Lake Forest’s René Romero Schuler keeps painting as the world around her ceases to function
By David A. F. Sweet
Even for an artist used to social distancing — one who walks alone each morning in paint-spattered jeans to her studio in the woods behind her Lake Forest house — the coronavirus can be a powerful force.
“My takeaway from this is that I’ve been thinking about transformation,” said René Romero Schuler, whose first name means rebirth. “And that has led me to thinking about butterflies. It’s the most recognizable transformation we know of. They emerge majestic and beautiful (after life as a caterpillar).”
Schuler has always thought about painting butterflies — but now she is doing it, as a response to the pandemic. While the spread of the coronavirus has canceled a number of her scheduled shows, she remains motivated to create anew, adding to her decades-long prolific portfolio.
While some spend lifetimes finding their purpose, Schuler knew it in kindergarten. By first grade, in a letter to her parents written from her grandparents’ house in Ecuador, her goals were set.
“When I grow up, I want to have my art in museums, and I want to drive a Rolls Royce because it has my initials all over it,” read the missive.
By the time she reached high school, the Chicago native had already sold her first painting, a midnight-blue canvas with elements of Jasper Johns-type abstractions, her big influence at that time. Upon graduation, she began calling local businesses to see if they might want to commission her to create paintings for their offices. This launched a 12-year career of creating custom faux finishes, trompe l’oeil, murals, and sculptures for restaurant and nightclubs. Said Schuler, “This was the greatest education, where I learned more about materials, improvising, equipment, general business skills and so many other important things.”
At the same time, she faced constant rejection.
“Early on, when it makes or breaks you, I literally did break many times over,” Schuler said. “It will beat you down and leave you questioning everything, and everything feels hopeless. I think I just have a great deal of tenacity, or it was a simple matter of there being no other path for me to take. There was just nothing else I have ever wanted to do.”
One of the quinquagenarian’s best-known themes is creating female figures with thin arms and legs in different colors and using mediums beyond paint, such as gold leaf and India inks. The figures came about by chance.
“It was through a little tantrum that I encountered my technique of using a palette knife to apply paint to canvas. And in that moment of angry painting, I saw a face emerge on the canvas,” she explained. “By the time I finished that piece, I felt like it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
From there, she created more than three dozen self-portraits in that series.
“They felt raw and almost primitive, and I loved every single one for what each one gave me,” she said. “What began to emerge in my paintings were these feminine, ethereal, beautiful and even happy figures that were made up of thickly applied layers of paint and very deliberate marks — all intended to signify the yucky stuff that shapes who each of us becomes, and when you stand back from my paintings. all I want you to see is something beautiful.”
Her work (she also creates sculptures in steel wire and bronze) has been exhibited in Paris and Rome, among other international cities, and hangs in the permanent collections of The Union League Club of Chicago and Loyola University Museum in Chicago. She and her husband, Rick, are building a home in Carmel, California, where they plan to move in a few years. It will make visiting their son Ian — who will be a freshman at UC Santa Barbara this fall — a little easier (another son, Owen, attends Lake Forest High School). Aside from being a hotbed for artists, Carmel is also the site of Schuler’s next show in November, assuming normalcy has returned.
If that’s the case, her other studio in Lake Bluff may not be as lively. Because of the coronavirus, her assistant there has taken a break. When Schuler arrives these days, the self-described shy artist lets loose.
“I get to dance there now,” she said. “We have to find our joy where we can.”
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.