Pan Pantoja doesn’t have an art degree. He’s also never had a job without “art” in the title.
“If you were to ask the farmers and ranchers I grew up around, they would just say I was really different,” said Pantoja.
He spent his childhood in rural Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the 1980s and ’90s—running around the woods, catching fish out of creeks and causing the adults in his life to wonder where he might fit in.
“When I was old enough, they were like, ‘Maybe you should go to a city. Maybe this isn’t for you,’” he said during a recent interview.
Once, in elementary school, he was left unattended in a classroom, so he did what seemed to come naturally: He piled the furniture in the back of the room to make a nest. “I found some pigment, and I was making a bird onto the wall to go into the nest,” he said.
On another occasion, a visiting artist happened to be at the school. “He looked at me—he looked like a skinny Santa Claus. He grabs me and brings me into the principal’s office,” Pantoja said. “I thought, ‘They’re gonna kill me. This will be the end of me.’”
Instead, the visitor advised the school administrators that the young Pantoja had a creative spark that should be nurtured, and that he should be provided with art supplies and encouragement.
He got serious about drawing and painting right then and there, and he stuck with it through high school, depicting things he saw in the natural world—deer, for example.
Though he remained in the rural West throughout his childhood, he caught a few glimpses into the buzzing New York art world on PBS shows. The frenetic portraiture of Jean-Michel Basquiat—who began as a graffiti tagger and quickly became a gallery star—captured Pantoja’s heart. So did the cartoon-like paintings of featureless human bodies, always in motion, that Keith Haring cranked out by the thousands.
One day, in a public library in Idaho Falls, he happened upon a picture in a book. It was Salvador Dalí’s 1944 painting “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening.” In the image, an angry-looking tiger, pouncing toward a sleeping, nude woman, emerges from the mouth of a jumping rockfish, which emerges from a half-gutted pomegranate. Pantoja relished the sudden realization that art is not beholden to the constraints of reality. He remembers thinking something like. “You can do that! Wow! The deer can have four heads!”
In 2003, when he was in his early 20s, Pantoja moved to Reno, where he noticed two opposing phenomena. On one hand, the art scene was small enough that a lot of painters, musicians and other creative people were leaving for greener pastures as soon as they started to make it big.
At the same time, there was momentum in the air: A wave of artist-run galleries were able to pay then-cheap rents (even in Midtown, which was not yet called Midtown) long enough to gain a foothold and help popularize a generation of locals.
Pantoja found the scene energizing and quickly put down roots. Since then, he’s forged an artist’s life outside of the museum/gallery/university system and climbed the DIY career ladder. He’s gotten several local mural commissions, taught high school art and, in 2019, was appointed the first city of Reno poet laureate. He’s the director of the Potentialist Workshop, the longtime DIY artspace on East Second Street that serves as a playground and experiment zone for artists, boasting studio spaces, a gallery, a recording studio in the basement and a black box theater in the back room. He also does the programming at Savage Mystic Gallery, which Morgan Savage-Moffat, a painter and psychic, opened in the former location of Ceol Irish Pub in 2021 to showcase artwork with a spiritual bent.
All along, Pantoja has continued to sew collaboration with local and out-of-town artists. In 2021, he and several others embarked on a national bus tour, installing paintings and sculptures in several cities. (Stay tuned for news of a documentary film on that project.) In 2022, he brought a team of artists from Reno and beyond to Miami to install an outdoor exhibition for Art Week. And in recent years, he’s struck up a collaboration with the Niyo Arts Center—a nonprofit in Rwanda that supports women and children living in poverty—and shown work by the center’s artists in various venues. (Founder Niyonsenga Pacifique will be the Savage Mystic Gallery’s featured artist in July.)
In April, Pantoja, now 42, is having a solo show at Savage Mystic. The focus will be his newest paintings, which still ring as celebratory and optimistic as if he’d just discovered Basquiat, Haring and Dalí yesterday. But, in classic Pantoja style, the show will also showcase the community he’s helped build. At the reception, plan to see aerialists, musicians and “formal fashions.”
Coming up over the next year: Pantoja listed poetry, improv, a local film, experimental plays, a presence in the next Fernley Mural Festival, a mural at Mayberry Landing, and the installation he led in Miami, the House of Infinite Potential, to be reinstalled closer to home.
The works of Pan Pantoja will be on display from April 1-30 at Savage Mystic Gallery, 538 S. Virginia St., in Reno. A reception will take place from 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday, April 20. For more information, visit savagemysticart.com.