Maria de los Ángeles is a Mexican-born artist, designer, activist and art educator. Yale University graduate, she teaches at Pratt Institute and participates in exhibitions and workshops across the country with art institutions such as Colorado College, Sonoma County Museum, LACMA, Robert Mann Gallery, and most recently, Columbia College Chicago and Mural Project for Pratt Institute, rapidly gaining her artistic force and unmistakable style.
Her exotic and colorful art was shaped by the unique life story and the urge to share her heritage and sociopolitical stance. In this interview, we discussed her sources of inspiration, the bicultural experience, and her views on humanistic and environmental issues, and how these find way into her art.
Photo credit: © 2019 Ryan Bonilla
Q: Could you tell a little bit about yourself and your background as an artist. How did your art career begin?
A: I am absolutely happy that I am an artist. Now, post-school, I began the journey of what it means to be professionally an artist. Making art was my passion since childhood.
As you know, I attended Santa Rosa Junior College after high school; after completing my Associate in Art, I transferred to Pratt Institute, and I achieved my BFA in Fine Arts in 2013. Upon graduation, I was accepted to the MFA in Painting and Printmaking Program at the Yale University School of Art, from which I graduated in 2015.
Art guided me and gave me the ability to study and get scholarships. The first time I realized there is a business side in art was at 12 years old when I sold my first artwork. I am 30 years old now. My favorite part of being an artist is that I get to make things that people love and make part of their everyday life. My next show is a museum show in my hometown Santa Rosa, I can't wait to share who I have become with my family and friends.
Q: Do you remember the very first thing that has inspired you to do art and if you do, what was it?
A: When I was about 9 years old, we visited the Olmec colossal heads in Villahermosa, Tabasco. Seeing all their carved pieces at La Venta mesmerized me. I saw instances of beautiful that have remained in my mind even before I could make pictures, for example, the migration of the monarch butterflies and their arrival to my grandparents’ home. I still feel the sensation of running into thousands of butterflies in the garden, and having them land on me.
My surroundings and their aesthetics have always captured my imagination. I grew up in a religious family, so we always went to church and I saw religious art there. I started taking art lessons at Lawrence Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa, California.
I feel very passionate about the migration experience; for the last few years, I have been very focused on moving through the landscape, on the events from my own biography and the complications of unauthorized migration. Making such work was a real challenge to search within myself, and I was not making this work directly until my second year of graduate school.
My particular connection to the undocumented experience, which is just a version of the disenfranchised, is that I crossed the border once with my family, but that moment continues to shape my future. In many ways, I am still there legally speaking, there is yet to be comprehensive immigration reform or a path to citizenship for us. Some say we should go back to a country we know little about, not because of lack of interest, but because undocumented people can't travel outside of their current country. So I grow older here, everyday more distant from Mexico, I have not traveled there since we migrated.
Q: I cannot possibly avoid a very difficult question and not ask what inspires you to create. And since it could be perceived as very broad and generic, maybe we could narrow it to the very last project you’ve been working on. What were the main sources of inspiration for you?
A: This is a hard question, first answer is probably my experiences. The truth is, working with different materials makes me feel complete, and the search for whatever feeling making art has given me is my first need to create. I am completely myself when I work. It is a zen and harmonic experience.
I never considered myself spiritual, but I guess my work has a strive for it, both my paintings and my drawings. My fashion pieces are inspired by the fashion itself, as well as the cultural celebrations like the Quinceanera. As a child, I grew up surrounded by nature, exploring it, and that experience made me appreciate the real and the imaginary landscapes. I used to work mostly from the human form, figurative art being my first passion, now I work from both imagination and observation. In my work I search for a metaphor, a place, and just the apparition of something I have not seen. I want to be amazed, like I was experiencing La Venta back then, at 9 years old. I make my work for myself.
Q: The subject of immigration often appears in your work, including your Deportation Series. How does your work communicate that complex issue, and in what way does this problem drive your art? Did your attitude towards that problem change through time?
A: From a very personal point of view, the Deportation Series is very much like a large sketchbook of events, thoughts, and commentary. Installed on the walls, they become an environment of nonlinear narratives and ideas. There are both autobiographical aspects and commentary on events involved. Drawing for me is very natural, and these series now comprise over 1500 works on paper including watercolors, ink works, mix media works, collages and prints.
