I met and profiled artist Terry Rosenberg a few years ago but I never got to meet his life partner and fellow artist, Claudia Alvarez, until quite recently. Years apart, each came to Omaha for a Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts residency – he in 1982 and she in 2005 – and each found the city to be a nurturing place for their work. Terry made Omaha his second home, commuting between here and New York City. Then Claudia came and the two found each other. They reside in New York City now but keep a place in the Old Market in Omaha and get back enough to maintain a strong presence here. My profile of Claudia below keys off a new exhibit of her work dealing with immigration. She and Terry are among the many artists and creatives from elsewhere who have infused Omaha with talent and energy. You can find my profile of Terry and his work on this blog as well. You’ll also find a story I did on the Bemis Center. Look for a coming depth story on Bemis founders Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and her superstar artist husband Jun Kaneko and a much shorter, sampler story about the Kanekos. Their “Open Space for Your Mind” organization, KANEKO, and the multimedia Portals project that premiered there is the subject of yet another story.
Artist Claudia Alvarez’s New Exhibition Considers Immigration
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in El Perico
For years Claudia Alvarez has created ceramic figures of beleaguered children as a metaphor for exploring social themes of poverty and violence. For a new solo exhibition in Omaha she uses childlike images to examine the experience of immigration and migration she knows first-hand..
The Monterrey, Mexico native came to the States at age 3 with her mother and siblings. Her father preceded the family to America. She grew up in Calif., where she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California Davis and her master’s from California College of Arts. Working as an ambulance driver for UC Davis Medical Center, she transported seriously ill children and seniors,, who in turn inspired her ceramic figures that look old and tired, yet resilient.
A Bemis Center for Contemporary Art residency brought her to Omaha in 2005, where she met her life partner, artist Terry Rosenberg. The couple now reside in New York but they retain deep ties to Omaha, where they’ve been two of the brightest lights on the local art scene.
“We still have a place here in the Old Market and we come quite a bit and work here. There’s something about Omaha that brings us back,” says Alvarez, which is why she readily accepted an invitation to show her work at the new Gallery of Art and Design at Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn Valley Campus, 204th and West Dodge Road. Admission is free.
Her History of Immigration runs through April 9 and is part of a Metro residency she did. She’s previously exhibited at the Bemis and El Museo Latino in Omaha, the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.
“When I came to the Bemis Center it just dramatically changed my life. For the first time I had an infrastructure that really supported my work,” says Alvarez. “It was a life changing experience. Before that I was teaching at a university and when I got accepted by the Bemis I quit my job. I thought I would be staying three-four months and then move on. But I met Terry and that was it. Everything kind of worked out.”
Living in New York and having strong connections to Nebraska and California makes Alvarez bicoastal and intercoastal. As a Mexico native with a great curiosity for the world, she’s a global citizen. She exhibits widely. She did a recent residency in Puerto Vallarta. Other residencies have taken her to France, Switzerland and China. She has shows opening in Mexico City, San Diego, Brooklyn and Miami.
Residing in the cultural melting pot of New York and being so well-traveled gives her a broader view of immigration as a universal human experience. Her Omaha exhibition uses sculpted children’s shoes and waif-like immigrant figures along with paintings of her and her family’s arrival in America to express the longing and struggle of people trekking from one land to another. Bound up in the work are notions of travel, escape, exhaustion, destination, assimilation, exile, refugee. The shoes bear the worn qualities of a journey made and a life lived.
“I’m really talking about immigration on a human universal level, so that hopefully different types of people can relate to this issue. We all have our journey. There’s a history, there’s the fingerprint. When I make the shoes I make them in porcelain and with my fingers I put the indentations where the toes and the sole are. I really work intuitively and try to make them very childlike, so they evoke emotions of innocence and memory. Each shoe has had its own history or past.”
Her immigrants could be anywhere, anytime.
“One is a little girl squatting in red underwear, with about 50 shoes scattered and somehow moving in the same direction. Then there’s two standing figures that appear to be walking forward in a big open space. In the corner is a cowboy boot on its side, with holes underneath it. They all reference immigration in some way. Some of them reflect really personal things, like my own childhood memories.
“The two figures walking forward are a very subtle insinuation. It’s how the simple act of stepping forward can mean so many things. It means a lot, for example, to Mexicans, who step forward for a better life, and really to any group of people that need to step forward and move forward in some way.”
Alvarez’s two paintings are drawn from her own life. The self-portrait “Green Card” is based on a photo of herself as an American newcomer. The other is taken from a photo of her newly arrived immigrant family.
©”Green Card” by Claudia Alvarez, from her History of Immigration
Being in New York with its many vibrant, self-enclosed cultural enclaves has shown her that immigration doesn’t have to mean giving up one’s identity. As an immigrant herself she says it’s inevitable she dealt with the subject and she expects to explore the nature of ethnicity in future work.
“I’m really interested in the power of words and how one simple word like immigration is so loaded with meaning. It can bring out so many different reactions from people.”
She avoids overt images, preferring viewers to find their own meanings in her work.
“The more I simplify my work the more powerful it can be. It’s OK that people interpret it in different ways. It should evoke questions, reactions and dialogue.”
View Alvarez’s show during normal gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday Noon to 5 p.m. Visit her website at http://www.claudiaalvarez.org.
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