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Broad Strokes: “We Make Artwork Too”

How Artist Blanca Herrada Highlights People of Color

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Above image credit: Blanca Herreda's painting "All About Ivory" is a reinterpretation of the Madonna and Child motif. (Blanca Herrada | Contributed)

One of Blanca Herrada’s favorite works is a print she made of her father.

In the work, he is wearing a sombrero, with his fist raised, a proud member of the United Farm Workers of America, and text at the bottom reads in Spanish: “They don’t eat until we feed them.”

Herrada, 26, is a visual artist who grew up in Emporia, Kansas. She moved to Lawrence, Kansas, a year after her 2014 graduation from Emporia State University with a degree in painting and art history.

And if there is one piece that encapsulates everything Herrada wants to achieve with her art, the print of her Dad might be it: Celebrating family and friends and, most importantly, featuring people of color (POC) in her works.

She wants to show others that “we are here” – the “we” being black and brown people – and that drive fuels her art.

These works are emblematic of her desire for people of color to create and be seen in works of art. By day she works three jobs including one at the Lawrence Arts Center. By night she paints 3-foot-tall canvases in her basement studio.

Flatland spoke with Herrada ahead of her upcoming show entitled “Para Mi Gente” (For My People), which opens at 6 p.m. tonight at the Bourgeois Pig, Six E. Ninth St., in Lawrence, Kansas. The month-long exhibit features the first two works in a developing series where she “focuses on the lack of representation of people of color in art, even more specifically, women of color in art.”

Flatland: Let’s start with who Blanca Herrada is. Being Latinx in the Midwest, how has that been for you? You grew up in Emporia, right?

Blanca Herrada: When I was a kid there were other Latinos, but there weren’t nearly enough. Emporia is now majority Latino, but a lot of my friends growing up were white kids and I always got teased for being friends with all the “güeras” (blue-eyed and blond-haired girls). It’s like the saying goes, “ni de aquí, ni de allá” (from neither here nor there).

Herrada with her mom in their old neighborhood in Emporia, Kansas. (Blanca Herrada | Contributed)

My grandparents moved here in the 1960s. We grew up poor and being the oldest in the Mexican family you’re the responsible one. You have to take care of your family. As a means to survive, (my family) assimilated, but not to the point that we don’t speak Spanish.

Growing up being interested in art I was always the only brown person. Even in college, I was the only person of color the year that I graduated. Originally my work was about Mexicanidad (Mexican identity), you know, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), doing research about indigenous practices, but it’s really strange, when I do drawings they are different than my paintings – almost like journal entries.

Growing up in the Midwest I’ve had to learn how to navigate those white spaces, and code switching to speak with friends and changing how I speak when I’m at work, while trying to remain true to yourself. Yeah, it’s quite a balancing act.

F: How did these experiences influence you personally as an artist?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized these Mexican artists are out there, but not really out there. I didn’t have that representation. It would’ve been great to see someone like me. So I’m gonna be that person that I didn’t have. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s what I wanted – someone succeeding and doing those things.

As I got older, I said I’m going to create these spaces for myself and for people like my sister.

I told her, “You might be the only brown girl but f—-ing do it. You have to go out there being the only one. You have to pave those roads for other people.”

It took me a while to get into the Lawrence art community because I didn’t know anybody. So I became a part of a studio in North Lawrence and then Art Emergency. And now I actually have a studio in my basement, which is really great.

F: Hopefully the basement has windows!

BH: (Laughs) It does. There are two in the corner, so I set up there.

F: So when are you most inspired to create? And what was the “ah-ha” moment that sparked your new series?

BH: There have been days where, recently, I just get up to eat and walk my dog. You just lose track of time after a while. I turn my phone off, so that way people texting me or Facebook notifications aren’t distracting me.

So the way it really started, I was looking at the Kehinde Wiley paintings on Instagram but I’m no Kehinde Wiley. (Laughs) So that’s when I came across Egon Schiele.

