Featured Artist Interview : Jessica Elena Aquino

We are very excited to have textile artist Jessica Elena Aquino as our eighth artist. Her work draws from her relationship to nature, memory, mythology and cultural iconography to create beautiful sculptural weavings and tapestries. 

Scroll down to read the interview, learn about her process and enjoy photos of Jessica’s studio.

How did you first get involved in the world of textiles? What drew you to weaving?

Before graduate school, I had worked in a farm and garden in upstate NY for three years. I was using my hands all the time: working the soil, milking cows, harvesting, sowing. Three years later, I arrived to PAFA as a painter, however by the end of my first year I was beginning to get frustrated. The paintbrush, which had served as an extension of my hand for many years, did not bring the same excitement as when I was working with my hands. Thus, I began to sculpt using various materials and objects which led me to working with yarn installations and eventually weaving and dyeing with plants. I began by weaving cornhusks without a loom. I was trying to replicate basketry techniques, but it was very difficult as corn husks have very short fibers and are very fragile when dry. It wasn’t until I was awarded a travel grant to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico where I first learned from the Zapotec community about dyeing with natural plants and weaving on a loom. This officially introduced me to the world of fibers and textiles.  

What part of textile/weaving history interests you the most? Are there any textile artists that you are influenced by?

One of the many great things the Textile Arts Center offered were history classes. I was inspired by how many weavers and fiber artists were using textiles as a form of activism of the 1980’s and now, like Braiding Borders by Boundless Across Borders. Fifty women from both sides of the United States-Mexico border wove their hair together in a giant solidarity braid as Trump was inaugurated. Some of the artists I’m currently inspired by are Diedrich Brackens’ form of storytelling and Luba Krujci’s delicate weavings!

Tell us about your process, start to finish how you make your pieces.

My process begins as soon as I step outside my apartment. I walk alot in the city due to my horticulture job so my process begins with observations inspired by the things I read like Rudolfo Anaya’s Heart of Aztlan or in the poetry I read or write such as the current piece I’m working on, Even men can be sunflowers, 2021. Many of these reflections are about my experiences of the everyday and my relationship to my family and nature. Most of my weavings are done in a frame loom. As the painter that I was and still am, I find it easier to see the full picture and move around instead of weaving from bottom up like a floor loom. Then the fun part begins, choosing the colors and materials! Earth tones are my go to. As for materials, I love a good array of textures, fibers and objects. I use various scraps of fabric like old bedsheets, old clothing, jeans, and objects like cornhusks and beads. The technique I enjoy to do is soumak, which looks like a braid from afar. I enjoy this technique because of the texture and manipulation I am able to do to expose the warp. My process includes improvisational weaving and paying more attention to the way my body moves rather than staying true to a sketch. It’s all very organic!

Where/what do you look to for inspiration? Has this changed over time or stayed constant?

Definitely reading inspires me, fiction, non fiction, specifically by Latinx writers or concepts i’m generally interested in. Right now, I am doing my own research on the history and impacts of the Green Revolution of the 1940-1990’s in Mexico and in the United States. How I arrived here was because I was using cornhusks in my past weaving and began to wonder about the ethnohistory of corn. I look for inspiration in the questions I propose to myself: how has this object served you, others? What is its life history? So my inspirations haven’t really changed, but my perspectives and ways of reflecting have. Talking to other artists has been a constant  inspiration. The more I do it, the more I realize how exchange on knowledge, feedback, and thoughts can be the most illuminating! 

Can you tell us how memory, mythology and cultural iconography informs your work?

The best story I know is my own.. memory is such a complicated conundrum because its selective, biased, and even at times not very reliable. Mythology, from my perspective, is a form of memory – an ancestral communal memory changing and shifting over time and cultural iconography are the physical remnants of that memory or time. For example, a fond memory I have is of my father and I growing sunflowers. As a youth, I remember his stubbornness, his hard work ethic, and his love for tending the front lawn, where over time he grew flowers and trees. He was the first to introduce me to how to care for the land. However, at that time I was so bewildered by how much he cared for his flowers, but inside the house he was a completely different and guarded person. By recalling this memory it helps me to maneuver and find a form of healing in my relationship with my father, our relation to labor, the myth of the American dream, and vulnerability. From a bigger lens, my family comes from the country life of Mexico. I come from a long lineage of farmers and growers. However, as a first gen in this country this knowledge wasn’t  passed down heavily because the priorities of surviving in the United States overshadowed the ancestral knowledge my parents carry. I think this is a very relatable experience to many of us. Survival, what is left behind, what is forgotten, and what of the puzzle pieces remain. My work is not purely academic, full of research and citations, but personal research which is just as important and informs my work.

