Conversations with Curators
Grace Gutierrez on "Our Past and Present"
By Mersadi McClure
With less than a week to Dia de los Muertos, Longmont is commemorating it's 20th year celebrating the traditional Latinx holiday of remembrance. In Firehouse Art Center's 2020 Dia de los Muertos exhibit, "Our Past and Present", curator and local Longmont creative Grace Gutierrez highlights significant moments of our community's history in the context of the Latinx experience, with stories told through ofrendas honoring the legacies of Latnix individuals who actions, struggles, and sacrifices have helped shaped the Longmont of today. Featuring work from Colorado artists Adrian Raya, Cal Duran, Javier Flores, and Ramon Trujillo, the exhibition confronts viewers with the harsh and often hidden realties of Boulder County's past, and presents the reminder to apply these lessons to our present.
Photo Credit: Brandy Coons
Q - For those who may not know you, describe your background as an artist.
Grace - I have been creating since childhood, always involved in art related projects and clubs. I went to art school right after I graduated high school but dropped out after one year. I then took a 7 year break from school, which was the time I took to really reflect on whether or not I wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but I realized it was all I wanted to do! I then went back to school in 2017 to Front Range Community College and then graduated from MSU Denver in Spring of 2020. My first true love is painting, but I also regularly do ceramics, photography, mural painting and video art. My work explores identity and the complexities of being mixed race. I often include imagery that nods to my Chicanx heritage and I use bright and bold colors influenced by Mexican folk art. My community and heritage have influenced me so much, a major goal of mine is to increase community engagement though my practice.
Q - How did you get involved with curating the 2020 Dia de los Muertos “Our Past and Present” exhibit at Firehouse Art Center?
Grace - I actually started at the Firehouse as an intern in 2017, so I was fortunate enough to have some experience there, including curating a show in January of 2018. I remained engaged and in contact with the staff, and once I graduated they asked me if I wanted to curate the Día de los Muertos show this year. I was so honored to be trusted with something so important to this community!
Q - “Our Past and Present” examines three separate periods of our community's history through the lens of the Latnix experience. How did you go about researching the subject matter of the exhibit? What would you say was the most difficult part of finding relevant information?
Grace - The research was done with the help of some amazing local resources. Staff from the Longmont Library And Longmont Museum helped me find books written by local researchers, the most influential being the texts and database created by the Boulder County Latino History Project, an ongoing CU Boulder research project, directed by Jason Romero. I also reached out to family members of the individuals the altars were made for, and their response and engagement really elevated the altars into the deeply personal ofrendas they became.
I think the most difficult thing about this research wasn’t the research itself, but coming to a realization that the Latinx history of this city is not talked about or taught enough locally. I had not realized Longmont has such a violent, racist past, and I think because it’s a dark part of our history it becomes something we want to keep hidden. However, there is great danger in not learning our history and discussing how local business owners publicly shamed Mexicans and didn’t allow them in their stores and restaurants, or how the KKK had a very open and influential presence in Longmont and our local government. Similarly, the positive contributions of local Latinx individuals and organizations often goes unrecognized. Our dark past is heartbreaking and difficult to confront, but I guess that is why I wanted to pursue this project, to emphasize the fact that history repeats itself, and that we need to actively prevent things like that from happening again.
Q - The artists involved in this exhibit each craft a unique altar. How would you say each artists' chosen medium shapes their remembrance of these defining Latnix individuals and events?
Grace - Each artist or artist team was given the choice to which local historical event they wanted to create an altar for. This allowed the artists to pick something they felt a connection to and see their mediums working with. Adrian Raya and Ramon Trujillo are both painters, Adrian a very classically influenced portrait painter, so I thought his style would translate into a very respectful, stoic painting. I originally only invited Adrian to participate, but once he read about the incident with Beaver Cordova and Juan Garcia, he felt a collaboration would better serve the altar. Ramon has a very playful and contemporary style, so I think the two play off one another creating a strong dynamic for this altar for two friends by two friends.
