Bay Area artist Maritza Ruiz-Kim is not complacent. She is curious, insistent, and inquisitive. She is looking for challenges, and devising ways to move through them.
Maritza’s current practice focuses on abstract encaustic and acrylic painting. Her most recent work is on view in a show titled Progress (pronounced pro-gress, a distinction we’ll get into) at The Studio Mind, her artist-run space in Martinez, California.
Maritza is an initiator who developed her own self-lead postgraduate curriculum, the Studio MFA, and founded ProWax Journal, an online publication for artists working in wax and encaustic. She’s an art instructor committed to progressive, integrated pedagogy, who has taught children, teens, and adults. She’s a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute with a BFA in New Genres, and has created performance, video, and installation works.
In 2016 Maritza opened The Studio Mind, where she maintains her studio, teaches classes, and curates rotating gallery shows. (Earlier in 2017 she hosted my solo show Knots in the Stream.)
Maritza has shown her work throughout Northern California and in New York, Provincetown, Kansas City, and Miami.
I asked her to talk me through the experiences that have lead her to where she is now.
Articiple: I’d like to get the long version of your artist’s story: your time as a New Genres major at the San Francisco Art Institute, your transition to painting and working with encaustic, your work as a curator. What has that journey been like?
Maritza: Well, first of all, I don’t see myself as a curator, but thank you! I guess practically speaking, it’s true. I think of what I’m doing here at The Studio Mind as basically using half of my own art studio space to bring more contemporary art to this part of the East Bay. And secondly, to give artists an opportunity to hang their work in a space that honors what they’re doing it, giving their art the white walls that say, ‘Hello! Look at this serious art!’
I didn’t really have in mind that I would go into something other than painting when I started at SFAI. Getting to this point has just been a series of singular steps, I definitely didn’t see myself owning an art space one day. But the first semester at art school I took a class with Paul Kos, in what was at that point called the Performance/Video Department (now New Genres). Paul is a key figure in the Bay Area Conceptual Art movement, and his class was all about how to think about making art. It was pretty amazing. It was everything about why I picked SFAI instead of a more traditional program, because I knew I wanted to be challenged by the content and purpose of art. He helped me make connections with Joseph Kosuth, who did the piece One and Three Chairs (an influential conceptual work), and other artists like that. I like that way of thinking about art, something that makes your mind do more.
Articiple: Not just retinal, as Duchamp might say.
Martiza: Yeah. I just listened to an Artsy podcast about Picasso’s Guernica . There’s debate among critics and historians about which is his best work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Guernica. One person said that the one you choose says a lot about how you think about art. If Les Demoiselles is your favorite then you’re probably interested more in formal aspects of art. If it’s Guernica, then you’re probably also thinking about art’s societal impact or its impact beyond the canvas. And definitely Guernica is where I land.
So, to come to a class at SFAI and start thinking beyond formal issues or craft was powerful. It’s not that I think focusing on formalism is a negative, it’s that I’m interested in things that take me to another place in addition to being connected to the material artwork. I am really interested in materiality and formal aspects, but I like the art to link up to other ways of thinking and to things in the outside world.
Articiple: Right. Address the context of where the work exists. And I’d say, even if somebody thinks of Les Demoiselles in formalist terms, it still has a lot going on in terms of concept and context—about gender and power, about the commerce of sex, about the use of non-Western imagery to disrupt conventions of beauty in European art. Picasso wasn’t recording a specific political tragedy there the way he was in Guernica, but political contexts are in the work inherently.
Maritza: Right. And Paul Kos’s class led me to think about those things, mostly through performance and installation work I did. I started to think about who the audience was and what I was going to present to the audience and how I was going to present it. I have an early sketchbook from that time where I wrote a list of all the things I need to think about when I make a piece of art: time, color, audience, all the issues I wanted to address.
Articiple: ‘’Time’ meaning the duration of the piece, or the cultural time when it’s made?
Maritza: Any of those things, whatever it means for that particular piece. I was trying to make a framework for things to think about whenever I’m making work. Paul’s class was especially impactful that way. Also, I can’t help but think about one of the students in particular from that class. Halfway through the semester, she was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was so sudden. The whole experience of being in that class stayed with me, even though it was only my first semester there. Being with the small connected group of people in that class underscored the meaning of making art for me. I changed my major from Painting to New Genres. There were a lot of practical things I didn’t learn, though, because I wasn’t studying a craft that had me working with my hands. When I graduated I felt a little like, I don’t know anything!
Articiple: Things like paint chemistry or how to stretch a canvas?
Maritza: Right. I still don’t know how to stretch a canvas! After I graduated with my BFA, I was still really young, 20 years old. This was still pre-internet. There was no way to just Google something and figure out something, like, ‘steps to have an art show’. I felt like, well, that’s that. I didn’t know what to do next. My art practice in college had not been about making things that lasted, I had been creating experiences or installations. I didn’t have a portfolio of completed projects. I wasn’t making art to be fleeting, but I didn’t construct the work in a way to last forever. I barely documented anything, and even had to re-perform some pieces in private just so I could document them.
Articiple: Was there a lot of talk about relational aesthetics at SFAI then?
Maritza: No, not at all. Paul Kos has a sense of humor, so in my mind his work connects to caring about how it relates to the audience. But no, not relational aesthetics per se. Paul’s way of thinking about art registers with the part of me that likes to mess around—not that it shows in the paintings I’m doing right now. I like a little bit of irreverence in art making, a bit of ‘why so serious?’, even if material I have in mind is a kind of serious. I don’t think art should be set on a level far above real life. Art in everyday life, I like that better. Thinking about my own work, I was never super precious about it. Even when I managed to make something back then, it was just a thing in that moment.
