Interview with Katherine Chavarria: Hannah Jurgens and Kaytlin Esparza

but first, something to whet your visual appetite to Katherine’s work:

paleta

chiquitamamacita

yuca

. . .

A Tuesday night in November

Mocha’s and Java’s outdoor seating

Cold. Dark. Kind of loud.

. . .

Hannah Jurgens

What does your process typically look like?

 

Katherine Chavarria

I think it’s pretty straightforward, and I think it’s kind of the same for most artists; you see something that’s really interesting. And you gotta appropriate things, so I’ll see things that are interesting to me, and… whether I go through Photoshop, or just make it up in my mind, I’m like, “I gotta replicate this image in some new way,” so… I just get to it. I guess that’s how I would describe it. I just get to painting. Don’t think about it too much. I usually get started pretty fast, and then I slow down in the middle of it. I slow down cause I start thinking too much, and I’m like, “Oh, this doesn’t look good; this isn’t the way I pictured it or the way I wanted it to be,” and so then I freak out, and I have to start over; take a break from it.

 

Kaytlin Esparza

When did you start painting? And why?

 

KC

I started painting when I was fifteen. And it took me forever just to start painting, because I always really liked art, but… it had always been drawing, or just basic high school art, up until I turned fifteen… And it took me so long to transition to painting cause I think there was something that was always telling me, “You don’t know how to paint, so don’t paint.” Which is really stupid; don’t ever… the only way you’re gonna learn is if you do. There was one summer I was in high school; I had nothing better to do. I was only fifteen. I wasn’t working yet, so I was like… “I’m just gonna teach myself how to paint.” For my birthday, I asked to buy oil paints, and I started painting like that.

 

HJ

You started with oil?

 

KC

I started with oil. I’ve never done acrylic.

 

HJ

Wow.

 

KC

Everybody’s always like, “wow,” because oil’s “the elite.” It’s why I like it. I started with oil immediately, and… I really loved it, so I never stopped… and here we are.

 

HJ

Did you ever try to transition to acrylic or watercolor?

 

KC

Acrylic, no. Never thought about it, don’t ever want to think about it. I will say that I recently asked for some golden acrylic paint because you can mix it in gesso and make colored grounds. That’s a quicker way to get the background in. Strictly painting acrylic, no. I took Watercolor I and II. I was hard, because it was all technical exercises and I was like, “I don’t like this. The paint isn’t doing what I want it to do.” Whereas oil paint, you put a glob of it and it stays there, watercolor just wants to do whatever it wants. I’m like, “I don’t like that; don’t do that to me.” Then when I got to Watercolor II, it was much more free, in terms of imagery, and the way you executed things. I enjoy it; it’s something that I do on the side, and I think it’s a quicker and easier way to work out ideas. If I’m not 100% sure about an idea for an oil painting, I’ll do it in watercolor first. It’s a quicker medium.

 

HJ

To what extent does your work ever feel finished?

 

KC

I absolutely never know when it’s finished. I count on other people to say, “Stop touching that thing.” …You can tell when things are getting too close, being overworked. If I feel like it’s done I’ll put it to the side. Usually I don’t want to go back to things. You do something and you’re like, “Wow, this is amazing; I’ve grown as an artist,” and then you look back at it a day later and you’re like, “Oh my god what was I thinking.” I like to forget that they exist, for the most part. I move onto something fresh.

 

KE

Has your method of work changed during your undergrad?

 

KC

Definitely. I had this phase—I’ve been through every phase. I’ve painted abstractly, thickly, thin and realistic, I’ve painted all the weird things, all the cool things, I’ve been through it all—But it’s changed pretty drastically. I think about how I used to paint thickly and abstractly; there was no sort of imagery. Now, I paint realistically, and in thin layers, and there is an obvious subject. I’ve always been obsessed with pink. I’ve always liked the bright colors. Color is very important to me.

 

KE

I was wondering if there were any experiences or situations you’ve been in that directly influence your Paleta painting.

 

KC

My work is a reflection onto things I have faced—as a latina, and as a woman. I’m tired of being objectified just because of my race, my ethnicity, and my culture, which were things that were hard for me to understand and accept growing up. I hate that it’s something that in two seconds men accept and are automatically so excited by. It makes me so angry. I don’t have a specific situation, but that’s what I love most about art. It gives me an outlet to be personal. I’m obviously painting these things because they relate to me. I don’t have to be directly personal with you, and say, “When I was 8, this happened to me,”—I don’t want to do that, ever. I think the way and where we grow up affect us a lot… I grew up in this area that was predominantly black and Hispanic, and pretty… shabby-looking. People on welfare. I traveled twenty minutes everyday to go to a private catholic school, with the help of scholarships and my parents working their asses off. They wanted better for me than what they had. It’s weird growing up there, then seeing those kids throwing money around like nobody’s business. They don’t care. I think a lot of my work is about that too. Creating an outlet for those experiences.

