Latin-Canadian artist Claudia Gutierrez feels there's a strong connection between her print, paintings, and textile pieces and her heritage. Gutierrez finds inspiration for her work in literature, poetry, culture, and her memories of life in Canada and her visits to Latin America, and has woven together a beautifully winding path towards her present work in the studio, which she now does full-time. With years of working at the grassroots level, Claudia brings a thorough and thoughtful understanding to the arts community. Below, she shares with us about her creative process and her hope to uplift and inspire others with art during these uncertain times.
What’s your first memory of art?
My childhood home was full of relics from my parents’ homelands Mexico and Uruguay. The house was full of artisan works: painted gourds, leather bolas from Uruguay, and embroidery works made by my abuela. We were surrounded by images and objects from their cultures and I always saw them as treasures.
Did you do any formal studies in art?
I studied English Literature before switching to Fine Art. I then specialized in printmaking and painting and went to a small private school that was very studio intensive. It wasn’t until four or five years after graduating I craved a pivot in my practice and that was when I started considering textiles as a new form of creating.
You focus on the following mediums: textiles, printmaking, and painting. What is the draw to these three forms? And how do they differ or interconnect for you as an artist?
The through line with these mediums, I find, has been my relation to the medium when it comes to the handling of materials. All three mediums have a sensuality I find absolutely necessary to feel stimulated when creating pieces. Whether I am carving or cutting a print plate, pulling and pushing paint or manipulating the tactility of wool, silk, or linen, I am always present with the materials I am working with. Their characteristics dictate where the piece will go especially in relation to the temperament of my hand on a particular day in the studio.
There’s a lot of repetition and patterning in your work.
I think that has a lot to do with my love of literature and textiles. An open page of a novel is simply patterns of shapes, letters, just like a geometric pattern is on a blouse. I used this notion in my last body of work to explore ideas of language and how patterns can portray qualities of communication. A piece I did called "Serape," a Mexican blanket often used as a shawl, looks much like Morse code, for example.
You’ve done two residencies, one in Canada and the other in Oaxaca, Mexico. How did the two experiences differ?
The residency in Ottawa was very independent — I was given a studio space for three months and curated a print show at the end of the time there, whereas the Oaxaca residency was an instructional residency. I learned from a master weaver backstrap weaving, toured different weaving studios in Oaxaca; it was very immersive.
Let’s talk more about your experience in Mexico. Oaxaca is known for its folk art, museums and galleries. Is there one experience during your time there that stands out?
I was there just a month. I have visited Mexico and Uruguay, where my mother is from, my whole life and have traveled to many Latin American countries so this particular residency felt like a culmination of all of my family visits and collecting of memories: it was the first time I visited my father’s country with an artistic lens rather than a visitor’s. While there wasn’t one particular moment that stands out for me, this time felt like a crescendo for me — my memories, my present, the future of my practice were coming to a head and it was the first time since I left art school I gave myself the time to observe, contemplate and synthesis.
You tend towards a more neutral color palette in your work. Is this intentional?
Very! My influence from poetry and literature is represented here. The starkness of black and white really helped me compositionally as well as I moved into this new medium. I also fell in love with undyed pure wool, seeing the tone of the sheep it came from was really exciting to me — sometimes I think about the animal it came from and wonder what it would think of our collaboration. I do juxtapose this with synthetic black yarn, however. The stark artificial contrast is not just jarring to the eye but during the process of creation as well — the wool is delicate and can unravel easily, so I need to handle it with care whereas the acrylic yarn I use can be contorted every which way and is left intact.
You've said that you've been an active advocate and cultural worker for the local arts community for the past decade.
Once I graduated from art school, I saw a pocket I could fill in my arts community. I started off as a fundraiser- writing grants, putting on events, et cetera then joined boards, volunteered, taught, wrote for a local arts and culture magazine — oof looking back on all of this makes me want to take a nap. I had such an urge to serve my local community and became addicted to it really. I worked for an art school, galleries and a performance art theatre and became really entrenched in the local scene; so it wasn’t until about three years ago when I was burning out that I realized it was time to get back to my practice and give myself the chance to create.
