The Anthropomorphic Imagination of Lara Meintjes On Display at Viento y Agua

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Lara Meintjes at Viento y Agua. Photo by Sarah Bennett

When Lara Meintjes sees someone driving down the street, her first thought is that they would look so much cooler if there was a raccoon on their shoulder or if their face was a deer head instead.

And when she meets a new friend with an intense, award-winning beard, she imagines the mass of facial hair as an octopus getting bored with the conversation and walking off his face.

“This is just the world I live in,” says Meintjes, a Long Beach-based artist with perpetually hot-pink hair who turns her peculiar thoughts about strangers and friends into hand-drawn anthropomorphic portraits. “I look at people and make up bizarre stories about them and that’s normal to me.”

Meintjes is originally from South Africa, where she grew up on a farm outside of Durban. There, cows and monkeys wandered the land and she became fascinated by the juxtaposition between nature and what we’ve built over it.

When she and her photographer husband moved to the U.S. with their daughter Jamie three years ago, the urban landscape of Long Beach became an added influence on Meintjes playful imagination. North American animals like possums and raccoons and coyotes all soon became part of her colorful illustrations (most often as heads to humoid figures), which over the last few years have made their way to gallery walls across the city.

In her most recent show–Once, and Sometimes More Than Once, up now through the end of December at Viento y Agua—Meintjas displays dozens of her friendly creatures, from the otter-headed man wearing a smoking jacket to the walrus-topped body decked in a vintage baseball uniform.

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Each character has been named and given a cleverly written bio that, despite their physical improbability, reflects realistic personalities in so many ways.

Under a framed portrait of a lion-man wearing a suit and bow tie, for example, it says that “Nigel recently changed his name because ‘Ace’ was just too obviously American, and he was into mystery, and serious coffee and facial hair and girls who wore floral wreaths and thought blogging was a serious career path.”

“When you’re a kid, these types of things are achievable and we put those things away when we become adults,” Meintjes says with a charming South African accent. “We dye our hair brown and get a job at the bank, but we’re robbing ourselves of something quite magical—something that makes us human.”

The venue for Meintjes’ current show seems even more appropriate when you consider that the coffeeshop itself is where much of her inspiration comes from. With her house a few blocks away and her daughter’s elementary school across the street, Viento y Agua has become a daytime sanctuary for the self-described “barefoot African girl.”

larawallartFrom the comfy couches and well-worn upholstered reading chairs, Meintjes often overhears conversations or watches people pass by and fantasizes about them as superheroes, bunny gymnasts or surrounded by stray cats. Then she goes home and draws her visions.

Over the years, her work has become even wilder, with fantastical portraits of deer-headed friends and clients as tennis-playing foxes. Recently, her colors have begun to bleed outside the lines, creating a blurred separation between the drawings themselves and the surrounding white canvas. Several of her pieces are now also gold leafed, adding an air of regality to the leaky inkwork.

Despite her and her husband’s roots in South Africa, the creative pair have found a permanent home in Long Beach’s art scene, where neon-haired adults with childlike thoughts and a natural talent for illustration are not seen as weird, just another notch in the belt of diversity that makes this city so great.  

“I’ve never been a part of a community with so many artists in such a small space,” Meintjes says. “I feel like we belong here in some way, which is weird since we grew up halfway around the world.”

Once, and Sometimes More Than Once is on display now through the end of December at Viento y Agua, 4007 E 4th St. Prints range from $45-$225.

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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