Los Angeles, CA - Margarita Cabrera's work is both contemporary and political. It's pop art and soulful art. It's infused with craft, knowlege of contemporary art, self awareness and personal history. Her work is filled with what might seem like ironies, but her ideas and processes work together to produce honest and quite awe prevoking work.
She uses craft processes of sewing and working with clay to reproduce common objects and machines which contain loaded meanings and uses. Her work deals with the experience of immigration and what some might classify as American dreams.
I met with Margarita Cabrera at her exhibition at Los Angeles' Walter Maciel Gallery on June 26th, 2008 to learn more about how she works and thinks. She and I talked there and Margarita went into depth about her background and described the work that was being shown at the gallery, Arbol de la Vida. Margarita has shown internationally and is currently in the Phantom Sightings exhibition at LACMA, Los Angeles. Her show at Walter Maciel gallery runs from June 28th through August 16th, 2008.
SBK: I want to know a little bit more about your background. I understand that you were born in Mexico. When did you move to the United States?
MC: I was born in Monterrey, and my early childhood was spent in Mexico City and then I moved to the States in the mid-80's. We first moved to Salt Lake City then to El Paso, Texas, and my family settled there. I went to college in NY then I ended up coming back to attend the Border Art Residency in a town called Vinton, New Mexico, which borders El Paso.
SBK: And why did your family move to the States?
MC: My father had a business opportunity. He was a mining engineer and he worked for a mining company. At that time it was much easier for whole families to come across the border, especially if you had some sort of professional background that the United States needed, like expertise in the mining industry. They invited him to do a job and they invited the whole family. It was a really good opportunity for him.
SBK: How old were you then?
MC: I was 10 ½ or 11.
SBK: It must be strange to move at an age where you are old enough to remember home, but are not yet an adult. You must have done a lot of growing after you moved to the U.S. I wonder, do you consider the United States or Mexico to be your home?
MC: It’s very interesting that you ask that question because I really contemplate that a lot. I feel like I’m truly a border kind of person – a border girl. Not only do I live on the border, but everything about me is divided. As I have grown into an adult, I feel like I have more of an affinity to my Mexican roots, because when I left Mexico at such an early age all of my extended family was in Mexico. My immediate family was in the United States, and I learned the language and I adapted as a human being there. Having come to the US at such an early age, I have always been missing something. Now that I’m a mature woman, a mother, I have a career and have formed answers, and I now have this draw. My work is indirectly and subconsciously drawing me back to a country where I have unfinished business.
Carrucha (wheelbarrow), 2008; Courtesy of the artist
SBK: You then went to study at Hunter College. What did you think of art school?
MC: Art school was very interesting for me, because I think my life is made up of a lot of culture shocks – coming to the United States, and then settling in a place like El Paso, which is such a different kind of place than New York – so I had this huge jump from El Paso to New York. Once I was there, I had to be able to talk about art in a way that can be very emotional; it can be kind of stressful. It was so new, everything was so new. I feel like it was just an incredible experience. I think I grew two inches physically. It was a much more meaningful experience for an immigrant or someone who is going from one culture to another. It can be very overwhelming and empowering and there was lot of room for growth, in so many ways. It was very, very important and special. I am an advocate of Hunter College.
SBK: Can you talk now about the piece in the show, Arbol de la Vida? I'd love to hear you describe it and tell me the story around it.
MC: It’s a life-size replica of a John Deere tractor, model #790, which is used in small farms and even domestic places to do yard work. [The entire work is ceramic and was made by casting each individual piece of the tractor.]
It is a tree of life, which is the theme that is embodied in this ttractor. This form, the tree of life, is a very old cultural crafting that exists in Mexico that dates all the way back to Olmec times, so it is really kind of ancient. It’s exploited in 3 different parts of Mexico; one specifically is Aztlan, which is where I did most of my research for this piece. I have family that lives there, so I was able to go there and get talk to people who work in craft and who work in clay. This tree really tells the story of the beginning of life - the Arbol de la Vida; the beginning of the mountains, the rivers, the good and evil. Usually it exists in the shape of a tree, which is flat, but it has all these natural elements that take over the whole shape of the tree. In the past it was used as a candelabra, but in more modern times, it is just this beautiful shape of a tree. Everybody does it now, but they are usually handmade.