Articiple: It seems like that irreverence was part of SFAI. Like David Ireland.
Maritza: Yeah. We met with him at his house. That was pretty amazing. After I left school, I was trying to figure out my approach to making things and what I was doing. I thought I might want to go into graphic design as a way to make a living. I started doing temp work at design firms. That’s all it took to tell me, absolutely not. So I needed a different job. I was walking around my neighborhood and I saw a little art school for kids. I walked in and I liked it, and I ended up with a job.
Articiple: And you’d had no teaching experience, you just decided, ‘I can do this’?
Maritza: I’d worked with kids before. I was a babysitter as a teenager. And I took a 2-semester course at SFAI that was something like, ‘The Artist as Teacher’, one semester in lecture, one semester in San Francisco public schools. So I’d had some exposure. I felt really comfortable working with kids. Then my husband and I moved to the East Bay. I did a little bit of work with the Walnut Creek Civic Center for the Arts as a teacher in the schools. Then I got pregnant and went on bed rest, which put an end to that. When my kids were small, I did various stints teaching art out of my home studio. Eventually I decided it was time to make my own art again, since both my kids were in school and I could at least a few hours uninterrupted. I got a piece into Local Voice, a juried show at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek. That felt amazing. The juror was Philip Linhares, who was then Chief Curator at the Oakland Museum of California. And I got a little prize recognition, that was a great boost. I entered my work to another open call in San Francisco, curated by an artist I knew, and I got rejected. Wait, I mean, my work got rejected. Ha!
That was 2009. I did a few more juried shows, looking for ones curated by people whom I wanted to see my work. One show was Portraits at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in Sebastopol, California. It was curated by Lucinda Barnes, who was Chief Curator of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at that time. I got another sort of merit prize in that show. It wasn’t monetary, but I appreciated the recognition that I was doing something that was relevant somehow.
A couple of years later, I watched the reality TV show Work of Art with Jerry Saltz and some other New York art world people.
Articiple: Right! Nao Bustamante was one of the contestants.
Maritza: Another SFAI person!
I was enthralled. It was a window into something that was super mysterious to me, the New York art world. I know, it was reality TV with all the staging, but there was something that was real about it. The people that were on it are real artists and curators and critics and so on, even if they were in contrived situations. It was super valuable to me and a real breath of fresh air. And it was an escape from my life with two small children.
I had a Twitter account from when I had done advocacy work for a friend whose child had cancer. So as I watched this show I ended up on Twitter and came across an artist in New York who hated the show. A lot of people hated it, but this one artist in particular, William Powhida, had a blog post where he seemed to rip the whole thing to shreds. And I thought, ‘That’s nice for you, you’re in New York and you aren’t raising kids and you can sit around and make art and think about how much you hate this show.’ I was probably resentful about how little time I had for studio work, much less time to think. So I was like, ‘For me, this show’s been great. So maybe don’t think just about yourself, the world doesn’t revolve around you.’ I figured since he was in New York, he had privileged access to art world things that I felt pretty sure I’d never see if not for a TV show. So I made my own assumptions, ones that fueled how indignant I got.
I was so ticked. I didn’t know who he was. I just pounded my keyboard and hit Send. The next morning I went on Facebook and I had bunch of friend requests from people I didn’t know. I was like, what is this? They’d seen my response to Powhida’s post and some of them loved what I had written. And some didn’t!
Articiple: It’s amazing that you just jumped right into a nationwide art debate.
Maritza: I didn’t even think about who this artist was or if I should care. I was following him on Twitter, and I had also followed a bunch of people he was connected to. Twitter was still a new concept and, there didn’t seem to be many artists using it. So I connected to a small artist community based in New York, people who knew each other in real life. Which means, I dropped myself uninvited into this circle of people. That was August 2010. I didn’t really know enough to be intimidated or self-conscious.
Articiple: Right. How can you be intimidated by people you’ve never heard of?
Maritza: And the possibility of being an internet troll wasn’t really on my mind as a known variable then, so I didn’t think it through. Now, I kind of regret some of the ways that I was a little stalkerish, but I had no intentions of that.
I later learned that Powhida and another artist named Jen Dalton had done a project on Twitter that they called #Class, about class and hierarchy in the art world. They were playing on the double meaning of class as social hierarchy and class as a group of students. They staged a classroom space as a performance in the Winkleman Gallery in New York, to talk about class and elitism and such in the art world. People who followed the hashtag on Twitter met in real life at that event in New York. And that’s the group of artists I got connected with on Twitter.
Articiple: Are you still in touch with them?
Maritza: Yes. I’ve met some of them in person and we’ve been in shows together and things like that. I was amazed by the whole community that was coming together online, this feeling of the internet as a place to be in conversation.
There was a lot of writing about what it was like to have this Twitter experience, but to society as a whole it was still very new. And there weren’t many people in the art community on Twitter at that time, at least that’s how it felt to me. So it seems like it was something that could only have happened at that time, that I fostered these relationships from far away with a group of people who were more connected to each other than I was to them.
Articiple: You were thinking about the same things they were but you brought a different perspective.
