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Unmasking Artist Vanessa Callanta

Unmasking Artist Vanessa Callanta

For years, artist Vanessa Callanta struggled to find her way. She always created, but never really had a direction, saying her style was “all over the place” with cartoonish figures, watercolor pieces, acrylic paintings and realistic images she would put her own spin on to make more interesting to the viewer. All of that changed when Callanta took drawing classes with San Jose artist Cuong Nguyen.

Nguyen, who has twice been a winner of the Triton Museum of Art’s Statewide Painting Competition and Exhibition, taught in such a way that Callanta quickly realized she could still put her artistic touches on realistic drawings and still speak to the viewer.

Callanta then began her new body of work: facial masks strategically named after X-Files episodes, using herself, husband and friends as her initial models. The masks, done in charcoal on white paper, were her way of forcing the viewer to pay attention to the subject’s expression and emotion. The work quickly caught the eye of the Triton’s Chief Curator Preston Metcalf, who asked Callanta to be part of the museum’s current exhibit, “Fifty and Looking Forward…,” an exhibition of local artists in the early or mid-stages of their careers. Metcalf was so impressed with Callanta’s work he purchased three of the images, as well as commissioned Callanta to draw a fourth. Triton Curator Ester Fernandez was also taken with Callanta’s work and commissioned two additional pieces. Further, an anonymous Triton Museum donor purchased the three remaining pieces in the series for the museum’s permanent collection, leaving Callanta stunned.


“I was pretty floored,” says Callanta. “I kept thinking, ‘am I really that good?,’ but it told me I was going in the right direction; that this new style worked out. It helped me establish the path I need to take … I do want to go bigger in the future and maybe do full body or multi-figure but draw in the same charcoal style. I like the black and white and it being monochromatic. I like it stark. It doesn’t need to be busy to show you what I want you to see.”

Callanta, a graduate of Santa Clara’s Mission College who considers former teacher and Triton executive director George Rivera a mentor, says she plans on expanding the current work, adding additional features to her realistic faces.

“I love hands,” she says. “I love drawing hands. Hands have their own personality and I don’t think hands get enough credit. People always say hands are hard, but hands are your life, especially if you’re an artist, because your hands are who you are. You can have the most beautiful face, but you can have the most dry, big and knuckly hands, and I think that’s awesome. I’d love to incorporate faces and hands together or separately. I wanted to do a series of working hands and it’s still something I want to do. It’s somebody’s biography.”

Callanta’s work is on display at the Triton Museum of Art, 1505 Warburton Ave., through July 12. Some of Callanta’s older pieces are currently for sale in the museum’s gift shop. Older work can also be viewed at


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