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Estrella Esquilín: In Her Own Words
Aug, 11, 2020
Estrella Esquilín: In Her Own Words
When we asked interdisciplinary artist Estrella Esquilín to tell us about who she is, her answer was straightforward: “I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a visual artist.” This deceptively simple yet striking statement not only illuminates a personal identity but emphasizes the significance of human connection. At a time when it’s difficult to feel a sense of togetherness, it reminds us that although we are all individual, we are also part of a larger network—of family, friends, artists, teachers, scientists, administrators, community members—and because of this, we are responsible not only to ourselves but to each other.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Esquilín earned her BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and her MFA from Arizona State University. A self-proclaimed observer of people, she creates work that explores the ways humans exist in the world and how their experiences are dictated, altered, or driven by various environments and social systems, focusing particularly on themes of power and privilege, cultural conditioning, and systemic inequity. She has exhibited and produced collaborative projects in the United States and Mexico and has been the recipient of artist residencies in Guadalajara, New York, Puerto Rico, and New Mexico.
Here’s Estrella Esquilín, in her own words.
“My artwork often considers how people interact with or react to our society’s built environments and systems, which can be uncomfortable, chaotic, confusing, and oppressive. I am inspired by architecture, urban spaces, and modes of transportation but especially love in-between spaces, like sidewalks, fences and block walls, bridges, and fire escapes.”
Estrella Esquilín, Portrait of the Artist in Studio, 2020. Photo credit: Alonso Parra, Lamp Left Media.
PhxArt: What was your first inspiration, and when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Estrella Esquilín: My first creative inspiration was play, specifically making paper dolls with my mom and sister. As an artist who primarily makes art on paper, I still play and improvise in the studio and often cut, paste, draw, and layer materials. My curiosity about the world and interest in playing with materials remain my motivation to create today.
Although my childhood was full of creativity and freedom of expression, it wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I seriously considered art as a career path. I had attentive and supportive art teachers who encouraged my development and introduced me to creative educational pathways that I never knew were possible. My childhood best friend and I bonded over making music, clothes, and art, so much so that by 17, we both figured it should be what our lives were based around, so we applied to art schools for college.
Estrella Esquilín, The Distance Between Us and No More Distance, 2020. Cyanotype tape collage. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: In which media do you prefer to work, and what do you strive to explore through your art?
Esquilín: I love working with paper, but I also enjoy building things and working with simple construction materials. As a project-based visual artist, I oscillate between making two-dimensional work on paper and three-dimensional sculptural installations that are meant to relate to the body.
My artwork often considers how people interact with or react to our society’s built environments and systems, which can be uncomfortable, chaotic, confusing, and oppressive. I am inspired by architecture, urban spaces, and modes of transportation but especially love in-between spaces, like sidewalks, fences and block walls, bridges, and fire escapes. I am also often inspired by my own experiences of places where I have lived, or by simply observing the seemingly mundane things that can have big effects on the human experience, for example structural shifts in the pavement.
Estrella Esquilín, Lassoing, 2020. Letterpress print. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about your process. How do you get started?
Esquilín: My process often begins outside with walking and observing, taking photos, audio recordings, and voice memos. Sometimes those field experiences stay as a collection of things due to my busy and distracted lifestyle, but they are rich in content and do inspire play and experimentation when I get into the studio. I find myself tinkering around with my ideas by rearranging materials, drawings, and cut paper. Whether I end up building a large-scale installation or a series of miniature prints often depends on how I want someone to experience my ideas. Some need to be experienced in space, not just observed on paper.
PhxArt: In addition to a working artist, you’re also an arts administrator. What inspired you to pursue that type of work, and how do those two experiences connect and diverge for you?
Esquilín: I have been bi-vocational as an artist and arts administrator for 13 years with various degrees of successes and failures at both. My interest in arts administration began as an undergraduate student. As student body president and a tour guide, I had the opportunity to see firsthand how the small, non-profit, private art school operated. I met with all sorts of students, faculty, staff, and the board of trustees. I was always interested in civic engagement but didn’t always know my best use. I often asked questions about processes and tried to find ways to make the college experience more welcoming and approachable for low-income students of color, like me.
Today, as an arts administrator, I often engage in projects related to arts at the intersection of public sectors and policy. I work collaboratively on research or the design of creative projects that interrogate public systems, acknowledge inequities, and dig into ideas of epistemology and pedagogy that affect the health and well-being of communities. For example, I am currently working to refine best practices of operation for inclusion and equity, specifically diversifying vendor lists and setting pay-rate standards to emphasize fair wage for work.
