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video • Joe Lu

words • Jake Krez

photos • Bryan Allen Lamb

We’ve all had coloring books. For Esperanza Rosas, the timeworn practice of staying inside the lines eventually proved to be her way to see life beyond the bounds of her surroundings.

Rosas, better known to the world by her nickname, Runsy, first found her love of creation through a simple love of coloring books. After she quickly filled that first Space Jam book, her parents would bring them home with increasing frequency as she filled one after another. The childhood hobby quickly became a lifelong passion that she’s since utilized to produce artistic works that have found audiences far beyond her South Chicago neighborhood. Appropriately, it’s that tight-knit community where she found both the inspiration and lessons to take the necessary steps along the way.

Much has been written about the musicians that initially opened the world’s eyes to the urban artistry that’s come to be referred to as the Chicago Renaissance. However, as the spotlight on the city’s creativity has widened to include an array of talented individuals across a wide spectrum. Among those is Rosas, who lends her perspective to tell the stories that surround her and illustrate her worldview.

Having worked with artists like Stefan Ponce and Chief Keef and been a featured artist at last year’s 30 Day In Chicago with Red Bull, Runsy is well on her way to the dreams she began illustrating in those coloring books as a child.

I remember [my dad] got one for me and I remember he’d always tell me ‘you better not get outside the lines,'” said Runsy, reminiscing on her first introduction to the medium. “And I was like ‘oh crap, what happens if I do?’ I always wondered what happened if I went outside the lines and once I decided to make my own, I just got really good at drawing.

A somewhat simple premise, Runsy has used her first love to explore the world beyond her neighborhood by shining a light on those in her orbit.

Life has started to come into focus a bit more clearly for 24-year-old since graduating from the University of Illinois-Chicago last year. The aspiring art teacher and one-time Criminal Justice major ditched much of her original plans for post-college life after finding a unique inroad to the local scene through music. Appropriately, it was a contest to be included in a print edition of online taste making site, Frank151. If the concept of finding her own lines within which to shade is what first sparked her passion for art, the opportunity she earned with a drawing entry of Chief Keef in 2014 contoured her career towards the bubbling Chicago Renaissance. “I submitted a drawing through instagram and it was like if you win you get put in a book,” explained Runsy. “So I got put in a book, my design gets on t-shirts and then they were like ‘oh you’re going to be in LA too, your work will be there. I was just like ‘wow someone believes in me.'” The spark of confidence that seeing her work represented in places like Seventh Letter Gallery in L.A., as well as the exposure associated with Chief Keef at the time resulted in more eyes on the things Runsy was creating. It also led to more opportunities within the music world. Soon after her foray with Frank151 and Chief Keef, Runsy was contacted by producer Stefan Ponce. 
 He wanted to use work she had sketched in a shading class in college for a pair of his upcoming singles, “Forever Julie” and “Lost In Translation” in 2016. Ponce, known around the city and beyond for his highly-regarded production work alongside acts like Donald Glover, Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa, offered Runsy the latest opportunity to find her way via the artists within an arm’s reach. Regardless of the ease of access she’d attained through her work, she was certainly aware of the fast-rising nature of her nascent career to that point.

“That time it was crazy, it was like “Stefan Ponce wants to work with me? Chief Keef wants to work with me? What the fuck,” Runsy said, reminiscing on those initial wins. “I’ve pulled out like two pieces and that was all I needed for y’all to want to work with me. It was super motivating but at the same time, I also wanted to seperate myself from that because its a start that a lot of people want, they want to draw celebrities for a living. I felt like that was the breaking point,like my ideas were way more than just drawing something that’s meaningless and that was the hard part of being an artist that was also so into the music scene.”

