Artist Interview: 1-on-1 with Julie Cifuentes

Artist Interview: 1-on-1 with Julie CifuentesI first met Julie Cifuentes at a Circle City Chamber Group event in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. She was the featured artist at the event and I had the chance to chat with her after the event over dinner. She impressed me right off the bat and I knew I would be hearing more from this girl soon. Sure enough I come to find that she is taking part in Installation Nation on Friday June 4th and Saturday June 5th, 2010. The cover to the event is only $8 and there will be numerous food and beverage vendors there selling food and drinks. (Sun King Brewery will be there so you know you will have a great selection to choose from.) This event is part of this month’s IDADA First Friday Gallery Tours and will be sure to turn some heads. She will be working with other local artists on a project that is sure to impress. I will also be covering this event as well so stay tuned for a recap of the show. But before the show I wanted to get to know her a little bit better. I asked her to take part in an artist interview and she was happy to do so. So before you look at and appreciate her hard work, please take the time to get to know the one and only Julie Cifuentes.

Before we get started, how in the world do you pronounce your last name?

See – F – when – tez

So you are an artist. What does being an artist mean to you?

To me, being an artist simply means seeing the world, reflecting upon what is observed, and subsequently choosing to communicate that process through something tangible, whatever that may turn out to be.  I don’t think that there are certain people born with a special art gene that makes dreams in the night into a magnificent works of art.  Making art is hard work, and staying attuned to creativity and innovation in a culture of passivity is even harder.  I think the only difference between a maker and a non-maker is just that.  The making.  And the seeing.  As an artist, I strive to always be aware of what is happening around me; to see the small intimacies of nature and people and to allow that awareness to change me.  I make art to answer a question that comes from observation and reflection.   Sometimes I don’t know the answer until I am finished making.  Sometimes I find an answer and not a product, and move on.  Sometimes I never find the answer, but each piece I create takes me one step closer to myself and to the truth that I am searching for.

What was the first piece of artwork that you ever created?

The first thing I can vividly remember making was a weaving I made in elementary school, maybe in 4th or 5th grade.  It was probably 30″ high by 18″ wide made of ripped up strips of blue jeans woven through tree branches, which I then painted on.  It seems immensely ironic and sort of freaks me out to think about it, considering what I am making now… basically the same thing 20 years later.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a professional artist?

High school.  Actually, I was very interested in making art and teaching it at the time.  When I was young, art was something that saved me from a life I couldn’t control.  I wanted to be a teacher to help people find what I found, a small piece of the world where anything I wanted to make was possible.  A big part of that discovery was my high school art teacher, Mike Applegate.  He not only gave me the foundation that I will continue to build upon as an artist for the rest of my life, but he also listened enough to know how to reach me when I was a kid who didn’t know how to understand myself.  Because of him, I wanted to help kids become the people they were going to be.  These days, my goals have changed a bit, I no longer want to teach at the high school level (it takes a very patient person to talk to teenagers every day for 30 plus years) but I still really believe in the power of art and the huge responsibility and privilege of teaching people how to look at the world in a different way, and to be changed by what they see.

What else do you do besides create?

Unfortunately making art and loving life doesn’t pay the bills yet, so I have a full time non-art job working in a financial office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  I also teach community art classes at night at Herron School of Art & Design.  Other than work, I try to be outdoors as much as possible, hiking, kayaking, gardening, running, reading, and spending time with the people I love.  I’m also starting a petition to add more hours to the day. (Laughs)

What mediums do you typically work in?

I work in painting, drawing, and in recent years, installation art, but I am always trying new mediums.

How many art shows have you had?

Several – probably half a dozen, or so, since I graduated with my BFA.

Have you had any outside of Indianapolis?

None since I’ve been out of school.  But that time will come.

Do you have a studio or do you just work at home?

I have a studio downtown.  It would be hard for me to work at home.  The chemicals, for one thing, are not ideal in a living environment, but more than anything, if I had my studio at the house I think I would never be able to relax.  When I am creating, it is an existence that is contrary to an 9 – 5, “normal” kind of life.  It’s easier to give making it its own place of complete focus and separation.

How do you deal with that sort of “double life”?

I have decided that one day I will sleep – but not today.  Today, there is too much to do.

Have you ever sold anything?

Yes, I have been lucky enough to have sold some of my work.

What is the most expensive piece of artwork you have in your collection?

