Nov. 12 2014 02:50 PM

Homelessness, cancer and loss of a leg haven't stopped the struggling-but-skilled San Diego artist

Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Two anime-loving teenage girls linger in front of a smattering of paintings and drawings hung salon-style inside San Diego Art Institute. Diana Duval surprises the duo from behind.

"I'm the artist," she says. "Let me know if you have any questions."

The girls are somewhat star-struck. They compliment Duval on her work and ask how she became an artist. They mention their own attempts at anime-style illustration and want to know how to improve. Duval advises them to go to art school and, while warning of the difficulties that come with living the life of an artist, encourages them to pursue art as a career. She then says her own work is for sale if they want to take some of it home. 

"Really, you never know who might have the means to buy art," she whispers to me later.

Duval's modest Encanto apartment is overflowing with art. It's been a few months since her solo show at SDAI, and all of the work from the exhibition is now either hung on the walls or stacked up around her, joining an increasingly hard-to-manage inventory. Whether it's one of her assemblage sculptures, drawings or oil and acrylic paintings, the art scattered around the apartment is all very recognizably hers.

Black and red are the most prominent colors in her palette. Her ornate frames are handmade from inexpensive Home Depot lumber, spruced up to look like elegant, gilded, antique-style metal frames. East Asian imagery and symbols are common. Several of her works are in an abstracted style she calls "fracturism," which distorts reality just enough to become somewhat disquieting. Skulls, bones and other dark elements often make their way into her work. And those knowledgeable of art history quickly recognize Duval's tendency to appropriate old, mostly European masters' compositions in contemporary ways, often replacing central male figures with females and adding other noticeable panache.

"That's a Lady Gaga portrait," Duval says, pointing to a large oil painting leaning against her television. "The title is ‘Birth of the Sacred Monster Creator.' It's a knockoff of Botticelli's ‘Birth of Venus.'" Later, she shows off a flawless painting of a vase filled with mostly pink flowers. There's one striking, abstracted red flower that stands out from the rest.

Duval, with a self-portrait, "Me, Too," and other works
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

"What do you think of this piece?" she asks. "It's kind of a spin on just a regular sort of still-life painting.

"I put a little mouse in it, too," she adds, laughing. "I have a mouse in my freezer. It's in an apple-juice jar hanging from a string by its tail. I can only keep him out to draw him for about 30 minutes before he starts to thaw."

Duval's eccentricities abound. She embodies her art and wears only red and black—mostly clothes and quirky hats she designs and fabricates herself. Even her fingernails are painted all red on one hand, black on the other. She also cuts and styles her own jet-black hair in a distinct fashion that makes her stand out in a crowd.

And then there's the missing leg. Duval often paints self-portraits or includes autobiographical imagery in her work. Wooden crutches or wooden legs are used in her sculptures, and a few severed legs make appearances in her paintings and drawings.

Years ago, Duval was diagnosed with a deadly and aggressive type of cancer. Rather than take her chances in having the tumor removed, she opted to have 27-and-a-half inches of her right leg amputated. She says cancer was one of the best things to ever happen to her.

"It really made me concentrate on my artwork," she explains. "After my diagnosis, I applied for the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and was accepted my first try."

Duval graduated with plenty of accolades and support from her professors, one of whom encouraged her to send her portfolio to New York galleries under a man's name because women weren't yet as accepted in the fine-art world. A divorced, broke mother with no family to help her out, Duval moved back to San Diego after art school and began trying to make it as a working artist. Her disability, though, eventually landed her on Supplemental Security Income (SSI). She was also approved for Section 8 housing, but she says a misunderstanding and three failed housing inspections—which she blames on an inept landlord and a busy schedule attending art school—eventually stripped her of Section 8 status and landed her out on the streets.

"I lost everything," she says. "I lost all my artwork, all my art supplies. It's just— imagine yourself walking out of wherever you live with three suitcases of clothes and nothing else."

Duval ended up homeless for more than two years. She slept in her car and used her SSI money to buy art supplies and rent out a garage where she painted and stored her work.

"But I looked like I look now—I kept up my hair and makeup," Duval says. "Most people never even knew."

The homelessness ended after Duval ran into an assistant to former state Sen. Christine Kehoe. The assistant told Duval that Kehoe would help get her back into Section 8 housing, and the senator did.

"Me," a self-portrait by Duval done in a style she calls

"I've been here 14 years now. I can't believe it," Duval says. "When I moved into this apartment, I was starting all over. I had nothing—nothing. The first real series of self-portraits I did started the moment I moved here. I had no furniture whatsoever, but I had some art supplies and a stack of really good paper, so I just sat in one of the bedrooms with charcoal, a pencil and eraser…. And I just created all these self-portraits, and every one came out so different. I realized that we're different people every millisecond of every day."

Duval doesn't have a computer or a cell phone. The only way to reach her is her home phone, which is hooked up to an answering machine with a recorded message that simply says, "Hello." Everyone who calls for the first time thinks it's actually her, which makes for a collection of hilarious, confused recordings. She used to have a more professional message that said something about reaching artist Diana Duval's studio, but she says the recording ultimately got her in trouble with the Social Security office.

"They said, ‘If we find out you're selling your work and not claiming it, you'll be in trouble,'" Duval explains. "I have to be really careful. I just need a huge jump, a big push so I can be independent." (To see her art, you can schedule an appointment at 619-262-5640.)

Duval wants to break away from government support, but she says it's been hard to make enough money from her art to survive.

"It's a really difficult transition to get off the system," she says. "They make it really difficult. Like, once, I received a letter stating that, if I get a check for, say, $300, I only get to keep $107. Would you work for only a third of your pay?" 

Duval's eyes drift back to the portrait of Lady Gaga. She recently sent handwritten letters to someone she thought was representing the singer, but her letters were returned unopened. She says she'll reach out to her again and to other famous women who might be interested in having their portraits painted in the style of a historical masterpiece. "The Mona Lisa," for example, could be reimagined with the face of Nicki Minaj.

Whatever Duval does, she says giving up art or trying to make a living in another way isn't an option.

"I'm not saying I like it or that it makes me happy, necessarily," Duval says. "I think art owns me in a sense. It's not easy. I mean, I'll work for, like, 20 hours straight on a piece. I become obsessed in some sense of the word, you know, and I live that piece." 

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