I take photos first, and I choose the images. I take that and photoshop the painting, to lay out the composition, and then save the images, and draw on the canvas, some crappy store-bought canvases as tests. I stretch and build my own canvases. It definitely does take a while to get from point A to point B.

F: “Para Mi Gente” – I love the title. What does the “Para Mi Gente” series mean to you?

BH: I came up with the show title mainly because you don’t really see a whole lot of people of color in art in generally, especially speaking historically. There were very little works of art that were of POC. The ones that were, were usually white artists who were traveling to other countries to learn and appropriate the art. Like Gauguin and Matisse only ever showed brown or black people as a commodity.

POCs are starting to rising up in the art world, but it’s still a predominantly white space. I’m maybe one of six to eight at the Lawrence Arts Center, and only one of two at the art center that aren’t instructors.

My work focuses on people and color and their experience. My father’s an immigrant. My mother’s a first-generation immigrant.

So for me the title “Para Mi Gente” it’s for them, it’s POC art for POC. We have to work twice as hard, because not only do we have to try to remain and find a way to stay true to ourselves but also be appealing to white people. How should we look like, talk like, our work look like?

It’s like when I meet someone and they automatically ask, “Where are you from?” And I answer that I’m from Emporia and they ask, “Where is your family from?” So I say, “Oh, I’m Mexican.” And then they automatically expect you to be painting deserts.

They relate, “Oh you’re an artist” to Frida (Kahlo). I don’t want to be Frida – not that I don’t love Frida – but I don’t want to be pigeonholed. So (in “Para Mi Gente”) I’m not using only Latinos, not only painting my heritage or my culture.

F: Who do you look up to in the art world in general?

BH: I’ve taken inspiration from Kehinde Wiley (who has) used well-known compositions in his art. People like Kehinde Wiley — I’m blown away that they’ve been able to make that dent. People like them who show and persevere, that’s how changes are made. That’s my goal is to make a change, make a statement and start a conversation.

F: Describe how you implemented experience and inspiration into one of the works we’ll see on Friday.

BH: I took Egon Schiele’s drawing, “Standing Woman in Red,” that depicts a woman who’s super thin, white and she’s like pulling up her skirt and you can see her knees and a thigh gap. So the person that I chose is my friend Marylin, who is this curvaceous woman. And she’s always going on and on, she always has to wear shorts because she always gets chub rub, so that inspired this one.

The funny thing is that the outfit she chose to wear that day is a skirt, and shirt and cowboy boots — it was so typical of Marylin. I wanted to keep the paintings as genuine as possible. The paintings that I’m recreating, they somehow resonate with the original.

The next couple I have coming up – two of them – will be of my sisters, and another a friend. The other one I’m showing uses the Madonna and Child (motif), except with my friend Sandra and her baby, who is half African and a quarter Latino. The child is mixed race.

Blanca Herrada’s painting “All About Ivory” is a reinterpretation of the Madonna and Child motif. (Blanca Herrada | Contributed)

These are the people who I’ve always wanted to see represented in art. For me, it’s about making this work for myself as a way of (prioritizing POCs) in predominantly white communities. We make artwork too.

F: What’s different about “Para Mi Gente” in regard to the medium and the imagery?

BH: I wanted a way to keep using nontraditional materials but still kind of keep a traditional approach; I’m using the turbid medium effect, an old painting style used by Venetian artists. These paintings are oil paint and spray paint — it came out beautifully. I was able to use those backgrounds with acrylic paint, then laying lace and having to block out the images, which was really hard, then spray paint it and pull it off — essentially large-scale stencils.

And I’ve never seen anything like this in Lawrence. They’re huge. They’re in your face. People who live here need to be more exposed to, and begin prioritizing us.

I want to get people asking: ‘Oh who did this painting of this brown child? Oh, a brown person did this?’

These two paintings are just the beginning. I plan on depicting all ranges of people — not just Mexican, not just black people. I have many friends of many colors, and they’re the ones that need the space and deserve the space.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Vicky Diaz-Camacho is the community reporter for Kansas City PBS

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