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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Jessica Gonzales: Creativity & Essence

Oct 01, 2018 07:10PM ● By Carolyn King

"In large measure, becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in
following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.”
~D. Bayles & T. Orland

In the art schools of Europe, both many years ago as well as recently, aspiring artists were trained in the fundamentals of visual arts by studiously copying the works of the masters. This meant realistic renderings of plaster casts were drawn in pencil and charcoal in order to learn the observational skills needed to accurately portray volume through light and shadow. Although this approach does guide student artists through the basic skill set required to produce artwork as “facsimile”, clearly, the missing ingredient in such training was supporting the artist’s distinctive, personal voice.

Jessica Gonzales is a local artist whose vision and personal voice can be seen and heard clearly through both her works on canvas and on the walls she paints as a muralist. Raised in Germany within a military base community, her work is distinctively her own. Much of her imagery is filled with lyrical portraits of women, often local, as well as rich color, bold pattern and contrast, both visual and conceptual.

What brought you to the visual arts path?

I have always been very creative. As a kid, I would use anything I could get my hands on to make things. I used household objects like Q-Tips, cotton balls, empty egg cartons, you name it. Growing up in a military community as the much younger sibling meant I spent most of my childhood as an “only child”. I was pretty introverted as a kid, and though I had a handful of close friends, I loved spending time with myself and was constantly engaging my imagination. 

My mom is an art-maker, and so was my grandmother. My father is a musician. I grew up being surrounded by art materials, images and the creative process. My mother studied art in college, and as a kid, looking through her college portfolio was one of my favorite things to do together. She still works as a graphic designer but devotes more and more of her attention to her pastel work these days.

Do you reference your childhood much in your current work?

We lived in a small town in Germany near the border with the Netherlands. The main thing I kept from those years was a sense of freedom one gets from growing up in a small town. My friends and I could explore nature and absorb culture outside of the bounds of fear, because we felt safe in our town. It’s an experience I feel very fortunate to have had. When I think back on my childhood in Germany, it feels like a dream or a fairy tale. It’s not a place I can easily access and revisit with all my senses, so I’m left to rely on memory. Tapping into this sense of magic is something I hold very near and dear to me as a creative person.

So, you moved to Tucson from Germany while in middle school. Where did you attend high school, and was your creative side supported in that environment?

Initially, I attended Tucson High, but I bounced around a bit in high school. I attended Santa Rita High School and a charter school called Academy of Tucson before returning to Tucson High, where I graduated. I had amazing teachers there that last year in both theater and visual arts. These instructors really gave me my first sense of how to explore the creative process from different perspectives, using new approaches and techniques. I grew a lot creatively during my senior year and am still grateful to this day for that guidance.

How did your art education unfold after high school?

I enrolled at the University of Arizona right after high school, but in reality, it wasn’t quite the right time for me yet. I think I needed the opportunity to regroup after those challenging high school years, and to clear my head of guidelines and rules so I could better understand what my heart really wanted me to do. I ended up pursuing my Associate of Arts degree through Pima Community College, where I worked with some wonderful instructors. I eventually returned to the U. of A. and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2012.

Can you talk about your time at the U. of A. as an art major? Did this format work for you the second time around?

I learned a lot about technique at the U. of A. I benefited from having allotted chunks of time to focus solely on creating. At this point I was focusing more on art as a career, so the structure allowed me to see how important it is to dedicate time and effort toward growth and quality work. I didn’t feel especially aligned with several of the professors at the time. The style of guidance I was receiving wasn’t always effective for me. I did, however, have the fortune and pleasure of working with Alfred Quiroz and Carrie Seid, both of whom offered amazing insight, and employed a language and approach to art making that really spoke to me.

What evolved in your art life post-BFA?

I started to do commission portrait work while I was still in the program. This continued after graduation. I worked a day job on 4th Avenue for many years while attending school and afterward, where I was exposed to other kinds of creative work, including graphic design for advertising, web design, display work and merchandising. Social media played a positive role in helping me to get my work seen, and I’ve always received wonderful support from members of the creative community. Around that time I started to do lots of live painting at various music and charity events around town.

How does that work?