I try not to place value on pieces by how much money they cost.  If I had to choose the piece of the highest value, it would be the one that I made that ignited this current body of work, back in 2004 after a trip to Guatemala.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

One can be influenced by anything but what has molded me the most are the people I’ve found.  It sounds simple and maybe a bit trite, but there is always something to learn if one is willing to listen.  In college, the other artists who were with me, who I still work with and speak to on a daily basis and a couple of really inspiring professors are what I cherish more than my degree.  I learned just as much from them as I did from any book.  I also try to stay motivated by reminding myself that there are many places in this world where people deal with fundamental issues that affect who they are and how they live, like Guatemala.  I try to think of those people, many who are women and some who will never have the opportunities I have had, like the opportunity to make art for a living for goodness sake!  What a luxury.  Because of them, I push myself to be thankful, and to do everything I can while I have the ability to do so.  As an aside, I just read a book called The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz.  People like her blow my mind, and set the bar high.  I hope I am half as driven and have even a fraction of the impact she has been able to have on the lives of the people she has come into contact with.

Tell me a little bit more about Installation Nation.

Installation Nation is a show presented by the Arts Not-for-Profit Primary ColoursPrimary Colours organizes events to facilitate community interaction with artists in a unique atmosphere outside of the traditional gallery space.  That said, Installation Nation specifically, is a show in which Primary Colours asks artists to submit proposals about what they would install inside a 20′ x 8′ x 8′ metal shipping container.  PC then juries the submissions, selects a number of artists to bring those ideas to fruition and gives them a stipend to do it.  This year the stipend was $750.  During the event, there will be food, bands, Sun King Brewery beverages on tap, and 7 shipping containers full of installation art.  The show will be located on a vacant lot at the corner of Michigan and College in downtown Indianapolis.  It’s a two day event, with all of the artists present so that people can come, hang out, experience the art, ask questions, and bonus – eat, drink, and listen to great music.  Really, who wouldn’t want to go check that out?

For those who don’t know – what is an installation?

An installation is a sculpture that you experience spatially around you. For instance, a sculpture, in the traditional sense, might sit on a pedestal – yes?  You then walk around it to view it.  Well, an installation is like taking the pedestal, making it the size of a room, and then filling the room with the sculpture so that you can walk into it and experience it all around you and potentially with all of your senses.

What piece are you showcasing in that event?

Well, I can’t give any details, but Brent Aldrich and I are moving in an exciting direction from last year’s piece in which we recreated a coniferous forest, complete with fifty feet long by eight foot tall charcoal drawings, hand made paper tree trunks, and a pine covered ground.

It is a cliché that wine is served at most gallery openings and exhibits. Do you drink wine on the night of an opening? If so, what is your favorite wine to sip while looking at artwork?

Is it a cliché?  (Laughs) Well maybe outside of the art world, but inside it, I would say it is something that is pretty standard.  My favorite wine?  If I had a choice, I’d have a nice dry red.

Who is your favorite artist of all time?

Oh my – I don’t have just one.  That would be nearly impossible.  Right now I am fired up about a contemporary Chicago painter named Claire Sherman.  I like to tell people her paintings are what mine would look like if I weren’t me but someone else and really really awesome.  As far as artists from the past, there are these Chimabue frescos in a church in Assisi, and when I think of them even the memories of them melt my soul.   Alberto Giacometti always makes me want to draw until my fingers fall off, and Regina Jose Galindo is a Guatemalan performance artist with some of the most authentic and challenging work I’ve seen in the contemporary art world to date.  There are so many more – too many to name.

Do you frequent any art galleries in the Indianapolis area?

Yes.  I try to make the rounds every First Friday.  IDADA does a good job of getting people out and about.  I probably hit the Harrison Center, the Wheeler, IMOCA, BigCar, ARTBOX, and Christopher West Presents every month with a few others thrown in if I know there is a good show to see.  There is a nice gallery just south of downtown called Healing Arts Indy, as well.  HAI is not on the IDADA First Friday list but they are consistently showing great work.

Have you ever traveled outside of Indianapolis solely to look at art?

Absolutely.  I studied art in Florence, Italy in college.  I have also been out to New York City a few times for many reasons; not least of which is the art scene.  As a general rule, no matter where I go I always try to check out a show and see what the city has to offer.

You are heavily involved with the Circle City Chamber Group. Tell me about your position with that organization.

