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Gustavo García in archives section of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Philadelphia.

Migrant, mentor, visual artist: Meet Gustavo Garcia

In a Q & A with Philadelphia artist and photographer Gustavo García, what emerges is the portrait of someone experienced beyond years, someone whose life, art…

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When I meet Gustavo García at the Brandywine Workshop and Archives (where he serves as the associate director of printing and technology) I am expecting someone else: older, less self-effacing.

That’s because until that moment, I only know García through his work: his moving keynote speech from the Migrant Education Program ceremony in May; his self-assured woodcuts; the authoritative book, “Retratos/Portraits: La Otra Mirada/From the Inside Looking Out,” that he and Jorge Pérez-Rico of MEP produced and published together.
But as I ask him questions about his art and his work as a volunteer with the MEP what emerges is the portrait of someone experienced beyond years, someone whose life, art and migration are compellingly — and seamlessly — tied together.

 

Life

García: I was born Michoacán, México in a town named El Rincon del Chino. The town currently has a population of around 288 inhabitants (I thought it was much bigger, then I looked it up). It has always been this small and it keep shrinking. It is one of those places where everyone knows each other.
I am one of seven children. The third one to the youngest and the first one to go to college. I spent my formative years in México. I moved to the United States when I was about to turn 12 years old, to a town in central Pennsylvania called New Oxford, which is 10 miles outside of Gettysburg.
My family had very little while we were in Mexico. Like many families there, we relied on agricultural work to make some money. We used to sell milk whose final destination was to be made into Cotija Cheese — a style that is popular in the U.S. — in Cotija, Michoacán. We use to sell the grains that we produced for little money and we kept some for our regular use.
While our mother managed all of that agricultural work. My father traveled seasonally to the U.S. for work to supplement our income and to provide enough to build a better life. He had migrated in and out of the country since the early 1970s.
At first he did it illegally. He landed in California with some family that he had there, but he was mostly on his own. The he heard that there was more money to be made in Pennsylvania from another relative, so he made the journey across to US and landed in Adams County to pick apples. 
During the Reagan administration he was able to obtain a visa. This enabled him to go back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. on a more regular basis and with a lot more ease.  He still recounts the times without a visa he spent on the border trying to cross over for months having to beg for money and being at the mercy of people he did not know to get him safely across. He tells many, many stories.”

AL DÍA: Did you always dream of being an artist? Did you have anyone to guide you or to serve as a mentor/role model for it?

I didn’t always dream of being an artist. However, I have been attracted to making things with my hands from an early age.
Mexico as a country has a long history of folk art; it is ingrained in the identity of the country. The area where I grew up has unique style of craft making that you can’t find in other parts of the country. The artisans and vendors travel from town to town following the festivals year round.
As a child this is one of the things I really looked forward to every year. I loved looking at all of the items made out of wood and ceramic. What was really interesting was that everything that they made was functional (pots, pans, spoons, plates, woodwork, etc.) and they also made in miniature for kids to play with. Growing up in this environment, I think, unconsciously influenced a lot of what I do today and fueled my curiosity.
Two of the most memorable moments that I believe influenced my decision to pursue art making happened while I was in primary school in Mexico. When I was in third grade I remember we created a very simple plaster cast. Our teacher had instructed us to cut a plastic juice bottle that was shaped like a bear in half. He then helped is pour plaster into the one half and in just a few minutes we had a figurine. My mind was blown at what we had made.
The second moment happened a few years later. I just remember that my teacher at the time had showed us that you could just pour plaster into a shoe box to make a rectangle and that after it set you could paint it or color it with color pencils. I remember carving into it and again being intrigued at this thing.
When I moved to the U.S. and started 7th grade my favorite classes were the ones where we got to make things. I didn’t know a word of English so it was great when I went classes where I got to make projects because we were shown examples and I could just make what I saw. It was extremely liberating because art was a way for me to communicate visually before I could communicate verbally in school.
All of my art teachers were extremely kind and supportive from the day I got there to the day I left high school. They always fed my curiosity by showing my new things and guiding me in the process, but never imposing. I am very thankful for having them helped me to get where I am today.
The time I spent at Tyler School of Art was extremely important. I could go on and on about it. But to distill it I would say that the exposure to so many ideas and concepts, and studying in Rome for the academic year are some of the most remarkable experiences from my time there.
While I was in art school I got to learn from some great professors who gave me guidance and once again helped shape the language I use to produce my own artwork.

Latinos often sacrifice dreams on the altar of need; did you ever consider abandoning (or not pursuing) art in order to help your family financially or some other obligation?

I think that everyone at some point who comes for a low income background goes through period where they doubt if the career choice they have made were the right ones. I was no exception. When you are the first to go to college in your family there are certain expectations of what you should do. I think that first generation college students are always expected to chose a career track that will lead them to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So when I chose to pursue a career in art, it definitely raised eyebrows within my family.  Nevertheless, my family has always supported me however they could.
I helped my family with what I could. I had responsibilities that most people at that age would not get because I knew English and my parents did not. I was always calling the utility companies trying to figure out why there were extra charges in our bills, or going to my parents doctor visits to translate for them. I always made myself useful and tried to help them out any way I could because they had done so much for me already.

There were years that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to return to school because of tuition cost. My family always on the lookout for work opportunities for me and I always took them, working hard to make the next tuition bill. So when I was in school it meant a lot to me to be able to be in a place that I could just learn.
Who knows what I will be doing 15 to 20 years from today. But, the one thing I know is that art will still be part of my identity.

 

Art

How would you describe your work?

