Kathy Vargas: I do always define myself as a Chicana. I always define myself as a feminist, and I always define myself as a—
Jacinto Quirarte: —straight—
Kathy Vargas: photographer, straight feminist, but I don't—
Jacinto Quirarte: —but you don’t distinguish one way or the other.
Kathy Vargas: I don't distinguish one way or the other.
Jacinto Quirarte: —and when you identified someone as lesbian or gay, it was really just a reality.
It was a reality. And it's because they're very out and they self-defined yeah. In the same way that I would define as a Chicana and that I would have no problem. Someone said we're having a wonderful Chicana artist. When I say we're having a wonderful lesbian artist, it's because she defines herself as a lesbian, that's very much a part of that. She wants to be known as a lesbian. The reason I say that is because photography for me is very important. I wouldn't think the way I do, I wouldn't make the art I make if I were another medium. So it's very important for me to define as a photographer. And the others are political realities.
I think for either Anglo scholars or Latino scholars—because I had an interesting set too with a Latina who wanted to write about Latina photographers but knew nothing about photography. And I said, you know, it goes both ways. It's like for all the scholars out there, do your homework.
[Theme music plays]
And if somebody is defining as a Chicana, you have to know which Chicano art is about. If somebody's defining as a photographer, you have to know photography. Somebody's defining as a feminist, it helps if you know the women's movement. So that's why I'm saying that it's important for me to define as those because I do see myself as working within communities. And all of the communal identities are as important as my own individual identity.
Ricky Gomez: Hi and welcome to ARTiculated. I'm Ricky Gomez, I work as the Latino Collections Archivist here at the Archives of American Art. This podcast receives support from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
Since 1958, the Archives of American Art has been building the largest collection of oral histories related to the visual arts in the world. These more than 2500 long-form interviews give witness to history as it unfolded through the voices of the figures who shaped and reimagined it.
This episode is the third in a series of six, each curated by a contemporary artist in response to and in conversation with past speakers from the Archives' oral history program.
[Music fades out]
Our guest is Mari Hernandez, a photographer based in San Antonio, who leads us through the 1997 oral history of Kathy Vargas, another San Antonio resident. Vargas is a Chicana feminist artist who makes use of photography. Her signature hand-colored, multi-exposure works braid a wide variety of aesthetic, cultural, and social threads to examine the possibilities of representation, inclusivity, and activism through art. In this episode, Hernandez activates those many threads to bring Vargas’s life and achievements into focus. Listen to history through Mari Hernandez’s headphones:
Mari Hernandez: One of the first times I worked with Kathy Vargas was in 2016 when she curated an exhibition titled A Woman's Place. The exhibition brought together 15 intergenerational Latina artists whose work spoke to women's issues and the presence of women artists in a male-dominated art world. From that moment I knew Kathy was someone that I could look to as a source of inspiration.
At that time I wasn’t fully aware of the important work Kathy had been doing for decades as an artist, curator, educator, and activist in our community. After listening to her oral history, I realize the many ways in which our paths and experiences in life and in art align. As a young emerging artist I was hungry for inspiration and for guidance - I was seeking artists and art that reflected my own experiences as a young Chicana coming to understand identity and its intersection with politics and place.
One of the things I am curious about is how artists develop their artistic careers. I find Kathy’s path to becoming an artist both intriguing and assuring for artists who have had similar paths in the arts. From being visually inspired by the German artist Hans Bellmer to her introduction to photography via musician Leon Russell, Vargas’s non-traditional route to becoming an artist is nothing short of validating.
In this first excerpt, Kathy describes meeting musician Leon Russell, rock and roll photographers, and her introduction to photography:
Kathy Vargas: I wasn't really integrated into any kind of a music scene. So what happened is I was on my way to check on the painting I wanted to enter in a contest, I was working on it in class and I had to check and see if it was going to be dry
by the time I needed it, I needed it for a show. On my way there—Fiesta used to be in Hemisfair plaza at the time, and I didn't want to have to go through Fiesta—I thought, oh, this is going to be a horrible mess, so I thought if I go alongside the convention center, I can take a bridge there used to be a bridge, I can take the bridge and it will get me to the back door of the Mexican Cultural Institute. So I was taking this side path and ran into this huge man with very long hair and a beautiful portfolio case, and I started staring at his portfolio case. I asked him where he'd gotten it, and he said, "Oh, I'm from San Francisco, the portfolio case is from London." And then he started asking me what was going on and I explained fiesta to him.
