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PHOTOS: Pioneering Chicano artist Frank Romero now spends half the year in the South of France

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp

From this covered terrace on the fourth floor of his home in the South of France, Chicano artist Frank Romero can see much of the valley of the Ardèche. John Rabe

Almost 40 years ago, with his compatriots in the art collective Los Four, Frank Romero became the first Chicano artist to show at LACMA. In fact, it was the first Chicano art show in any  big American museum. With his broad brush strokes and bright colors, Romero has continued to document life in LA  -- the cars, the freeways, the tragedies -- on murals and smaller canvases.

For years, Romero lived and worked in the working-class Frogtown neighborhood by the LA River, but for the past eight years now, he's been spending more and more time in France, inspired by Diego Rivera's autobiography, other painters' works, and his French-speaking wife Sharon.

For seven months of the year, they live in a narrow but spacious home in the hilltop village of Mirmande in Southeastern France - population 486 - with a breathtaking view of the Rhone and the Valley of the Ardeche.

Here, instead of low-riders, he paints Citroen cars. He paints the horses in the fields. The flowers and the fruit. The light, he says, is very much like Northern California, and, he says, once the sun starts coming out (it's been a gray spring), he feels a rebirth coming on.

"It's a new opportunity to express myself," he says. "And yeah, I've spent my life developing a Chicano sensibility, with Los Four, and developed a style you could call Chicano. I thought I'd take that to a different environment."

Has his painting changed, I ask?

"In subtle ways," he says, but can't give me an example. "No, because I just started painting again. I'm experiencing a lot of things I enjoyed doing in the past, but they're put together in a new way, and what happens this summer when the sun comes out ... I think you'll see a whole new aspect of my work."

By the way, Frank, now in his 70s and battling the diabetes that runs in his family, says the combination of the walking required in a hillside village,  the good food and wine, and a new drug, is keeping the disease in check, and his blood sugar levels are almost normal.

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