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Words and Pictures

Brooklyn Artifacts with Georgina Arroyo

An extended interview with Brooklyn artist Georgina Arroyo and artist and writer Hanna Brody.

H.B.: Let’s get started by you introducing yourself. Where are you currently? 

G.A.: I’m Georgina Arroyo and I am currently in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in my combination home/studio. 

H.B.: And you’re from New York, correct? 

G.A.: Yes, I am from New York. I’m from Ridgewood, Queens, on the Brooklyn border.

H.B.: You left New York for college right? 

G.A.: Yes I did. I went to school in Boston.

H.B.: And how was that?

G.A.: Boston was definitely not a place that I felt I could make my work forever but it was exactly what I needed at the time. I met so many great people there. My mom was actually really the one who said that I have to go away. I was the first person in my family to go to college and finish. She didn’t have that experience, and I think she had seen a lot of people who stayed in the city and didn’t spread their wings any further. New Yorkers can stay here forever but she thought I should see just a little bit more of the world, and it wasn’t even that far – 5 hours away! It was just to change surroundings. 

H.B.: So you see yourself staying in NY for the foreseeable future?

G.A.: I think the pandemic kind of ramped-up my thinking that maybe I should consider going somewhere else, but I always see myself coming back to New York, because it’s home. The great thing about living here is if you live here long enough it does always feel like home. There’s always someone you’ll see when you come back. I do feel like eventually I’ll end up here, but currently I’m thinking about grad school. I feel like it’s another great opportunity to explore and get out of the city again, in a controlled kind of way with a time limit. 

H.B.: Were you planning on grad school before the pandemic? Or have your plans changed because of it?

G.A.: Yeah actually, I was preparing to go for something else. I was thinking that I needed a “real job” to fall back on. I do feel like the pandemic changed my course. So many people who had secure jobs don’t have jobs anymore, so the idea of security just isn’t the same. It no longer makes sense for me to spend money to go to school for something that I don’t love. So yeah, it did change my mind.

H.B.: Our priorities have really shifted. I would love to hear a little bit about your background with art and how you started making, starting with childhood or whenever you’d like.

G.A.: I actually love answering and talking about this. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with other artists about how people skip over this part in talks or interviews because we think we’re talking to other artists, but it’s so good to hear because everybody’s different. 

I think I was always just a creative kid, always drawing. Like I mentioned, I was kind of sheltered, so I didn’t have that many activities that I could do. Drawing was great because I could just do it by myself and it would keep me entertained for a long time, so my mom loved that. I was the kid who would always draw instead of wanting to play basketball or something like that. I never really thought anything of it really, but eventually I did go to a specialized high school here in New York, LaGuardia. I really only applied to prove I was good enough, but it was such a big school and so different for me. It wasn’t a good fit. After that, I wasn’t surrounded by artists or creative people anymore, so basically for the rest of high school and the beginning of college I didn’t make art. I got back into art making when I was already at college. My school was a liberal arts school attached to an art University, and most of my friends ended up being in the art programs. I was studying art therapy so we would have some class overlap. I remember I had a meeting with my advisor and I said that I hated all my classes, and he said that if I hate my major I should switch. Up until that time I had only drawn with a pen or pencil on paper. I hadn’t explored materials. So when I switched I just used that time to explore and get to know other materials. I’m really grateful that my undergrad experience was one where you didn’t have to pick a very specific concentration. Then when I left school, I was in another situation where I didn’t know what I was going to do. So much of school was experimenting, which I love, but it was all over the place. It took me a while to get to know what I really wanted to talk about. 

H.B.: Can you tell me about that shift of discovering what you really wanted to make work about? 

G.A.: In undergrad I was working all abstract. It was great for experimentation and I really loved how people could come up with their own interpretations of the artwork. That really excited me, but for some reason after school it wasn’t coming as naturally. I was feeling like an adult for the first time, and again, figuring out my place in the world. It didn’t make sense for me to be making that kind of work anymore. It didn’t feel personal. I wanted to make work about myself, and I felt like for a long time I hadn’t done that because I was scared of how the work would be perceived. There was a time when I was younger when I made really personal works, and then got a critique that made me feel like oh my gosh, I’m never going to do that again. As I became older and not as scared of negative critiques, I thought that all I could do is just make work about something I know best, which is me. It became a way of getting to know myself. 

