Walking Each Other Home: Creativity & Community

Artwork by Mel Dominguez

Of many passionate women committed to serving community through love, hope, faith and devotion to the power of creative collaboration, local artist Mel Dominguez’s life and story shine with a special light.

I met Dominguez 10 years ago when she had been in Tucson for only a short time. Her brightly painted, lively work that seemed influenced by contemporary street art and the re-emerging mural traditions of urban America were impressive. Dominguez, like her artwork, was a fresh combination of fun, tough, political and energetic.

In the decade since our paths first crossed, I have watched as her life and work have expanded in ever-widening circles of community-based service. As Natural Awakenings celebrates a 10-year anniversary in Tucson, it feels fitting to introduce Dominguez to those community members who may be unaware of the uplifting spirit she has unfolded over the past 10 years in Tucson.

What brought you to the path of being an artist?

I always liked to draw. Even as a little kid as young as 3 years old, drawing was a special kind of thing for me. I grew up in my grandfather’s house. I am the first of four children and didn’t have any siblings for my first six years. I remember clearly watching cartoons and laughing with my grandfather. I understood way back then that visual art was a powerful way to communicate. Laughing and sharing cartoons with my grandfather showed me that age makes no difference when it comes to images and art. It was important to me to engage with my elders when I was a little girl. Drawing was a way I found to be able to do that.

Later, as an elementary school student, art became my way to being accepted. I was “different” growing up. I was a total nerd and an outcast on several levels. In those days, I was probably one of only three or so kids in my entire school who were dealing with gender identity issues. Back then, there was no support or even any clear ways to talk about this reality. Art helped me to be accepted by others and gave me a way to stay connected.

In your life today, you have been actively engaged in many community collaborations. Can you talk about how your creative path unfolded in this direction?

I grew up in East Los Angeles, living with a large, extended family. Feeling connections between us all evolved naturally in that situation. This doesn’t mean family life was without its challenges, though.

In 2001, I applied for and received an internship position from The Getty Museum of Art to work at Self-Help Graphics, in Los Angeles. SHG is a grassroots Chicano arts organization founded in the early 1970s with the specific mission of providing Chicana/o and Latina/o artists a way to interpret, produce and share culture through print-making and other media. Their programs are intergenerational and multi-disciplinary and all about community engagement. SHG taught me about partnering with a wide range of organizations and the value of extending one’s sense of community to include people from many walks of life.

You have worked with so many different types of organizations here in Tucson over the past 10 years. Can you share about a few of those projects?

I am most grounded in my work as artist-in-residence and curator at The Tucson Tamale Company. It may seem like an unlikely public service venue, but for the past 7 years, I have met so many wonderful people and been able to outreach to a whole sector of community that might not encounter or interact with original artwork anywhere else. The Tucson Tamale Company has three locations in Tucson. In addition to sharing my own culturally-based imagery, I also invite emerging and established artists to display their original artwork for the public.

Have other projects evolved from your Tucson Tamale presence?

Absolutely. One thread I am especially in awe of is with a couple from Minnesota who live here as winter visitors. They are postcard collectors who saw my work at Tucson Tamale, where they also purchased some of my postcards initially. Later, they asked to visit my studio where they purchased a larger work. This friendship eventually led to me being invited to participate in three years of Visiting Artist and Artist-in-Residence programs in Minnesota. The last residency was a month-long project through a service organization created by the heirs to the Quaker Puffed Wheat Company. The Anderson Center Tower View Foundation is dedicated to community enrichment and support for individual artists.

Can you talk briefly about some of your Tucson-based community projects?

I have been so honored to be part of several projects ranging in focus from social justice to environmental concerns through the University of Arizona, John Valenzuela Youth Center, Safos Dance Theater, Tucson Clean & Beautiful, and several elementary schools. Several years ago, I was a “fellow” with a group of other artists, at the Biosphere on a project aimed to help interpret the vision of the work the scientists were doing.

Other U. of A. related projects have included collaborative mural-making with students at the Guerro Center on campus. That project was conducted at the end of the school year last spring and served as art therapy as much as anything else. The students were stressed from the pressures of testing, term papers and finishing up a university level school year. That particular project also ended up including participants at Art Awakenings, a local organization that focuses on visual arts as tools to facilitate growth and healing for those facing emotional and/or mental health challenges.

On that note, you have spoken about a chronic health issue you live with. Can you speak about how art-making and creative practice serve you, personally, as tools for your own healing?

Making art helps me to re-focus my attention so I can “forget” about my ongoing illness. I live with daily physical discomfort and pain, but making art shifts my attention. I came from a family with a lot of dysfunction, so painting also helps me to dwell less on feeling the pain of being so separate from family members. My dad had not been part of my life for decades since he left when I was 9 years old, as he had been deported to Mexico. This past summer, I had the amazing experience of sharing an exhibit that included some of my work with him in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. I can barely put into words how the healing felt in that situation.

Can you encapsulate how you see your life and work as being both of service and healing for the larger community?

Really, I am simply trying to live as much as possible while giving back as much as I receive. Visual art is such a profound, direct form of communication. When I partner with projects like a conference at ASU about the forensics related to border issues, for example, my role is to add voice to important community concerns through the accessible language of imagery. We are all interconnected and because of that, we all have a need to feel the “how” and “why” of what we share. I am playing my part whenever and however I can, for the greater good.

Connect with Mel Dominguez at MeloDominguez@gmail.com or MeloDominguez.com.

Carolyn King, M.A. Arts & Consciousness, has worked as a studio artist and as a teaching-artist for over 30 years both in the U.S. and Mexico. She recently launched Heart to Hand Studio in Tucson, where she offers classes and workshops in a variety of visual arts media for children, teens and adults. Connect at CKing72@cox.net or CarolynKingArts.com.

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