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[Interview] with Juan-Carlos Perez

by AM Larks

Click each image to enlarge.

[KELP JOURNAL] With multi-media artists, such as yourself, I am always curious how they choose the medium to tell each story. I know you sketch, sculpt, paint, and do installations. Can you talk about how you choose your medium for each piece?

[JUAN-CARLOS PEREZ] Sometimes, if I am thinking about a concept prior to working in the studio, I might think of a material or medium to best begin the exploration process. There are times I do not know how to even get started and when that happens, I adjust to any medium or material that I am the most comfortable with. Something that doesn’t give too much weight to the initial artistic process. Many times, I begin by sketching on paper. Just shading, making lines from dark to light, drawing textures, etc. It helps with beginning a creative energy flow. Sometimes I sketch with paint onto a surface. From then, inquiries begin to transpire and, eventually through many sketching exercise (whether it’s through drawing or painting), they begin to shape themselves into a concept or idea or an expression. Through that process I feel like a dialogue is beginning to emerge. It eventually begins to let me know what medium it would best be conceived. It does not mean that it will stay within that medium, but it’s what it needs in that moment to begin a more in-depth, hands-on creative process.

Sometimes, I might feel comfortable continuing to explore through paint and it will complete itself in that medium. Other instances, I might be in the middle of the painting process and then stumble upon a need to add or complete it in a different medium. I always have to keep the opportunity for chance to happen and not keep the art process confined. Letting it continue to grow into an expression, concept, or experience I never would have thought was possible. I definitely try to stay away from figurative art during the initial creative brainstorming because it’s loaded with references, history, art era(s), and it will stymie my investigation.

[KJ] Speaking of multi-media, your piece Estos Papos No Me Quedan/ These Shoes Do Not Fit Me incorporated shoe moldings fixed to a canvas painted with a brown silhouette. I found that the 3D aspect of the shoes in their textural details to be moving. Their position in pointing at the viewer was unnerving. Did you go through multiple iterations of this piece, the way an author would go through drafts or was this the way you originally envisioned it?

[J-CP] This piece actually began about six years ago. It first began with me wanting to start something in regard to indigenous roots and ancestry, but I didn’t know how to begin. I had already created many works in regard to the topic or concept and was just not ready to put it down. But I also wasn’t sure how I could do it in a way that wasn’t repetitive. How can I bring an authenticity to conversation or a new dialogue? So, I began with painting multiple shades of brown. And I worked at it until I could not take it any further and then put it away. But I still kept the art in the studio in eyes’ view because I knew that it was not finished and that I had brought it to a point where I could just leave it as is—for the time being—as I do with other works that I feel have more to go. As time, and eventually years go by, I constantly am looking at them when I am working on other works. In case I want to add, edit, transform parts of it. I feel that sometimes, as artists, we are not mature enough to continue some works. We need to set them aside and continue our artist growth and mature a bit more, until we are in place to be able to handle the content or further explore the inquiry or dialogue that was initially investigated.

Then last year, I was sketching, and I was thinking about the accumulation or layers of identity appropriated onto us. Since the day we are born and again when we enter a new space, environment, or country. A narrative constructed onto us. A narrative that counters our ancestral or indigenous roots and is forced onto us to wear layers—this identity, whether we want to or not. So, I began to paint again all of these variations and layers of brown but this time onto palette paper (which is wax paper like) because I knew I wanted to be able to peel it off as if it were skin. I did not know how this skin was going to exist, whether it would be three dimensional, a painting, or installation. And it wasn’t until I was close to being done or perhaps during the peeling process of this skin that it just clicked. It was part of this other painting. The one I had begun six years prior. As if it was there waiting for this skin to happen. A family member waiting for the other to arrive or catch up. And they just came together as if they had been waiting for each other. And I know that Estos Papos No Me Quedan would not have happened with the previous beginning process years earlier.

With the shoe moldings, it took an experience outside of the studio for this artwork to come together. I have small feet and it is always hard to find shoes that fit. So, when I do find a pair, I never want to get rid of them, no matter how many years go by. So, one day Billy [my husband] and I go to a shoe outlet and it’s the same scenario. I cannot find shoes that fit me. All the ones I like, they don’t have in my size. So, I went up to a shoe associate that was of Latin or Mexican origin and asked them, “Hey how come y’all don’t ever have shoes in my size? You know we are a small people, what’s up with that?” And he kind laughs because he knows what I mean. So, he recommends this one shoe outlet further in East Hollywood closer to Los Angeles.