Cal Duran is a sculptor and ceramicist who’s general practice is continually paying respect to his ancestors and ancestral makers. Clay is a medium of the earth that incorporates water, air and fire in the process, so Cal mentioned he loves the medium for utilizing all earth elements. The altar he created was from a story that was passed down as oral history, so I think his process and homage to Jose Hilario Cortez embraces the most traditional of methods in the show. I really look up to Cal because he finds a way to embrace tradition and history in his very contemporary and vibrant work, and his pieces bring so much life into the gallery.
Javier Flores' predominate medium is printmaking, and I think the process and time spent on each portrait of Los Seis de Boulder, speaks to the devotion he has for these Chicano movement activists killed in two car bombings in Boulder in the 70’s. The small details of each hand painted box surround each portrait and each tiny item in the main altar piece speak to his attention to detail and ability to remember Los Seis as the six individuals they were and their legacies.
Q - Colorado artists Adrian Raya and Ramon Trujilo examine the past by honoring Longmont residents Jeffery “Beaver” Cordova and Juan Luis Garcia through their altars, while also recalling their deaths at the hands of Longmont police officers. In our present, police-related deaths are still a persistent and contentious topic. When it comes to Longmont, why do you think it’s important to reflect upon our own involvement with such issues?
Grace - This year is actually the 40 year anniversary of this tragic event that not only emphasizes the generational, systemic racism and violence within law enforcement, but it is actually a great example of how a community can come together after a horrible incident. When the officer was tried for murder and found not-guilty, the Latinx community created El Comité, a local organization which aimed to improve relations between Mexican citizens and local law enforcement, creating more accountability for local police. I love Longmont, and I often feel as though we are living in a peaceful little bubble, and oftentimes when something is not happening under our noses, we fail to realize the issues happening in the world. This story is a reminder that racial profiling by police occurred in our own town, and we need to keep the conversation going to hold police accountable for violent racist acts. Policy reform doesn't occur without action, and even after 40 years I hope it is clear we still have a lot of work to do.
Q - Longmont is commemorating its 20th year of celebrating Dia de los Muertos. How do you see the next 20 years of the celebration evolving within the Longmont creative community?
Grace - I only see it growing and becoming something more locals and local businesses learn to love and celebrate. A main goal of ours at the Firehouse, especially with our annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition is to expand on the themes around the celebration and bring a unique experience each year. While traditional altars are something we will always return to to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, there are so many ways artists speak about family, death, cultural pride, and local history. So taking a new approach to these ideas each year will hopefully broaden the understanding of the importance of this celebration. I also think the popularity of this event will expand Longmont's understanding of Latinx culture beyond this one event. Actively including Latinx artists in our line up throughout the rest of the year is another goal of ours, which I believe is necessary to solidify our bond to the local Latinx community, and present a more
diverse representation of the Latinx/Chicanx experience.
Q - What is the value of community art spaces such as Firehouse Art Center, and as a local creative, how have they influenced your development as an artist?
Grace - The Firehouse is a space that first off, supports me confronting issues like racism, which can be a difficult thing for community organizations to get behind. Some art institutions tend to steer clear of having difficult conversations that could stir up conflict and affect their funding. The Firehouse is a space to talk constructively and openly about difficult topics and is always reflecting on how it can better serve the community. I’m grateful to be a part of this organization because it has absolutely influenced my development as an artist. The work displayed and these difficult conversations the work influences has taught me to be fearless and to speak my truth in my own work. Most importantly it has taught me to see how art can serve and better a community.
"Our Past and Present" is on display until November 8th in the Main Gallery at Firehouse Art Center in Downtown Longmont. Learn more about the exhibit by attending Firehouse's virtual artist talk tonight at 6PM MST with featured artists Adrian Raya, Cal Duran, Javier Flores, and Ramon Trujillo. Prior registration is required for this free event, click here to register.
Photo Credit: Adrian Raya
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