My artwork is as much about the process as much as it is about the image created. It has many elements that are drawn from my experience as an immigrant as well as tradition, and abstraction. 

Are you a prolific artist? Is there a medium you haven't tried yet that you are drawn to?

I use printmaking techniques and photography to assemble my works. In printmaking I work a lot with woodcut (a technique where you gouge out the image) and its graphic qualities. I use photography to catalogue places I go or things that I can incorporate into the works. I always try to have a camera with me because I never know when I will need it. 
Beyond blending printmaking and photography I have worked with laser cutters to supplement my techniques. I alway look to try new things because I like to learn how things work and the possibilities to use them as tools to add to my tool kit.
I also work as a professional photographer and videographer for a studio, and I freelance.

There is a long tradition of printmaking as a narrative visual art — do you consider your work narrative?

I use my artwork an element to start conversations. It doesn’t tell a story on its own, I always like to talk about the process that lead to its creation, because sometime it interest me more than the final product. My artwork is not a narrative in the traditional sense, because it doesn’t tell a story or narration of events on its own, I have to explain and give background information.

 

Life+Art+Migration

Tell me about your involvement in the MEP program. Why is it important to you?

I have been working with Migrant Education Program for a long time. I first got involved because they helped me when I arrived in the U.S. by registering me in school and provided the necessary resources to do that.
I later volunteered in their ESL and computer programs when I was in high school. I translated, assisted in the adults computer and ESL classes, and helped take care of their children while they were learning.
This really was important to me because  I was working with the community in a meaningful way and I could use my skills to help others.

Has it changed you? Your art?

Working with the MEP has really shaped what I have done. Because it is inspirational to see people come together and help each other. It was a place of growth that allowed people to learn in a safe learning environment. It also gave all the families a place that was relaxed and far away from the daily toils of labor. A lot of the families that came to the program had full time jobs in factories, hospitality, or agricultural industries, and still were raising a family. There are incredible stories after incredible stories— one alone doesn't do justice to the diversity.

Tell me a little bit about the book and your part in it

“Retratos | Portraits: La otra mirada | From the inside looking out” was an amazing project.
It was a project that came from the photography/English class I taught at  Migrant Education Technology Center for Adults and Families (METCAF).
When I was studying abroad in Rome, Jorge Perez-Rico, mentor and now longtime friend, asked via facebook if I wanted to try it out. He had been seeing the photos I had been posting from my stay in Rome.
The makeup of the class was mostly parents who had come from Mexico and were there to attend ESL classes. The class ran during the summer so it was a fun way for them to learn English through something that everyone is familiar with.
The beginning was slow because I was teaching them a lot of technical information about photography that had to be translated back and forth between English and Spanish. But once we got going the images that were parents were producing were amazing. They were beautifully honest. So Jorge floated the idea to make a book.
We both curated the some of the images with parents that were to be included. Others we included ourselves because they help shape the profile of the community we were representing in the book. After we narrowed the images down, Jorge took it upon himself to produce the written content of the book, he asked for essay contributions from members of the community as well as academics. I took it upon myself to take that content and organize in the design of the book. It took about two years to complete the book and still to this day people send me questions about it.

Tell me about the keynote at MEP’s graduation ceremony

It was chance for me to share a part of my story with students that are in place in life that I once was not that long ago.
My mentor and friend Jorge was there and I got a chance to publicly thank him in from of the people he devoted his life work to, for his help, and all of the selfless things he did for the community. It was the last time I saw him in person before he passed away in July.

 

An excerpt from García’s keynote

“Out of the blue, we received a letter summoning my sister to Ciudad Juarez. It was her immigration appointment to finally receive her visa, and I got the opportunity to be there. At last, my dad, my sister, and I were able to bring closure to a part of chapter in our immigration saga that was opened by our father back in the mid-1970s, when he left to the United States to give us, a better future.
Or, as we used to call it when I was a child: “El Norte” (The North) the mythical faraway land where dad went for most of the year and brought back presents.
After eight days in Ciudad Juarez of back and forth from office to office, we were finally getting the last seal of approval for my sister’s visa. To get it, we had to take a short walk across one of the bridges connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas.
As we were crossing, we joked about how easy it was to get across the border because all you needed was this tiny piece of plastic. But beneath these smiles and jokes, it was not hard to remember what difficulties we had to endure to get to this point, and of how many people go through even greater difficulty to bring prosperity to their families, and sometimes even perish in the process of doing so.
We walked to the point where a small plaque officially divides Mexico and the U.S., and stayed there for a few seconds. It was only natural to absorb the immensity of the border in this spot, and to remember the stories you were told by people who cross it illegally.
All the stories our father told us of jumping on the freight trains and spending months trying to cross from Tijuana to San Diego with no money before he obtained his visa were not hard to remember either. The hardships, the dehydration, the starvation, the lengths people go through to get across this barrier, are simply surreal.
My sister and I looked silently at each other for a split second, then she smiled, and it was at that moment when something I could not describe snapped into place. A kind of revelation, telling us that, this was it. The end of a long wait for her visa, the end of a long journey coming to a quiet conclusion; because any excitement, would be swallowed by the vastness of this place. We walked the rest of the bridge, got the visa stamp, and just like that we were on our way to meet our dad who was in the car back on the Mexican side of the border waiting for us. And without much fanfare, together, dad, my sister, and I concluded this chapter of our immigrant experience.
We as a family, and I as an individual have come a long way. My sister waited patiently for 20 years since 1994 for the application process. I was just four years old when the application was first filed! My brother who is now a sophomore in high school was not even born.
If there’s one lesson that I took from this experience it is that patience, hard work, and humility pay off. Especially patience.” 

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