Rose Portillo’s grandfather left a tiny Texas border hamlet that grew up around a Native American pueblo, became a scenic painter at Paramount, and by the sweat of his brow, bought the Silver Lake Spanish deco she calls home. That was 50 years ago.
There’s no telling what her grandfather would make of the place now.
Grinning Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons mock the living from every corner. Painted roses climb from the dining room wall onto the ceiling. A cracked red-tile mosaic spills from the kitchen into the hallway. Votive candles illuminate a silk-screen tribute to the famous Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, whose brilliant intellect drew the condemnation of the Spanish Inquisition. A menagerie of psychedelic animals from Oaxaca turns a tabletop into a tableau of magic realism.
If Portillo’s kaleidoscopic decor is informed by Mexican cultural icons, the same aesthetic has crept into the rest of the house. Every wall of this baroque shipwreck on the hill is drenched in a different color, inspired by the traditional vibrant-hued Mexican walls that evoke the childhood home of legendary artist Frida Kahlo.
“My husband and I say, ‘White is for ceilings, and not for long.’ I have to be surrounded by color,” said Portillo, an award-winning actress who just wound up a run of a play she co-wrote detailing her father’s journey from a blue-collar family to life as a prosperous physician.
Her family’s history is narrated by a parade of stagy sepia photographs. This is the house where Portillo’s mother and father lived when she was born, where she took her first steps, where she lived until she was 7 while the family pulled together to put her father through medical school. And it’s where she dutifully cared for her widowed elderly grandfathers, friends from the Tejano village of Ysleta -- now swallowed by El Paso -- one of them the head of the Paramount set painters. “He could make an old piece of wood look like a Louis XIV,” Portillo said.
Portillo’s domestic backdrop, too, is inspired by fantasy, by a Mexico of memory, imagination and nostalgia. A Mexico she visited as a 12-year-old, and journeyed to later in books and films. A Mexico she experienced when her parents sent her to the Los Angeles dance studio of a Russian teacher named Solita Potoski to learn jarabe tapatio -- the Mexican hat dance. The highly visual aspect of Mexican culture left a lasting impression.
“I was drawn to the color and the folk art and the tactileness of it all,” she said.
Her acting career -- she had a lead role in the Broadway and film versions of “Zoot Suit,” starred in the West Coast premier of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” and acts in theater, television and film -- fueled the house’s sense of pageantry and drama. It is the stage for a celebrated annual party: Portillo and husband Roger Bowers’ Day of the Dead commemoration.
Unlike plays -- and even the best parties -- fixing up a house never seems to end. Especially when you’re doing it all yourself, like Portillo and Bowers.
“I’m used to the theater,” Portillo said. “You set a date; the show opens; the curtain rises. A house is a process. It never stops.”
The decade-long reinvention of the house began when Portillo and Bowers first got together 18 years ago. Bowers was then living in a spartan apartment with white walls and little more furniture than a drawing table and a bed. But Portillo, recently divorced, was headed in another direction. “I lived with a man who insisted for too long on white walls,” she said. “I needed a release.”
She began colonizing Bowers’ place with colorful art and fabric. As their relationship deepened, they moved into Portillo’s family home, where it became increasingly clear that white walls were to become a relic of Bowers’ past. “It’s a myth that color contracts,” Portillo said. “It’s an expansion. You just dive into the color.”
Soon the walls of the living room careened from turquoise to cerulean and cobalt blues, combining so many incendiary colors -- crimson, purple, orange and yellow -- that the house seemed ready to ignite, like the climax of “Like Water for Chocolate.”
“When we got here, she ran amok,” Bowers said, wearing a red guayabera with black stitching and sitting in front of bordello-scarlet gauze curtains festooned with plastic red roses.
“I love it,” he said. “I can’t imagine white walls now.”
Bowers’ complete conversion came in stages. The house needed a lot of work. One day, as they shopped for a new kitchen floor, Portillo discovered a huge lot of marked-down lacquer-red pool tiles.
“I got this crazy idea. I thought tile would interest me,” Portillo said. “I was always inspired by the Watts Towers and [Antonio] Gaudi” -- the Catalan designer of Barcelona’s famous tiled cityscapes. “It took a little convincing.”
And several years in home-renovation hell. For three years, the kitchen counter consisted of two sawhorses and a door. There was no kitchen sink. Portillo and Bowers were busy, and there were more pressing things to work on. Like the leaky roof, which collapsed one day in an enormous rainstorm, wrecking the new living room ceiling Portillo had just plastered herself. They were also redoing the bathroom, taking showers at her mother’s house down the street. One day “I said, ‘I’m not cooking or cleaning up until we get a kitchen sink,’ ” Portillo said. So Bowers took over the cooking and schlepped the dishes upstairs to wash them -- for three years. “He’s an excellent cook,” Portillo said.
She was often out of town for theater and film roles. Upon one return, she found that Bowers had installed a sink and all the drywall, leaving the kitchen ready for tiling. Teaching herself to lay and grout tile, Portillo smashed the red tile and created a mosaic that covers the kitchen wall and counters, snakes out into the downstairs hall and into a small half-bathroom. Bowers helped, though he and Portillo were not above tearing out and tiling over each other’s work if they didn’t like it.