H.B.: Would you share some themes of your work, how they came to be, and whether or not they are shifting during this time? In summary, what is the overall evolution of your work?

G.A.: The main themes are neighborhood change, gentrification, and grief; a collective and personal grief. The evolution has been really interesting. When I first started talking about gentrification in my work I was being very literal – making a lot of maps and layering maps, tracking the change of a building through layering. It was pretty straight forward, but something about it didn’t feel fully realized yet. Then I began collaging and using actual images and photos. I have always really liked collage. I think it’s very experimental in itself. As it stands now, the work is more of a painted collage. There’s no real collage elements, but the composition may not really be possible in space. Oddly enough, I feel like those pieces, even without any actual photos being included, feel more personal to me.

H.B.: So these are more memory based?

G.A.: Yes, now I’m thinking about memory, how we take up space, and what space is left when we leave. I try to blend my memories with an imagined scenario of what it would look like if a place was abandoned and all the stuff was still there. I think that’s how memories feel. It’s more about capturing the feeling instead of depicting an actual memory. 

H.B.: When did you start thinking about gentrification, displacement and the changing of neighborhoods in this way? Did it happen when you went to Boston? Or when you came back to New York?

G.A.: During school I would come back periodically and notice that certain things were different. Friends would ask me to hang out and I would be like “why are we going there? People go there now?” So that was really weird. When I moved back a lot of my friends were not New Yorkers, but maybe people from Boston who had moved here – my circle was expanding. That was the initial spark, but what really got me more interested was the experience of wanting to move out of my parent’s house and realizing that in New York it’s so hard to find a place without having to live with other people. It was a feeling of being an adult and wanting to live in the place that I came from on my own, and build a life when I had a job, but it was not possible for me, or most people from here. 

My grandmother passed away a year or so after I came home. I really wanted to be an adult and have a New York experience in my own home, but I also wanted very badly to hold on to all the places that I had memories with this person. I wished that I could keep them as they were. I wanted to visit places that we spent time together but some were already gone. It’s jarring when you pass a place that was special to you and now it’s a coffee shop. It was difficult to see this change, and the works that I started were about trying to preserve the places that I had these memories in. 

H.B.: I can see that you are still using a particular setting in your current work, but you also are incorporating a more emotional and nostalgic aspect through added objects. Are you doing so to combine literal spaces with an emotional feeling?

G.A.: Yeah, I think that’s a really good way to put it. The literal setting is usually referenced from photos of rocks or building materials that are left around. Everytime I go on a walk I see another building being built and debris, so I’m using those literal images and adding in memories or keepsakes. It may be a window, and I can’t actually keep a window, but it’s a snapshot of the window from my childhood home. So they are little things that I want to hold on to, and instead of tracking on maps and marking the places, I’m now trying to capture the object, that are sometimes even symbolic. 

left: 2048 (2020), 24″x18″; right: Caution (2020), 24″x18″

H.B.: Would you talk a bit about your clay pieces? Are those a new project?

G.A.: Yes they’re new. I feel very excited about them. It’s like the energy bounces off of the paintings and then into clay. They help each other along.

People have referred to them as artifacts, and I really like that quality because even that alone encompasses the feeling of a place being gone. 

It’s a new process. I’m making molds, so it’s nice because sometimes I need a break from painting. The way that I work with my hands for the clay pieces is experimental and exciting. I see them as clay collages or paintings, because they’re laid out in the same way that I think about my paintings. 

Artifacts Series (2020)

H.B.: Have any of your themes changed at all in the past few months?

G.A.: I think the themes feel even more pertinent. Right before quarantine I was at an artists residency Upstate called Art, Letters, and Numbers. I made a series of smaller paintings that were more figurative and narrative, thinking about memories in my head that I was just getting out. Those feel really relevant now. It’s been hard to keep up with the work because together we are all experiencing a huge collective grief. People are leaving the city, and experiencing the grief of losing people, so in that sense I’m thinking about where my work fits into the current moment. I’m still working but happy to work at a slower pace with everything going on. It doesn’t feel like I need to push stuff out in the same way. I feel like doing some reflection is exactly what everyone needs. 

H.B.: Right, we’re rethinking our expectations for ourselves and our previous standards. 

G.A.: Yes, and working from home while making art has been a roller coaster of uncertainty. I was let go, then re-hired, so I’ve been realizing that the work will be there when it’s time. That’s actually what I love about having my studio at home. I live with it, see it everyday, and when it’s ready for me it will tell me and we’ll have a conversation. 

