Images of repression and despair loom over three women waiting for their perms to take at a Columbia beauty salon.
The women are clients of Solon Francisco Hair Studio in the Village of Long Reach. The somber images are the product of Bolivian-born Carlos E. Barrera, whose painting of armed guards and frightened citizens hangs just a few feet away in the Irazu Gallery.
The gallery, which is in the same room as the hair salon, is displaying the works of Latin American artists in the exhibit "Latin American Legacy" to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month through Oct. 28. A reception will be held Sept. 28.
But the two establishments share more than just 1,500 square feet of space.
Customers who cross the hair studio's threshold instantly become patrons of Irazu. Whether strolling through the narrow gallery that spills into the waiting area or sitting in curlers and plastic aprons in the hair studio, they are treated to bold displays by local and foreign artists, as well as original creations that decorate the salon.
"Other shops are stark and cold," said customer Nancy Kay of Ellicott City. "This is real peaceful. It's so eclectic."
The dimly lighted gallery and salon, nestled among a cluster of shops in Columbia's Industrial Park, are co-owned by artist Oscar Zuniga and the hair stylist whose shop bears his name, Solon Francisco Jiminez.
The two, who are cousins, moved to Columbia from Costa Rica in 1987. Six years later, they decided to showcase their talents and those of other Latin American artists in a mutual venue.
"This way I promote my shop and I promote the art," said Mr. Jimenez, 40.
This is the second year that Irazu -- the name of a volcano in Costa Rica -- is presenting the "Latin American Legacy" exhibit. Last year's show focused on the works of Latino artists living in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"We had a nice representation of all Latin American countries," said Mr. Zuniga, who works for Aspira Association, a private Washington-based education and leadership program designed to help Latino youth. "[Generally,] we don't only show Latino art, but we want to promote Latino artists. It's hard for Latino artists to get exposure in the local arts studios."
The most recent U.S. Census put the county's Hispanic population at 3,699. But officials at the county-based Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) say the number actually may be 4,000 to 5,000.
Despite the numbers, the initial hunt for local Latin American artists proved frustrating.
"We went to look for Latino artists specifically, but none of the arts groups in Howard County knew of any," said Mr. Zuniga, 33.
He attributes their lack of exposure to the fact that most galleries require that art be professionally framed before they will hang it -- and that can be costly for struggling artists.
"Professional galleries expect them to be presented in a professional manner," said Theresa Moroz-Colvin, deputy director of the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, who agreed that despite the center's open calls for artists, professional framing is a must.
Irazu, however, will hang the works unframed.
This year's exhibit includes artists who live in Latin America and Hispanic artists in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Through a sponsorship by the Costa Rican Embassy in Washington and personal contacts made in their native Costa Rica, the gallery owners managed to assemble 17 pieces by six artists from Costa Rica -- one of whom lives in Beltsville; two from Bolivia who live in Kensington and Tacoma Park; and one from Peru who lives in Washington.
The rich collection features detailed acrylics, bold oils, abstract mixed-media and stark pencil-and-paper drawings of villages, village life, landscapes and representations of repression and creativity.
Since opening two years ago, the gallery has presented five shows, including a jewelry exhibit of local artists from Chile; a combined Chilean metals/minerals exhibit with a display of Mexican Indian masks; and a combined sculpture exhibit by a Canadian artist and photo collage by an American.
The gallery also plans to exhibit works of local U.S. artists in a crafts display in November.
"We want to give a break to emerging American artists," Mr. Zuniga said. "We're not looking for the artists who are always exposed in the Howard County galleries."
But the gallery's art is not confined to pieces on the walls. Mr. Zuniga hand-painted the gallery's floor from a photo of the San Marcos Basilica in Venice and complemented that design with two-dimensional stained-glass pictures that hang outside the hair studio.
Unlike other beauty salons, Solon Francisco Hair Studio is not crowded, noisy or lined with wall-to-wall mirrors. It has antiques, tropical plants and just a few mirrors, ornately framed.
"Our mirrors give privacy, so everyone is not looking at you from all angles," Mr. Zuniga said. "Then they feel naked, very exposed."
Though Irazu's art patrons can't have their hair done while viewing the exhibit, Solon Francisco's customers -- some of whom travel from as far as Atlanta and Denver for a haircut -- always are invited to gallery openings.
"We want to make them a part of our shows and what we celebrate," Mr. Zuniga said. "We don't want to make it separate."
Besides, said Mr. Jimenez, "they love to socialize."
Irazu Gallery will present the second annual Latin American Legacy through Oct. 28 at 9143-G Red Branch Road in Columbia. The reception will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 28. Hours are from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Information: 740-4247.