I have become more spiritually aware through time, and my work is not angry, but playful and sometimes comical. I use humor, exaggeration, compassion. It's not just a subject matter to me, but the experience that has shaped my life. In the future, I hope to make an artist's book with both drawings and text. It's my next step.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your creative space: what elements within it are essential for you and your work?
A: I have to be in a good mood; I am a morning person, so I am best earlier in the day. I am making a lot of paintings right now with many layers in them. I like to work on multiple paintings at once, and I paint mostly with Acrylic.
Q: Apart from your studio, what other places and spaces do you find inspirational?
A: I love walking around New York City. All the food and art. The city is full of inspiration. My favorite place is the Metropolitan Museum. I have spent countless hours there. I love the religious iconography collection, and anything to do with fashion or textiles. Also, we often go to Chelsea Market which I love, the food there is good.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit more about your dresses. That’s an interesting media to work with. How does the process unravel?
A: The dresses for me are super fun, technically, they are 3D paintings. I love wearing them and taking photos in them. My husband Ryan takes my photos nowadays, it's a part of our collaborative work.
When I work on my dresses, I drape the form first, stitch it together, and then begin the mixed media process. To me they are a direct way to speak about identity. I look forward to my next fashion show.
Q: That's fascinating. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you identify with the dresses you’re making, calling them your “portrait”. Is that so?
A: Currently, I am making a dress with a group of girls from the Lower Eastside Girls Club, so that dress is about them. I did make a dress last year about Gina Ortiz who was running for election in Texas; all others are about me, and also the collective undocumented immigrant experience.
Q: The subjects of your paintings – who are they: real people or guests from your subconscious?
A: The figures are often my siblings, and sometimes other people that I know. I also work a lot from imagination and come up with characters that are in my mind. Often the figures are not me; some people think they see me in the paintings, when it's probably my mother, sisters or brothers. I search to express feelings in my paintings. I also like to put a lot of details for people to find. I guess that captivating my viewer for a period of time is one of my goals.
Q: I can see this in your work. Now, let’s further discuss your technique and process. What important aspects stay behind the curtain and need to be mentioned.
A: My work is usually layered spontaneously, not planned, and the process is kind of automatic. Printmaking is also part of my process that gives me room to be playful. Even when I do watercolors or monotypes, I am looking for a fresh approach. I see making images through drawing. Drawing, my first love, is at the core of my understanding.
Q: Your art could be viewed as a reflection on the current political and social issues. Is driving a social change one of your intentions?
A: I have to say that I ask myself this question all the time. The best answer is that my artwork manifests who I am, as well as the legalities of my identity in the USA as a part of current political and social discussion There are many people in my situation all over the world, the so-called citizens of the world.
I have always been interested in the subject of who has the right to migrate, and the negotiating of citizenship. My family immigrating to the USA almost 20 years ago changed who I am.
Looking back now, I am happy that we came. The part of the discussion (the social commentary) aspect of my practice is solely a manifestation of my experience, of who I am, and observations of people I am surrounded by. I am aware that currently it's a concern, both globally and in the US. I grew up and I am growing undocumented in America, along with my generation. Also, I live a very good life, being in NYC and making art is a very privileged lifestyle. I know I am privileged.
Q: What would you change in the existing system?
A: If I could change one thing, it would be the comprehensive immigration reform and for us to take better care of our planet. I am very concerned about the natural state of our planet, and the displacement our bad practices are giving to people and animals. We have so much happening to our environment due to lack of care and greed. We need to protect our only home.
Q: Are there any special people in your life that have influenced you the most? Or anyone you’d like to thank or whose work you’d like to highlight during this interview?
A: My life has been surrounded by beautiful people who have guided me through school and life. My artistic influences are many, in terms of painters that I admire greatly are Marc Chagall and the great colorist Henri Matisse. My contemporaries and people who helped me find my way while I was at Yale University are Sam Messer and Rochelle Feinstein.
My postgraduate school mentor Joyce Kozloff has been a role model to me for her dedication to her work and to being an artist, as well as for her positive influence on others. I really feel blessed to know Joyce. She attended my wedding.
Interview by Varia Serova
Zephyr & Maize © 2019
Deportation Series: Undocumented Vida, 2017, Maria de Los Angeles, © 2018 Maria de Los Angeles