So, we drive over and as I walk in, I’m in awe. I have never seen so many shoes in my size and in so many styles. I also noticed that almost 100% of the people that were shopping there were Mexican or Latino descent. All of them around my height. And I also noticed that the majority of the shoes that were being sold were hard shoes such as steel-toe or a type of construction shoe or boot. Shoes that you wear for labor or are part of a work uniform: restaurants, construction, cleaning, etc. Shoes that fit the attire recommended by these low-income jobs. Shoes that many of us would go and look for in the alley in Los Angeles, the Star Swap-Meet in Rosemead, or the man in the van just up the street. Because we could not afford the “real” ones or “comfortable” ones because they were too expensive. Shoes that were mandatory for the laborer’s work uniform. We all have a set of work shoes like these: black, polished, cheap cardboard-leather, with hard soles, and no support. They would tire you out halfway through the workday and on top of that it gave you corns! It made me think of class systems, the laborer, the immigrant.

I remembered once when we were going to visit family in Mexico, my mom took us to get new shoes. She then had us put them on and go outside and play for a while. You know, to wear them down a bit, so they were somewhat worn. When we got to Mexico, our family could see that we were doing very well in the United States because we could afford nice shoes. Give the illusion that we were successful when, in fact, it was further from the truth. It was for show. Sometimes they would call us out on it. “Are those shoes new?” We would deny it. “Let’s see, lift up your shoes?” They wanted us to show them the bottom soles. They would just make this face like, yeah ok, but still doubtful. Shoes are a symbol of success, worth, or value. We had immigrated over to live the American dream and the last thing we wanted to show our families back home was that we did not have it. We were still struggling. We are taught to apply our worth or self-value as human beings to material things. It made me think of the Bracero movement where Mexico signed a treaty with the U.S. to bring Mexicans over to America to work the fields. Slavery was abolished, Americans were going to war, and they needed people to work the crops. This was a great opportunity for Mexico to send their indigenous or low-income, un-pacified Mexican to get trained in Western Capitalism work. This, of course, was meant to be temporary for a few months or years at a time. Then after, the newly trained Mexican could return home with the new trade they just acquired. They were now a valuable asset and could begin to work the lands and contribute to the Mexican economy thus helping them compete in the global European economic market. And the first thing they did was put work shoes on them. The transition from indigenous to European colonial footwear was viewed as an example of human value, education, etiquette. Pacification at its finest.

So, in Estos Papos No Me Quedan, I am thinking about how idealism, work, education has been used to keep us in place. Through work, this idealism that trains us to find a certain role created for us. That feeds into how Indigenous, Mexicans, or people of color are valued. When we look at Mexicans, we think of them as hard workers. Like cattle. So, in this work I am saying these shoes or ideology doesn’t jive with me. It just doesn’t fit me. They are outlined with those educational lines, the paper where we first learn to write our ABC’s, our name. It symbolizes the first European academic education we are introduced to which begins with our name, our identity.

[KJ] Your piece American Narrative has the same discerning effect. The use of primary school writing paper shaped in the form of handcuffs made me hold my breath. What inspired that piece?

[J-CP] It spring boarded from a piece I am still working on titled Arrested Mexican—a sculpture—the immigrant worker being heralded for their culture, tradition, labor, sexually exotified, and criminalized at the same time for being born in another part of the Americas. Then it turned into a performance, “The Pacification of Juan Diego,” on the idea of how ethnicity plays a role in who has power or control in relationships, in the household, in the work environment, in public spaces. I used the same method as I did with Estos Papos No Me Quedan, I painted many layers of paint onto wax paper to create a skin. It was initially supposed to be blue, but as I continued, it made sense to paint the pattern of writing paper. Again, focusing on how this hierarchy happens—this idea of roles in society and who determines this: Dominant vs. submissive traits; structures of powers in relationships, education, primal groups, gender roles, tools, building, economics, land ownership, and sexuality.

[KJ] In Food Pantry: Canned-Goods, you use the same material (the primary school writing paper) to a different effect by wrapping the canned goods in the paper, tying the economic identity of one’s childhood to the educational system. Can you talk about your experience in teaching in the arts? Why is it so important for children of all economic classes to benefit from arts education?

[J-CP] Growing up, I was always on the fence when it came to school. I was very inquisitive and intelligent but unfortunately school was uninteresting to me. I got bored and so I got distracted a lot. I was always teeter-tottering in my grades. Always on the verge of failing. I think my teachers were always baffled because they would always say, “Hey, you are a smart kid and you do really well when you apply yourself—so why is it that you go high then you go very low?” The education I was learning didn’t reflect my home environment. We were raised around immigrant laborers. So, I could not relate to it.