 

HJ

What kind of community inspires you?

 

KC

The Latino community. All of my imagery is from there. While I’m not trying to speak for us as a whole, I went through similar issues that Latinos have gone through. I relate myself to them. I’m inspired by my parents in a general sense. They’re a big reason why I make the work that I do. Watching them haul ass my entire childhood… that’s why I keep trying to push the race issue, because it pisses me the fuck off. My sweet, immigrant parents. Everybody wants to treat them like trash. I’ll fight you, okay? Don’t start with me. Being the daughter of an immigrant father from El Salvador; my mom being from Ecuador… I see the way they’re treated… my parents try to take it easy, and I’m like, “No-no-no-no-no. I don’t think so, mm-mm. Not taking that.” I get mad, and they’re like, “it’s okay, just let it go.” They know I’m crazy about the race issue now. I’m always the bitch who talks about race. I never wanted to be that person in the beginning, before I started painting these things. I thought, “I don’t know if I wanna be that girl,” It’s like… “Ugh, this girl always wants to talk about race,” but, that’s me now.

 

KE

It’s so important now specifically. Do you feel like now especially, your work is activist?

 

KC

It’s always been that way, ever since I started. It was always about a discussion on race. I try to use [my work] as a ploy to lure everybody in; a Trojan horse. All the colors, the mark-making… it’s beautiful; it’s food! Food’s attractive! I want to talk about bigger issues than just a chip bag, obviously. I want to talk about things that are important to me. Race happens to be one of the biggest issues.

 

HJ

How do you respond to or identify with people who come up with wildly different meanings in your work?

 

KC

It just depends on what you see. I’m going to understand and interpret my work differently than any of my other viewers; that’s fine. I’m not against it. There are some things that I say, “Oh, you saw it like that. That’s cool.” Then there are some people who I just don’t understand, or they just don’t want to take the time to understand. I have trouble because my teachers always guide me to go the subtlest route. They’re always like, “don’t be so explicit in what you’re trying to say,” which pisses me off, because I really want to throw a “fuck you” in there—not an obvious “fuck you,” because you gotta make your viewers work for it. I’m not trying to be some angst-y teenager making “fuck you” art. I want to be more explicit about race issues and objectification. My teachers say, “Uh, no-no-no-no. Tone it down a bit.” Then you make your viewers angry. I did a couple of paintings where I used terms like, “mojado,” and “ilegal.” You have people who get angry, and they’re like, “why are you using that word?”…Well, why is it any of your business? People are either like, “I don’t get this,” because you’re not pushing it enough. Or they’re like, “Why do you think you can do that?” If you see it differently, it’s fine, but… I don’t care.

 

HJ

What’s the weirdest interpretation someone’s come up with?

 

KC

Somebody once (I used the term “mojado;” they were Hispanic) said, “You stripped me of all my pride.” I said, “I would, of course, never mean to do that.” I want to talk about Latinos… Latinos are the best, okay? A Hispanic girl painting Hispanic sweet treats would never try to strip Hispanics of their pride! I also have a teacher who’s always like, “This is about consumerism!” and I’m like, “No.” I understand that there are obvious signs of consumerism in my work, especially now with the packaging. I don’t deny it, but I have a teacher who’s like, “That’s all.” Consumerism is a very old, white man’s concept. It’s not mine. He is… an older, white man… so whenever I talk about race, objectification, or sexualization of race, he’s like, “what are you talking about?” He always makes me angry. He doesn’t understand anything that I ever talk about.

 

KE

Consumerism would be a bag of Lays chips, not Yuca chips.

 

KC

They’re obviously Hispanic for a reason. Jesus… Tommy! God! Okay, sorry. Go ahead.

 

KE

You’re working with text more often. Is that something we can look forward to in the future?

 

KC

Definitely. I really enjoy text, and that’s because it’s become this outlet for me to be more straightforward and explicit, since my teachers keep telling me to tone it down. I’ve been thinking about the word “chunti” a lot, which means ghetto, but it has very classist undertones. It’s very “us vs. them,” and it’s often used to describe somebody as low-class, tasteless, or straight up from the ghetto. I really want to talk about that word, so that’s coming up. I like that word. “Chunti.”

 

HJ

How intentional was the choice to mix high-class oil paint with your “low-class” foods?

 

KC

It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but you can’t paint anything without talking about how painting affects it. It’s an elitist, classist art medium. It’s why I love painting. I should be at the top somewhere. This is where it is. I like how pretentious oil painting is. It’s why I love the art world. It’s so pretentious, ridiculous, and all based on connections and money; it’s horrible. My Thesis I teacher said, “That’s the most elitist form of art,” and I’m like, “Exactly.” I’m painting these cheap and mundane objects that are normal in my world, but… they’re not. They’re beautiful; they should be made into fine art.

