“As a member of the Mestizo offspring, I am one of many who have challenged this reality and utilized the flame within myself to ignite a change in our future.”
“My work is meant to enrage and provoke meaningful conversations on hard matters such as racism, stereotypes, xenophobia and cultural lynchings, amongst many other themes”. The beauty of art is that it can encompass the stories of the past, represent the emotions and truths of the present, and speak to the narrative of the future. Jessica Villegas masterfully uses her art to shed light on the experiences surrounding her own Latinx and Chicanx identities and invites the viewer to revel in the uncomfortable truths it portrays while forcing purposeful conversations about the important topics at hand. In doing so, she maintains the honest integrity of the experiences of the past, creates an open dialogue about the true issues of the present, and paves the way for a more inclusive future. Villegas said, “I utilize my work to perpetuate accurate and transparent narratives of my community’s history and state of reality. I seek to instigate hard and meaningful conversations on these topics and inspire others to view my culture through the eyes of it’s sons and daughters. Together we can create a future that invites diversity, that appreciates uniqueness and celebrates our multi-faceted histories”.
Much of the work of Villegas is inspired but the concepts of identity and “sense of self”. As Villegas explains, “As adolescents we are either given an identity or adopt that of our parents. We do not question our existence or our greater purpose, we are simply beings in a world we know little about. However, as we grow, our curiosity about ourselves and our origins ignites, for many of us it becomes a flame that hungers for purpose and recognition. As this newfound undertaking arises, we begin to seek answers and thirst for a history to call our own, to better define who we are and where we come from”. While this development of a sense of self is a seemingly natural one, in her work Villegas speaks to how the development of identity for those of her culture has been grossly tampered with and the change that must happen in the future to prevent more damaging effects; “Despite our increasing population and our new-found celebration of our Mestizaje, we continue to be seen as the “other,” and are deprived of adequate representation and recognition. Furthermore, we’ve seen our culture dissected, portrayed in mainstream media as a commodity, appropriating our Mother Land and her history. As a member of the Mestizo offspring, I am one of many who have challenged this reality and utilized the flame within myself to ignite a change in our future”. Villegas explained that, “My work explores the consciousness of a people living on the border of these two realities, in a state of “Nepantla.” As I have gone to educate myself on the history of my people, I have equipped myself with the ammunition of knowledge necessary to stand against the long history of oppression, marginalization and xenophobia plaguing our daily lives. I am inspired by authors who use their media to perpetuate narratives of racial reenvisioning, double consciousness and cultural beauty, such as, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga and Laura E. Pérez”.
Villegas is a skilled artist of multiple media, and said that, “before I quite literally stumbled into ceramics, my focus was mainly in photography. I was very heavily invested in film photography and utilized my camera as a tool to share my view of the world”. It wasn’t until her time at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley when she took her first Mexican Amercian studies course that her interests and inspirations started to change; “I was introduced more in depth to the Mexican American culture and history, and authors such as Gloria E. Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Americo Paredes, etc. became my inspiration. And the rest fell into place from there, I learned more generally about Mexican American Folk Art, specifically the use of “The Tree of Life” as a method to create both fictional and non- fictional narratives”. Villegas explained that this particular concept has been an important influence on her more recent sculptural and conceptual work; “in my series “Reclamando La Tierra” (Reclaiming the Land) I used the concept of the Tree of Life, a cultural method to tell a story, to perpetuate a narrative on events that had highly impacted the Southmost region of the U.S.”. As an artist, Villegas said her greatest influences were the works of Gloria E. Anzaldua, particularly her work Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Villegas explained that Anzaldua focused, “on this theme of “Nepantla” an in-betweenness of cultures and bodies. Her work helped me realize the importance of not only engaging with your identity but embracing it in its entirety”.
Being a driving force of change while bringing attention to the hardships faced by her culture, Villegas is making a name for herself and using her platform to create spaces for real discussion and change to happen. She said, “I would like to believe that this has been my most impactful contribution to the ceramic community, using my medium as a driving force to induce change and demand recognition for a time of great suffering”. When asked about her favorite piece of work, Villegas spoke of her piece entitled La Matanza (The Lynchings). Villegas explained that, “It has been my most taxing piece, both mentally and physically. As this vessel’s purpose was to highlight a very sensitive and often times ignored history of extralegal violence perpetuated by Texas Rangers against Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southmost states of the U.S. in the early 20th Century”. At 38” tall, this hand sculpted piece made of coils is the largest she has created and presenting the correct voice through the piece was of utmost importance; “It was imperative that I approach the subject matter in a respectful and thoughtful manner, it needed to be both informative and provoking, without revictimizing the individuals involved. Which in the end was the most important part for me, which in turn became the most emotional aspect of the entire undertaking as well”.