Well, first of all, the Circle City Chamber Group is an Arts Not-for-Profit in Indianapolis whose mission is to grow the arts in Indianapolis by targeting people with limited exposure to cultural events, and give them an unassuming introduction to an art experience.  Every bi-monthly event takes place in a different location in the city with one visual artist and featured chef, and a 45 minute concert. The artist, musicians, and chef change every event. Our purpose is to introduce and educate people who wouldn’t normally patronize the arts to all of these cultural aspects in one fell swoop – in order to eventually get them to a symphony, or the IMA, or a delicious local gourmet restaurant with more confidence and excitement then they otherwise would have had.  What is my role?  My role in the organization is currently the role of Artist Guild Coordinator and Curator.  I help Andrew Lyon, the founder and conductor, organize the events by choosing the visual art work that will be displayed at each event.

Where are you originally from?

I was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

If you could live anywhere else in the world where would you go?

Wow – where wouldn’t I go!?  Being from Guatemala, my brother and I were raised traveling back and forth to visit family when I was young.  So thanks to my parents, I now have a healthy, expensive, travel addiction.  I would live anywhere for a time to experience a different culture and people.  Seriously, anywhere.

You went to Herron School of Art & Design. When did you graduate?

I finished my degree in 2008.

You have a lot of work featured in a lot of places. How do you keep it all straight in your mind?

I make many lists and I have calendars everywhere.  It’s a little neurotic but it works for me.

How many pieces do you create a month?

This is a hard question because I am almost always working on more than one thing at once. Before a show, the number is high. In the off season, the number is more relaxed.  If not finished polished works, at the very least I try to draw something every day.

Do you work on commissioned pieces or solely on your own creative inspiration?

Both – I work on my own personal agenda as well as commissions.  I find one often inspires the other.  Sometimes it is nice to make something with someone else in mind as it motivates me all the more then I get to make whatever I want.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I find inspiration everywhere, but mostly from nature, and being outdoors.  I am captivated by the motion of life that exists around us, without us, and in spite of us.  Aside from that, I read, a lot; listen to music; ask questions and write.  I try to be open to finding inspiration even when I’m not looking for it.

Do you listen to music while you are working?  If so, what are you usually listening to?

I am always listening to music.  My hands don’t move unless there is music piping into my ears – that’s the deal.   I listen to anything, everything, but lately a lot of indie.  Bon Iver’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” has been on a constant loop on my iPod for a few weeks now.  That and Phoenix’s “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”.

What is the most memorable art show you have ever been involved with?

Every show is different, and reaches a different audience.  But I’d say Installation Nation last year was one of the most rewarding shows that I’ve ever been involved with.  It is not often that you make something and people see exactly what you hoped they would.  Brent Aldrich, who I collaborated with to make that piece and will collaborate with again this year, makes work dealing with a lot of the same ideas as I do, but in vastly different visual ways.  So working with him was really incredible because I had to step way outside of my comfort zone.  We ended up with a product that we were both so excited about and when the show went up, other people were excited about it too.  It was inexplicably rewarding and energizing to be able to connect so profoundly with people through our art, in exactly the way we dreamed about when we wrote the proposal.  It rarely happens that way.  Once you finish making something, it is no longer yours.  It belongs to those who look at it, bring their own experiences to it, and give it their own meaning.  And there is nothing wrong with that, it is the nature of the subjectivity of art.  But when people came out of the container and told us what they felt when they were experiencing the piece, it was really nice to hear that they were moved in the way Brent and I had hoped they would be.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I don’t know physically where I will be, and that excites me.  I know what I hope to be doing, but I am open to life’s surprises.  I hope to be somewhere new, having an adventure, making art, being thankful and loving life every day.

What do you want to be remembered for when this is all said and done?

I hope that people who know me remember me as someone who was always searching, never settled, and did all I could to live and love with passion – in art as in life.

I always let the bands that I interview get the last word. Why not you? Go.

Andy Warhol said, “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”  I half agree with him.  We don’t need art to survive; it’s not food, or shelter.  But it is necessary for the development of the soul, and transformative power of seeing the world in a way we have never seen it before and letting that experience change us.  It is the reprieve found in community and reflection that we were all created to be capable of experiencing.

My favorite stories are the ones where you never could have predicted, in a million years, what the end would turn out to be.  I’m in the middle of the story now and I can’t wait to find out what’s next.