And then he asked me if I was going to the show that night. He named about four different bands and I knew who one of them was. But I thought, Oh , it would be pleasant to hear that band. And he said, "Okay, come by the hotel and I'll give you a couple of tickets." Well, what happened is I did indeed go by the hotel, and met Leon Russell, who was a rock and roll star at the time and a very nice person, and met a lot of other great people.
They were basically the people who did two things. For one thing, I was at Hayes and I was learning darkroom, I was learning different darkroom techniques because we did graphic animation. Aside from the animation camera, I knew how to run the animation camera but I didn't know how to run a 35mm. camera; which is funny because the animation camera is much more complicated; and I'd never really done 35mm work.
So what happened is that when I started meeting these people, the other people I met were the photographers who were standing in the wings, who were the rock and roll photographers; and they were absolutely wonderful. They would let me pick up their cameras and use their cameras every now and then. They started introducing me to photography.
But the other thing that Leon Russell and the Shelter people—that's what the group was called—did was that they literally opened up a world for me. Because up to that time I had been pretty much a San Antonio resident exclusively. I think I'd taken a plane ride to Dallas ever in my life, I'd taken the train to Laredo once with my parents. And that was about it, I wasn't traveled, I was about 20 years old and I was pretty much an innocent and very much a local person and an east side person who would venture downtown.
Because they were doing promotions and wanted me to help them with local promotions, I started getting around the whole city and meeting people in the music industry. Meeting disc jockeys and going to different radio stations, and handing out records to them.
Jacinto Quirarte: This is all in the mid-'60s?
Kathy Vargas: No, this is all in the very early '70s—actually '70, '71, right around there.
Jacinto Quirarte: Oh that's right, we mentioned that you were born in 1950.
Kathy Vargas: So I was about 20. And then, once I started taking photography at Southwest Craft Center and got an interest in it, around '71 I started taking photography at Southwest Craft Center, I really fell in love with it. And because I knew all of these—music people, because I knew booking agents by now, I would get jobs to photograph the rock and roll bands. So it was relatively lucrative.
By that time I was ready to go back to college. So it was a kind of shifting-schedule thing. I was working on specific jobs for Hayes Studio, I was working—freelance rock and roll photography, and I was going to San Antonio College. But they really did open up the world to me,
Mari Hernandez: Kathy’s chance meeting with Musician Leon Russell seems to be a precursor to a significant time in her life where she enrolls at the University of Texas at San Antonio to begin work on her BFA. While at UTSA she continues to perfect her photographic technique, engages in an intellectual tug of war with her professors and mentors and, something I find most interesting starts to make connections between her personal history and identity to what she is learning in her Chicano art and pre-Columbian art classes. These classes Kathy cites as having a big influence on her. Interviewer Jacinto Quirarte describes these as moments where Kathy is “enlarging her scope of experience.” When I think of the connections between art making and personal experience I can’t help but believe that in these moments lies the root of Kathy’s creative practice. The merging of technical expertise with personal memory and cultural experience seems to be a common thread in Chicana art. In Kathy's recollection of her family stories, we are witness to the Mexican American experience
in South Texas and the articulation of her Chicana identity, an identity that Quirarte in this next segment describes as uncertain. Where does this uncertainty come from? What is the root of it? I believe the answers to those questions are as diverse as the Chicana experience.
Jacinto Quirarte: So when did you decide to go to UTSA?
Kathy Vargas: Well, I guess it was the next logical step after San Antonio College, and there weren't too many public places to go to school in San Antonio. So that was the main choice, really, for a B.F.A.
And so I started going to UTSA in 1977 and did not go full-time. I was going part-time the whole time that I was in the Bachelor's program because I was working—I was continuing to work part-time at the place that made the TV commercials, for Bob Maxham, who was a commercial photographer. So I was doing different photographic things.
