Artist, Julia Arriola, in Conversation with Elaine A. King
Courtesy Artes Magazine
By Elaine A. King
Julia Arriola is an artist living in Tucson, Arizona. Her art is interdisciplinary and she works across materials. Underlying much of her work is a unique perspective of Native Americans symbolism, social awareness as well as an intertwined interest in the mechanical age that comprised the late 19th century. This conversation took place from September 22-28, 2020. After the first introductory exchange Elaine A King will be EAK and Julia Arriola will be JA.
Elaine A. King: I understand that you are a native of Tucson born into a military family. You not only also served in the United States Navy but also spent several years working in manufacturing, building missiles and other high-technology devices. What did you learn from that time that and did these experiences influence your art?
Julia Arriola (right): I learned about discipline, setting goals and being a good worker. In manufacturing I worked on production lines and material assembly. I saw how many different parts were assembled and came together as one product that functioned. This may be why I enjoy assemblage and making the shadow boxes so much.
EAK. Your professional life has evolved along a unique pathway—you studied music prior to getting your Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1991and a Masters of Fine Arts in Landscape Architecture from the University of Arizona; you were the curator at the Arizona Historical Society from 1999 to 2019. What led you to this career course after being in the military?
JA: I actually got my Masters of Fine Arts in Sculpture in 1996 and in 2006 got a Masters in Landscape Architecture. The factory jobs happened after the military and in retrospect I probably should have stayed in the military as I did quite well there, but once my departure date came up I was ready to go home. While working in factories I had always wanted to get a degree, so that’s what I set out to do. I thought that if I got a degree I could get a really good job that paid better. Actually, I made more money in manufacturing than I did being a curator. While in school I did a ‘work study’ at the Arizona Historical Society and that’s where my interest in history was really conceived. Several years after I got my MFA I was offered the position of museum curator at the Arizona Historical Society.
EAK: You are often referred to as a Mexica –Mescalero artist. Can you tell me about your ancestral background and does it affect your work?
JA: I actually refer to myself as a Mescalero/Mayo Mestiza artist. Mestiza refers to being a mix of Indian and Spanish descent. My grandfather, on my father’s side was Spanish, and he married my father’s mother who was Mescalero. My grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side was Mayo.
Julia Arriola, Reverse Manifest. All works on paper pictured are colored pencil and ink on c. 1859 Ledger paper, 16.5′ x 10.5”. Courtesy Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson, AZ.
Looking back at my work, other than what I am doing now, I never really thought that it reflected my heritage. That being said, I have always made altars for the Day of the Dead.
EAK: At the Arizona Historical Society you curated many shows. Please discuss this experience and the projects that you consider to be important.
JA: Being a curator opened up so many delicious ideas for me. That whole world of material, research and interpretation was so exciting. Each new project, program and exhibit was exhilarating and challenging and I was in love with each one. One exhibit in particular examined racism toward the Chinese who came to Tucson in the late 1800s. It was an opportunity to work with the Chinese community and gather stories and material culture. A chance to have a conversation and heal old wounds. Another important exhibit/installation addressed the assassination attempt on the life of then Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The installation consisted of walking through the many memorial offerings that were left at three memorial sites in Tucson. They included the Safeway where the shooting occurred; Giffords’s Congressional office; and, the University Medical Center where Gabby Giffords, along with the other survivors were being treated. Thousands of offerings were left at these sites and the Historical Society had a chance to not only house them but to interpret and exhibit them for the community in a meaningful way. We were honoring the survivors, the ones who passed and all that were in grief. We were all grieving.
These two exhibitions were particularly significant.
Mudhead with Carpetbag
EAK: You’ve made sculpture and installation art. However, for a little over a year you’ve been producing a series of ledger drawings that are captivating. You’ve said, “These drawings suggest how objects/concepts from the 19th century were not only forced on Native Americans, but was also embraced.” First what are these ledgers that serve as a background on which you draw eccentric figurative iconography? Second, what are your views about the mixture of distancing/embracing of cultures in the Southwest?
JA: First, the ledger dates from 1869 and I found it in an antique store in Fredericksburg, Texas. At the time I had no idea that I was going to be drawing on it. Maybe it was a premonition, but I bought it because I liked it. As you know, ledger art has its own historical significance. In short, ledger paper was a medium that was available to draw on; this specifically began with the Plains region.
Koshari and Friends
Second, I think that Native Americans live in two worlds. We are a conquered people, whose sovereignty is barely acknowledged at best. We live in this white world that rarely sees us. We are invisible. So, how an individual straddles both worlds while retaining your culture and beliefs without totally selling out is a very difficult state of affairs.
EAK: I would think this is challenging and hard even though I’ve never experienced this type of psychological juggling. The imagery depicted in the ledgers discloses some comical characters yet within each composition a serious narrative about Native Americans appears to unfold. Can you talk about this and perhaps focus on particular images?
JA: If you look at the Maidens that come from Hopi culture they are girls that are eligible for courtship as indicated by the “squash blossom” hairdo. The maidens that make their way into my ledger drawings always have ‘gears’ that replace the squash blossom hairstyle. The gears, in my mind, are always moving forward almost on their own accord. The girls are dictated by cultural norms and yet this modernism can lead them anywhere, including away from everything that they have known. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe we should ask the girls about what it is like to straddle two very different worlds.
EAK: Yes, this is pertinent and it would be interesting to hear the girls’ personal thoughts. Can you discuss a few other compositions and their complex symbolism? Moreover, are you focusing on intersecting concerns about race, class, forms of and gender identity in this work?