Maritza: I think so. Another sort of stalkerish thing I did was an art piece in response to something Powhida wrote. He stated his mind clearly, and that clarity of thought made it possible for me to decide my own point of view. He had a particular problem with Carol Vogel, an art writer for the New York Times. He linked to an article Vogel wrote about Dan Colen, who was making artwork from chewing gum. Powhida really hated Colen and what Vogel wrote about him.
I read her article and reacted in kind of the same way. So I made a piece based on the article, that I called Guess It’s Art Now: Redacted & Rearranged. It’s in two parts. For Rearranged, I cut out text from the article and made a poem from it. I used Vogel’s words that she’d written praising Colen’s work, and made a poem that criticized him. For Redacted I pasted sheets of gold leaf representing the pages of the article from the newspaper, with areas cut out where I had removed the text for the poem. I liked my piece, I thought it was really funny.
I tweeted it to Powhida because I thought he’d like it too. But he never replied. I really wasn’t looking for a lot of response, just some acknowledgement. Around the same time there was another person, known to that Twitter circle, who posted that he was going to do a pop-up art show in his house in LA. He said he wanted to hear from (if I remember correctly) artists who are mothers, so I submitted some work. Sending my work out was very personal for me, since I’d only been in a couple juried shows since art school. I felt vulnerable as an artist, and I wanted to be taken seriously even though I had been full-time with my kids for several years. It was a risk to submit my work. I waited to hear back. And he never responded. I think I even emailed once or twice to see what the status of the show was. Who knows what happened? Then I worried that maybe it had just been a joke. I mean, if you receive work from an artist, at least say that you got it, or say you’re not doing the show, or whatever. I was really appalled to not hear any reply, nothing. I was incensed. Because, what about common decency?
After that, I wanted to make a piece about those exchanges and about the hierarchy that is Twitter. There was a whole conversation on Twitter at that time about the hierarchies in the art world. People were pretty obsessed with it, with the Dan Colens and all the millions of dollars they made and all the access they had, while so many artists didn’t have that access, due to gender or class issues or so many other things. But for me, these people were having an art conversation that I wanted to access. I was living in the suburbs, outside a big city that still didn’t seem to have a place on the art world map, just a mother, barely an artist, finally getting my art life rebooted after college. I heard these people complaining about being shut out and I was like, ‘Don’t you see, you say you hate this hierarchy, but you perpetuate it.’
For the piece, Artifact of an Anthropological Experience, I wanted to capture the range of what I was seeing on my Twitter feed. I was seeing tweets from artists about the art world hierarchy and how they felt excluded. At the same time, I was seeing tweets from the pediatric cancer community, about someone whose child had just died. I went through the Twitter feed of every person I followed, which included people from the fighting-childhood-cancer community on the one hand, and art people on the other. I selected two tweets from every account. I printed them on strips of paper and juxtaposed them next to each other, things like ‘We have two days of a healthy child’ (he lost his battle a little while later), and ‘I don’t blame Hirst for his plagiarism, I blame lazy critics and remote-control curators for not doing their job when it mattered’. And I felt like, everything these artists are complaining about is just really stupid.
I was pretty proud of this piece, I loved the performative aspect that happened, the meaning I wanted to lace into the actions that created the piece. I posted it on Twitter to share it with this online art community, but even the artists who were quoted in it had no response (except a few people who had become my friends). I wanted to tell these people: ‘I’m no one to you, so my voice is not welcome. This is the hierarchy you claim to hate. You’re a part of the same thing, so why do you feel so sorry for yourself?’
In Fall 2010, Jen Dalton and William Powhida proposed a show called #Rank to take place at the Miami art fairs, in a satellite space organized by the Winkleman Gallery. The #Rank event was a continuation of their earlier project #Class, to look at hierarchies and privilege in the art world. #Rank was a non-curated show. They would accept anything from anybody. I thought, ‘Cool, that means I’m going to be in the art fair. An automatic “in”!’ I wrote a performance script, of me interviewing myself, where I ask and answer questions about Artifact of an Anthropological Experience. I wanted someone to care enough about the work to ask all about it, so in defiance of waiting to be asked I decided to ask myself. I called it The Interview: In Which I Ask Myself All the Questions You Didn’t Care to Ask, Along Also With the Answers You Didn’t Care About.
It also briefly touched on the experiences I mentioned earlier, about not hearing back from the guy who called for work for a show at his house, and not hearing back from Powhida about Guess It’s Art Now. I rolled both those events into the exchange with Powhida, because I decided that I wanted Powhida to read the script at the fair in Miami. I wanted to force this interaction where the type of conversation I’d wanted would happen, because I scripted it and made it happen. He would basically have to become me, the person who’s interested in my work enough to ask questions. So I forced that empathy and point of view on him. It was pretty creepy, in a way. But I also thought it was funny.
Articiple: He agreed to perform with you?
Maritza: Not with me, exactly. He read both roles since both were the same person, me. I’d asked both him and Jen Dalton what they thought about him reading the script when I sent in my proposal. They thought it would be best to discuss once we met in person, which made sense. So I asked him when we met at the opening reception in Miami. He was kind of like, ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ But after we talked he was fine with it. He and Jen put me on the program first thing on the first day, 8:00am, I assume because no one would be there. Ha! I understood though, it was fine. There were technical problems that ate up the time that we could have used to discuss the project more. I had hoped to explain away some of the creepiness, but I didn’t get a chance. Oh, well. But the performance happened, and I was happy about that.
