An Artistic Legacy
- BY NATALIE FEULNER
- June 12, 2020
When Rochelle Leininger was a child, her parents threw the liveliest of dinner parties. Professors — friends of her father, Mel Ramos, who taught at then-Cal State Hayward — would fill the table with loud, friendly banter, color and vibrancy. For everyone in attendance, surrounded by her parents’ art collection of African tribal masks, a ceramic burping bowl, and a taxidermy lioness, the house was an eclectic space full of love.
“When I think about how I grew up, my life has been so full of diversity and passion and experiences that come with being exposed to art … in some ways, it was the greatest gift ever,” Leininger said.
When they weren’t hosting dinners, the Ramos family, guided by the family matriarch, Lolita (Leta) Alice Ramos (’76, Art), spent their days perusing galleries or picking through junkyards for just the right item to complement Mel’s latest painting or sculpture.
Mel Ramos was born in 1935 in Sacramento, California, to an immigrant Portuguese-Azores family. He began his life as an artist as an abstract painter, then as a figure painter who became best known for his depictions of graphic portrayals of women and comic book heroes.
Exhibited in a group show in 1963 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that included Andy Warhol, he became known as one of the founders of “Pop Art” in America. Over a 60-year career, Mel Ramos exhibited in more than 120 group shows and solo exhibits around the world.
Leininger and other family members established the Mel and Leta Ramos Family Foundation in 2017 as a way to carry on the legacy of Mel and Leta’s work as artists and art educators. The foundation funds arts education efforts through its Arts Education Initiative, which focuses on arts education as a primary need in underfunded urban neighborhoods and communities.
“If there [was] not a creative outlet for kids, the world would be a less interesting place,” Leininger said. “We have to make sure the arts are taught in schools, and we have to support students in their advancement in arts education.”
A recent gift by the Ramos family to Cal State East Bay is intended to do just that.
As part of its inaugural funding, the foundation created a paid opportunity for a need-based student in the university’s art department to receive funding in exchange for a commitment to teaching art classes at one of the Hayward Promise Neighborhoods schools. HPNs is a collaborative partnership working to alleviate poverty and ensure educational success in two of Hayward’s most distressed neighborhoods, the Jackson Triangle and South Hayward.
The pilot project was on track and a student was selected for the spring semester when the COVID-19 pandemic put up a roadblock. And while Hayward Unified School District has not announced whether students will return to physical classrooms in the fall, the foundation is working with the university to revamp the opportunity for the upcoming school year.
Leininger said partnering with Cal State East Bay for the inaugural Arts Education Initiative project was an easy decision. Having grown up visiting the university with her parents and attending art exhibitions or student shows, she knew both of them had fond connections to the students and faculty they met there.
“For my dad especially, he was so happy that he could actually earn a living doing what he loved,” Leininger said. “Not many people do a job that they don’t think of as a job … some of his greatest lifelong friendships were students and professors at Cal State Hayward.”
She said she hopes the gift will not only alleviate an art student’s financial burden but that it will also inspire them to go on to become teachers themselves.
It’s a legacy that Mel Ramos has already left, exemplified by one of his students from CSU Hayward, now working as an art professor at Ohlone College.
“I think about what would have happened if my dad had been discouraged when he wanted to be an artist … he didn’t stop, and he loved every day of his life,” Leininger said. “Both of my parents did. They loved teaching.”
Ultimately, she hopes the gift to Cal State East Bay will not only create a legacy of her parents’ work and values but will also reinforce the importance of arts education for all. She also hopes it will play a small part in ensuring students have access to the creativity and experiences she so fondly remembers her parents fostering in their children.
“It can’t just be math and science,” says Leininger. “It’s also critical to have art, creative writing, music, foreign languages … exercising creative expression is vital.”
To learn more about the Mel and Leta Ramos Family Foundation, please contact Rochelle@MelRamos.com. To donate to the Ramos fund and further support a Cal State East Bay student teaching art at a Hayward public school, contact Holly Stanco at firstname.lastname@example.org or 510-885-3183.
IN MEMORIAM: LOLITA (LETA) ALICE RAMOS (B.A. ’76, ART)
Lolita (Leta) Alice Ramos was 85 when she died peacefully on March 5, 2020, in her Oakland home. She was surrounded by her children, loving caretakers, and artwork created by her, her husband, Mel Ramos, and other dear artist friends.
Ramos was born in Auburn, California, on July 31, 1934, to Irene and Theodore Helmers. She began her modeling career early and would later become a lifelong model for her husband and the love of her life, Mel Ramos.
Leta earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Sacramento State and became an elementary school teacher.
In 1959 Leta had her first child, Bradley, who was born with Down syndrome. He was followed by a second son, Skot, in 1960, and a daughter, Rochelle, in 1964.
The family moved to Oakland in 1968 when Mel took a teaching position at then-California State University in Hayward. A few years later, Leta returned to school, this time at CSU Hayward, where she earned a second bachelor’s degree in art.
While all of these activities brought her incredible joy, Leta’s real passion came from working and volunteering with disabled artists. She was introduced to Oakland’s nonprofit organization, Creative Growth Art Center, where she brought her son, Brad, to attend its adult art program. Leta helped the school grow as she invited well-known artists to mentor and work side-by-side with the students. This was the most rewarding work of her life and is evident in her own mixed-media portrait series she created of the artists.
Throughout Leta’s life, she and Mel traveled extensively and spent 46 summers in Spain, where the family purchased and renovated an old house in the village of Horta de Sant Joan.
The most important loves in her life were her husband and the family they made together.