Beside this theme of the tree of life, they have this other personal story that is told throughout the tree of life. If somebody is making one and they just got married, then they will tell the story of the wedding through the tree of life – or if somebody just died, had an accident, or they got in a fight with a girlfriend, they will tell those stories through the tree.
So I decided to tell my story, not my personal story, but in a way, yes. I’m telling a story I’m interested in, of immigration, which is so important in craft-making towns in Mexico. I substituted the shape of the tree with the shape of a tractor, a life sized tractor, to represent the strong history of agriculture in the United States that hires a lot of immigrants when they come to the United States. Then I used the theme of the tree of life throughout the tractor to represent the heritage that people have either left behind, or that has become extinct in some places. The idea of craft making is really endangered in some places. It is important to me because I see craft as a real cultural documentation of people’s experience and people’s emotions. In some places in Mexico, there is no written text. You can’t pick up a history book and read about the town. When people stop making their craft, they stop recording their history.
Arbol de la Vida-John Deere Model #790, 2007, ceramic and aluminum, 100" x 96" x 60"; Courtesy of the artist
SBK: Were people in your family involved in craft, or was your interest in craft developed through the experience of coming here and looking back at the place that you came from?
MC: In my family there were no craft makers, but craft making is such a part of the culture in Mexico. You make crafts when you are little and you are exposed to it like it is part of your religion, because it is part of your cultural makeup. It is very interesting to me now, going back to these places where people are making these crafts and learning the ways in which they work. You learn about their beliefs, and I feel like it teaches me something that I think I left behind or I never got.
SBK: I always wonder about work on this scale. Can you tell me about your art making process? Do you start with sketches or models?
MC: I usually make models for large-scale pieces. Like with the Hummer that I made, I made the little Hummers. For the tractor piece, I dabbled in some smaller versions of it, but I haven’t produced them as complete pieces.. I do drawings. I wish I had more time to do drawings, but I do have a good number of them and they just sort of develop my ideas more. They aren’t really sketches; they are more like drawings to develop the idea. I am just using images in different ways to try out different possibilities, so they are really drawings for artwork sake.
SBK: Do you ever think about showing those? Do you think about them as part of your practice or are they just a way to get to a bigger goal?
MC: I think the drawings are always steppingstones to get somewhere else. I don’t think a work is ever really finished. So I can make a drawing about a piece that I made 10 years ago and it can still be very valuable and can be exhibited. So it just really depends on the context in which they could be exhibited. And of course, I have done that before.
SBK: I looked at your website and those of galleries that have shown your work, but I never saw any of your drawings.
MC: When I make a drawing it goes really fast. But I am very interested in material and the materiality of things, because I like making objects. I get really into it. If I am working with clay, I feel like just working with the clay in my hands on the table with water and stuff. It’s kind of like drawing. I do that with the hammer as well, when you have the line of the sewing machine going; I see that as a kind of drawing. So it happens on many levels, but not in they way that you expect it.
SBK: I wanted to ask you about your feelings about the Phantom Sightings show (LACMA, Los Angeles). It must be really exciting to be involved in it.
MC: I think it is such a great show and I am proud to be a part of it. I was born in Monterey, and so if you were to track down all of this legitimacy stuff, I’m not necessarily a Chicano artist because I was born in Mexico and I was not born in the United States, but I think that my work really relates to the same issues. It is very strong politically and socially in the way that the history of the foundation of the show is, so I think my work fits perfectly. I’m just really proud. I think that it is true, what they have proven back in the days that they weren’t legitimate artists in the eyes of the big art community. So there is specific need to justify what their work was all about. In that way, there was a parallel to that idea and to what I am doing in my own work. I am representing a group of people that are not being welcomed or necessarily accepted. I am putting myself in the same shoes. It has so many layers for me.
