Enigmatic artist hopes to ‘change the world’ with her talent


Rosemary Montalvo

Leilani Padilla, 22, is an artist, musician, poet and aspiring microbiologist. Art pieces left to right: “In the Shadows”, “The House with the Face”, “What Anxiety Feels Like” and “phiSHbrol”. “My dream is to change the world and to do that with the gifts that I was given.” Padilla said. Rosemary Montalvo /The Union

Her straight dark hair flows behind her as its caught in the wind. Her eyes resemble pools of honey and are shrouded by a dark pair of sunglasses that she wears as she heads to her beginner’s piano class, emitting laid back vibes with every step she takes.

For the ordinary person, learning how to play the piano may be a tough task, but for 22-year-old Leilani Padilla, it is just another obstacle to get over in her young, seasoned life.

Padilla grew up in the quiet and unincorporated area of Del Aire, California, which is situated between the cities of El Segundo and Hawthorne, yet her life has been anything but quiet.

Aside from currently studying the piano, Padilla is more than capable of playing the saxophone and accordion. Padilla is also an abstract artist, poet, writer and an aspiring scientist, having studied microbiology at Virginia Tech.

“I’ve had so many different experiences in my life… I have so many different interests and so many different hobbies that I never actually realized that other people aren’t like that,” Padilla said.

She is the universe stuck in a body.

“I’m just so in love with everything,” Padilla said. “I don’t fit in any category.”

Decked out in a black dress and brown combat boots, she practices some uplifting chords on the piano from a sheet of music.

“Music has always been a part of my life. I have never been good at it [piano], but now I have time to invest in it,” Padilla said.

Padilla has wanted to learn how to play the piano since she was a child. However, because she was involved in so many things when she was younger, she never had the time to master the instrument.

“When I was a kid I asked for a keyboard for Christmas and then I would just start randomly teaching myself,” Padilla said. “Sometimes I’d come home [from school] and not do my homework and just teach myself a new song.”

Some of her musical inspirations include Billie Eilish, Tyler The Creator, Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday and Kanye West.

“Now [I can start] working towards something that was originally my dream but I had to let go of because I had [studied] microbiology and had invested in other things,” Padilla said as she reflected on her experience as a musician.

As previously mentioned, Padilla studied microbiology at Virginia Tech; specifically the internalization of salmonella in root systems of tomato plants.

Leilani Padilla, a 22-year-old microbiology major performs her poem “To My City of Lost Angels” during Noche de Cultura presented by the Inter-Club Counsel in the East Dining Room on Tuesday, Oct. 4. Padilla also showcased two of her art pieces at Noche de Cultura. Rosemary Montalvo/The Union

Padilla first gained an interest in microbiology during her junior year of high school when her anatomy class was shown a video that depicted what life inside of a cell appears to be.

“I just thought, ‘How interesting is that?’, that in each one of our cells this thing is going on and it just looked amazing,” Padilla said.

Padilla chose to study microbiology after she found out that she could not major in anatomy and physiology.

“So then I started looking around and microbiology seemed to be the one [major] where everyone said ‘Hey, if you want to have a really fulfilling life don’t go into microbiology,’” Padilla said. “I want the challenge, so I’m gonna go after microbiology, I’m gonna show them.”

Padilla added that she chose to study microbiology at Virginia Tech for practical reasons, including the fact that it was an emerging major at the time and that it would help her stand out once she applied for her Ph.D.

“I also knew microbiology was more where my curiosity lied because I wanted to know how things function at that small [of a] level and that way I could apply it to the rest of the world,” Padilla said.

Padilla decided to attend Virginia Tech because she wanted a new way of life, having grown up only in Los Angeles.

“I felt like it was time for me to leave because I just felt like my growth was stunted here, I didn’t really have any worldly experience and I wanted a new adventure,” Padilla said.

Despite attending her dream school and studying a subject she was passionate about, Padilla was forced to leave the East Coast and her work due to an undisclosed personal issue that occurred in fall 2017.

Padilla was out of school for nearly a year and a half before returning to El Camino College in spring 2019.

