Local artist’s interpretations of the flag yearn for a time when Americans could agree to disagree

By Christina Campodonico

Ramona Otto’s “United We Stand” playfully recreates the Americanflag with luggage tags

Santa Monica artist Ramona Otto has a unique way of expressing her American pride. Over the last 20 years she’s collected pencils, postage stamps, toy cars, old-school newsprint, various flea market finds and vintage flotsam and jetsam from all 50 states to create elaborate sculptures, images, installations and objects incorporating the design of the American flag and inspired by American folk art.

Red and blue vintage postage stamps from around the world are assembled into the Stars and Stripes for her piece called “Immigration,” featured on this week’s cover. Old Glory-hued newspaper clippings and cartoons line “Freedom of the Press,” a Hamilton type tray originally used to store typefaces for letterpress printing. Another rendition of the flag titled “United We Stand” shows a suitcase with red, white and blue United Airlines luggage tags. The red ones say “Fragile.” Perhaps it’s a comment on the precarious nature of democracy not only now, but then. As Benjamin Franklin famously retorted to one woman after the 1787 Constitutional Convention — the American people had “a republic, if you can keep it.”

The title of Otto’s collected flag-inspired artworks, on display in downtown Los Angeles through July 6, asks “Do These Stripes Make Me Look Political?” but she says the work is really “a love letter to America” that harkens back to a simpler time when politics weighed less heavily on the public consciousness and partisanship could set aside for a day of celebration. Pieces such as “American Childhood,” including an assortment of toys you might find in a McDonald’s Happy Meal, and “Gridlock,” with pint-sized red, white and blue cars lined bumper-to-bumper in a mini carmaggedon, are filled with unadulterated whimsy.

Recalling the annual Fourth of July parade that circled a small Iowa town in the 1950s — “so short that it had to go around the town square twice,” she tells me — Otto writes fondly in her artist’s statement of the community’s shared joy in watching children’s bicycles festooned with crepe paper and tractors decked out with American flags roll on by: “The Stars and Stripes represented then what everyone held sacred about America, and in fact, about life itself. We were all united in preserving it.”

“Today,” she continues, “it is often difficult for people to listen to and understand one another. I am nostalgic for conversations that end with a smile and ‘Let’s agree to disagree. Now where shall we eat lunch?’”

In a world where President Donald Trump hugs the flag at public appearances and NFL players “take a knee” during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” it may be difficult to find common ground around expressions of patriotism and free speech. But maybe art like Otto’s can be a starting point.

“I always want my art to be friendly,” she says. “I feel like with a lot of the art pieces you can look deeply into it, and I think there can be multiple levels of interpretation, but I don’t want to do that for the viewer. I want the viewer to make their own interpretation.”

Ramona Otto’s work remains on view through July 6 at the Los Angeles Fine Arts Building, 811 W. 7th St., Los Angeles. Find out more at ramonaotto.com.