by Saran Alderson, VPAM Student Tutor
The goal for a lot of students at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) is to find a major they are passionate about and then transfer to the perfect school to continue to study that topic. This year, plenty of students graduated, transferred, and then the whole world changed just when their new chapter started. This was the case for recent transfer student Janet Macias.
Macias had been an ELAC student from 2011-2019 and, while attending, found her path laid in the arts. She entered ELAC not necessarily knowing what she wanted to study and fell in love with clay in our rather impressive, on-campus ceramics studio. She mastered all of the techniques and went on to become a part-time ceramics studio assistant while finishing her Associate in Art for Transfer degree. She forged a strong connection to the clay and developed a distinctive oeuvre that marries organic shapes, the human body, and functional vessels into her “clay babies.” Macias’ impressive creations have been shown four times in the yearly New Voices: Student Art Exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM). This fall, Macias got the news that every ELAC student wants to hear: She got into her dream school. She packed up her life, had an Instagram flash sale to raise relocation funds, and then was off to School of Art Institute Chicago (SAIC). Her new adventure had just begun. She was learning to adapt to her new environment with new styles of critique, new studio setups, living in a dorm room with a roommate, and maybe even a little homesickness, but then the world changed almost over night. The coronavirus pandemic shuttered the studios, classes shifted online, her dorm room became her new studio, her access to clay diminished, and she had to adapt.
Below is a brief interview that I conducted with Macias to learn more about her artistic practice and the adjustments she has had to make while moving to Chicago.
SA: Hi, Janet.
SA: So, first, congratulations for making it through your first semester as a transfer student. Yay!
SA: Would you say that [SAIC] was your dream art school?
JM: Definitely up there. It was one of my top choices.
SA: Why did you choose SAIC?
JM: I guess […] I really wanted to go to a school where there’s a lack of representation for Chicanx or Chicano/Chicana artists. I think it was time to kind of explore options outside of my comfort zone, which was California and L.A.
SA: How has your experience differed at SAIC versus ELAC?
JM: It’s kind of hard to not see a lot of representation. It’s difficult to find things in common with others, especially because I am a little older. I am going in with a more mature head space where I know what I want to do, I know my skills, and I know my voice. At ELAC I had community there, you know, like, I could talk to others– express myself a little more freely. Here, even though it’s an art school, I still feel like I kind of have to fit into this mold so that [my peers] can understand me and I can understand them. And so it’s been a little harder.
SA: Yeah that sounds really tough! So, after you transferred and you got to your dream school, everything was starting to go, and then, boom! Coronavirus. What happened after?
JM: It’s a little complicated, just because I was already experiencing a lot of vulnerabilities before the pandemic. So, just kind of accelerated things really rapidly, and I felt like I couldn’t catch up. Like, I couldn’t catch up and make decisions because it just takes me a lot longer to process things. I was actually really disappointed with the fact that the school was closing, because I felt like I was finally starting to get into my work mode– into my work space, into this flow with my work– and all of that had to stop. I was just panicking over, “what am I going to do now?” I need to make work, I can’t stop. I have always had that anxiety of stopping my work at any point in time, so it was just too much.
SA: Were you living in the dorms before the coronavirus and are you still in the dorms now?
JM: Yes I’m still in the dorms. I had to submit an appeal to stay. I mean I’m pretty old, I’m 28, so going back to my parents isn’t an option, you know? I’m considered an independent student, so I am struggling a lot more financially because there are not a lot of resources for me. I don’t have parents to come find private loans for me.
SA: Are you completely isolated in the dorms? What’s the living situation like there?
JM: When I first moved in, I had a roommate. She moved out. Her parents picked her up and I’m basically living by myself right now.
SA: Do you have much interaction with other people? How are you connecting with other people?
JM: Well, everyone is practicing social distancing in our building. So, mostly people come out when they need to go out and buy supplies, or when they need to use the computer lab or the communal kitchen. Other than that I mostly stay in touch with people through the phone: calls, text, or Instagram. Virtual! Everything is virtual!
SA: Would you say that social media is one of the most useful things that you’ve been using to stay connected with people? I have noticed that your Instagram game is on point.
JM: It is? Oh my gosh, I’ve been trying to stay away from it. I guess, yeah, social media has a certain value right now. I feel like it’s connecting people, and people are being more expressive of their ideas, but I also feel like it is really easy for people with privilege or resources to steal from other artists. I just have a really mixed feeling about social media right now.
Macias’s work is heavily entrenched in ceramics. She uses clay to pay tribute to her matriarchal generational lineage of potters from indigenous Southern regions of Mexico. Through her use of clay she aims to tell feminist narratives that explore the abstractions of matriarchal roles in utopian society. Using her often, sci-fi looking vessels, she intermingles the human body with the clay body.
Now that the ceramics studios are shut at SAIC, Macias reflects on how her work has been forced to evolve.
SA: How would you say your work has changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
JM: I think it’s changed a lot. I’m giving myself a little bit of freedom to kind of explore, you know? It’s forcing me to really evaluate what’s important to me in my work, the message I want to give, and to think about my audience. Who’s going to see my work outside of my quarantine dorm? How am I going to present it? How am I documenting my work?
SA: Documenting the process, or documenting the end product?