Gallup or Bust
JA: I don’t think that all of my work has a lot of complex symbolism other than what the viewer brings to the work. My Koshari’s (black and white striped clowns from Hopi culture) are often shown with watermelon that can stand for gluttony. That’s what Koshari does, he reflects our bad behavior, but at the same time he doesn’t realize that something bigger than him is about to run him over. One of my Koshari’s wears a pith helmet, symbol of Colonial rule. Does this mean he condones the ideas or is he making fun of it? What’s interesting to me is that I can suggest what’s going on with the drawing and the viewer can then take the story to another level. So I create the image and than through the viewer, it goes on its own adventures. It becomes interactive.
EAK: I am aware that you have an admiration of the Steampunk movement that incorporated elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction and alternative history–how does this movement inform your work?
Maidens and Airship
JA: Some of my favorite authors as a kid were H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens so when I heard of Steampunk I immediately started my research about this fantasy genre. I loved everything about it. The only hang up is that although it is inspired by the 19th century industrial steam powered machinery, which I love, that particular period of time was the start of Native American genocide. So in my work, especially with the ledger drawings the images will depict both aspects of this period. Thus, showing the love/hate or push/pull that I personally experience.
EAK: Being part Latino and Native American as well as a woman provides you with a complex history. Does this impact your art and if so, in what way?
JBA: I don’t refer to myself as Latin American because that it’s a ‘put on’ reference from European sources. Although I am a ‘mix’ and as I previous said, I prefer to be called Mestiza. I have always felt more Indian that anything else. My work has not always spoken to my heritage, as I didn’t think it was important to show that part of who I was. However, I have only drawn heavily on my roots and included it in my art in the last two years.
EAK: Issues of feminism and identity continue to evolve and have become significant in many artists work—do you focus on either when producing your art?
JA: I don’ think that I focus on feminism as much as I do on identity. That said if I look at my work I can see that feminism sneaks in by default. As an example, my ‘Escaped Maiden’ has decided that she does not want to participate in any of the traditional Native American women roles and therefore roller skates away from it all with such force that one of her gears has worked itself free leaving her hair wind swept, flowing behind her. Identity is most important to me because that has been an issue that has possessed me throughout my life. Moreover, my father’s ancestry also haunted him all through his life.
EAK: Do you engage in research before starting a project?
JA: Yes, I often do. I am a product of my schooling, but more importantly I am very curious so I have spent much time in libraries and now on the Internet in search of primary and secondary information.
EAK: What concepts are integral to your work, and how would you define them?
JA: This may sound trite, but I have always wanted my work to feel authentic, art from the heart, so to speak. I not only want my art to be meaningful for me, but hopefully to others as well, and if there is a healing that happen for other’s or myself, than something really sacred has occurred, and I am grateful for that.
EAK: What art and artists do you most identify with?
JA: I love sculpture, I love being able to go around a piece and look at it from all angles. My favorite piece that first engrossed me was Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Love it! You may find this surprising but I loved the Futurist movement.
Mayo Deer Dance
EAK: No I don’t! I can understand this given you said you like industrial things. I was pleased to learn that your installation piece Need to Give a Damn: She Lived, She Inspired, 2019 is included in the forthcoming Arizona Biennial at the Tucson Museum of Art.
JA: Regarding artists,in my youth I remember admiring the drawings of Carmen Lomas Garza. Her work reminded me of many childhood family memories. I am impressed by the landscape woodwork of George Morrison and, of course Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes.
EAK: I can see where Cornell’s boxes are significant and inspiring to you. He was one of the most celebrated exponents of assemblage and his inventive tableaux become poetic theater. Your storied found-object assemblages at Finders Keepers Gallery in Bisbee evince a Cornell aesthetic.
EAK: What is your favorite part of the artistic process?
JB: Design, the problem solving, arrangement and interpretation. I am also fascinated by technique.
EAK: What role do you feel an artist plays in this age of social media, evolving technology, and pervasive entertainment?
JA: In speaking only for myself, my belief is that I feel free to use whatever platform I can to speak my own truth, whether the public hears it or not.
EAK: What does your art mean to you?
JA: My art is my truth; it is my most honest form of communication.
EAK: Can you expand on this?
JA: I have an introspective nature and not inclined to be forward and talkative. Never as articulate as I would have liked to be, I have always found solace in making things. I guess that’s why I liked manufacturing so much, because I feel that the finished product says it all.
EAK: I would tend to agree with you regarding the end product having the ability to convey your ideas. What has been your seminal experience as an artist living in the Southwest?
JA: I have been blessed with living in the desert. Warm, dry, and open space has taught me a lot about who I am. I love travel, love visiting other countries and cultures, but I am always glad to be back in my beautiful desert.
EAK: What are you working on now and do you think you’ll continue making installations?
JA: I will continue to making more ledger drawings, as long as the stories present themselves, however, lately I’ve noticed as I am working on one drawing another begins surfacing in my consciousness. I also have been commissioned to produce a medicine shield for a friend and colleague. These are very busy times, and I am looking forward to getting back to constructing installations and making new assemblage pieces.
EAK: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
JA: Thank you Elaine for this interview! It has compelled me to engage in self-evaluation in a way that I have not experienced before. I thought that I was just having fun, never dreamed my work could be so complex.
EAK: I look forward to seeing what you’ll make in the future!