Jacinto Quirarte: Who were the major influences there? I assume it was in photography—
Kathy Vargas: In a sense, by the time I went to UTSA, I was pretty much formed as an artist, I think. And I did change, I was 27 years old and I had already had shows, I had already been in photo shows. I had even gotten into one of the Art League shows, which was the big thing in San Antonio at the time.
So I have to give credit to Jim Newberry, who really improved my technique tremendously, and because I was doing documentary work at the time and he was an excellent documentary photographer I did learn quite a bit from him as far as technical expertise—how to frame things, how to see more completely. He taught me the very beginnings of the 4x5 camera. And I think, when I give credit to Neil, the two things I have to give credit to Neil for are his teaching me the 4x5 more completely, which is the camera that is still my favorite camera; and my fighting with him because—
Jacinto Quirarte: He was another Mel in that respect.
Kathy Vargas: He was another Mel in that respect. He didn't mean to be, I don't think, and it's funny: I don't think he expected a student who would argue with him. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Mel had taught me to argue. And it was really funny, because Neil and I really did not get along for the first year that I was at UTSA. We were coming from completely different backgrounds both personally and artistically. I was doing portraits at the time and he really did not like my doing portraits.
Jacinto Quirarte: What did he want you to do?
Kathy Vargas: That's a good question. He didn't bother to tell me that but he didn't like portraits. He was very honest, he said, "It's my problem, I don't like portraits." And I persisted in doing portraits for quite a long time until I really got into the 4 x 5 and the 4 x 5 really doesn't lend itself to portraiture unless you have a huge studio, because people move and you get blur. But I think he was the one who in a sense made me fight for what I wanted to do, and made me question myself as an artist. But there was a give-and-take with us, that he would challenge me and I would challenge him back, that we would push. It was literally like a tug of war—that he would pull and I would pull back, you know—an intellectual tug of war, of course. But that was going on.
Of course, I always credit both Chicano art classes and the pre-Columbian art classes that I took with you, and I think in that sense learning was different for me at UTSA, but I wasn't so much learning photography, because I was pretty much set in my ways in photography, but that I was learning from other departments.
Jacinto Quirarte: Enlarging your scope of experience.
Kathy Vargas: And I got a lot out of the pre-Columbian classes—because what happened is that I began to remember the stories that my dad used to tell me; he always used to say that we were indigenous people, that we weren't Spaniards, and he had enough of his own family history to know that we came from Oaxaca and that there was probably some—and he never said, Zapotec and Mixtec that's what I learned in your class, but he said we're from Oaxaca. And he always used to talk about the bat deity, he didn't call it a bat deity but he used to say there was this guy that looked like a bat. So he had some of it from his own ancestry. My mother, on the other hand, was always mildly embarrassed when my grandmother would say
that side of the family was Huichol—"No we're not, we're French, we're Spanish—" [rest obscured laughter].
Jacinto Quirarte:—mention "we chose it."
Kathy Vargas: Because they're from Zacatecas and she would talk about how the Huichol would come down from the mountain. She would say that we were descended from both Huichol and French because we did have—she had one wonderful family picture, I don't know who's got it now, I don't know how many greats-grandmother, and here was this little short squat Indian woman and this tall, lean European-looking man with pale hair and pale face and this bigote that went out for miles and trails upward and must have had tons of mustache wax on it. And that was in it, that was where it came together, for my mom's side of the family.
Jacinto Quirarte: In a way, this is backtracking: Since your mother, like so many Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, Chicanos, Latinos, have an uncertain sense of their own identity so that they try to grapple with it. In your mother's case, if I understand it, she wanted to emphasize the European rather than the indigenous.
Kathy Vargas: Yes.
Jacinto Quirarte: How did that affect you?
Kathy Vargas: Well, in a sense it didn't, because my grandmother always argued in the other direction.
Jacinto Quirarte: She brought the thing down to earth.
Kathy Vargas: Yes. I guess the other thing is, my mother was never a Chicana, even later on, even when I called myself a Chicana she would always tell me, "Don't you call me a Chicana, I'm not a Chicana, I'm a Mexican-American." But actually, she was Mexican.
Jacinto Quirarte: What did your mother do? Did she work?