What is the importance and benefit of advocacy for the arts, for artists and for society as a whole?
I think it was important for me to do what felt right at the time and what felt right at the time was not to make art but to learn about the people, the history and goings on of the scene I was in. Admittedly this stemmed from fear and insecurity of making my own work and, of course, that stemmed from being a young Latinx woman in an industry dominated by old white men. So, I took steps to educate myself and gain the experience I needed and, more than anything, find my people in the scene. I think whatever industry you are working in there will be elements of advocacy and I learned that by existing and excelling in this industry I was changing it and helping it thrive.
You mentioned that you’ve recently moved to doing art full-time. What were you doing prior and how did circumstances open up this opportunity?
I’ve always worked for arts organizations, in many capacities — I’ve been a Swiss army knife type for over a decade in this industry. It taught me versatility and adaptability so as I incrementally started dipping my toes back into the scene with my work I was prepared to be flexible — flexible with my own time and resources and ask for flexibility from my day job so that I could produce work, apply to galleries and funding. It’s a balancing act.
Did COVID factor into this new shift for you?
In a way, yes. I opened a show three days before everything was shut down and I think the community really rallied behind me because of that. The opening night of the show was fantastic, and I think the momentum of that support carried through for months for me to continue producing and pushing my work. Several artists friends of mine completely shut down their practices for a while, especially at the beginning of quarantine, but I was in a unique position of really launching my practice days before everyone closed so I was feeling that fire to keep going and to be forced into my creative space — my studio is in my home — was a gift.
What do you wish or hope for people to take away after viewing your art?
CG: What a great question. I hope folks see my work and find it odd and familiar at the same time. I hope they feel the contradictions in the works, the hypocrisies, and settle in them and find a bit of solace in that. I play with my medium and titles quite a bit. Calling pieces on canvas stretchers blankets or pillows; placing hand embroidered pillows on ornate shelves as if they were an artifact in a museum. My intention here is to not only give reverence to these objects but to also play with our ideals about value and hierarchies that we place on ourselves and the world around us.
Any upcoming projects?
I am currently working off of the essays of Octavio Paz for a series I will be showing at my commercial gallery in early 2021. I’m looking at his essays on love, eroticism and sex and looking to link this with new textile pieces. I am also really looking forward to a group show with two of my favourite people and artists Guillermo Trejo and Marisa Gallimet that will be opening in spring 2021. The three of us have a great bond when it comes to our perspective on objects, design, and culture, so I think our work coming together will be really dynamic.
What can we look forward to from you in the near future?
Color. I am so excited to be drawn to color again. While I will always be creating works that explore the natural characteristics of the materials I am working with, I am looking to start working with naturally dyed wools from Mexico. I have found a wonderful non-profit supplier who works with artisans in Oaxaca and am looking forward to diving into these new materials that will hopefully do these beautiful wools justice.
How can art help us heal as a global community?
I have been asked this a few times since the pandemic hit. I think it speaks to the fact that humanity has turned to creation at this time in order to keep our sanity (whether it has been out of necessity or pleasure). I think the authenticity of creating, and by that I am mean when you are in the act of creating something (and especially when what you are creating from your imagination) you are vulnerable to the very real and exciting elements of life — chance, sensation, and process; the result is art and that is very beautiful.
Photos by Pat Bolduc
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Beka Shane Denter is a Canadian features and content writer currently based in the beach town of White Rock on Canada’s west coast. She has used her knowledge, passion, and nomadic lifestyle to fuel her career as a writer. This has led to several inspiring collaborations with publications including FASHION, ELLE Canada, BUST.com, Women’s Surf Style Magazine, Mind Body Green, Today’s Parent, The Inertia, Ottawa Wedding, and LUXE. Beka is at work on an inspiring women-focused project highlighting the creative talent of British Columbia. Visit her website at https://www.bekashanedenter.com.