With some new followers in tow and more eyes than ever on her work, she set about working out the work that would express herself, her neighborhood and the story of her family, friends and heritage in a way that felt both authentic and progressive. Far from an easy task, she eventually found the inspiration in the same place she found the initial spark: at home in those around her, including herself. One of her most striking pieces is also one of her most well-know, a self-portrait she calls “Mexicana”. Rather than playing on tropes of commercialized beauty, she accentuates the features and tones to create characters that, in her words “could be me, could be anybody else”. Representing universality is a consistent theme she aims to achieve with each piece. “I like the look of it: its prideful, I want to be her friend, I want to be a strong Mexicana. Its also such a beautiful piece but also its not necessarily a beautiful character.”That juxtaposition between what’s expected and reality often finds a home within much of the expressions that are produced, an important element that bridges understandings across age, race and more.
 By far, her biggest break thus far came last year when she was chosen by organizers of Red Bull’s ’30 Days In Chicago’ series to be featured as one of several creatives representing the city after having worked with them for several installations during that year’s Lollapalooza. The opportunity also arrived with a level of expressive freedom she hadn’t expected from such a large operation. It allowed for the chance to tell the stories she had wanted to in a way that felt wholly authentic directly with those that made up these scene she’s thrived in. The Red Bull experience was full-on: featured images, a temporary tattoo shop at one show, zines at another, a video to boot. It was the kind of 360-degree exposure that served to push her even further forward than she’d understood to that point. True to form, the attention was sensical, authentic and appropriately focused on a homegrown talent utilizing her gift to illustrate the understandings of others. While it offered yet another chance to showcase her work, it also arrived with an added bit of pressure that forced her to evolve as a person and an artist.

In 2016, at 22, she was getting her first taste of attention for her work. While some may allow a quick rise in followers and visibility to go to their head, it only inspired a more thorough work ethic to come about. That’s not to say she wasn’t having fun. Fully invested in her twenties and a newfound recognition for her work around town, the never-ending cycle of events, shows, galleries and the parties that tied them all together began edging into time previously occupied by creation. It’s a lesson any artist this side of Bukowski and Basquiat has to grapple with at points throughout their career. Substances can often open the mind, but can just as quickly close opportunities if left unchecked, and also serve to compound emotions in an artist’s mind if work isn’t getting done as a result. For her part, Runsy, who made the decision to go sober while working on her projects for 30 Days In Chicago, openly talks of her struggle with alcohol and anxiety and the importance of finding a balance in her life as a way to move forward.

I’m still making great work but people don’t see the hours of panic and self-doubt that go into each piece. I was wondering what the problem I have is and its obviously a self issue that I need to figure out,” Runsy explained. “I was doing all this stuff and at a certain point I was like ok I need to chill. You gotta stop going out and you got to give up liquor because thats not going to get you anywhere in life. Are your friends going to pay your bills, are your friends going to do your work? They’re not. So from there I was like I’m going sober and I went sober for 70 days and I literally wasn’t going out or drinking at all. I was spending all my time while people were partying I was drawing, I was getting deadlines done, I was responding to emails at 5 AM, I was sending stuff. A lot of times I feel like as individuals its easier to complain and give up and its like either you sink or you swim.”

It’s that innate openness, that tethered sense of reality and unedited personality that endears both Runsy and her work to those from her hometown and beyond. At a time of manicured images and Instagram-stan artists, she’s as real as they come regardless of the situation she finds herself. It’s indicative of her persevering nature that at a point in which she found herself falling behind, she was able to identify the problem and make a necessary change, realizing that ultimately the work and her legacy mattered more.

The last two years have been filled with consistent growth and opportunities for Runsy. As she continues forward in her career, she does so with an newfound confidence and respect for herself and her work that has afforded her a rising profile both local and beyond. While eager to add to her legacy immediately, she’s taking note of the lessons she’s learned throughout her journey. Having closed out last year in hyper-speed with 30 Days In Chicago, she’s starting off 2018 with a more relaxed demeanor. Allowing inspiration to come to her rather than chase it, she’s been toying with and idea for a gallery show, new zines and unannounced collaborations. It’s no secret at this point that Runsy has come a long way in a short time from her Space Jam coloring books, while never compromising her ideas, personality or culture in the process. If nothing else, Runsy is dictating her future with the movements of her pencil.

“A lot of people can have a big break, but at the same time its like what are you going to do afterwards. I also dont want to profit off of my culture, I can do better for other people who are making art and aren’t being represented as a Latina or Mexicana. I just don’t want to be categorized as one thing or another, so I’ve started figuring out more of what I want to do. Money, the prints, they don’t matter to me. What I want to make is art, I just want to make good art.”

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