Kathy Vargas: She worked. She was a sales clerk for a long time, she worked at a paint store, I remember, at Jones Paint. And then she worked at Solo Serve, a department store, for a long time, and then she started working at Kelly Air Force Base, but even at Kelly, she was some kind of a clerk-type person.
Mari Hernandez: Kathy’s family shaped her artistic practice. Particularly, it was their political involvement that informed her interest in politics. San Antonio was the site of an active and important Chicano political movement. It was also the home to a notable Chicano/a art scene, highlighted by art collectives such as Con Safo, a group whose work and efforts helped define Chicano/a art.
From her awareness of the Brown Berets to learning about politics via her Mother’s involvement with grassroots organizations, Kathy was familiar with Chicano/a politics but not with the art of the movement. Kathy would eventually be invited to join Con Safo. Joining the group as a young photographer, she credited the collective with her development from a student to a professional artist.
Kathy’s time with Con Safos helped her articulate a relationship to Chicano politics and art. In Ruben C. Cordova’s book Con Safo, Kathy states, “The Con Safo group emerged at a time when we weren’t seeing ourselves anywhere. Chicano artists were not mentioned in the newspaper. There was no clear visual image by anyone who had my life experience.
Con Safo let the Chicano community know that they could be reflected in art and they reflected that image to the community. It showed the community that their cultural experience was valid and aesthetically interesting.” In this next segment Vargas reflects on a time when the Chicano movement was emerging in San Antonio and her proximity to it:
Jacinto Quirarte: You also mentioned Gilberto Tarin—
Kathy Vargas: He had a gallery. He was a Chicano artist—oh, that's when the Chicano movement was first happening, that's what we're talking about. I was relatively unaware of them because I was hanging out with filmmakers and rock and roll people, not artists, had nothing to do with being Latina or being Chicana; had to do with the fact that I was not specifically hanging out with artist types anymore. I had been with Martín Ybarra's group but Martín—it was too early, it was like the '60s in a sense, so in San Antonio, it was too early for that movement.
But I remember saying about Gilberto: it must have been around 1972 when I was working at Hayes—
Jacinto Quirarte: Yes, you mentioned '72, '73 when we last talked.
Kathy Vargas: Exactly. And he had just come back from Mexico, so he really didn't know what the Chicano art movement was, either.
Jacinto Quirarte: He had been at San Carlos? And he had his education at San Carlos—
Kathy Vargas: I think so.
Jacinto Quirarte: Is he from here?
Kathy Vargas: He's from San Antonio. He's a Chicano, he's from San Antonio, but both he and my friend Diana Rodriguez were educated in Mexico. They went to school at San Carlos, both of them, I think.
Jacinto Quirarte: And Diana Rodriguez is from here?
Kathy Vargas: Yes. She's a Chicana artist. Now, I don't know if Gilberto ever actually…I think he finally did say he's a Chicano but it took him a long time, mainly because he missed it—by the time he came back, it was—I remember having that conversation with him, it must have been around '72, '73. He had a little gallery and he said, "I've just been asked to join this group of Chicano artists. I don't know what that is" [laughter].
See, now, the other thing is that I knew about a movement of Chicanos in political areas. When I was 17 I knew about the Brown Berets, I hung out with Tom Cahill, but it was direct political action. It was not about art.
Jacinto Quirarte: And who was Tom Cahill?
Kathy Vargas: Cahill had a little shop on Frio City Road. He was the person who helped try to tear down the Good Government League, which was the powers-that-be in San Antonio in the '50s and '60s and it was all Anglo. The city was already half-Hispanic or half-Latino, or whatever you want to call it, at the time, and it was still very much controlled by Anglo businessmen and old-money families.
Jacinto Quirarte: Now, was Tom African-American or—?
Kathy Vargas: No, he was Anglo.
Jacinto Quirarte: You said a little shop on Rio—?
Kathy Vargas: Frio City Road.
Jacinto Quirarte: A good thing I asked you.
