PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Rafael Pineda, left, owner of the Oak Room Lounge in Sparks, with Luis Rivas, a noted Dominican artist and sculptor who used recycled plastic objects to create artworks for the nightclub's patio.

On the patio of a Sparks nightclub, fantastical masks peer from the walls, presided over by an 8-foot-tall figure of La Catrina, the elegant skeleton who presides over the Day of the Dead in Mexico.

The colorful creatures and the new venue mark the crossroads of an entrepreneur from Reno and an artist from the Dominican Republic. The careers of both men, who share a common heritage, took off in new directions after the COVID-19 quarantine descended last year.

One started a business under challenging conditions; the other discovered a new medium for his art and a fresh outlet for his talent.

From soldier to entrepreneur

Rafael Pineda, 26, served four years in the Army and four more as a first lieutenant in the Nevada National Guard while he worked for Microsoft Corp. in Reno. It was a good job, but he dreamed of someday owning a nightclub. Then the pandemic hit.

“I was so tired of working at home,” said Pineda, who now owns the Oak Room Lounge, 1955 Oddie Boulevard. “I made the move.”

Property owners were wary about leasing to a young man about to open a service business in the midst of a lockdown. Then he came across the former Shakey’s Pizza building in Sparks, which had been vacant for more than a year. He made the deal and opened the lounge in December, under the 25% cap on patrons in force at the time.

“The limit went up to 50% in February and that was a relief,” Pineda said. When warmer weather arrived, he worked to get the club’s outdoor patio in shape for guests. He wanted to decorate it with artwork that was unique, yet complimentary to the venue’s Latin/Caribbean theme and dance music.

Connecting with an artist

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: “La Catrina” by Luis Rivas.

When Pineda’s father recently visited Reno from the Dominican Republic, he mentioned his friend, Luis Rivas, a noted Dominican artist and sculptor. Rivas took the commission and came to Reno in June. He spent three weeks transforming the Oak Room Lounge patio into a gallery of bizarre entities – all made of recycled plastic.

Turning trash into art, while at the same time sending a message about recycling, was a new direction for Rivas. The artist is famous in the Dominican Republic for his public sculptures, his costume and crown designs for the nation’s Miss Universe contestants, and his elaborate floats and traditional masks that are an essential part of the country’s annual Carnival celebration in February.

Last year, as the pandemic kept people quarantined and plans for art projects and festivals in limbo, Rivas started to go stir crazy.

“I had no work, no projects, no income coming in,” Rivas said through a translator. “In April, I started looking around the house and saw a plastic gallon jug. It was a spontaneous idea.”

Elaborate masks are a big part of the Carnival celebration in the Dominican Republic, he explained, and each region has its own traditional characters drawn from religion, folklore and the nation’s rich history. Rivas uses wood, glass or metal when he makes masks for the celebration, but hadn’t worked with plastic before.

An old, new medium

He sliced into the empty plastic jug, making a hole for his head and slits for his eyes. His imagination took over. He shredded plastic bags and teased the strips to make “feathers.” He used plastic rims from tiny mirrors as accents on the creature’s face. Twisted felt became the horns of a demon.

Rivas filmed the process and put the video online. “I just kept going, making a mask every day,” he said. “I just kept adding things every day and filming the process for the videos.”

The world noticed. Children from Europe to South America to the U.S. found the clips on the internet, got hold of plastic jugs and copied Rivas’ technique. He began receiving videos from children who showed off their own magical masks made from things that would have wound up in a landfill.

This year, the artist is hosting children’s workshops from Massachusetts to the European Union, showing kids how to create art from everyday objects and their own imaginations. He painted the masks he made during the pandemic to give them a softer, more elegant, look, he said, but the masks and the La Catrina statue on the Oak Room Lounge patio are untouched by paint.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Guests at the Oak Room Lounge examine the masks on the patio wall on June 8.

A message in art

“I left the ones at the Oak Room natural,” Rivas said. “You can see what each one is made of… It shows that there is no need for expensive materials. It shows people that they can use what’s available to make art. At the same time it’s a message about recycling and being good to the environment.”

Pineda said he’s pleased with the result.

“We went all over picking up trash, everything from old Barbie dolls and toys to a muffler from one of my old cars,” he said. “It just all came together.”

Although a Caribbean theme dominates the club, the La Catrina statue was included because the lady is such a familiar figure to local Latinos, many of whom have their roots in the culture of Mexico. At the opening of the patio June 8, guests studied the masks and spotted the various repurposed objects that are now woven into the whimsical décor. The more they looked, the more there was to see.

Pineda walked a circuit from the patio to the dance floor to the lounge and back again, welcoming his guests. It’s been a long, tedious pandemic, he said, but there’s much to celebrate this summer.

“We’re going to make it,” he said.

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