By Peter Hemming | Photos by Brian Briggs
Gripping the yellow number two pencil between her thumb and fingers, six-year-old René Romero Schuler pressed its graphite tip firmly into a blank sheet of paper and began writing her parents a letter explaining that she would one day be a famous artist and drive a Rolls Royce. It seems René was born with ambition, even if her success would be preceded by the challenge of a difficult upbringing.
René spent her younger years with her paternal grandparents, Hernan and Elsa, and lived with them in Ecuador, where Spanish became her primary language and her passions were born. René describes this time as a highlight of her childhood.
She left Ecuador at age seven to move back in with her parents in Chicago, and it was not a happy reunion. Although her mother was an indifferent caregiver and her father, Rocky, had a temper that sometimes got the better of him, René enjoyed a close relationship with her half-sisters, Gina and Taña. “We must have moved eight or so times in the time I lived with them,” says René. After attending nine different schools, including two in Texas, survival took priority over education.
“I started running away at the age of ten, but the police just brought me home.” After years of this cycle, her frustrated father threw her out and told her not to come back. René was fourteen. She survived the unforgiving streets of Chicago by living in friends’ basements or spending some nights with friends pending the permission of sympathetic parents. “I was really great at hot wiring cars to sleep in!” admits René. Though underage, at 16 she obtained her own apartment and worked as a cocktail waitress.
Over the years, René endured bouts of depression as feelings of hopelessness buzzed through her head. But there were also whispers of something else. “I knew I was here for a reason,” says René. During those years of struggle, René worked feverishly on her art. “I wanted to be my own boss, so I started calling companies offering my artwork for lobbies or offices.” She began working for interior designers and art consultants and learning the business of art. “It was one of the greatest educations you could have.”
René’s biggest ambition was to exhibit her work in galleries and museums. “You have to deal with so much rejection,” René remembers. But with each rejection came a suggestion and René listened. In 2007, those suggestions paid off when René had her first showing at the ARC Gallery in Chicago. “It was the greatest feeling because somebody deemed my work worthy.” Her career took off. Today, René’s work can be found in galleries across the country and internationally, including those in Chicago, Florida, and Paris.
René’s art is expressionist: simple figures with striated backgrounds of muted highlights and shadows. “My art is deliberate and expressive,” explains René. “It’s about images and perceptions that bring you to a place you can relate to.” To create her pieces, René uses a metal palette knife, carefully layering the oils until she gets the images and textures she desires. René also creates lovely pen and ink drawings and wire sculptures. “Sculptures are a fun, hands-on thing,” says René.
When she is not working, René, her husband Rick, and two sons, Ian and Owen, divide their time between Lake Forest, Illinois and a recently purchased home in Carmel. “Carmel is idyllic,” says René. “It’s always been a dream of mine to live here.” She and her father have also since reconciled. “My father has worked very hard to recover and become a good person. He is a great grandfather to my boys.”
Art is therapeutic for René. “It’s the way I cope with things; I call it therapy on canvas.” Fortunately for her, the results of her therapy are in demand as she plans showing her work at future international art fairs and museums.
“I still don’t have that Rolls, but at least I’ve driven one,” she laughs.