This type of work is so closely related to what inspires my creative practice in my studio that sometimes I don’t see a separation in themes before or after 5 pm. Where the two occupations diverge is how I get to use my agency and live in my body. At work, I am always representing the institution I work for and am governed by, but in my studio, I get to be my whole self. Either way, I am still taking risks, setting intentions, and holding fast to my values.
Estrella Esquilín, Between Us…Holding Up, 2018. Wheat paste, sand, salt, wood shims. Courtesy of the artist; Estrella Esquilín, Aqui estamos, 2020. Cyanotype collage. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Esquilín: I have so many! Ellen Gallagher, Maya Lin, Kara Walker, Sonya Clark, Simone Leigh, Nonsti Mutiti, Marjetica Potrč, Polly Apfelbaum, Louise Bourgeois, adrienne maree brown, Beyoncé, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Rebecca Solnit, Lois Lowry, Maria Hinojosa, Hannah Hoch, Issa Rae, Sam Frésquez, Merryn Alaka, Diana Calderon, Raji Ganesan, Gloria Martinez-Granados, Elizabeth Brice-Heames. I could go on and on and on!
PhxArt: What is something you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Esquilín: I just made my first-ever animation, titled Lassoing the Palazzo, which was pretty challenging and fun. It’s currently being projected in the windows of the DeSoto Building in Downtown Phoenix at the southeast corner of Central Avenue and Roosevelt. This animation was partially inspired by seeing images of activists iconoclastically lassoing monuments, but it was also a way for me to playfully get out my very real anger and frustration at the seemingly immovable fixtures of oppression that surround me.
In addition to the projected animation, I have a small exhibition of works on paper at the Arizona Community Foundation and am working on a bunch of small works on paper and wood that will hopefully coalesce into an exhibition for the near future.
Estrella Esquilín, Lassoing the Palazzo, 2020. Projected animation. Photo credit: Alonso Parra, Lamp Left Media.
PhxArt: What can we hope to see next from you?
Esquilín: I will show new work in a fantastic group exhibition opening on September 4, 2020 at the mood room gallery located at Park Central in midtown Phoenix. I’m also excited to release a special edition of prints for sale at Practical Art called Chingona Survival Kit, which feels oddly fitting during these times.
PhxArt: If you were approached by a creative just beginning their own practice, what advice would you give them?
Esquilín: Define your own ideas of success and write down what you value most—not what you think other people value in you. Also, comparison robs the joy of creative practices. I think that my ability to balance a multi-job hustle with the occasional opportunity to show my art is a result of a lot of luck, being in the right place at the right time, showing up, and staying listo to work hard at what I care about.
Estrella Esquilín, Lejos del mar (Far from the Sea), 2015. Wood structure, scrimshaw, paint. Courtesy of the artist.
To discover more work by Estrella Esquilín, visit estrellaesquilin.com, follow @estudiolistoPHX, stop by the Desoto Building located at 915 N. Central Ave in Downtown Phoenix to view Lassoing the Palazzo, and visit Arizona Community Foundation to see an exhibition of her works on paper.
To learn more about future opportunities to engage with her work, including a virtual artist talk and walk-through, follow @estudiolistoPHX on Instagram, and keep an eye out for her works on paper for sale at Practical Art.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Estrella Esquilín shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Esquilín: When I’m not raging out against white supremacy, I have found creative ways to support friends and family, receive support, and stay joyful, mainly by reading, doing, cooking, and listening. I’ve read New People by Danzy Senna and Postcolonial Love Poems by Natalie Diaz. I’ve gone on bike rides, held solo dance parties, made and drank lots of handcrafted cocktails, taken so many selfies with my cat, cared for my plants, and cooked waffles. Some podcasts I listen to are Short Wave, The Indicator, and Code Switch, and for music, I’ve listened to everything from Bad Bunny to Stan Getz.
I am extra motivated and nourished these days by the number of thriving artists of color making amazing stuff despite everything going on in the world! Recently, I arranged a solidarity print fundraiser with three other femme artists—Alex Jimenez, Sam Frésquez, and Elizabeth Brice-Heames—to benefit the Loveland Foundation and the Black People’s Justice Fund. I also participated in the Roadside Attraction art experience with my first freshly made stop-motion animation. I am so inspired by the resilience of my creative friends.