I drew all the time as a kid (I got it from my mother). She would sketch and doodle every now and then when she wasn’t too exhausted from working in an illegal garment district in Los Angeles. She would tell me stories about how she drew since she was a kid. How she was a good singer. How she was very smart in school and was the head of her class. Actually, it was between her and another boy in class. This was in Mexico. They would get into fist fights to prove who was more intelligent and the teacher always had to break them up. Unfortunately, she was pulled out of school around the age of 12. Back then in Mexico, school was free until the equivalent of 6th grade—after that you had to pay. So, she was pulled out because the family didn’t have money to pay for her education and because she was a girl (boys were a better investment). She had to stay home and learn what girls or women were expected to learn—domestic life stuff. She never got to experience or cultivate the many talents she possessed. Her plan in migrating to the states was to leave us behind—my sister and I. Immigrate over to the U.S. for a year, make some income, then return back to Mexico. A very common immigrant plan. But at the last minute, she didn’t feel she could leave us. So, she brought us with her. Once she found out that children got free education until the age of 18, she decided to stay, and I was exposed to the arts early on.

As for myself, my plan as soon as I got out of college (and in debt) was to go straight into teaching visual arts at an university or art school.

To get some art teaching experience, I got a teaching job with a local arts organization, and when I stepped into the classroom, all of these kids looked at me in awe. They were not used to seeing someone that looked like them. An artist that was Mexican. They would make comments like, “You act like my dad. You remind me of my uncle.” They had not seen someone like me leading and teaching visual arts in the classroom. I had never seen anyone like me growing up either! They were used to seeing Mexican or Latino men away from school, at home, after school, at church, at a party, etc. But not as an artist. I recall one time a student asking, “Where do you work? Do you have a job?’ And I was like, “I am working right now. I get paid to be here making art with you.” Damn, that really got them. Their jaws dropped. Their little minds were blown away. They lost it. It was hilarious. They were not used to seeing a Mexican man in a role that was not construction, restaurant, laborer, or a father. And so, I decided to focus working in low-income, under-resourced neighborhoods of color in Chicago. So why not give access to youth in low-income bracket access to free higher arts education early on. Give them equal access to learning tools so they can later use it to attain scholarships and grants so they could afford to go to college or further their arts education if they chose that route. Because many will not continue an education due to financial resources. And an arts education at that—well, forget about it. It’s not a guaranteed money maker. It is not a goal immigrants have. So why not give them that experience prior to college. The arts opened up a new way for me to learn—it made it exciting.

[KJ] What I love about art is its ability to talk about subjects that are not covered by other forms of media. Art in an image, sculpture, or painting can convey the complexity of often overlooked topics. For me, your untitled sketch for the Santa Fe Art Museum—composed of an IV bag and a set of needles affixed to a wall—is one such piece. As an artist, do you experience art this way? In other words, do images, sculpture, and paintings move you in a way that seems to defy logic?

[J-CP] Definitely.

I think of it like in the way folks experience seeing a spider or a tarantula. I heard or read somewhere that scientifically our brains are not wired to experience them, which is why we get so freaked out (by them). The way their legs move when they walk, how fast or slow they go, our eyes are not used to seeing that. Our brain does not know how to process that. It’s alien to us. Art is the same but without the scary part of it (unless it's intentional).

As artists, we are taking everyday materials and reconstructing it to create something new. We create spaces using our hands and thus create new experiences our brain hasn’t encountered before. And though our brains are familiar with the material, it hasn’t experienced it in the manner an artist has put it together. That is why we are mesmerized by it. That installation you are talking about, for me, creates an intense feeling as soon as you walk into the space. It pauses you. You can almost feel it. It makes you want to try and figure it out. An IV bag made out of paint with a bullet and needle emerging out of it—injection. It is beginning a dialogue or form of communication with you. And as humans, it takes time to build a trusting space to build communication or dialogue. So, for art to do that, that immediately is pretty special. Art can do that. Create a new form of feeling.

[KJ] Art can be timeless and still resonate long after its creation. Your series Shell-Cases and your Tanks & Cages: Pop-up Mural could have been created today in light of current events but they were actually created in 2019 in response to different world events. They are both striking and harrowing with a specific viewpoint. For many artists, art provides a vehicle for catharsis and/or commentary. Were you provided either for Shell-Cases and Tanks and Cages?

[J-CP] I like to research political and cultural histories and how they affect one another. How points in time affect human lives: family, cultural, neighborhood, past, or present. How one event in one part of the world can impact another part of the world. I compare them to what is happening now. A lot of the work that I do stems not just from what I am responding to today but to past cultural or political histories that I have studied, researched, or witnessed before. I have always done this since I was a teenager. I dig into why that part of the world is the way it is today. Why is there cultural and political unrest today in parts of the middle east and what does that have to do with the tribal conflicts from its past.

