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Masculinity Reimagined: An Artist's Journey to Challenge Societal Norms and Stereotypes

Portraits by DeVonni Larenz

One of life's most challenging obstacles can be adapting to changes. Sacramento-based artist and creative DeVonni Larenz shared his journey of changing career paths and what led him to art.

As a former student at California Polytechnic Pomona State University who majored in Industrial Engineering and ran on the track-and-field team in 2012, Larenz had a solid career path until a car accident in 2013 that resulted in a knee injury. Unable to pursue track and field, DeVonni felt lost in what he wanted to do and took a gap year from school.

During this dark period of his life, Larenz stumbled upon a new way to express his emotions.

"My mom would always emphasize, if we can't express it with words or talking, you should put it on paper," Larenz said.

Larenz's self-expression on paper emerged as sketches.

"I was drawing anime cartoons or random characters that I would come up with, but when I got older, it was more self-reflective of how I felt inside and connected with people. So I started sketching portraits of celebrities," Larenz said.

Larenz challenged himself by exploring other modalities of art outside of sketching. He used acrylic paint and then moved on to oil, which helped him captivate more realism in his art and establish an even stronger connection to his paintings.

Then, in 2020, Larenz's apartment building burned down. DeVonni felt the familiarity of feeling lost and having to adapt to change. He did what he knew best; he painted to express himself.

"I painted a self-portrait. It was a perspective of me running away from the fire and also having a gas mask. There's certain imagery of the fire, which is prevalent because of the Black Lives Matter protests," he said.

Larenz's Black, Trinidadian, Caribbean, and Filipino roots influenced him to resist traditional gender roles. Many of Larenz's oil portraits focus on famous Black men such as Frank Ocean, Michael B. Jordan, Donald Glover, and a scene from the film Moonlight.

"Of those pieces I did, I can relate to them and give a feminine touch too. It's such a beautiful way of looking at them without feeling, 'oh, this is someone with their shirt off,'" Larenz said. "As a Black man, it's really important for me to portray Black men not as hyper-masculine or in a hyper-sexualized way. Society puts us in that box, and we are so much more than that."

From looking at Larenz's portraits, viewers can experience the powerful emotions he communicates just by looking into their eyes.

"The eyes are so powerful. When I'm really looking into someone's eyes, it's like, 'wow, you're holding a lot' or 'you're telling a lot right now.' We vocalize more with our eyes than we say with our words, so I try to pour that into my art," he said.

In addition to painting, DeVonni challenges gender stereotypes through fashion and design.

"My art, painting, and fashion are one and the same. My clothes are not feminine or masculine. It's mostly just me being the way I am," Larenz said. "My cultures uplift my art. They are prominent and strong cultures and people. I honestly don't think I could create art without having those roots."

Larenz plans to tap into his Filipino side and is working on a piece inspired by his grandmother.

"I'm painting my Lola when she was younger in front of the sign that says 'No Filipinos Allowed.' It's a lot of emotion because I've never drawn or painted someone that close to me."

Larenz hopes that 2023 is the year that he will jumpstart his career as an artist and creative in and beyond Sacramento.

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