It was there in Miami that I met a lot of the artists from the Twitter group. Laura Isaac Pensar in Kansas City is the primary friend and colleague I have kept up with from that group. We not only share a similar drive and approach to our work, supporting each other and collaborating on projects together, but we both also parent school-age sons. Most of the other artists there were local to the New York area. I’ve been in some shows with them in New York, one in a private lobby space and one at Bushwick Open Studios. We were also in a show in Kansas City that Laura organized. And I’ve visited with them when I’ve visited New York.
Articiple: It’s great that you just jumped in and went to Miami. You didn’t wait to be invited, you said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. I want to do it with you.’
Maritza: Yeah, it was an opportunity that came at the right time. I thought, why not. That fall, I’d been taking a professional development class with Jamie Brunson at Kala Art Institute. Actually, I put my idea for the Miami performance to the class and they said, ‘Yes, you should do it!’ Having other artists support the idea helped. I wasn’t all on my own. They pushed me and gave me the confidence to follow through. Another awesome thing is that two of the artists in that class, Ron Saunders and Dana Zed, decided to go to the Miami art fairs that year, too, just to check it all out. They both came to the performance.
Taking a risk was something I learned back at SFAI, too. In one of my classes with Paul Kos I proposed an idea for a sound art piece in Union Square in San Francisco. He told me I should submit it to one of the local arts organizations, Artists’ Television Access or something like that. I didn’t submit it, because for all sorts of reasons I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know where to start or what that the piece would look like. He gave me a B in the class. I was ticked off that I didn’t get an A. He said it was because I didn’t submit the piece.
Articiple: He was sort of saying, ‘Taking your work public should be your priority, you need to get out there.’
Maritza: Yes. Those lessons stick with you: you need to take the opportunities that you can.
You know what, I really like remembering all this, because I’m seeing how some of these connections happened.
Articiple: It’s great to have an instructor who says, ’I believe in you so much, I’m going to penalize you if you don’t believe in yourself.’
Maritza: Yes. He was right.
Around the time that I went to Miami, in 2010, I decided to refocus my practice on making objects, to explore a visual language and make works that could be commodities (so much of my work until then had been performances, videos, or installations). I guess all that talk about how market-oriented the art world had become made me feel like getting my hands involved with making physical art pieces, rather than just the invisible non-thing-ness that was performances and video. If art was becoming just another commodity, then I wanted to make art and not let it be a commodity. Or if money was exchanged, I wanted it to be on my terms, with me embracing the legitimacy and importance of these things I made.
So, I started to paint! The thing is, though, I didn’t really have a visual language. It was frustrating. I didn’t like what I was making. I’d started working with watercolor and drawing and acrylic, but it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. It took time to figure out what I liked. When I shared images of my work in that professional development class at Kala, people asked me if I’d ever done encaustic. I said, ‘Isn’t that really complicated?’ At SFAI I had seen work done with resin, which I thought was similar. I was overwhelmed by it, in the way that film photography overwhelms me, with all the chemical processes. But the other students said I should try it, based on what I was doing and what I wanted in my artwork. At their suggestion I took a class at Kala on painting with encaustic, taught by Hylla Evans, in Spring 2011. Hylla makes encaustic materials and sells them at Evans Encaustics. I still use her materials in my work.
I instantly fell in love with encaustic. It has the translucency and the sculptural aspects I’d been looking for. And it has the practical aspect that, if you have to leave your studio at a moment’s notice, you just turn everything off and walk out—perfect for my lifestyle! There were a lot of reasons why it worked for me. Painting with encaustic was what I needed to take my visual language in the direction I wanted. I needed a material that supported my process and the visual language I was developing. I don’t think I could have figured it out without the qualities of that particular material. I stayed connected with Hylla and started to meet other artists who worked with encaustic. Hylla told me I should go to the annual International Encaustic Conference that year. The conference was founded by Joanne Mattera, a New York-based artist who wrote The Art of Encaustic Painting.
She’s a well-known painter and art blogger. We knew a lot of the same people through the blogging and Twitter communities. I didn’t feel ready to go to the conference that year, but the next year I decided to. Then I found out that Ed Winkleman would be the keynote speaker. I’d met him in Miami, because Winkleman Gallery hosted #Rank.
At the 6th International Encaustic Conference in Summer 2012, I showed a video, inquieta | in quiet a. I had first shown it the year before at the ArtPadSF art fair at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco. I made the video in response to a call for work by Krowswork Gallery in Oakland. I had met the curator at Krowswork through Ron Saunders.
I’m proud of that video piece. It had had so much in it that was what I wanted my art to be about, raw but accessible. The narrative was my feelings of what some people now call ‘racial imposter syndrome.’ Like, not knowing how to be in my skin as a Mexican, being white or brown, or not being confident using the Spanish language. Most people don’t believe that my heritage is so Mexican. My most recent European ancestor is from the mid-1800s. Other than that, cien por ciento mexicana.
The video is a conversation between white and brown. It’s first-person perspective. Now the format of a fixed-camera perspective on hands doing something seems more familiar to people, because of ‘unboxing’ videos on Youtube. But at that time in my mind it was unique. The camera looks down from overhead onto a table, where I have jars and bottles and other containers arranged around a white bowl. My hands interact with the materials on the table. I have cactus soil, because my family is from the desert in Mexico, and I was raised in the Mojave Desert here in California. Both my grandfather and my mom worked in the fields so I was trying to make my hands look like theirs would have looked after working. I use the soil to make my hands brown. Then I go through a process of cleaning my hands and trying to remove the brown. Later in the video, I pour bleach into a bowl and wash my hands with it. (That was painful because the cactus soil had spines and things in it.) So, there is a back-and-forth tension of being darker and then whiter.