H.B.: So you’re working full time?

G.A.: Yes, from home. I work as an Arts Education Manager. Due to the city budget cuts the position was up in the air. I ended up being let go and then re-hired for the Summer Youth Employment Program. It employs youth ages 14 – 21 over the summer. I’ve really enjoyed it, though it takes its own toll on my creativity because a lot of my energy is spent on lesson planning. I’m teaching Arts and Activism which is creative. 

H.B.: Does teaching feed into your work?

G.A.: I never thought that it did, but I also never would have characterized my work as “activist work”. However lately, I’ve been having more friends who are educators reaching out to me and say that my work is really important and that they’d like me to talk about it. So yeah, I think it does go into the work. 

It gives me an opportunity to explain to a bunch of youth that activism is not just whatever is going on in the news, but whatever matters to you. Sharing personal stories is a form of activism. I’m sure you’ve seen this chart with all of the possible ways that you can help a social movement, and it doesn’t have to be that you’re on the front line all the time. Telling your story can be radical. In a sense it’s building confidence because the feeling that I shouldn’t be making personal work is so out the door now. Hearing personal stories can sometimes change people’s minds more than numbers and statistics. 

H.B.: Right, and you don’t know if the students are reading the news or what’s happening at home. So, it is actually a very important educational tool to think about the themes in your art and how they can educate students. 

G.A.: Exactly, and housing in general is not talked about much in the news. Unless you are engaged in a community of people fighting for everyday housing rights and anti eviction, you may not know about it or realize what you can do if it’s happening to you, like being loud about it. If you’re someone who doesn’t know anything about it, or you feel neutral, maybe you need to hear a personal story to understand the situation. 

H.B.: Right, information sinks in for people in so many ways and that’s an important role for artists to take on – being one vehicle. 

G.A.: Yeah, I’ve been thinking alot about the purpose of art right now. Why are we doing this with everything happening in the world? At the beginning of the pandemic it felt a bit more useless. I felt very helpless, and even though I was productive and making a lot, I didn’t think any of it mattered. But now, after this huge resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement, I think we are realizing that we can fight a lot of battles at one time. I feel better about how artists can fit into that. For me, it’s just telling my personal story. It’s thinking that I’m not being a jerk by posting my artwork, because there is interest and finally a desire to listen to a lot of people’s stories. I see a lot of change already from people in my local community, from people who were not always locals. That’s great, so it feels like it can only be a good time for artists to share if it means more of that happens. 

H.B.: In particular your work, because it is community based and this is a critical time for people to be engaged in the community that they’re a part of.

G.A.: Yes, and that’s where I’m seeing people wanting to be engaged in ways that I hadn’t before. I feel like we’re on some momentum so keeping those stories going is important. The momentum can change, but it can’t stop. 

H.B.: Has this been a part of your thought process in wanting to go back to school for studio art rather than something else? 

G.A.: Pre-covid I was actually thinking about going back for Business Psychology. A common problem at work places for me has been a lack of empathy. There are solutions to this, so I want to understand why people do what they do in the workplace. It was a curiosity, but also there would be a clear career path with that degree, and available jobs. I enjoy my job and the work that I do because I like working people and managing a team. I’ve been lucky to work with teaching artists, so all creative people. Artists come up with creative solutions while most people in management jobs and high up business positions are not thinking creatively, so I saw a hole there. 

H.B.: Where are those thoughts now?

G.A.: I still am very interested, but I think I was pushed to change tracks because there’s a momentum with my work right now, and if I derailed I wouldn’t be giving myself the opportunity to deeply explore it.  It was either do this and commit to work full-time jobs and the same making schedule I’ve had, or I give myself the opportunity to try and go to grad school for studio art and get a good two years of making. After that, who knows, but it’s at least two-three years of just making work. 

H.B.: I saw you started @budgetgeenius on instagram, an account to help artists with their finances. Would you like to talk about it a bit?

G.A.: Before the pandemic I kept looking at the amount of money that I had and feeling so stressed, even though I had a job, so I didn’t know why. So quarantine gave me some time to track goals and dive deep into my finances. It’s interesting how many artists want to learn tips about money, because people in the arts don’t talk about money that much. Collectively we just understand that we’re broke. So people have been interested in the fact that money is not stressing me out anymore, and it’s not! Which is really awesome. 