The importance of participating in the show is huge for me. The people who established the term, "Chicano artist," did pave the way for me - for me to be in these shows, for me to be seen as an artist touching on subjects dealing with Mexico and immigration. I owe so much to them, I really do. So I am proud to be a part of it, to pay my respects. And I hope I can continue to do that, of course.
There is something to be said, good or bad, about the first show that they did. There weren’t a lot of Chicano artists, back in the day, who had Masters degrees, or who had been exposed to art history the way that some other artists had. I think my work responds in an art historical context; to other artists that I have learned about in school and whom I have been exposed to. That privilege didn’t get offered to everybody. It’s hard to get into school if you are Mexican. The percentage of Mexican students in art school is small. Why? I don’t know. I remember being at Hunter College and I don’t remember there being very many Latino students, maybe only a handful of them while I was there. The percentage is not equal, it doesn’t have to be, but there is a reason that things are starting to look a little different.
Margarita Cabrera,Yellow Bug, 2004; Hummer, 2006, vinyl, thread and car parts, 84" x 180" x 96"; Courtesy of the artist
SBK: It’s very interesting to me that you did both a Hummer and a VW. What made you make such different modes of transportation?
MC: I’m glad that you picked that up. Well the first piece was the Volkswagen, which I made one day in my studio after making these smaller domestic appliances. There was an announcement in the media about the discontinuation of the Volkswagen Beatle in 2003. We had three of them in my family and I felt something like a real loss, like something really shook me and I started realizing that it really was a national icon. It really economized transportation for a lot of people including my family. All of a sudden it came into the market and everyone had to have it.
Taxi’s drove it, ambulances drove it, policemen drove it, all the delivery people drove it. It was everywhere, and it still is a very prominent car. The production of that machine employs so many people, so the discontinuation was like a real death. It was a real loss of an icon. Also, it was made in mass production like every other piece I made. I saw it as a machine, but it also had all of this other really important information.
It was very different from the Hummer in the sense that the Hummer for me represents so many things; power, excess, consumerism, waste, even fear because it is represents war and death. It’s definitely not a people’s car because it is a very expensive car. It used to be a war vehicle and it was domesticated to be in the market of families. It has become a status symbol of success. It’s like a trophy to a lot of American families. It’s very much the opposite for me from the VW. It was representing the American dream.
When people come here, from across the border to come and make a life here, they are very car oriented. It’s like a trophy. This car is not only a trophy here in the United States, but also in Mexico. People go home to these little pueblitos and the first thing they want to get is a big red truck so they can go around the plaza. A car is like an identity object, for everybody, it says so much about you because it really is an extension of your body when you are driving. You wonder why someone has this car, or what it says about that person to have that car.
I was interested in the in the idea of the American dream. It really was an opposite piece to the Volkswagen, but I think they would be very interesting in the same place together, because they speak of such different things, yet what brings them together is the labor involved in making the Hummers has made livelihood in the automobile industry. GM has some production plants in the United States and some in Mexico.
SBK: Lastly, what would you say your initial influences were for making art?
MC: My artistic passion started from a young age when I was educated in the Montessori system, because I feel like I learned about the world through my hands, through my sense of touch. They teach you everything through a sense of touch. That was my first three years of life, which are the most important in a person’s life because they set forward your patterns and your way of being and acting and I think that is where it all began.
After that, it was situational. When we first moved to Salt Lake City, I was really alienated, because I was Mexican. I wasn’t Mormon and I didn’t have freckles and red hair. The big thing was that I wasn’t Mormon, so any after school activity was not for me. That’s when I started to do some watercolor paintings. There was a woman in my neighborhood who was teaching watercolors and I went for that. She was Mormon, but she was my neighbor so she was sympathetic to me. That was my first real studio experience because I had a little place where I would come home and do them. So in a way, that is when I started to think about what I was doing in a very specific way, somewhat critically.
ArtSlant would like to thank Margarita Cabrera for her assistance in making this interview possible.