Born to a family of artists in Mexico City, Carolina Fontoura Alzaga says she grew up with second-hand objects around her, and learned to appreciate the beauty of old objects and antiques, since as early as she can remember. Today, she makes a living making chandeliers out of used bicycle parts — mainly the chains.
Fontoura Alzaga’s full-time work has given the artist — now residing in Los Angeles for the past year and a half — permanent eczema. She says she doesn’t live a life of luxury, but she’s able to survive, and that is really satisfying.
“I source my materials at around 50 bike shops in the Los Angeles region, and I get them in various states of decay,” says Fontoura Alzaga who degreases the chains by hand with a metal parts cleaner. “I scrub each chain individually. Each part is laborious. My hands have suffered for sure.”
She says she got the idea for making chandeliers out of bicycles in 2004, when she was living in an intentional community in Denver. She moved to Denver, Colo. when she was 3; she got a BFA in painting and digital art there five years ago. She explains this living situation as one where everything is shared — a commune based around collaboration and inclusiveness.
“It was really amazing,” says Fontoura Alzaga. “I lived with 11 people — students, activists, artists, and bike punks.”
She says she learned a lot being surrounded by “bike punks,” and the dozens of bikes parked outside her living area. The artist explains the punk subculture as a rejection of mainstream culture, and says they ride bicycles because it’s a sustainable form of transportation.
“It was when I was living in this space — with people teaching themselves bike maintenance — that the idea came to me to make a bike mobile,” says Fontoura Alzaga. “Once I made that, it was just too simple. I was led to make a proper chandelier.”
After a friend who worked in construction taught her how to do the wiring for the chandelier, it ended up being her thesis project.
“That was very much a part of the culture I was involved in — sharing knowledge and expertise,” says Fontoura Alzaga.
After graduating from the Metropolitan State College of Denver, she says she jumped around for three years from Mexico City to Berlin, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam making chandeliers here and there. Then, she began selling them through her Website in February, 2011, and most recently on Esty. Fontoura Alzaga says she now makes her living selling her wares from anywhere between $125 and $4,200 — for the largest being 5 feet tall and taking her up to eight weeks to create.
“I have a studio — probably 5 feet wide by 14…It’s not huge, but it’s enough,” says the simple artist happily. “It’s amazing actually — the guy who owns that warehouse — that furniture is made for Croft House, and I sell my stuff there too.”
She says during her stint in Mexico City after graduation, a gallery owner approached her and asked her to have a solo exhibition.
“I was just living life,” says the free-spirited Fontoura Alzaga, who ended up having the solo exhibition in the summer of 2009. “It was so well received. I had some press in Nylon and Glow magazines in Mexico, and it picked up on blogs, and then I had people approaching me for commissions.”
She says she’s not sure when exactly, but her chandelier CONNECT series will end at some point.
“The next project I’m working on is a series of collage works,” says the artist, who does not want to limit herself to light fixtures. “I love found objects, in general, so I will probably continue to use found objects in my work but I also want to learn ceramics…jewelry, textile work. I really want to apprentice to learn how to make rugs and stuff like that.”
For now, however, she finds herself working all the time — sometimes 12 hour days for up to eight weeks at a time, without a day off. But she always remembers to give back to those who helped her during the inception of her business. She donates 10 percent of her profits to the Derailer Bicycle Collective in Denver.
“The very first chandelier I made, I got all of my parts from there — they are an integral part of the collection, so it’s important for me to give back to them,” says Fontoura Alzaga who would also like to begin donating to other organizations next year. “I think it’s tremendously important to incorporate principles of sustainability into our everyday lives…We need to protect the very things we depend upon to live.”