JM: Both. Like, how do I want this work to be shown if I can’t show it in a gallery space, or if this gallery space is virtual? How can this be interesting, or how can I tell a story through my work without having all these physical aspects to it that are no longer there?
SA: Although you do both 2-D and 3-D work, a lot of your pieces have been based in ceramics and 3-D sculpture. So, it’s going not just 2-D, but also virtual that seems like a pretty big departure.
JM: Yeah. I kind of started playing around with ceramic forms in front of paintings. I’ve been photographing them, and when you photograph things, everything just automatically gets flat. I’m playing around with perspective and how something three-dimensional, in front of something that’s 2-D, is still flat in a picture.
SA: Yeah, that’s totally true. And depending on what angle, it tells a different side of the story, literally.
SA: Obviously, this current situation is not ideal, but are there any silver linings or positive takeaways that you’ve learned about yourself, or in general?
JM: That’s kind of a hard question to answer. I would say I have been writing a lot. I’ve been reading. I’ve been brushing up on socialism a little bit, learning about Karl Marx, and just kind of feeling a little helpless. But also knowing that I don’t want things to go back to normal, per se, because I feel like the structures we had in place are affecting people disproportionately and that’s making me mad and frustrated. I’m spending a lot more time with my work and observing it. Hopefully after all this, I become a better artist or human being, if I’m not already. I just feel really helpless right now.
A lot of people are feeling helpless right now. Income inequality is heavily affecting the quality of education for students of all ages. Folks are having to become creative to survive and thrive. Artists, especially, are having to come up with homemade tools and hacks as they continue their practices.
SA: I saw in one of your Instagram photos a picture of an ice cube tray full of different colored Mason Stains and I thought that was such a great DIY hack. Do you have any other DIY hacks for the stranded artist, or that are made from household goods?
JM: I pretty much use anything as a palette. Especially the lids of Tupperware. Oh my gosh, my desk is filled with Tupperware tops of dried-up paint.
SA: So, you just finished finals. Yay!
SA: What are you most concerned about now that it’s the end of the semester?
JM: I’m kind of stressing out because SAIC wants students to move out by June 7th. I don’t know how I am going to do it, considering that I haven’t been able to secure a loan for housing for fall.
SA: Do you think you might stay in Chicago, or will you try and make your way back to LA?
JM: It is so uncertain. I’m not sure. I asked SAIC for a loan so that I could secure housing outside of campus, but they offered me less than a quarter of what I had asked for, which is pretty sad. It’s just really absurd. This school also has a laptop requirement for a MacBook Pro and I asked for money for that, too. It is just, like: I cannot, I cannot! If I can’t secure a loan to find outside housing, I might have to go back to LA, but even that is very uncertain because I have nowhere to stay in LA.
SA: If the fall semester is online, what resources will you need to be successful other than, obviously, the MacBook Pro?
JM: Internet, the basics. I think the biggest tool would be the computer.
Student art exhibitions usually held in the spring to celebrate the end of the academic year are moving to virtual platforms, if held at all this year. Many art students depend on these shows to create revenue for their education, build a connection between future patrons, and network. One such exhibition for ceramic artists is the yearly National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Juried Student Exhibition. Normally an incredibly big conference showcasing the work of the best student ceramicists, this year was held online. Macias won 3rd place for the Undergraduate Award for Student Excellence and was not the only ELAC alum to receive an award. Luciano Pimienta, who also fell in love with clay in our ELAC ceramic studios before transferring to Alfred University, won a Studio Potter Merit Award, and is now completing an MFA at San Diego State University.
SA: What new projects or exhibitions have you been working on since you’ve moved away?
JM: The biggest one was the NCECA juried student show which I submitted work for last year and got in, but it went virtual [this year]. The conference, when the pandemic hit, was, like, “Nope. Nobody’s flying; nobody’s doing anything! Stay home and quarantine.” That was such a bummer because NCECA’s a really big national show every year, and it’s an opportunity for a lot of ceramic artists to network and meet each other. It meant a lot of exposure for my work for the first time ever. I won 3rd place [and] another ELAC alum made it into the show, so ELAC is definitely representing at this show.
SA: Do you have any advice for students thinking about transferring this fall?
JM: Definitely figure out financial aid. Have detours for your main plan, so in case anything comes up, you can make changes or adjust. I did not foresee this pandemic [and] was very ill-prepared on top of already being vulnerable. So, anything to not stress you out so much, you know? Also self-advocating! I know that sounds silly but that’s actually really difficult to do. Especially, for example, I am a first generation student. I have been realizing so much and kind of seeing the hierarchy of it all, and it’s kind of f***ed up, and a little scary to self-advocate. It’s actually really painful, too, because it exposes your vulnerabilities, but you have to be vulnerable in front of people you don’t know. You don’t know anything about them and they don’t know anything about you. It’s just very uncomfortable, but I think it is worthwhile in the long run, especially if you want to see social change and if we want to exist where we don’t currently exist. We (students) are forging our own way through, so just be ready for that.
To learn more about Macias and her work, check out her Instagram page. Other ceramic artists at ELAC can be found on the ceramic program’s Instagram page. Ceramics courses at ELAC are taught by professor of art, Christopher Turk.