I decided to show the video at the International Encaustic Conference since I knew that Ed Winkleman is particularly interested in video art. I’d included encaustic gesso as one of the materials on the table, so there was that connection to encaustic, which for me justified its inclusion in a conference about encaustic. Some people at the conference really engaged with the video– artists and a couple of gallerists. I ended up showing it again later that summer in a Provincetown gallery. Several of my friends who aren’t in the arts felt deeply about it too. If only people in the art world had responded and none of my other friends had responded, that would have been frustrating. But to have non-art people and art people both respond is exactly what I wanted. That’s what I want all my work to do. I don’t make videos as often now, but when I do it’s pretty meaningful for me.
At the conference I enrolled in a small class with Ed, about professional practices in art. Among other things, we talked about sexism and ageism. Is it ever too late to be taken seriously as an artist? Ed said if an artist doesn’t have some solid work by the time they’re 60, then he would say it’s unlikely he’s going to be interested in what they’re doing. I thought, 60, I think I can do that!
As I look back on all this, I realize there have been some key opportunities that have come up that have matched perfectly with what I wanted to do. Being ready to move on those when they come has been important.
Articiple: And at some point you became the editor of the online magazine for encaustic artists, ProWax Journal. How did you get involved with that?
Maritza: After that conference, I was active in Facebook conversations around encaustic as a medium, and how encaustic is received in the contemporary art world. I had a lot of opinions to share. And some of my encaustic paintings were starting to be shown. One piece made it into a juried show at Sandra Lee Gallery in San Francisco. Joanne Mattera wanted to create a private group for artists working in wax and encaustic, called ProWax. She invited me to be in that group and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s awesome!’ It was by invitation only. She had specific criteria for who could join the group, so I was excited that she invited me. In that group there was a lot of continuing conversation about a lack of standards in teaching encaustic. If badly-made encaustic work gets into galleries and it’s falling apart, it’s bad for all artists. There was a sense of, ‘How do we elevate the conversation around encaustic work?’
The group was posing this question, what do we do, how do we get information out there? I said, ‘Why don’t we make an online magazine?’ There was a lot of positive response. Joanne said, ‘How about if you do it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So I became founder and editor-in-chief. I didn’t have previous experience as an editor, but I had a lot of writing experience. Joanne was still really busy running the International Encaustic Conference, but she has a professional editing background and offered her support as a consulting editor, which was great.
Articiple: So you solicited articles from people in the group?
Maritza: Yes. We decided on the regular features that we wanted. It was a lot of work. But it was so worth it. Because of that opportunity editing the journal, I got to interview Amy Ellingson, who uses encaustic in her work and who is based in the San Francisco area. She was having a solo show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art at the time.
It was great to be able to ask her a lot of questions and write about her work. Back then, I was able to write more effectively. That was before my brain injury (from a bike accident in 2015). It’s harder now to write. But that interview was really fun. It was a really fast turnaround. That was especially generous of her. We did the interview through email, and she only had a couple days to get back to me. When I went to Amy’s show in San Jose I met the editor of Square Cylinder.
He read the interview I did with Amy and quoted an excerpt of what I wrote. And I saw on her website recently that Amy quotes something I wrote about her work. So that’s validating! I feel like with a lot of these things, I just stumble into them.
Articiple: But with intent. Stumbling With Intent, that can be the title of your memoir.
Maritza: ‘Stumbling with intent, and then flat on the ground!’ I feel like a lot of face plants happen. Did you see that viral video recently, something like, Hey whys art school gotta be like this?
Articiple: Yes! A woman lying on the ground while everyone around her just goes on with their business.
Maritza: Right! I knew it was staged. To me it was funny because that was exactly what happened at SFAI all of the time. Someone could walk by in a random costume, and you wouldn’t wonder what was happening. You probably wouldn’t even look twice.
Articiple: So what happened next on your path, after ProWax Journal? How did you decide to start The Studio Mind and open a gallery space?
Maritza: Those two things happened nearly sequentially, handing off PWJ to another editor-in-chief and opening my art project space. PWJ was a ton of work. I did thirteen issues over three years. I wasn’t even writing that much anymore, but just running it was overwhelming. Luckily, Joanne was able to take over as editor-in-chief just as I felt life was grinding to a halt again.
It wasn’t the first time my art life crashed into a wall. One reason I’d wanted a studio space at The Compound in Oakland was to be closer to the action, even if I had to drive out of the way to make that happen. But things kept getting in the way. I had the bike accident in Spring 2015 and experienced a major traumatic brain injury. It took months to recover. Then my younger son’s needs got really intense that fall. We found out he was autistic in early 2016, after a few months of even more heightened issues with school. During Spring 2016, I was hardly making it to my Oakland studio at all. I felt pretty defeated. I had to find studio space closer to home. I started looking closer to where we live in Contra Costa County for another shared space like The Compound, or anything really.
And now I’m here in my own space in downtown Martinez. It’s everything I’ve always wanted. I so often feel like nothing’s working, but as I talk about it, I realize everything’s working just fine! Even though I still remember the pain back then and even though there are still weekly obstacles, I’m here!
Articiple: Good. Then hold this up to yourself as a mirror, because from my perspective it looks like you’re doing pretty well. It’s just that you have more ambition than you have time in the day.
Maritza: That’s what I was thinking this morning. I’m always wishing things could be more. Just problem solving my way forward.