I need to be in a good head space to make my work, and money was not allowing for that anymore. I felt very stressed about it all the time. I don’t have any more money now, it’s all the same amount, but it’s about planning and feeling that I’m in control of it which has relieved a lot of stress. I’m excited that other artists want to follow along. I started @budgetgeenius because one of my goals is to pay off my student loans and I think people were curious about that. I also may want to buy a house someday. Three years ago I would have just said it’s not going to happen, but now I want to know that I could have the option if I choose. 

H.B.: Do you get to integrate any of this into your job?

G.A.: Right now I do because it’s career oriented. I love being able to give advice about salaries to students who may not have anyone else to tell them this information. My first full time job was at a museum, and I was so excited, but not making a livable wage. I wish someone had told me to negotiate. I think I could have saved myself a lot of stress, but now it’s good information to share with young people. 

H.B.: I saw a piece on your website, Project Mapping Civic Kids, is this something you made with or about your students? 

G.A.: That was a project that I did for the Children’s Museum of the Arts while working there. There was a campaign to get kids involved in civil action and social issues. Every month we had a different theme and project. Global partners were also doing the projects with their students all over the world. At the end, the curator wanted to show the work that had been done in the past year in a visual way, and I was commissioned. It was when I was working with more literal mapping, so I showed the twelve months of the year, the project done that month, and where it was done. It was cool to be able to see the projects being done in other countries and the different interpretations. 

H.B.: I love how you’ve been able to visually represent social practice work. As a painter, to integrate social practice into the same project can be a challenge. 

G.A.: Yeah, and I was happy to get to do something that involved my personal art and teaching because sometimes the two don’t overlap. This can be for the best, depending on what you teach.  

H.B.: To bring it back to your current work, are you shifting away from the social practice aspect and instead making your paintings encompass these feelings and ideas to stand alone?

G.A.: Yeah definitely. I’m focussed more on the paintings now having an emotional response rather than a response that clearly is presenting the social issue behind it. I feel more dedicated to exploring the paintings and finding ways to get that emotional response. As things are changing in the world, I look at what emotions come up and find their way into the work. Also, making more of the clay pieces and experimenting with evoking some more emotion there. They are so different from each other but play off of one another in a really interesting way. I am excited to make more because I would love to show them together to put each other in context. 

H.B.: So do you not think that it’s necessary for the audience to understand the social context of your work? Is your goal for viewers to be able to have the same emotional reaction without it? Is that what the artist statement is for?

G.A.: I do feel like that’s where an artist statement comes in for me. Currently, what’s most important is the viewer’s experience with the work – that emotional reaction or discomfort or whatever it may be. I’d like them to feel a bit of comfort, confusion, nostalgia, and sadness. That is more important to me because that’s encapsulating the way that neighborhood change feels and a collective loss of a place and the people in those places. I’d much rather have an audience feel that, and then if they go back and read the artist statement and they realize why they are having this feeling then that’s great. If they don’t read the artist statement it’s also fine because they experienced the feelings. That’s most interesting to me right now. 

H.B.: This sounds like a really exciting place to be.

G.A.: Yeah it is! All of the time working on grad applications is really just a lot of time dissecting your own work. It’s really exciting and has shown me that there is space and more to be done. 

H.B.: It’s nice to hear some optimism about a place for artists in the future that we want to see. It can feel contradictory sometimes.

G.A.: I’ve been thinking about that so much, but I also think if I can’t envision a world with artists then what the heck am I doing. It’s our job to figure out where we fit and how we can be helpful or useful because it’s what we do. It reminds me of what Catherine [Haggarty] says, that she doesn’t like to say “an art practice” because it’s her life. It’s really true – these are our lives. This is what we do at the end of the day to be human. If we could do it all the time we would because it’s what makes us who we are. 

About the artist: Georgina Arroyo is an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Georgina’s work focuses on mapping, neighborhood change, and personal connection. She was born and raised in Queens, NY and received a BFA at Lesley University College of Art & Design in Cambridge, MA. She now works out of her studio in Bushwick. Bio taken from: http://www.georginaarroyo.com/about.

About the writer: Hanna Brody is a Brooklyn based artist. Her art mirrors the emotional states of the people she’s surrounded by and temporal impermanence. Find her work at hannabrody.com and follow @hbrods for more.