“That’s how you do things, you have to work with your contemporaries and make things for you; if you’re not being given opportunities, you have to make opportunities.”
“I use my work to research undervalued histories, such as, Latin American, Amerindian, and Women of Color. I work with how these identities are lost through conquest, migration, and time, gained through family, culture, exploration, and passed down through tradition, preservation, and genetic memory. In my research I have found value in my histories and aim to help continue my cultures by preserving and honoring them.” Natalia Arbelaez is an incredible artist whose work is paying tribute to her inspirations in beautiful and captivating ways. Her work plays with the concepts of identity, and how identities intertwine to create unique individuals and experiences. Playing off her own background, Arbelaez explained that her, “work takes the place of a storyteller, from my personal narratives of my Colombian family’s immigration to the research of pre-Columbian South American presence, to my American, latchkey, afterschool cartoon upbringing. Each of these identities plays a role in my work to illustrate a self-portrait of what it is like to be a Mestizo, Colombian, and American hybrid”.
Arbelaez didn’t always think she’d be going into ceramics. In fact, she said, “I think it was a long trajectory getting into ceramics. I took ceramics in high school but I wasn’t interested in that, I’m actually quoted in my yearbook in my ceramics class making something saying “ceramics is great and all but I wouldn’t want to do it for a living” – which I think is hilarious. I wanted to go to school for fashion, I was always interested in the body and the form. I eventually went to undergrad for painting; I tended to switch around and I wanted to try everything to make sure. Undergrad was somewhere it kind of sneaked in”. When deciding between programs, Arbelaez explained it was incredibly important for her to choose one that allowed her freedom and a place to explore her many different interests, but that she’s grateful ceramics ultimately won out in the end; “When I was applying to grad school I still wasn’t sure where I belonged, whether it was with sculpture or ceramic programs, and I just looked at top programs in both areas and programs that had diverse majors. I wanted one that had fibers and glass so I tried to look for one that was very balanced and I applied to the sculpture and ceramic programs for all of the schools that I applied to. Ohio State offered me a really great deal and they said, “we just snapped you up”. So I kind of just went in that direction but I’m really grateful for it because there’s so many different things with ceramics that I don’t think if I went to a sculpture program I would learn. I think I’d still be in clay but I wouldn’t have learned the material chemistry, I wouldn’t have gotten into specifics like ramp pressing that I got to learn while in grad school and all the different things that go into ceramics. So I’m really grateful I went in the direction where life took me but I’m also grateful that the ceramics department kind of scooped me up”.
Arbelaez pulls her inspirations from many places including her Colombian heritage, her South American artistic inspirations, and her American “afterschool cartoon upbringings”. She explained in her artist statement, “I combine these stories with research, familial narratives, and cartoon embellishments that create surreal stories, much to my efforts, of the likes of Gabriel García Márquez. A way to autobiographically narrate history with its ups and downs of humor and tears”. Pulling from many different inspirations allows her to explore the stories behind them, to research and quell her love of learning, and to recreate them in her own artistic vision. When asked about her inspirations, Arbelaez said, “I’d say one of my largest influences is pre-Columbian ceramics mostly from South America in the Andes, and I look at a lot of Peruvian and Colombian ceramics. My family is from Colombia and I’m really interested in the ceramics there so I’m looking at a lot of these pieces but not just the pieces themselves – what their uses were whether it was ritual based, every day use, or symbolism. I also look into researching the people and the language, what was happening at the time, and how these people either continued or become a lost civilization. But that’s just a little part, there’s so many influences in ceramics”. While many of her creations seem larger than life, no holds barred, and beautifully capture her roaring artistic voice, Arbelaez explained that it took a while for her to become comfortable creating in front of others. She said that the best challenge she was ever faced with was in the studios of Ohio State in grad school; “I was more of an interdisciplinary undergrad and then I came into more of ceramic centered and established programs at Ohio State University. At our studios we weren’t allowed to close our studios; we had our individual studios and we weren’t able to cover ourselves or have a door and it made us have to work in front of each other. It was really challenging for me because I felt really intimidated coming into a ceramics program from undergrad that wasn’t my major so I really wanted to hide and I wanted that door. I was trying to figure out ways to cover myself, I would put a box at the front of my desk so I can hide and make because I felt like everything I was doing was wrong or because I came from this program that wasn’t traditional ceramics and that somehow I was doing wasn’t right. It kind of forced me to come out of that shyness which I’m really grateful for now because I do workshops and I’ve done talks in front of hundreds of people showing them how to make and it made me realize that it doesn’t matter how you make or the tools and the techniques that get you to what objects and things that you want to make”.