Because at the same time I am trying to understand why things are the way they are here, in my neighborhood or in this country. Why is there still civic unrest today? Emotional turmoil? Why do I feel the way that I do today? How are we communicating to one another in comparison to how we interacted a decade ago, hundreds of years ago? Why do we behave the way we do? What do we continue to not address? Why do we keep missing the mark? What dialogue is missing?

I feel that that translates into the artistic process and sometimes because it hits on very familiar histories, experiences, or emotions, then we can relate it to certain circumstances or events today. We all care. And so, if there is a reference to some type of caring in a work even if it has to do with something we have not experienced before, can relate to, or never witnessed, we can still find some type of familiarity to it.

Tanks and Cages was an impromptu response to the villainization of a people. Immigrants were being disparaged by the president of the United States. They were being hunted down. ICE was going into Chicago neighborhoods and were tearing families apart. That quiet and quarantine feeling we got from Covid-19 wasn’t a new one to our communities in Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards Rogers Park—immigrant communities. The neighborhood was desolate. No one was outside, walking, or barely driving. Nobody was doing their daily errands: grocery shopping, going to church, etc. Folks stayed inside out of fear that they (or their family members) would be detained and taken away. I had families dropping off their children in my community mural projects so they could blend in, hiding their children. And even though the Covid-19 pandemic and the situation with ICE tearing families apart are different from one another, there are similarities in the feeling of being alone, separated from community, from family, or forced to isolate by something you cannot control: a disease or a U.S. president.

I was working with over 50 youths, around 90% Mexican or Latino, and though we were very much focused on the mural, we were all thinking about the same thing. The separation of our family and friends. All I could think of during that time was the trauma on our communities and the potential it had in creating mistrust or xenophobia within the community. So, I had to ask myself, “How do we get through this in a healthy way? Without losing it?” And the tank, in a way, became a metaphor for inner strength at that very moment. It was done in a matter of minutes. It was not planned. We were stripping years-of-layers of paint off this 13-foot high by 110-foot long viaduct, so we could prime and begin the mural. And we were taking turns power-washing the wall. And when it got to my turn once again, everything had just built up at that point. Perhaps the physicality of the power and rush of water spurting out and the strength in trying to control it—this direct force. A strength made up of something so gentle, organic, and fluid being pushed by this immense intense pressure. The way the paint began to peel led to a visual of inner strength. The way the paint began to peel, I began to notice the emerging of this tank appearing. I would have never come upon this if the paint hadn’t peeled the way it had. If the layers of dirty white didn’t have that type of contrast against the grey textured cement underneath, I don’t know if that mural would have happened. And it did not matter if it was not going to continue to exist for the rest of the week. What mattered was that it needed to happen for us, myself, and our students at that very moment.

Shells and Cases are works on paper created in late 2018, early 2019, a series about the dialogue of race and how we deconstruct roots, identity, and ethnicity within ourselves. We are in a time where we have access to learning more about our genetic make-up. And because of that I see people beginning to question their own identity. What percentage of me is Mexican, African, Spanish, Irish, etc.? Where does that come from? We already have others outside of our race or ethnicity trying to tell us or teach us about their perceived notion of what our identity should be.

Even people within our own communities or families come up to one another and give their opinion as to how ethnic or lack-of we are. They determine your identity for you. It’s a form of power. People you have never met before. Something that many of us have faced growing up. They say, “You are not Mexican enough? You may have lighter skin, but you know you’re still Mexican? You say you are Mexican but really you are probably, like, 30%. You are not really Mexican because you are not like them? Your complexion is not dark enough to know the Mexican experience. You are not good looking because you are not light skinned. If your complexion was darker, you would be more exotic. Why do you speak Spanish?” They look at your skin color and assume you are not educated because you might be a complexion darker. And it goes on and on. So, then this battle begins within us since we are kids. It is embedded in colonialism. Now we are doing the colonizing to ourselves: within us. And in Shells and Cases, I touch on that trauma: Inner struggle, a conflict, a chaotic environment, try to make sense of it; re-configure these empty shell cases.

AM Larks (she/her) writes fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and drama. Her writing has appeared in Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, California. She is the current photo/visual arts editor at Kelp Journal, a multimedia literary revue, and the former fiction editor at Please See Me literary magazine as well as the former multimedia editor of The Coachella Review.

AM Larks earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Juris Doctorate, and most recently a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University California Riverside Palm Desert's low residency program. She is a longtime patron of the arts and enjoys stories that capture the complexities of life on the page or screen.


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