Who I am is indelibly tied to who raised me and the landscape that shaped my family’s story. I am a fourth generation Tucsonense with ties to this city from the early 1900’s. My family is full of hardworking laborers and mujeres con fuerza. As a child, I was constantly asking questions of everyone around me. Naturally, I felt the sciences were a right fit. But it wasn’t until I fumbled through my first degree in Animal Sciences at Cornell University that I realized I did not fit into laboratory culture. I found the scientific method a way for me to ask questions and come up with creative solutions to arrive at an answer, but I got lost in the tedium of the research world. It was at Cornell, in an alien landscape and foreign culture, that I began to question who I was and where I came from. I found an outlet for creative expression in film photography and I spent as much time in a photography lab as I did in the research lab. After receiving my B.S. in Animal Science, I took a few years off and decided to go back to pursue something creative.
I ended up at the University of Arizona where I fell in love with the field of ‘visual communication’. When I started art school, I was afraid my overly analytical brain might not make anything worthwhile; “fine art” seemed so esoteric and disconnected from my reality. The field of illustration offered me a way into the world of art. The task of using creative visuals to illustrate information was like putting puzzle pieces into place. I was amazed at the power of art to transmit information: that an image could be both aesthetic and functional. The different mediums that I learned in art school became my tools to experiment and question the world around me.
My ethics as an artist are grounded in my sense of place and my connection to the deserts of Tucson. As a kid, I was off alone in the Santa Cruz river throwing clods of dirt around. In art school, I continued to revisit these places of importance to me. My perspective as an artist starts from the dirt I stand on and I don’t feel that I can make work about things I do not have experience with. I believe as a visual communicator, it’s my duty to use my tools as an artist to explore ideas of social importance. My background in science really gives my work a different launching point and keeps my subject matter tied to the real world.
The desert, home, family, and social justice are consistent themes in my work. I don’t often start on a project unless there is a personal connection to me. I grew up in a large family with many grandparents, cousins, and aunts. I’ve been forever surrounded by that network of support. My identity is wrapped up in my rich heritage. I began to look at my family’s history within Tucson and I began to wonder, “What lives did my great grandparents live?” “What was it like for them to be immigrants?” “What was the Mexican American community like back then?” “Why does it still feel segregated now?” All of these questions informed my current project Abecedario del Sur and continue to inspire me to create more work. Another source of inspiration is the Sonoran Desert. I often think about my Great Grandmother who got to see the Santa Cruz running with water when she was a girl. The same river, now dry, that I would play in as a child.
As far as medium goes, I will use whatever medium best pairs with the concept I am working with. I tend toward multi-step process-heavy artistic works. Sometimes I can get overly convoluted with process. One time, I had to design my own font in school so I started by shaping letters out of ground spices. I then blew the sculpted spices with a straw to spread out the letterform in an organic/distressed way. I did this same process with each letter of the alphabet, photographed, then transferred them to a digital program and created a font called ‘Tornado Type’. People have always been drawn to the letterforms of this project and when I explain the process, it’s like explaining how I did a magic trick. That moment is really satisfying for me as an artist.
Visual communication is such a profound way of telling a story. Social justice movements are so multi-faceted that as an outsider, it can be hard to understand the movement or connect with the ‘cause’. Artistic and creative expressions of social justice statements engage a wide audience by not only stimulating their eyes, but capturing their hearts! Another consideration is that the oppressed have often been left out of creating narratives about themselves. It is extremely powerful to put these tools into the hands of those who have much to say and much to reshape. I feel a responsibility as a Mexican-American with strong ties to Tucson, to engage with the people’s narrative and put this in opposition to what we are being told from white educators, law-makers and the media. Organizations like the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture are incredibly important in funding Latino artists, but also in creating a network of artists who support each other. I think it’s also important in a place like Tucson, where ‘Southwestern Art’ is so attractive to tourists, that artists of color from the Southwest use their art to confront stereotypes and reframe our experience in this land rather than relying on icons that further the mis-education.
