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In Rixy’s world, cardboard beats canvas and the femmes are fierce

The Roxbury painter and muralist also uses hair extensions, bungee cords, and chains to create the characters in ‘Enter the Cúcala’

Rixy, whose exhibition "Enter the Cúcala" is up at Simmons University's Trustman Gallery through May 13.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Women,” said Rixy, walking through her exhibition “Enter the Cúcala” at Simmons University’s Trustman Art Gallery. “We go through the most.”

Her paintings depict women in Day-Glo colors, sultry and gorgeous, venomous and bold.

“A lot of my work really wanted to complement those feelings of how raw and vulgar and how hard it is,” said the artist. “Trying to find beauty through the trauma in a lot of different ways.”

Rixy, who is 27, is a voice for the power of femme people. The Black and brown characters the Latinx artist paints are archetypes concocted from her own experience and those of her friends. They’re like goddesses, full in their power, both creator and destroyer.

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“Hypnotized by the Charmer” depicts a woman coiled over herself almost like a snake, eyes fierce and nails out.

“There is something about this definition of appearance as a femme person that makes us a target,” Rixy said. She recalled a man who approached her earlier this year.

“He comes up to me while I’m eating,” she said. “He’s like, ‘smile,’ and touches my face.

“I ate for maybe two more seconds,” she went on. “Lost my appetite, left money, and I just got out, just cried in the car. And I was pissed, but I didn’t act on anger.”

But what if she had? “Hypnotized by the Charmer” expresses that ferocity.

Rixy, “Hypnotized by the Charmer,” 2021. Spray paint, acrylic, ink, and iridescence on cardboard, with plastic chain link and brass hardware.Photograph courtesy of the Trustman Art Gallery

Rixy’s career is on the rise. She’s one of public art agency Now + There’s Accelerator Artists, a group chosen each year to create public art in Boston, and is at work on a mural, “Pa*Lante” (or “onward”) that will debut this summer in Roxbury. She’s been tapped by the city of Boston to paint a mural in Allston honoring Rita Hester, a trans woman whose 1998 murder sparked the Transgender Day of Remembrance. Timing for that mural is still in the works.

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She moves between the street and the gallery, crafting characters for murals and paintings like the ones in this exhibition on damaged cardboard, adorned with hair extensions, bungee cords, and chains. Rixy calls them studio assemblages.

“She’s working with very unconventional materials. In some cases canvas, but canvas that has been ripped or burned. In other cases, just straight-up cardboard, which has this kind of material memory for her,” said gallery director Helen Popinchalk. “It’s not just a piece of cardboard that comes out of the recycling bin. It’s the back of a TV box that her friend has given her to become a part of this painting.”

Community is a big part of Rixy’s artistic practice; she’s currently artist in residence working with teens at Elevated Thought, a social justice nonprofit in Lawrence. Sustainability is also central.

“I was a broke brown girl growing up. Canvases are expensive, and I don’t like canvases,” Rixy said. “I feel trapped.”

With pieces of cardboard, she fits the frame to the subject, not the other way around.

“I get to put them on the floor and rearrange them,” she said. “I need the frame to complement her.”

Rixy, “2 In a Room — Giddy Up (1995),” 2022. Spray paint, acrylic, ink, oil stick, and thread on treated cardboards, with twill rope.Photograph courtesy of the Trustman Art Gallery

Born in Roxbury, the only child of a single mother from Honduras, Rixy grew up moving around and spent several years in Las Vegas. She maintains a deep connection to her extended family. The women in her family, she said, have always broken with societal expectations.

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She points to her mother as a prime example.

“My mom’s a single mom. That’s step one, right? Because oftentimes our cultures are like, you have to stay with your husband. It doesn’t matter how crazy the marriage is. And you just sit tight, quiet, and you just do what he says.”

The characters she paints all inhabit the same universe, called Cúcala. (The name, she said, grew out of the Spanish colloquialism her mother used for “vagina” when she was small.) It might be familiar as the title of a song by Cuban American singer Cecilia Cruz, in which it meant, as Rixy put it, “Eureka! Pay attention!”

“It’s this inclusive world where they can be traumatized and powerful and vulnerable,” she said. “Cúcala is like the temple that they live in.”

Rixy, “Now What Kind of Knucklehead Told Y’all To Go This Way?” 2022. Paper, spray paint, acrylic, ink, marker, thread, and fire on treated cardboards, with paracord.Photograph courtesy of the Trustman Art Gallery

Or don’t. The three lavender-haired women on a motorcycle in “Now What Kind of Knucklehead Told Y’all To Go This Way?” are looking for Cúcala, Rixy said. “They’re not there yet.”

Some characters know each other, some don’t. Some are kin. And there’s a villain, Machismento, who represents toxic masculinity. The artist hasn’t painted him yet, and she may not.

“He might not actually figuratively exist,” she said, adding that he might be more “like toxic exhaust, like fumes, or the way that it infects their food or infects their mind. Like a silent plague.”

For “Pa*Lante,” her Now + There mural, she plans to paint the world as well as the characters, and to host panel discussions with other femme artists. Her intention, she said, is to create a Cúcala in the community.

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“We can build the real tribe,” she said.

ENTER THE CÚCALA: Paintings and Mixed-Media Assemblages by Rixy

At Trustman Art Gallery, Simmons University, 300 The Fenway, through May 13. 617-521-2268, trustman.simmons.edu/exhibits/2022/enter-the-cucala/


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.