nov. 11--Since coming to Washington in 1984 from war-torn El Salvador, Karlisima Rodas waited tables and taught school before gaining international recognition as a painter of murals.

Today, her paintings are on exhibit in museums around the world and have made her one of Washington's best-known artists.

She is driven by her work.

"It has to be stronger than anything," Miss Rodas, 35, said about her desire to be an artist. "It's like things will come against it and you will be shaken, but if you are stronger, then you will survive."

Her murals typically depict faces caught in moments of reverie with waterfalls, trees or other nature images in the background. Bright pastel colors around the faces sometimes give them a mysticism evocative of the Maya Indians of Central America.

Miss Rodas migrated to the United States with her family when she was 14, escaping El Salvador's civil war, a conflict that claimed 75,000 lives before it ended in 1992.

She began painting at 7 and later won artistic honors at Annandale High School. Similar academic honors followed while she was a student at Washington University in St. Louis. After graduation, she moved back to Washington to be near her mother.

In the Washington area, Miss Rodas' murals can be found in schools, in restaurants and on billboards.

Most days, Miss Rodas works alone at her home in Adams Morgan, where she has turned her living room into a studio.

Paint cans, brushes and canvases are strewn across tables and the floor with a hint of acrylic in the air. Some of her paintings, including a nearly professional still life she painted when she was 9, hang on the walls.

Her schedule varies daily, depending on the mural she has been commissioned to paint or the loose ends of a contract she must complete.

"In the beginning, I didn't like the office work," Miss Rodas said. "But then I realized it was part of the business. It has gotten much, much better."

On a typical day, she awakens at about 6 a.m. and takes a walk for morning exercise. She returns to eat breakfast and begins work around 9 a.m.

First, she mixes the colors she plans to use, then arranges her paint cans, brushes and canvases.

The hands-on painting consumes the rest of her day.

Her schedule can change abruptly. Sometimes, her research takes her to Rock Creek Park to make drawings of water rushing over stones or to sketch a sunset.

Other times, she travels to shows or to the workplaces of clients to paint a commissioned mural.

Some of them are painted on the walls of Luigino Ristorante, Wesley United Methodist Church and Cesar Chavez Charter Middle School. They also can be seen at her Web site at

To create a scene of horseback-riding hunters in the men's bathroom at Luigino Ristorante, she had to step out of the bathroom for a few minutes every time a customer entered.

She spent two months in 2002 working on a scaffold to paint a Civil War scene on the side of a gymnasium in Ottawa, Ill., as sweat occasionally dripped into her eyes or rain slickened her work area.

Other times, she reviews contracts, speaks with clients and makes rough preliminary drawings for client approval.

"Sometimes, I have to do it all over," she said.

As deadlines approach, she works late into the night and catnaps on her studio floor.

"I don't like that, but I have done it many times," Miss Rodas said.

As part of recent tours, she exhibited paintings at the Praxis Gallery in London in July and at the Salvadoran Embassy in Berlin in September.

Her best-known painting, called "The Vision," shows a Latin American woman's face with a determined glare filling a canvas. It is on a worldwide tour along with other women's art sponsored by the International Museum of Women in San Francisco.

When she is not working, Miss Rodas enjoys teaching art to teenagers and reading popular books. "I read a lot of biographies to inspire me," she said.


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