My current project is titled Abecedario del Sur: a Geographical Alphabet Book (see above). The project began as an exploration of the typography found in the Southside of Tucson. I took photographs of the buildings and signs along South 6th Ave and South 12th Ave, pulling out a different letter of the alphabet from each sign. I arranged the alphabet geographically by laying out the letters by where I found them along the streets. Thus, the viewer is taken on a journey from North to South, emphasizing geography and place, thus the name: Abecedario del Sur (Alphabet of the South). The southside of Tucson is rife with stereotypes and has generally been considered ghetto and dangerous. My book aimed to shatter the conceptions and reveal the true beauty that’s always existed in my side of town. When I went out to photograph the signs for this project I was amazed at the diversity and richness of the hand painted signs that lined the streets. All I could think about was how I was being taught in school that great design comes from Europe and big cities, yet here in this humble, derelict side of town, I was surrounded by fantastic designs.
After I graduated from the U of A I applied for and won the Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts in 2015. I used this funding to start interviewing the businesses owners whose building signs were featured in my book. I wanted to tell the story of the amazing people from my community who had built this landscape. I wanted to know who they were, how their businesses had survived, and what their experiences in Tucson had been. I come from a family of small business owners and I just wanted to know how, on this downtrodden side of town, so many have survived for over thirty years. I pulled in my sister Sharayah Jimenez, an architect and talented writer, to help me craft this narrative from our interviews. This year we have been going over the interviews I collected last year and started the writing process. Some themes that have emerged deal with the immigrant experience, resilience, hard work, and the importance of family. The book will be a mix of art, history, stories, and heart.
In addition to this I’ve been screen printing select pages from my alphabet book to sell as stand alone pieces of art. I began working with screen printing because I wanted to create work that everyone could afford and that many people would want to engage with if they didn’t purchase the book. I’ve printed all the letters to spell ‘Tucson, Az’ and in June I was part of a group show in Phoenix that really opened doors and encouraged me to keep on going with this artist’s life I’ve created for myself.
What is unique or powerful about the arts movement in Arizona at this time? What unique aesthetic innovations do you see happening here?
I’ve only been a working artist for 2 years, so I have more connections within the social justice community in Tucson than the artist community. I’m always amazed and inspired by the activists here. I know many people who have moved to Tucson to be a part of the social justice community and contribute to the work here. And likewise, alot of talented creatives have flocked to Tucson to take advantage of the affordable living and be a part of our active art scene. I find it interesting that the two scenes don’t often overlap and in fact they seem like completely disparate communities. Perhaps this is due to the fact that so many of the artists in town are transplants, maybe it has to do with subject matter. What I do know, is that the Tucson art scene is relatively unpretentious and there are many places to show your work and opportunities to collaborate. I think the slow relaxed vibe of Tucson really encourages us artists to take our time with our work. I see a commitment to traditional art forms like muralism, graffiti, painting, and print-making. It’s refreshing for me to see less digitally reliant artists working in Tucson. I just hope that in the future more artists are willing to engage with the activists in town and visa versa.
What is project(s) are next for you?
I was recently awarded a New Works Grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Starting in the fall, I will be working on a collaborative piece, ‘The Talking Mural’:
an interactive site-specific mural that will depict stories from life on S. 12th Ave and utilize QR scan codes to allow the viewer to hear these stories being told 1st hand. This project is a collaboration between muralist and scenic painter Johanna Martinez and myself. Using the interviews from my Abecedario del Sur project, I will focus in on a few businesses located on S. 12th Ave and use their stories to create a large interactive mural and Johanna will be showing me the ropes of mural painting. The mural will cover the side of Save More Market on the corner of S. 12th Ave and Ohio St. Through the work with my project, I became friends with the owner of the market and she graciously has allowed us the opportunity to put a mural on her building. The market, now closed, is an icon in the community and served the needs of the neighborhood for around 40 years. Her story and a few others will be illustrated within the mural. I envision The Talking Mural to literally serve as the community storyteller, providing a centralized location for glimpses into the colorful things that happened on this street. Viewers can tune into the story by interacting with the QR codes painted within each scene.
This project is a way for me to give back to the community through public art making. I’m really excited to collaborate with a talented artist on creating an image that represents the community who has so generously shared their stories.
To learn more about Alex Jimenez visit her website: www.alexclamation.com