Kathy Vargas: He had a little newspaper—I wish I still had a copy of it, and he had a little newspaper that was very much a political grassroots, activist newspaper, and he was finally arrested and threatened by the police department and told to leave town. That's how "dangerous" he was. But it was at the time that the Southwest Voters Registration Project was coming into being. It was a time when there was real political activity. I knew about that because my family was very political—my mother was part of COPS when I was about 17 or 18 years old and they were just forming.
So I knew about political movements but my mother never called herself a Chicana, and I never really heard the word "Chicano" or "Chicana" very much, so I was very politicized but I wasn't familiar with the word. And I certainly wasn't familiar with the artists.
Jacinto Quirarte: You mentioned that from 1975 you started at San Antonio College but had heard of the Chicanos before that.
Kathy Vargas: I had heard of the Chicanos only briefly from Gilberto, who, again, told me in '72 or '73 that "I've been asked to join this group of Chicano artists."
Jacinto Quirarte: And that was Con Safo?
Kathy Vargas: I don't know if it was Con Safo or Los Quemados; it might have been Los Quemados.
Jacinto Quirarte: No, Los Quemados came around '75—
Kathy Vargas: Okay, so it was Con Safo then.
Jacinto Quirarte:—and then—Los Quemados actually reacted against—and that was Carmen Lomas Garza and Cesar [Martinez], Amado Pena and—
Kathy Vargas: I think, Felipe Reyes.
Jacinto Quirarte: Felipe Reyes was the leader in Tlacuilo, which is the Aztec word for writer, and artist, which is really the same thing in pre-Hispanic Mexico. And then since no one understood what that meant, they called themselves "the painters of the new race," or "the new people," or "Pintores de la Nueva Raza."
Kathy Vargas: Ohhh, okay.
Jacinto Quirarte: Then they became subsumed under the—and then they became Con Safo, I think. And that's when Mel Casas came in.
Kathy Vargas: Yes. And that's a thing; the only time I'd heard of Chicano art is when Gilberto asked me what it was and said "I've never heard of that" and I said, "I can't help you, I don't know what it is, either." So it was interesting because it was the terminology that was the stumbling block, that we had never heard the term. At that point, if someone had said to me, "Do you want to be a teacher?" because I hadn't had art history yet, I wouldn't have known what to tell them either. So it was, like, "Uh, I don't know what it is." But it was literally a term.
Mari Hernandez: Dealing with political realities in an artistic way is a distinct skill. A skill that Kathy has developed throughout her creative career and continues to develop today. In listening to Kathy speak about the methods she employs to draw her viewers in, I'm reminded about how complicated it is to make artwork about social issues. The artist is tasked with merging content and form in a way that requires a unique and responsible knowledge of an issue coupled with technical experience. Kathy employs experimental techniques for social/political ends. The collection
at the Archives of American art is home to an artwork by Kathy titled Missing #3 made in 1992. This piece is a series of six hand-colored gelatin silver prints arranged to form a triptych. In this work, I see images and symbols of life and death, such as an extended hand, a full skeleton, a still bird, all wrapped and contained within what seems like a bed of thorns and feathers. There seems to be a transition happening within the work, from life, to death, to resurrection. Kathy’s distinguishable style, including the use of multiple exposure, the hand-coloring with muted shades, and the presence of light and darkness, both physically and metaphorically, create a dream-like image. As my eyes scanned the layers of her work, I noticed a faint design bordering the edges of the photographs, as I enlarged the artwork and got closer and closer I realized the design was actually text. In this next segment Kathy shares more about her artistic inspiration, how she seduces her viewer, and the meaning of visual language:
Kathy Vargas: As for influences, that's a good one. Ahhh, there are a lot, and a lot fewer artistic ones or photographic ones than one would think. Really, literature: literature has been a major, major influence. Garcia Marquez, Akutagawa, a lot of the Latino writers: Isabel Allende, certainly. Some of that magic realism but even more important than the magic realism, I think, the political reality. Both Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende deal with political realities in a very artistic way that in a sense seduces you into dealing with the politics. And I like that, I think that's what I try to do.
I know that's what I try to do: that I try to make a beautiful object that will seduce you into dealing with the difficult issue, whether it's political or personal, whether it's the pain of death from a personal loss or the pain of death from a political loss. It's the same idea. It's that idea that you can be seduced into realizing the pain if you're seduced, if it's about beauty, if it's about something touching the eye and being very gratifying visually.