How does your relationship to nature influence your work?

The two pillars in my practice are art and nature. Nature is how I connect to my family and ancestors. I come from a long lineage of farmers and carers of the land. As a child, I felt like an outsider in my family for liking to climb trees and running barefoot. I didn’t care for video games or TV. I enjoyed sunsets and smelling the morning dew. If anything I thought my parents would understand, but it was different. I recognize I had a romanticized relationship with nature. My parents carry a form of trauma. They worked on the land because they had to for means to survive in their homeland. When they came to this country my parents didn’t want our family to be involved in gardening/farming. They wanted us to get an education, a stable career and financial stability. However, growing up on the weekends I’d see my parents tend to their flowers, my mom grew every fruit tree possible. It was like looking at love, but there was a silent barrier that I could not be a part of. The only tending I was allowed were the books. This is the relationship to nature I allude to in my work. A knowledge that was not passed on to me, but always yearned for. 

What are the alternative forms of weaving and sculpture that you explore in your work?

I don’t make traditional forms of compacted weavings or tapestries, I expose the warp instead! My weavings feel like drawings. Dibujos sin papel as Gego would say. Drawings without paper. I have control of how I will use a single thread, how it moves, pulled, swirled similar to a drawing. My weavings have sculptural elements: I combine found objects, like cardboard combs. I break them into pieces and arrange them to create a mask or skirt. I enjoy touching the array of materials like beads, buttons, postcards, souvenirs, that helps add dimension, content and weight to each piece. Shadowplay is also part of the sculptural element. I keep in mind how lighting can affect the exposed warps to create shadows.

How does poetry play a role in your work? Tell us about the in-betweenness you have explored.

Poetry is my form of reflection on paper. Whenever I finish a new piece I write a poem for the work of art. Sometimes the poem comes first and inspires the work of art. Currently I’m exploring how I can combine my poetry in my pieces. The titles of my works are lines from my poems.  Sometimes I write lines of my poems in the work itself, it’s a very subtle detail. For me, poetry is like a recharge, a form to add content without addressing my life story, a moment of reflection that the viewer can have access to.

Do you believe the pandemic has had an impact on your work?

Most definitely. The pandemic not only impacted my work but perspective. In the beginning of the pandemic, like many of us, it was very stressful. I was audited by the IRS, I lost my job at MoMA, I did not have family near. There was no light at the end of the financial tunnel. I was not in a healthy mental, emotional, and physical state of mind. However, during this time of quarantine, loneliness and solace, I stopped making art. I had no community to bounce ideas, but I built my own garden, I picked up macrame, and sewed. I taught myself how to make tool pouches out of fabric scraps. I made planters, taught myself about indoor tropical plants and hustled. I read and applied to every possible relief grant, and built my website. I wasn’t active in the studio but I was active in other forms that impacted my practice. I got organized, I learned new skills that now I can use in my weavings. I have my statements at hand ready for the next application. I’m developing my vocabulary as an artist so yes, the pandemic continues to impact my practice and the work I plan to make. But most importantly, I learned to sit and rest. I learned that there is no shame in resting and allowing your body to decompress and process, especially as an artist. 

How do you imagine your work evolving in the future? Do you have any upcoming shows or events you are excited about?

As my residency at the Textile Arts Center is coming to an end, we are all preparing for our group show in September 2021. It will be on view in person and virtually. I also have been invited to be part of a group show called Manufactured Narratives at the Urban Institute for  Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, MI, hopefully on view early next year 2022. As for other events, I have been invited to be part of the 2021 Summer residency at Chautauqua! Very thrilled and excited! As for future work, I don’t know where it is headed, I’m welcoming all the upcoming experiences to keep molding my practice.

Thanks for being part of our Heirloom community and tuning into our eighth edition of Contemporary @ Heirloom.

– Zach, Lynn & Sam

*Illustration and Photography by Lynn Hunter

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