Villegas explained that her mentor and friend Raheleh T. Filsoofi has been an important influence in her artistic journey. She explained that, “as students, the easiest topic to make work on is ourselves, our likes, dislikes, anxieties, passions, experiences, etc. It’s what we’re most knowledgeable about and comfortable with. Filsoofi challenged me to break the barrier between myself and the exterior world, the world that I was a part of, but had yet to contribute to”. This was a pivotal moment in her art-making and resulted in a change where she, “went from creating self-portrait busts and decorative vessels to utilizing the clay body as a means to communicate a narrative about a people and culture that are underrepresented, marginalized and criminally perpetuated. It forced me to do research, to learn more about the culture that I was born into and the history that I was now a part of”. The road to success and finding her own artistic voice has had it’s obstacles along the way. Villegas said that, “I have been my own adversary in the past, comparing my skills, or lack thereof, to others. Belittling my own work when comparing it to the size, complexity or composition of others. I have only ever received constructive feedback from people within the community and I have always been able to bounce my ideas off of others. I would have to say battling with my own opinions of myself and my work have been the greatest challenge I’ve had to face when working in ceramics. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that my voice was what made me unique, it’s what’s allowed me to stand out and stand on my own’. However, Villegas has found a way to overcome these obstacles and create work that is not only beautiful, but is also inspired, carrying messages raked with importance that allow for the beginning of true change. She explained that she has, “learned to be more organic with my work and in essence allow the clay to work through me, as a opposed to being controlling and demanding. In some cases that’s what you want, but I’ve learned that in my practice it’s important that I allow the clay to represent itself. In my work, the medium is just as important as the subject matter, the clay comes from the earth and I touch on topics revolving the land I come from and it’s important for me to make that connection”.
Beyond exposing her audience to the true experiences and stories her work portrays and opening the floor for honest dialogue, Villegas hopes her work has an impact on other artists and inspires them speak with their own purposeful artistic voice. She said, “I would hope to inspire other artists to make work that makes them uncomfortable, that teaches them the importance of their voice and their role as an artist. Being an artist of their time is incredibly important, it becomes their responsibility to use their media to perpetuate a narrative of their time and record history through their work”. As an artist who works with multiple media and techniques herself, Villegas speaks to the importance of experimental learning and how a better understanding of both will lead to work that more clearly carries the artistic voice through to the viewer; “I would encourage student artists to experiment, experiment with glaze, alternative firing techniques, form, building techniques, design, etc. Do not limit yourself to one or two techniques or methods in any area of ceramics. Most importantly, read, do your research when it comes to building functional, structural and conceptual work. The more you know, the more you and more importantly your audience will be connected to your work”. When asked what question she would pose to other emerging artists, Villegas asked, “If there were an artistic world without clay as a medium, would you be able to continue creating the works you’re making now in an alternative medium? Would they have the same impact? Why or why not?” With a clear understanding of her inspirations and the messages she wants to convey with her pieces, Villegas is using her art to pave the way for an honest discussion about the truths of the past, the uncomfortable issues that still exist in the present, and the changes that must be made to create an inclusive and diverse future. Jessica Villegas embodies the concept of “art reflects life” while successfully harnessing her role as an artist and her platform to make art that discusses some of the most important issues of the world and is just as beautiful as it is truly exceptional.
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity“I would encourage student artists to experiment, experiment with glaze, alternative firing techniques, form, building techniques, design, etc. Do not limit yourself to one or two techniques or methods in any area of ceramics. Most importantly, read, do your research when it comes to building functional, structural and conceptual work. The more you know, the more you and more importantly your audience will be connected to your work.”
“If there were an artistic world without clay as a medium, would you be able to continue creating the works you’re making now in an alternative meduym? Would they have the same impact? Why or why not?”