I ran into Juan Barroso’s ceramic art in a recent copy of Ceramics Monthly. I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in a discussion about his work and influences. Juan was gracious enough to spend some time answering my questions.
Juan’s labor-intensive artwork is intertwined with his family story and personal identity as a Mexican American. His personal recollections of working in clay with his father is very touching.
JW: I see you studied studio art at the University of Oklahoma. How did you select that program?
JB: I went to OU as an accounting major. From the start it looked like a place that valued ethnic diversity. After my first year, I was realizing I was unhappy with my choice of major. There was a strange coincidence on my way to buy a baked potato. Several art teachers were standing by desks outside the art building looking at art portfolios or inviting students to enroll. I mostly remember showing photos of my drawings to Jason Cytacki. I can’t remember what he told me, but it made me switch majors. On that day, what had only been a hobby became my life.
JW: What attracted you to ceramics?
JB: After learning how to paint, I took a ceramics class thinking I’d be working with small ceramic tiles to “paint” pictures. I had no idea it meant mugs, vases, and sculpture. The day I walked into Stuart Asprey’s classroom, I saw all these pots on shelves and realize I’m in the wrong place. I was planning on dropping until I saw how excited Stuart was about ceramics. I stayed out of curiosity and a few weeks later I realized how rewarding it is to drink or eat out of something you made from scratch.
Clay is a humble material that is essentially just eroded rock, but after seeing Aztec and Mayan vessels I saw that despite its fragility, clay can become a permanent record of culture.
When my dad was a kid in Mexico, he went to a school run by nuns. He was a lefty and they would tie his left arm behind his back. The nuns thought using the left hand was a sign of the devil. My dad was forced to work in his father’s fields and would show up to class with clay on his clothes. Those nuns called him a dirty devil child, and my father grew up ashamed of who he was and the clay on his clothes. He moved to the U.S. and worked in every construction job he could find. When I was old enough I started helping him build fences. I wasn’t as careful so digging fence post holes left me covered in mud. Throwing on the wheel leaves the splatter of clay on my clothes that takes me back to those days of building fences.
There is an irony in making beautiful works of art out of a material that at one point had stained my father’s clothes and damaged his psyche. To make a positive out of a negative gives me joy. A few months ago my dad helped me make some porcelain water-jugs, and his clothes got clay on it. On our walk to get lunch I pointed at his pants and asked him, “are you not embarrassed to go to the restaurant like that?” His reply was, “what, it’s evidence of hard work.” Two happy clay-covered lefties went to eat that day, and I wondered if those nuns turned in their graves a bit.
JW: Can you describe your early ceramic work and how it has changed over time?
JB: The early ceramic work that I am proud of included mostly patterns from Aztec textiles and indigenous stone sculptures. Before that work, I was afraid to depict what I wanted.The most significant turning point in my work was when my parents became legal residents, which coincided with my first ceramics class. My grandparents and all my uncles and aunts became residents while Reagan was president. All except my mom because she was married. Before their resident status, I lived in fear of their deportation and of showing my Mexican heritage. I was painting random cats, mountain lions, wolves, boats, and turtles.
As soon as my parents became legal residents, I felt the freedom to show where my family came from. I started with their pride in an indigenous past, and I made pieces inspired by the poems of Nezahualcoyotl, a pre-Columbian ruler, warrior, architect, philosopher, and poet. I then moved on to Mexican music and food.
The first trip my family took to Mexico after they received their residency, I found myself taking photos of all the professions people were doing to survive and provide for their families. Those photos found their way into my oil paintings and my paintings on clay. I would say that first trip was another turning point in which I decided my work would be about Mexican labor and humanizing the immigrant. I focused on what immigrants are doing to survive, which has included the dangers of the border and labor within the U.S.
In graduate school I focused on marrying the painted image with a form or vessel that is also related to the content of the image.
JW: How would you describe what you’re doing with your ceramic work? What are you striving for?
JB: I would say I’m searching for the successful marriage between two-dimensional imagery and three-dimensional form. I believe that hybridity can also reflect a bilingual and bicultural identity. With the current political administration in America enforcing immigration policies that dehumanize and force immigrants into the shadows, recognizing an immigrant’s humanity is vital. Notions of “us” or “them” deteriorate and it becomes clear that most of us are working and fighting to provide a shelter and a decent meal for ourselves and often a family. I hope to pay homage to my people and the dignity with which they work to make a living.
JW: How did you come to pointillism technique?
JB: At first, pointillism was the answer to a technical problem. When I used watered-down underglaze or mixed different tones of grey underglaze to paint images and applied glaze, the end result lost clarity and contrast of values. It looked hazy and light.
Images with dots, on the other hand, moved closer together as the piece shrank during the firing process and as a result got darker. With a background in drawing and panting, keeping the full range of values made pointillism the best technique for images on clay.
I started using watered-down underglaze after I realized I did not have to apply glaze over my images. By then, I had established my preference for dots. My process is as important to me as the creation of the final image. Pointillism is a time-consuming and labor intensive technique, and after years of doing this my wrists, fingers, and neck hurt more frequently. My hands have been getting more shaky, but I can’t think of a better way to show my respect and admiration for my people than with labor of love and time invested.
JW: Why ceramics as a foundation for your images?