Jacinto Quirarte: Now, it's worlds apart, in formal terms, from someone who's quite literal; like Rupert Garcia, who very graphically focuses on almost poster-like images that impact on people. So you're not talking about anything that is that specific about Mexico or about the farmworkers or anything like that.
Kathy Vargas: Well, actually I did one piece called "Missing" which was about the Disappeared—in Latin America and it had text, so the text was very explicit. And it did talk about the idea that there were missing that our tax dollars might have made missing. So that was pretty explicit but, again, it's a beautiful piece, I think. It's this huge standing figure and it is personalized—it comes from a little clipping I found in a Guatemalan newspaper about a woman whose husband was missing, the father of her child was missing and she was advertising, wanting to know if anybody had seen him.
The first figure is his cut-out, draped in lace, and carrying flowers, as if he were walking towards her but there's no one in it, it's like a ghost, a ghost image. And the second one is that same image standing at her right shoulder while she's sitting there cradling her child. It's the idea of creating a context for him, of the fact that he might have at one point, brought her hearts and flowers, that he was the person who was supposed to be standing behind her for her or for her child; that was, and she was cradling this child and all of a sudden she was a mother alone and that he had disappeared and that he was gone and the only way to create a family portrait was to outline his missingness. And then the last piece has him prone—it's the same figure but instead of being white it's black, and it's prone and there are flowers growing over him. And it's the idea that he might be buried in some unmarked grave and that our tax dollars might have aided his missingness.
I did this around '91, '92, some were in there. Because of the text, it's very explicit but the text is written around the piece, so you have to walk up to the piece, you have to see it,
that is pretty much the text around the piece. So the message is explicit but you have to walk up to it and engage with it visually before you begin to read the text.
Jacinto Quirarte: But that's unusual for your work—
Kathy Vargas: Not anymore. I've been doing a lot of things with text, a lot of different things with text, but I do deal with them gently. In other words, I don't—and I love Malaquias Montoya's work, I absolutely love Montoya's work, but my work is different in that it's not as aggressive as his is. And I honestly don't know whether that's because of my generation or because of the fact that I'm a female and both Rupert and Malaquias are male, you know. Because even when you look at the Latinas at the females, most of them don't have that confrontation. It's generally much more positive and in a sense almost much more ethereal.
Now Yolanda Lopez—some of her work is very confrontational. Her videos are very confrontational but her Guadalupes are very protective. Judy Baca's work in a sense is more confrontational but, again, it's very visually beautiful, visually glorious, so that you really want to engage with it on a visual level, and then you get hit with the message. But the same thing happens with Malaquias—it's very visually engaging, it's very visually rich.
It's funny because you mentioned Rupert's work: what's interesting to me is that Rupert's work is very much about color field painting and the flatness of the plane. So there are a lot of art issues going on at the same time that there are other issues going on, political or social issues going on. And I think in a sense that's what we all do. And that for me is what was a struggle, and what I think of as the transitional period, because when I was in graduate school they really wanted me to deal only with formal elements and not anything else.
Before I went into UTSA and after I got out of UTSA, I was in full realization of all of the political realities that were going on at the time. Now, the lucky thing in a sense or the unlucky thing is that while I was at UTSA it was a relatively mellow period. It was the '70s, I got out of UTSA in the early '80s, and so it was a relatively calm period. We had gained a lot, so there wasn't as much stuff to deal with. So I didn't fight my teachers as much because it didn't seem to be in a sense at that point in time a point to my fighting them. Well while things are pretty good, whom am I going to picket—Jimmy Carter? He's pretty nice, you know!
So in a sense, it was a different era. I went into UTSA in the mid-'70s. By that time Vietnam had happened, we felt we had won, the troops had come home, we hadn't prolonged the war, you know, things had changed for the better.
Jacinto Quirarte: It was a breathing spell.