However unorthodox the home seems, it brought out the architectural purist in Bowers. He ripped out the added-on Colonial Revival fixtures and restored the original Spanish-style doorway arches. Bowers suffers from arthritis, so Portillo wanted to pay someone to put in a new living room ceiling. But after another out-of-town theater run, Portillo came back to find that Bowers had installed a beautiful wood-beamed ceiling in the living room, in keeping with the Spanish flavor.
Upstairs, knowing Portillo loves to take baths, Bowers framed a large bathtub niche.
“He said, ‘I have made the altar for the bath. Do what you will with it,’ ” she said.
She covered the bath with a soothing, blue cracked-tile mosaic, creating a small niche above the sink for a tile she made with a heart design reminiscent of the kind of religious relics that adorn Mexican churches. She painted her grandmother’s old bathroom vanity a bright turquoise. They unveiled the bathroom at their first Day of the Dead party. “You know how at some parties people collect in the kitchen?” she said. “We stood around the bathroom.”
The Day of the Dead, a holiday with only the thinnest veneer of Christianity, quickly became a leitmotif throughout the house. Like the Celt-inspired Halloween, the Day of the Dead celebration is rooted in pre-Christian death rites and marks a time when the wandering souls of the dead revisit the living.
In pre-Columbian Mexico, the feasts for gods of death went on for a month or more at summer’s end. Following the Spanish conquest, Nov. 1 became the day that honored the souls of dead children and Nov. 2 became the more universal Day of the Dead. The observance, which lasts as long as a week in some regions of Mexico, celebrates mortality as a part of life, not something to be feared or denied. Children buy candy skulls or figurines of skeletons fighting bulls, smoking cigarettes and dancing.
For Portillo, the image of death and rebirth is a metaphor for her mosaics, and an inspiration for the lifetime process of accepting and even embracing change. “You go through the rubble and pick through it and make something of it,” she said. “That’s a big theme for me of the Day of the Dead: rebirth and transformation. This house has been transformed.”
Her artwork also syncretizes religious themes. A silk-screen of Sor Juana, the famous 17th century Mexican nun, is illuminated by a rack of church votive candles. Sor Juana holds special significance for Portillo as someone who suffered for her art. The nun became a famous wit, poet and playwright, only to be condemned by the Spanish Inquisition and forced to sign her confession: “Me, the worst of them all.” In Portillo’s silk-screen, Sor Juana laments that “tears and sighs dissolve my heart and soul together,” while a narrator comments: “If there’s one thing drives the devil up a tree, it’s hearing of a woman that’s smarter than he.”
Above Portillo and Bowers’ bed are four framed silk-screens they made of Adam and Eve, rendered as Mexico’s traditional picaresque skeletons. “She’s too kind to tell him she’s already found the apple,” Portillo explained.
She’s not above mingling the sacred and the profane. One painted Madonna wears a collaged gown encrusted with shimmery bottle caps that hold apparitions of Virgins and Hollywood temptresses -- “the virgin and the whore dichotomy,” Portillo said, “showing that the truth lies somewhere in between.”
Bowers’ artwork is more cerebral. His delicately colored geometric drawings, which hint at M.C. Escher and Southwestern pottery, are currently on display at the L.A. River Li’l Frogtown Gallery near Dodger Stadium. He’s thinking of carving some of his designs into the living room’s beamed ceiling. But for the most part, his love of lines and geometry have yielded to Portillo’s attraction to asymmetry.
When Bowers built the fence around the yard, he planned an even edge. “She said, ‘No you’re not,’ and went outside with a Crayola and I cut it along her line.” Portillo drew the red flames that now crown the fence -- an evocation of the flaming Virgin of Guadalupe, and the image of the beautiful nude woman who stares out beseechingly from the flames of hell, known as Las Animas.
“I require a visual order, and in my mind this house has achieved this order, even with the asymmetry,” he said. “This order has its own order.”
Bowers’ simple, well-ordered studio has a sweeping view of the city and a balcony Portillo is just beginning to tile. Her study is packed with scripts, file cabinets and the kind of religious reliquaries that decorate Mexican churches. It is here, with windows overlooking the garden, that she rehearsed her most recent role in About Productions’ “By the Hand of the Father,” an immigrant story about the legacy of several Mexican American fathers Portillo co-wrote with Theresa Chavez and Eric Gutierrez.
“You would be the first ... the first to prove it can be done -- to change the collar from blue to white,” reads the script. “When you walk into the operating room, the boardroom, the ballroom, your degrees won’t stop the stares, that ask, ‘What makes you think you can be here?’ ”
A similar sense of alienation sometimes colors her own professional journey. Recently Portillo was asked to read for a film part. They wanted her to play a maid whose characterization seemed to reinvent cinematic minstrelism.
“They made her so stupid,” she said. “They had this white homeless woman who was going to tell this hard-working Latina what to do with her marriage. The maid was like ‘Yes, missy, tell me what wrong with my husband. I get rid of him.’ ”
At her grandfather’s old place, Portillo’s creative freedom begins at home. One day, while discussing the beams of the red-tiled kitchen, Bowers volunteered that he thought they would look best painted in alternating shades of pink and turquoise. Portillo stared at him incredulously.
“I said, ‘Are you just saying that to make me feel better?’ ” she recalled. “I thought, ‘It’s over. I’ve won.’ ” In the end, “we really came together as artists,” Portillo said. “I was afraid to actualize my artistic inclinations in a big, permanent way, and he insisted. It wouldn’t exist without him. He emboldened me.”
Now, Portillo said, “my goal is to completely Gaudi the balconies.”