JB: My choice to use clay as a canvas is influenced by the images found in Mayan and Aztec ceramic vessels, the patterns of Mata Ortiz pottery, and Talavera Poblana vessels. Images and pattern on clay has been present in Mexican culture for hundreds of years, and I find joy in being a part of that history. It keeps me connected to my roots.
JW: Where did the sculptural ideas come from?
JB: I realized I was spending 30-60 hours on an image that was placed on a mug or cup that did not relate to the image very well. I consider the forms my weakness and the area that needs the most improvement. Although painting a mug was acceptable and I still do it, I wanted to place my images on a form that would help carry the same message as the image. I wanted the image and the “canvas” to work together.
For example, I see the water jug as a symbol of the dangerous journey across the desert. I saw a video of border patrol officers dumping out water jugs that were left by the humanitarian group No More Deaths to prevent deaths from dehydration. A slip-cast water jug felt like the appropriate form for an image of razor wire from the border or a caged child. Both the form and the image relate to the undocumented immigrant’s experiences at the border.
Another example could be “Honoring the Janitor”, a coil-built mop bucket I painted with the image of a single janitor mopping. I made it to honor the labor of the janitors in school, labor that may often go unnoticed or unappreciated. In high school, I noticed many students would ignore the janitors, walking past them as if they were invisible ghosts. My mother used to clean houses, driving around with a bright pink sign on the back car window with the words “Lucy’s House Cleaning Services.”
Because I noticed a lack of respect for the janitor in school, I was embarrassed of that sign when she’d pick me up from school. Years later, while working the closing shift at Michaels, I was mopping the restrooms as clean as my mom would have left them. I realized the dignity with which she worked to provide food and a decent education for my sister and I. I made that sculpture to elevate the mop bucket as well as the labor that it is used for.
JW: I see a few pieces on your website with a spot of dark red, but otherwise your work is almost exclusively B&W. Have you always worked in B&W?
JB: I have mostly worked in black and white. There is a feeling of “in between-ness” among some Mexican Americans. The feeling that we are too Mexican to feel completely American and too American to be just Mexican. I get the best of two worlds but am rooted in neither. At times this is reflected in my work. The black and white imagery can feel like a ghostly and faded memory, as if the color and beauty of Mexico is barely out of reach.
I have gradually started to use blue, which I associate with Talavera Poblana pottery. My blue is still a desaturated blue, and not the bright opaque blues of Mexico’s pottery and wall tiles. It exists in this “in between” state, a symbol of my bicultural and bilingual identity.
The technical benefits to black underglaze include a higher contrast of values in the images. I’ve tried red a few times. The images were not as clear and so red is sometimes only used as an accent of color. In the more political imagery, I associate the color red with the deaths of immigrants.
JW: Can you tell me about some of your collaborations?
JB: The collaborative pieces I posted on my website were a result of Companion Gallery’s Collaborative Companions show for NCECA in 2018 and Collaborative Companions II for NCECA in 2019. We were invited to collaborate with two other artists drawn at random from a pool of the participating artists. The invitation proposed collaboration as a chance for cross-pollination, discovery, the hopes of a visual conversation and perhaps a challenge to our way of thinking. Collaboration was a chance to look at your work in a different light. We were asked what we might learn from working with other artists of a different generation, gender, race, orientation, or religion. The goal was a visual conversation, a dialogue instead of two consecutive monologues.
Images I painted in these collaborative pieces were inspired by conversations with these artists. We got to know each other and we discussed our differences and similarities. What I painted was what we had in common, what reflected both of our experiences. These collaborations inspired me to search for better and more challenging forms as well as consider image placement.
JW: You reference your Mexican-American background in most of your work. How has your background influenced your work?
JB: The freedom to reference my Mexican heritage in my work is something that I only dreamed of at a time when my parents were a speeding ticket away from deportation. I was too scared or paranoid to express who I am and the values my parents passed down. With my family being either citizens or residents, I think we have now reached some version of the American dream. There was a time in Mexico when we were content to at least share an egg. I get to celebrate the work that got my family where they are now, and I’ve found the ceramic community tolerant and accepting of each other’s differences.
At times that background I celebrate also means a great pain when I see caged children and the misuse of funds by detention centers. Undocumented immigrants are willing to risk their lives for a chance at a better life. I must admit my family got lucky and making my work is a privilege.
JW: Do you anticipate any significant changes to your work – or your ability to work – arising from the Coronavirus?
JB: The biggest change so far is not having easy access to a kiln for firing. I bought a new test kiln that arrived defective, and the store that sold it is closed and probably drowning in emails. Things won’t be easy for a while, but I’m happy to still paint the pieces I have bisque-fired so far. I believe I will be painting on canvas significantly more, as well as weaving as a way to cope with current events.
JW: Where is your work available to view or purchase?
JB: My work is on display on my website (www.juanbarrosoart.com) and available to purchase at Companion Gallery’s website: www.companiongallery.com
JW: What’s next for you?
JB: Now that I have my MFA at UNT, I need to figure out a way to keep making work, which includes setting up a studio space.I want to use the rest of the year to learn more about glaze chemistry, 3D modeling and printing to become a better candidate for teaching positions. I also want to read more about Latin American history.