Articiple: That’s volume 2 of your memoir, Problem Solving My Way Forward.
Maritza: Right! I eventually found the right school for my son and got things stabilized for him. And literally when I dropped him off for his first day of school was the first time I had a couple of hours to start working on finding a studio. The first place I thought of was downtown Martinez, because I love the feel of this place. Anyway I was looking at square footage and the general cost per square foot and so on. That first morning I parked in downtown Martinez and walked around and saw the space I’m in now, with a For Rent sign. I peeked in and thought it was way too big, and the cost was more than I wanted. I found another spot in Todos Santos Plaza in Concord that was super small, a third of this space. It was just the right size, and it had a storefront on the street. There’s a farmers market and an awesome bookstore nearby. I thought about what I could do with that, to bring something to the area and cover rent and all that. That’s when I started thinking about doing something commercial, in addition to a studio. I hotly pursued that space but I kept getting put off because there was someone else in line for it. Once I was more comfortable with doing something in addition to a studio, I was more open to this space in Martinez. I thought of all these art-related money-making schemes to support the rent. At first I thought I would have more retail stuff happening.
Articiple: You were thinking of taking artwork on consignment?
Maritza: Right. I thought of having a small works gallery, cash and carry. I thought about how to make this a community space—maybe I could get high school art teachers to come together, to support their own art practices. Because they’re the ones who are influencing young artists, and the best way to influence young artists is if you still have an art practice yourself. I thought of having art talks and other things. I realized, though, that it was more than I could manage. But at the time I was putting it all on the table. I wanted to offer classes that made a connection to art history and contemporary art. When my boys were small and I wasn’t making as much work of my own, I had been working with an art program in my kids’ school, teaching an art history class. I was getting really comfortable helping the students make connections between art history and art making. In the art school where I’d taught earlier, they taught discipline-based art education that had an art historical component. Lessons were connected to works of art, and then the kids would make art in response. So I thought I would do classes like that in my space. I came up with a schedule and made my website and got the space launched. In the gallery space, I hung my own work for the first show. But I don’t want to do that all the time, it feels like cheating.
Articiple: But some artists do have gallery spaces where they show their own work. It’s kind of like an ongoing open studio. If you have a following and people want to come and buy directly from you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Maritza: Since I’m not represented by a gallery right now, yeah, I think it’s fine. And I want to put my work on the walls and see what I can do with it. It’s kind of for myself, but I have friends in the area who like to see my work. I’m showing my work again here this summer. I’m enjoying it, even though it’s been stressful to carry out. The idea is to put works up that aren’t finished. The show is called Progress (as in pro-gress, the verb).
I don’t want it to be pro-gress (the noun), a movement that’s already finished or arrived at. I want it to be something that is in process. I’m putting up work that may or may not be done and I’m going to keep working on it through the duration of the show. I want it to embody something that’s not finished. There’s a lot of pressure in trying to finish something and arrive. It seems like every time I try to finish something in life, I can’t. And that’s frustrating. So I figure I might as well put the work up as is and keep working on it and it’ll keep changing while it’s up.
At the beginning of the show, I decided to hang the work left to right in order of most done to least done. I like the conversation that comes up about how, in my assessment of a piece, one piece is closer to finished than another. What is lacking in that piece? What took this other one closer to done? The paintings will pro-gress during the course of the show! I think that’s a compelling idea.
Articiple: It makes me want to come at the beginning and then come back to see what changes.
Maritza: I’d like that to be an interesting experience for people. And for people who aren’t in the arts, the idea of being able to see an artist’s work in progress is maybe kind of exciting.
Articiple: It can demystify the process. Some artists are so guarded about letting anyone know about their process, like it’s a secret recipe, and if anyone finds the recipe out they could steal it. I don’t think it works like that. Anyway what’s interesting to me is seeing how the work grows from the first stages into a finished piece.
Maritza: When I work with my teenage students I try to show them my mistakes. When I work alongside them, I tell them when I’m unsure about what I’m making or when I don’t like what I’ve made. Like, ‘I don’t like this but I’m going to keep working on it.’ All of that. That’s what I went through when I was first trying to create my visual language. I was so irritated with myself. It took a long time to keep doing it, to make something. I had to find that material that I loved enough to help me keep working and not quit.
So once I decided how I wanted to use the space for The Studio Mind, my brother built this divider wall to separate the front gallery area from the studio space in back. I always meant to post online, ‘A Mexican built this wall and a Mexican paid for it! And it’s a GREAT wall!’
Maritza: After I opened The Studio Mind I heard about a new a preschool nearby, Center of Gravity, that’s focusing on STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math. And I thought, why not have art there too? Then by chance the school’s founder, Michelle Grant-Groves, happened to walk by The Studio Mind and came in. She saw that I was reading Studio Thinking, a book from researchers at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The book is about how studio art works as a model for learning.
Articiple: I know the book! I actually worked at Project Zero years ago in one of my first jobs out of college.
Maritza: It’s all connected!
Michelle saw I was reading the book and said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m into!’ She said the preschool was looking for an artist to teach there. So I became their art teacher.
