L.A. Designer: Ana Serrano Creates Colorful Cardboard Cities

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Ana Serrano is an artist and illustrator who creates three dimensional cardboard structures that are colorful representations of city living.

She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and says she finds inspiration and beauty in the regular neighborhoods around her. Whether it’s an unabashedly visible satellite dish on an apartment building, or barbed wire twisted over a fence, she relishes those little marks of urban life that can be anathema to homeowners’ associations.


Ana Serrano is an artist and illustrator who creates three dimensional cardboard structures that are colorful representations of city living.

She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and says she finds inspiration and beauty in the regular neighborhoods around her. Whether it’s an unabashedly visible satellite dish on an apartment building, or barbed wire twisted over a fence, she relishes those little marks of urban life that can be anathema to homeowners’ associations.

As a first generation Mexican-American, much of her work focuses on life in L.A.’s immigrant communities where she grew up. She graduated from Art Center College of Design back in 2008, and since graduating she’s created a number of installations, including Salon of Beauty, a colorful city made out of cardboard displayed at Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2011.

parkinginrearanaserranoHer work is also currently on display at California State University Northridge  alongside other artists in the exhibit ‘This Is Not A Self Portrait: Reflections of Erasure, Solidarity and Belongingthat will run until March 29.

She told DnA that the little aesthetic modifications that people make to improve their homes, apartments, or storefronts are a huge influence on her–be they Home Depot buckets turned into planter boxes or the quirky lettering on a cash checking store. She says that she’s fascinated by the results of people “doing with what they have.”

Read DnA’s interview with her here.

DnA: Did you grow up in LA?

AS: I did, born and raised, and I currently live in Highland Park. So I would say most of my work is inspired by Los Angeles. But every city I’ve been to inspires me. There are plenty of things that change on a day-to-day basis in an urban environment and I’m interested in capturing that in my work.

I just feel that the city (in a broader sense) is always changing, and so one day something will be painted on a wall, and the next day it will be gone, and I want to capture that.


I feel like that’s especially the case in Los Angeles with high turnover of businesses. I sort of feel like in creating these pieces, I am sort of immortalizing certain parts of the city.

All of the work I do is sort of creating my own imaginary spaces, I’m not creating exact replicas of what I see, they are little homages to the city.

DnA: How much does Latin American culture play a role in your work? 

AS: I was born here and my family is Mexican, and both of those cultural contexts have played a significant role in my upbringing.

I think that’s the main connection. I’m referencing neighborhoods where immigrant communities settled in.

DnA:  You said that you focus on places with a low socioeconomic status. How are you trying to portray these la dolce vita ana serranoplaces?

AS: Definitely with a positive light. For me, though, they were always beautiful places, and I never saw them as gritty places, so I always felt the natural or realistic way to portray these communities was in a positive light. I notice the beauty in things that other people aren’t able to see.

A lot of times for example I’ll use things like  barbed wire, or iron bars, or metal doors and that’s always something that’s not necessarily seen in a positive light. They are security measures that make you feel safe, but in reality they actually make you feel the opposite. But I I put them in a bright, colorful context and I think I portray them in a way where they are actually inviting, as opposed to intimidating.

DnA: How do you make them inviting?

AS: I think the very fact I’m taking them off the street and into a gallery setting, it’s already comforting for the viewer. I think physically experiencing the image of barbed wire, metal doors, it’s placing yourself in a safe situation.

You’re able to see them differently when you do step out in the real world.

DnA: What L.A. neighborhoods inspire your work? 

AS: Currently I feel inspired by Highland Park because that’s where my studio is. I’m always paying attention when I’m driving anywhere. But I really like South Central, there’s this one corridor on Florence blvd and Firestone blvd. But in general I am always really focused on tiny details. There are things to see everywhere.

mis quinceDnA: What is the role of color in your work?

I think color is important because I feel like the color scheme I use is very informative to people, as you can see when you go from one low income neighborhood to a high income neighborhood. The color scheme is completely different. High income neighborhoods tend to have more muted colors.

The types of businesses I try and portray are liquor stores, check cashing places, strip clubs. And when you apply colors to these types of places, naturally people associate very bright colors with happiness.

DnA:  To what extent does your work represent a reality, and to what extent is it a bit of a fantasy?

AS: It’s definitely a mixture of both. The work is representational, and I am making objects that are very similar to what’s out there in the real world, and they are always the romanticized version of what’s out there.

I only include the details that I want to include in a version of a landscape that I want to portray. There are lots of things that I choose not to include in my work.

DnA: What don’t you include? 

AS: The first obvious thing is the actual human figure, I always tend to go away from that.

I’m viewing other people’s decisions, their small aesthetic choices and not the people themselves. I always like to see the homeowner and the business owner in the light of them being folk artists, in that they are making aesthetic decisions without training.

So because I’m more interested in these decisions that people make, I’m not necessarily interested in the actual human figure.

Sometimes their lack of deliberate actions inspire me, sometimes it’s the way that people arrange their garden. They may not have a plan, but it may be beautiful.

iglesia ana serrano

 DnA:  Why do you work mostly in three dimensions? 

AS: I’ve always felt really attracted to things that are handmade and hand built. I think my introduction to art was always informal. I don’t have any artists in my family. My only exposure to art was through my elementary school art class. I took art classes only through my public school education.

I was always so drawn to 3 dimensional projects I did in school, so innately I think that’s what it comes from. And I experimented at home, making a couch for a barbie with a shoe box or making a replica of a volcano for school.

Cardboard is very accessible and easy to manipulate for me. That’s the reason I continue to make 3D objects.


DnA: What attracted you to cardboard as a material? 

AS: Originally I really liked the fact that it was readily available and that it was easy to manipulate, but I also like that it’s very light.

One of the first things I worked on was a large scale installation, Cartonlandia(top image). So during that project I had to think about if I’m making something that big, I had to be able to move it. Cardboard is a lot lighter than wood.

But primarily I’ve stuck with it though because it’s accessible, and I feel like it can relate to the topics I’m referencing.

Cardboard is something that’s seen differently in different communities. There’s plenty of people who will collect it and get reimbursed for it, so it equals money in certain neighborhoods, and it’s seen as trash in other neighborhoods so I like that idea.

I also like the fact that it’s a material that’s very approachable. I like my work to be approachable by a large audience. If it’s cardboard it’s something that people can easily understand.

Even if the topics I approach can be heavy, the work in itself is very approachable.


DnA: What details pop out at you when you walk around an urban space? 

AS: The things that pop out the most when I see the human hand presence in certain things. Or maybe just things that are unique. For instance there’s a house down the street that has all of their plants in Home Depot buckets instead of traditional pots. Those are the types of things that pop out at me.

It’s really interesting to me that they used those buckets to plant things, and they are using that as their containers. It’s different, it’s quirky. And my impression is the  person who did that isn’t aware that it’s quirky or different.

And I’m attracted to the lack of pretension as well, you do with what you have. That’s always interesting is doing with what you have.

I’m just the viewer and I’m trying to make these connections after the fact, I never go up to a homeowner and ask them about it, because I don’t want it to lose its magic.

Read more about Ana Serrano in Artbound.

salon of beauty orange

All images courtesy of Ana Serrano.