Her exquisite pieces and mastery of technique has garnered Arbelaez incredible success within this industry. She has received numerous accolades and recognitions including being a 2016-2017 Rittenberg Fellow at Clay Art Center in New York, a winner of the Ohio State Enrichment Fellowship, winner of the Inaugural Artaxis Fellowship for her residency at Watershed in Maine, she’s participated in international exhibitions in places like the Everson Museum and the MAD Museum, she was a 2018 Emerging Artist at NCECA, and was the recent 2018-2019 resident artist for ceramics at Harvard University. Success hasn’t been without it’s challenges along the way though. When asked about adversity within this industry, Arbelaez recalled that although the struggles started in high school, different struggles have appeared along the way into grad school; “I think getting into arts in general from where I came from, from high school on, was the biggest adversity. It wasn’t a school where a lot of colleges were coming to talk about the application process to get to college or how to go to art school, so I went to Community College and had to kind of find my way. There wasn’t a trajectory or path to follow and I had to really create that on my own. It took me a long time when I went Community College, I stayed for a long time and then I went to undergrad and I stayed longer than most people stay but once there I felt like I wasn’t facing so many hurdles or things in the way. But then I became a mother in undergrad and that was a lot more hurdles than anything else. Just trying to go to school, have a family, take care of my child, and looking for childcare which the schools don’t have any support for at all. Then in grad school as well there’s no support for parents or mothers at all in any way, so I think one of the biggest challenges was moving through academia and then later through institutions where people aren’t very flexible for families. It even felt a lot of times like I was a burden because I would have to show up with my son or I’d have to go to things and set up a show with my son and it’s been very hard”.
Arbelaez has left her mark and made some incredible contributions to the ceramics world during her time. Her favorite, and what she considers one of her most important contributions, is her part as an organizer and co-founder of The Color Network. Arbelaez explained that its, “a community networking and database group for artists of color to find each other and to create shows together. We’re looking to create inclusion and have a place where artists can find other artists of color. It’s all different groupings whether it’s utilitarian, sculpture, functional, or social practice. And it’s not just for artists of color; we’ve been used by teachers, curators, and people that are looking to broaden their roster whether they’re giving a presentation or creating a show and they want to make sure that they are being more inclusive and giving people an opportunity to find other artists that they wouldn’t regularly find on their own or in their own communities. We also have mentorships where we pair artists of color together to create that community so it’s been a labor of love and it’s been really amazing getting to interact and create this with my friends and my community”. Arbelaez also hopes to inspire other artists through her own story, and urges them to, “reach out and ask for help. Whether it’s your colleagues and your contemporaries and you just like what they’re making and working on, reach out to them and let them know so you could make shows together, start a movement, create something together. That’s how you do things, you have to work with your contemporaries and make things for you; if you’re not being given opportunities, you have to make opportunities. I was very shy and in undergrad and grad school I didn’t ask for a lot of help. It’s not even just shyness, I think I didn’t know how to ask for help or I always felt like a burden so I said, “I’m just going to figure this out on my own”. But don’t do that, ask for help, ask for people to become a mentor. The worst thing that they’re going to say is no, but just ask because people don’t care and they aren’t going to think anything bad of you for asking for help or mentorship”. Natalia Arbelaez is an incredible artist whose work is sweeping the industry and bringing the experiences of her inspirations to life. She’s also spear-heading an important message in this world; there’s not one right way to be an artist, but following your passions is always the right path.
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity
“My advice is to reach out and ask for help. Whether it’s your colleagues and contemporaries and you just like what they’re making and working on, reach out to them and let them know so you could make shows together, start a movement, create something together. That’s how you do things, you have to work with your contemporaries and make things for you; if you’re not being given opportunities, you have to make opportunities.”
Who do you want to reach out, who would you like to mentor you, and who can you create something amazing with? How are you going to “make opportunities” for yourself?