There are eight habits of mind that Project Zero theory describes, and I try to hit on all of them in my teaching. Even though the students are little children, it still applies to them. For the habit of ‘Developing Craft’ I like developing their fine motor skills and their knowledge of how to use their tools. ‘Engage and Persist’ comes in when I challenge them just a bit, for example by drawing a cat or an octopus step by step. I want to teach them to stick with a difficult process rather than focusing on the end product (though honestly, their end products are great too!) I also want them to ‘Envision’ something before they make it, though that’s a little developmentally advanced for them because they need to learn mark-making first. Even envisioning can happen without perfect execution of an idea, though. I want them to develop their imaginations, and develop the skills to attempt what they have in their minds, and I want them to enjoy the process as they go along. I teach brush skills and using scissors, watercolor painting with cool effects, how to see more than what meets the eye. I love working at the school and I love the children. It’s an amazing environment in so many ways. I feel very appreciated.
I’m absolutely covered for my expenses at The Studio Mind now, so I don’t have to offer so many classes in my studio. That was stressful, trying to fill classes every month. Lots of people say that they’d love to take classes, but they don’t really follow up.
The gallery show that finished in early June at The Studio Mind, called Person Place or Queen, is work from artists in the group RES Success (Redefining Educational Services), which provides services for adults with developmental disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Their administrative offices are in the building next to mine. Their art therapist saw my space and came in. We talked, and decided to have this show. I’m so amazed by what she does with her students. This show was originally going to be up for only 10 days. But it looks so good—and it’s so much work to hang a show and publicize it that I wanted to keep it up longer. The group did a lot of PR for the show, so I shared the work of running a show with them. And from a marketing standpoint, I know that having community events here brings people into the space who didn’t know about the space. So a lot more people have come in.
It really does make a difference, having a physical space. People walk by and see I’m here. It takes time for people to register that you’re there, especially because this space is a little hidden from the street. But I love looking out the window at the garden and the creek outside.
Articiple: It’s an amazing location. And it’s doing what you wanted. It’s making connections.
Maritza: And it’s great for my own work. For years and years, I’ve wanted a studio space where I could just hang my art and see pieces next to each other. I need to know how my paintings are interacting with each other. When you don’t have a studio space where you can have your pieces out all around you or hanging up on the wall, you’re only doing one artwork at a time. It’s a very different experience. I couldn’t hang things in my space at The Compound. My walls there were concrete block. Having these white walls in my studio here means a lot to my practice. It’s great to have a place where, on my own time, I can have a show going up and I can tell people it’s happening and they can come here.
Articiple: Let’s talk about the Studio MFA. You organized a self-directed independent MFA-equivalent project that involved studio practice, theoretical study, critical feedback, mentoring, and other things that students usually have access to in graduate school.
Maritza: At the moment I started that project, I needed to move my professional art practice forward. I had been looking at MFA programs, the timing and the cost, and realized that wasn’t going to happen for me. I have children, I have commitments. Even if I got into Stanford, which is a great program because it’s fully funded, I couldn’t physically make the time to be there. I couldn’t even get to UC Berkeley often enough to do the MFA there. I looked at part-time programs and low-residency programs, like Goddard. I looked at the UC Berkeley Extension Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts. But that would have been silly, because I have a bachelor of fine arts already. I kept thinking, ‘I can go back to school!’ Then, ‘No. I can’t.’
I couldn’t justify the expense. I have two kids to put through college. Why would I get a Fine Arts MFA when it’s not going to help earn income for my family? If I didn’t have to pay for my kids’ education, of course the MFA would be worth it. But I don’t have infinite money to send them to college and send myself to grad school. I’m not going to sacrifice their education for mine.
Articiple: MFA programs are set up for people who don’t have other commitments.
Maritza: I was irritated when I talked to people at these programs. One guy said, ‘You need to really value yourself.’ I said, ‘I do value myself!’ Just because I’m not sacrificing my children’s needs for my own doesn’t mean I don’t value myself. And he has skin in the game. He needs people to enroll in the program to support himself and his school. So of course he wants me to enroll. I started feeling really angry about the MFA programs. It’s so expensive, why should I spend so much money on this? I thought, I can learn without going to a program. I have a pretty amazing undergraduate education. There are a lot of people who go to undergraduate art programs who don’t learn what I learned. There are a lot of people who go to grad school to learn what I learned as an undergrad. The biggest reason I needed an MFA was because I need to make more professional connections. I don’t want to go to a program so someone can tell me what to be thinking about. I don’t want them to tell me what books to read. I don’t want to go in different directions. I know what direction I’m going in. I finally washed my hands of it.
When I was first looking into MFA programs, I took a class with someone I’d met at SFAI when I was there, Amy Berk, about how to organize an art show, all the practical steps, even how to make postcards. It was all those little things added up that had been making it intimidating for me. The class got me over the hump of that process and helped me realize I could do things on my own.
When later I felt more pressure about needing MFA-level structure, I thought about how I’d already been cobbling together learning experiences. I decided to organize my own independent program that I called my Studio MFA, an MFA I would do from my own studio. I made a list of the things I wanted from an MFA, and how I would do those things for myself.
Articiple: You created a great program. I was impressed, and inspired. Your plan is really thorough and integrated. It’s a good template for anyone who wants to take initiative in developing their practice, at any stage really.
Maritza: I wanted to set it up in a way that other people could take from it. I thought, what if I could do this in a way where people doing it could start connecting with each other? I wanted it to become an in-real-life thing. Then I had the bike accident and the brain injury, which changed what I hoped to accomplish. I finished the first semester that I’d planned for myself, but I wasn’t able to pick it back up again. Still, some great things happened.
Articiple: And you’ve carried on. The Studio Mind is like your post-graduate stage. You’re doing the work you set out to do.