Kathy Vargas: Of course, Watergate was happening but it was even post-Watergate. So we were in the Jimmy Carter era, we were in a grace era, so to speak. But then all of a sudden with Reagan coming in, it was like almost the minute I got out of graduate school, things began to go topsy turvy again. And there were issues again, and I found myself at the Guadalupe, which was a perfect place to deal with those issues. I think the thing for me was to find a way that I could do both form and content. And that was the big issue, I think, of my artwork.
Jacinto Quirarte: How did you come to—well, the first part of the question deals with how you came to the text, how did you build up into using text?
Kathy Vargas: It was really simple. I built up into using text because sometimes people weren't getting the point, and I realized that leaving it only to the visual has a limitation; and that when you want to only hint at something, or when it's a simpler issue, simpler visually, that you don't have to deal with text.
Mari Hernandez: The process of developing as an artist is a journey that never ends. I often wonder about the artist's identity and how to define our role as artmakers. What defines an artist? My favorite answer
to that question is the devotion and commitment you have to your practice. The artistic journey seems to be one filled with highs and lows, with clarity and frustration, with moments of pause and growth. How do artists sustain a practice? How do we stay committed to this creative path? Will inspiration continue to surface in unexpected places and moments?
In Kathy’s case her devotion to provide a voice, not only for herself but for the community she has been shaped and inspired by seems to push her forward. Realizing the artwork you make has purpose is affirming and energizing. In our last segment Kathy describes a moment of clarity about her work and her purpose as an artist:
Kathy Vargas: This is who I am. And I guess that for me, you know, certainly something that's come crystallized to me, certainly in the last five or so years since, since 1990. Um, since the death of Ted Warmbold taught me how important it was to remain politicized and who in a sense re-politicized me in the late eighties and then passed away in 89.
I guess what happened to me when I lost Ted was that I realized that it wasn't just my loss of my friend, who I used to go folk art hunting with. It was our loss of a voice mm-hmm. And the same thing happened to me when Ruby Velasque died, I realized. we were losing voices that we really couldn't live without.
Jacinto Quirarte: What was the last one?
Kathy Vargas: Willie Velazquez. That both of those men, one white and one Latino had been very adamant to work against racism and to work toward empowerment. People of color, especially Latino Chiang. And when I felt the loss of their two voices and they died in the same year or within the same time period of a year.
I realized. That we all had to take them to slide so that all of us could no longer be silent that I had. I think the other reason I had been silent is because I saw so many good voices out there doing it better than I could ever do it. I thought, oh great. They're taking care of it. I don't need to worry.
But then when both of those voices were silenced, it was like, whoa, I really need to be more vocal . And so I think that's, that's why I, it became crystal clear to me that it couldn't be about becoming rich and famous and that it had to be about making a difference. Um, because I, you can't, there's no room for being selfish in this world at this time.
You know, there's no room for being selfish. It was okay to be selfish in the seventies because there were great people taking care of it. It's not okay now. Cause there are really bad people out there trying to do it in. Exactly. Um, and, and, um, what, what became apparent to me with it? Yes, I am a Chicana..
The Guadalupe for me is a wonderful reality check, you know, to where I realize that my life is important. Not because I'm rich and famous or not. My, you know, in other words, my life is not unimportant because I'm not rich and famous.
My life is important because I can be of value to people mm-hmm and I think that's a wonderful reality check. Um, and yeah, I. Helping other artists. I think that's part of my job. I love that because I want to see them succeed because they are wonderful. I mean, when you see great art, you wanna see it succeed.
Mari Hernandez: I feel like an essential part in creating and developing an artistic path is to learn from the artists around you. Whether that learning comes from experiencing a work of art, listening to an artist talk, or from forming relationships with other artists in your community. Artistic growth seems to be fueled by a sense of purpose.
In Kathy’s case, that purpose is being of value to others. Kathy is a trailblazer. For me, she is the quintessential artist, the artist’s artist. An artist whose practice is clearly defined by her devotion to purpose and craft.
[Outro music plays]
Ricky Gomez: This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman at the Archives of American Art. It was edited by the team at Better Lemon Creative Audio
Our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
For show notes, work cited, and additional resources, visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
The Archives is grateful to Mari Hernandez for her time, insight, and inspiration.
This guest-curated episode received support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.
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The Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like ARTiculated. To support our work, please visit aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.