Live painting at events is really a type of performance. Usually for music events, I set up an easel somewhere near where the band or DJ plays. I might choose who or what I’ll paint determined by the type of music being played, or I might just respond to what’s going on in the moment. For me there’s always been a symbiosis between art-making and music, and in a public setting the relationship is amplified. It’s important for me to feel like I’m offering a visual experience for an audience that is impactful, so it forces me to get out of my head and absorb my surroundings. These are volunteer opportunities usually, but often, someone watching in the audience will approach me and buy the painting when it’s completed at the end of the event. It’s been a great way to meet new people and practice having a dialogue about what I do.

Has there been any relationship between painting on canvas to music in public and your evolving work as a public artist who paints murals?

Definitely. I am generally an introverted kind of person, so painting in front of people was really a stretch in the beginning. When I paint at music venues, I interact with people who like to talk with me about what I’m doing. The same thing happens when I work on a mural. It’s so different to be hearing people’s input and comments as I paint than when I am alone in my studio. There’s a vulnerability to exposing your creative process to the world, as it’s happening. It can be uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that the majority of people are genuinely curious and fascinated by the process. It’s very humbling.

Can you talk about your participation in the 2016 City of Tucson Mural Program?

It was a huge learning experience to be chosen as one of eight mural projects for the Downtown area. My piece was titled “Let the Light In” and was located on the west facing outer wall of the Wig-o-rama store at Congress and Scott. In my proposal, I specifically wanted to reflect on my experience of living, working and coming of age as a creative person in the context of Tucson’s downtown community. This mural was my way of “giving back” for all that I have learned and become over the years. My piece included three women’s faces that were representative of birth, nurturing and growth. My own personal work on canvas can sometimes be a bit darker in content, but I really wanted to communicate a sense of hope and joy for this mural. It was important to me to provide an uplifting contribution to the community.

It’s somewhat ironic, if not tragic, that your mural, filled with such a positive message, is no longer visible. Can you share what happened?

Essentially, the building was sold and the new owner chose to reveal the original brick of the building. My mural was chipped off the facade surface. Without going into great length here, I’ll say that although I was shocked and disappointed, I also learned a lot, grew from the loss experience and have been able to move on. I get it that as a public artist, sometimes these things happen. I have never benefited from holding on to negative energy for too long, so I made the choice to not let it bog me down and to keep moving forward. I am grateful for the opportunity I was given to create “Let the Light In” and for the way my mural career is unfolding.

What are you working on currently?

I am one of several Tucson artists who are creating murals for a new venture called Hotel McCoy. Formerly the Silverbell Inn, it is located just west of I-10 near downtown and was built in the 1960s. The property was purchased by an investor who is renovating it with the inclusion of lots and lots of artwork both on outer walls and on canvases in rooms and the lobby. I have painted one large wall mural so far and am just about to start a series of twelve 5’x5’ panels that are located between rooms along an outdoor corridor.

Clearly, you are doing your heart’s passion through this work. How would you say painting serves as a form of healing for you personally?

When I was young, I had a hard time fitting in. I wasn’t outgoing or confident, so art was a way for me to connect with my peers. Making art is the way I extract my thoughts, feelings and ideas into a physical realm. Making images facilitates me to bring my inner dialogue outside my own head to be able to share with others. My paintings serve a conduit or bridge in this way. It helps me feel human. No matter what stage of my life I’m in, I can always rely on creativity to help me feel grounded.

Last question: How do you feel your work serves as a healing tool for community?

I find that my imagery invites a more fulfilling level of conversation and dialogue with people who take the time to view it. Regular day-to-day interactions can often be superficial and don’t always allow people to dig a little deeper together. I prefer heartfelt conversation but often don’t know how to initiate it. Because my work comes from a place of reflection within me, I find that the pieces facilitate interactions with others that are meaningful and explore beneath the surface.

To view Jessica’s murals, visit Hotel McCoy at 720 W. Silverlake Rd., Tucson. Connect with her at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @jessicagonzalesart.

Carolyn King, M.A. in Arts & Consciousness, is a local practicing artist who has worked with communities as a teaching-artist for over 30 years, both in the U.S. and Mexico. Earlier this year, she founded Heart to Hand Studio, where she offers visual arts experiences for Tucson residents and beyond. Connect at [email protected].