“When I came back… I took an English class and it changed my life because I had never considered myself a writer,” Padilla said.

Padilla enrolled in an English course taught by Adrienne Sharp that introduces up and coming writers to the craft of fiction.

“I think she’s one of the most brilliant students I ever had in class. Her critiques of other students’ work were just very insightful, very thoughtful. She was a careful reader and an empathetic responder,” Sharp said when describing Padilla’s time in her class.

Padilla said that a lot of what she reads and listens to music-wise goes into her writing process. However, she only simultaneously listens to music and writes in order to capture an “emotional signature” that will be implemented in her writing.

Leilani Padilla flips through one of her sketch books that she has had since 2017 that contains all types of colorful drawings. Rosemary Montalvo/The Union

“With writing, there has to be some kind of emotion coming out,” Padilla said. “Emotions are always trying to tell us something. It’s the same thing with like your nervous system; you [put] your hand on a burning stove [and] it’s like ‘Get off!’ right?”

Padilla manifests emotions into her writing and poetry because she believes that when an emotion resurfaces, it is forced to be felt and dealt with. That is why she uses her emotions as a form of creation.

“I think that’s something that society is really lacking. People don’t know how to emotionally regulate, I certainly didn’t until I left school and had to learn those things,” Padilla said.

One of Padilla’s goals is to be published in a poetry book.

Pete Marcoux, an English professor at ECC and advisor to the literary arts magazine, The Myriad, said that the first step an emerging writer can take is to hire an agent who has contact with a publishing house.

Dana Crotwell, who introduces students to poetry writing at ECC, stated that hiring an agent may not always be the first step a writer should take because editors of literary magazines put out advertisements for writers to submit their work.

Crotwell said that writers “can’t get hung up on the money when just starting” and to stay away from people who want money from writers in order to get a foot in the door of the industry.

Padilla has written five short stories, 10 flash fiction stories and over 300 poems. She is currently editing her own poetry book and since leaving Virginia Tech, she has been working on a novel that explores the psychological aspects of human evolution and consciousness.

“When we go about our days, we’re very unconscious of what we’re doing. We don’t realize that our actions and our words impact [everybody] we encounter,” Padilla told The Union.

Padilla’s novel aims to highlight the emotional dark age she believes humanity is currently situated in, as well as the fact that people are too fixated on becoming famous. She would also like to teach people to have healthier relationships and show them what that looks like, within themselves and significant others.

“Everything you learn is setting you up for what’s going to come, it’s preparing you for what your purpose is in life,” Padilla said. “My dream is to change the world and to do that with the gifts that I was given.”

Aside from being a talented writer, Padilla is also an artist with an eye for abstract paintings, having created 16 original paintings.

Padilla has been influenced by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami and Frida Kahlo.

Leilani Padilla practices her left hand waltz in one of the practice rooms in the Music Building on Thursday, Nov. 7. This is Padilla’s first semester of piano classes. Rosemary Montalvo/The Union

“I cannot paint if I’m not in the mood. I have to have something going,” Padilla said as she describes the initial stages of her creative process.

Padilla revealed that she asks her subconscious for vivid dreams while she sleeps, so that she can paint them out.

“So sometimes I [paint] my dreams because I have crazy ass dreams,” Padilla added.

While setting up to paint, Padilla also noted that she needs to have her easel ready to go, as well as a solid background color because “every single color, when you look at the electromagnetic spectrum, vibrates at a certain frequency.”

Colors represent the frequency and emotion that will be exhibited on a painting for Padilla. Colors also convey the worlds Padilla builds within her paintings.

“My art is a reflection of, basically, me,” Padilla said. “I think there’s a lot of trying to figure out what it means to be human, what it is to even have an identity or sense of self.”

Ultimately, Padilla believes that her talents, well-rounded intelligence and curiosity are mere gifts that are not actually hers, but instead, are hers to give to the rest of the world.

“Everything you learn is setting you up for what’s going to come, it’s preparing you for what your purpose is in life,” Padilla said.