 

HJ

Are you trying to objectify them?

 

KC

I am trying to objectify them. Future idea: I want to objectify myself. I realize that people always say, “Why would you objectify yourself if that’s what you’re speaking against?” But it’s always more powerful to objectify yourself. Self-portraits are always more powerful. That’s why I want to… But, I think the reason why I chose food is because food is already objectified, if you think about it. It’s made to look sexy. I’m trying to objectify it further, and feminize it through color. In that way, it’s alluding to the sexualization of race—because I am sexualizing these Hispanic sweet treats.

 

KE
If you could choose anywhere to show your work, where would it be, and why?

 

KC

I’d be pretty happy as long as I got to show it in some galleries in Chelsea, in New York. That’s my plan: to go to New York. So, I guess if I’m showing—as long as I’m showing stuff—I’d be pretty happy.

 

HJ

How do you feel about your work being commodified?

 

KC

This is what’s so fun about the art world. At the end of the day, honestly, I’m a human being and I need money. Just… Give me my damn money if you want the painting, okay? Sorry, everybody who’s like, “I make work for me and nobody else.” Sorry, that’s not real. You need to make a living, people.

 

KE

What do you want people to feel when they see your work, and does this message change when a Latinx person sees it versus when a white person sees it?

 

KC

It does, actually. For Hispanics, I just want it to be relatable in some way, whether it’s just through the concepts, or because you’re like, “I used to eat this as a kid!” (which a lot of people do; this girl came up to me—this was about the Paleta—and she was like, “I used to eat these all the time as a kid. One time I ate too many of them and my tongue bled.” And I was like, “What the fuck?”) I want it to be that way for Hispanics. I want you to feel a little proud of what our culture has and does, because it’s amazing. I grew up ashamed and pushed it away most of my childhood…. Until, finally I was like, “What the fuck am I doing? This is amazing!” The music’s amazing, the food’s amazing, and the language is beautiful. Everything about it is amazing… For other races… I just want them to understand that this whole thing is wrong; we can’t say the race problem doesn’t exist anymore. I just want them to be aware, and I want to start a discussion about it. Even if it’s going to be a stupid one.

 

HJ

Okay. How do you move past an artistic rift?

 

KC

I’ve never handled that well, at all. That was me all this summer. I literally didn’t make a single thing, which obviously can’t happen in the future if I’m depending on it to make money… My go-to is to always write some things down, get some ideas going, or look at some art… but, I can’t say that it’s ever been helpful for me. I still haven’t figured out how to work through that. I don’t know if I ever will, to be honest.

 

HJ

Okay. Last one. Tell me the last thing that intrigued you.

 

KC

Today I saw a picture of this stupid ass cake that’s shaped like the number 2. I thought, “This is dumb; why would I ever want to make a freakin’ cake that’s shaped like the number 2?” But… all the candy piled on it was such a nice texture, and there were so many nice colors. I was like, “That needs to be a background. And I need to be the foreground.” [I need to] Objectify myself. I just see little things… recently I saw a picture of those…metallic letter balloons. I thought, “That needs to become a painting immediately,” and it needs to say “mami” in it. So, I see little things every once in a while. Like, neon lights: I recently have been trying to make one; it’s going to say “mami,” tambien.

 

HJ

A real one?

 

KC

Let’s just say it’s more of a… makeshift way… but I’m getting there. I’m very influenced. I always want to say that I’m not influenced by advertising, just to throw my teacher off about the consumerism thing, because he’s always like, “you should talk about advertising.” But it’s there… I’m very attracted to it.

 

HJ

It’s very attractive! It attracts you, and it attracts your viewers.

 

KC

Yeah, and that’s what it’s supposed to be! It’s just little things that I see every now and then. That’s usually how new ideas start. It could be as simple as this table pattern, and I’m like, “This has to go into a painting soon.” Or it’s like… my dad’s parents were recently in town (they’re from El Salvador). They brought these weird little candies. They’re marshmallow candies… I was like, “this is the next painting!” I’ve gotta do a painting of this; it’s so fucking weird, and so hilarious at the same time! And it’s fucking pink! It was made for me. It’s a baby! My dad told me, “I saved this for you because I thought you’d like it.” I was like, “You know me so well. This is me in a nutshell.”

closeupjesus.jpg

 

Katherine Chavarria is a Texas-based Latina artist specializing in oil painting. Her work has been characterized as a bright pink Trojan Horse, rich with pastel-toned oils, which actively provokes social and cultural awareness. She currently works within the confluence of the broad categories of culture, objectification, the sexualization of race, and consumerism, amongst other topics.

 

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