What impresses me about the Studio MFA is your integrated perspective. You connect the hands-on aspects of individual practice to the importance of relationships with the community (in the art world and the world at large), and you link creative and intellectual and social engagement and political justice. You synthesize a lot of different kinds of understanding. I think it stands up to any program of study in an institutional MFA.
Maritza: Thank you! I was able to get so much done that ‘first semester’ because I had three months of recovery time from the brain injury. I didn’t have any responsibilities. Although at first I had to have silence in a dark room, I was able to slowly start reading and writing again. Once I felt normal in that way, I focused totally on the Studio MFA project. I couldn’t watch TV, drive, or even do child care. So I had a lot of time to myself, enough so that I could dig in deep and organize my thoughts. I guess that was my ‘residency’.
My life got back to normal life by mid-summer of 2015, then things picked up speed with my boys. It’s been hard since then to write. I have a lot of ideas, but it’s hard for me to complete a thought the way I want to. Any time I try to flesh out some thoughts, it’s full of stops and starts. I don’t know if what I’ve written makes sense only in my mind but not to readers. And then when I re-read, I catch simple mistakes. I can’t be sure whether there are more mistakes than I even realize.
Articiple: To me, it looks like you’re always moving forward to the next tier of engagement. There are people who go to grad school who never get to the level you’re thinking about, in terms of situating your practice in a social context and a history and an art community. That’s ok, there are different ways to do art. But you have an intellectual investment, you see beyond just making things and finding an audience.
Maritza: I guess I only know what I see from my perspective, like, I have my eye on doing something, and I have an idea of how I want things to turn out, from small things like a particular artwork, to bigger things like my career work as a whole. If it doesn’t turn out quite how I’d pictured, sometimes it’s hard to see the value in what did happen. Also, like anybody, I can get disillusioned that things don’t get a bigger reception or traction, like back when the piece I did the script for that performance at #Rank in Miami, or the Guess It’s Art Now piece. I thought those projects would be interesting to more people. I mean, it was interesting to me and I don’t think I’m that esoteric, haha!
Anyway, though, it’s still hard when people don’t pick up on something. It’s can’t tell if it’s because they didn’t notice the layered meanings or if it was some failure on my part. In my current show, I’m playing around with layers again. I like thinking about the verb pro-gress versus the noun pro-gress, about works in progress, about progressivism and what’s happening lately, how we handle the imperfect ‘now’, and how we make peace when we know things are far from perfect. I guess I like to not only have a finished product that I’m happy with, but I also like all the experience that swirls around it, I like what lives and breathes around art. I can’t tell if I’m making enough clear connections in my work for people to have more of a response, or if there’s enough substance there for them to respond to in the first place. Or, maybe the substance is there and the connections are clear enough, but life is fast-paced, and who slows down to notice and consider things? There’s plenty that I miss as I go about my days, too.
Articiple: There are so many things that determine when something becomes a conversation and when people really spend time with it. A lot of it is beyond your control. I guess sometimes you have to let go and let it have its own life. But the work survives. A piece like Guess It’s Art Now is interesting, and it will keep being in the world for more people to find.
That’s my reason for doing this interview series, to give artists a chance to say whatever they most what to talk about in regard to their work. The interview marks a place in time, so you can send people back to it later. When I started this project I imagined getting more response to it. Like, ‘OK, Bay Area, I’m giving you these fascinating interviews. You’re welcome! Now let’s talk.’ Well, this isn’t the kind of thing that goes viral. But the artists I interview care about the conversations, and they share them with their circles. These are quiet conversations maybe, but I think they’re worth having.
Maritza: I love that you’re doing this. You do a phenomenal job at slowing down as you look at people’s work. Is that part of being a poet? I deeply appreciate you doing that here with my work. It’s really opened my mind to appreciate what I’m doing, like, looking at the ground I’m walking on, instead of looking so far ahead that I keep tripping on things.
I think what you’re saying is true. There is a time and place for certain conversations to happen. I realize that life goes fast for a lot of people, me included. It’s not that I’m disappointed in people for not picking up on what I’m doing with some projects, because that’s just silly and self-centered. It’s more like, I really like what I’m doing, I’m going to keep doing it, and I hope people can enjoy what I’m enjoying about it. Life is hard a lot of the time, and as much it’s possible, I’d like my work to bring more meaning or empathy or enjoyment or something like that. And whatever changes I need to make to my work or to how I present it in order to, I guess, progress in that hope, then I’m up for it. As long as I stay true to the work itself. I think if I’m having fun with the stories I’m telling, then I’ll figure these things out. Then when the time is right and someone needs to see it, they’ll see it.
Articiple: The work keeps living beyond the time when you first share it. And sometimes you do make connections. We had the 9th anniversary party at The Compound in June 2017 and I had an open studio. I had a range of work on the walls, really new stuff and stuff from more than 5 years ago. And I had great conversations with people, about what I’m doing and how it’s changed over time, and about the thinking and processes behind it. People brought their own contexts, asked questions, gave me new ideas. I thought, this is really all I want: to be in conversation.
Maritza: Yes! That’s exactly it. I want those conversations, and this artwork and the way I show it is my best effort at igniting particular kinds of talks. That’s one of the most valuable things about art making for me, when the work I make does land with somebody and resonates enough to come back to me somehow. Not because I’ve accomplished something or because I’ve earned someone’s esteem. But because I saw something, and I said it in this way through art, and someone saw that art and understood something, and it becomes this shared experience. I love that.