Written and Interviewed by Naya Clark
Laura Vela is a Chicana, interdisciplinary based in Atlanta. Vela’s welcoming charm without having to say much at all. Although limited words may give the first impression of being timid, it is offset by great hair, tattoos, and pizza socks, which she sported during our conversation.
Graduating from Kennesaw State University with a BFA in drawing and painting and minoring in Gender and Women’s Studies, her work strongly encapsulates her knowledge. Much of Vela’s art surrounds the topic of what it means to be a woman. Her other works incorporate her personal foundations such as growing up Catholic and mental health within her family.
Her work has also been displayed in other all female exhibits such as Beep Beep, Lady Fest and most recently, The Gathering, a gallery at WonderRoot featuring artwork from femme and non-binary artists.
It is hard not to get lost within the details of Vela’s work which often feels like a view into a fleeting memory, like her previous works “La Sagrada” and “La santa”, and “Buscando los Arboles”. Her work incorporates magical realism, a form of art that seamlessly integrates the surreal details of imaginary or fantastic scenes or images. Vela’s work included in the gathering are “Mujer” and “Buscando los Arboles”, which she elaborates in conversation.
NAYA CLARK: You take pride in your Hispanic roots, I want to know how your Hispanic heritage ties into your life and your art?
LAURA VELA: It ties into my life, it ties into my job. I work in a language inversion preschool in East point, so I get to teach in Spanish. I’m in administration there, but I teach an art class twice a week in Spanish to kids. We just went to Cuba with the elementary school, which was crazy.
CLARK: How old are these kids?
VELA: They’re in kindergarten to first grade. It’s a really small school, it’s a private school so it’s for profit. It’s still cool that their families think language is important.
CLARK: That sounds like a really rewarding experience. So you graduated from KSU, how was that?
VELA: It was great! I wish I was still in college. I loved college. I miss having art classes and deadlines to work towards. After college it’s a little hard because of the transition. Just making art for fun without deadlines was a little difficult, but I got more into the swing of it. I majored in fine arts, so I concentrated in painting and drawing, and minored in Women’s and Gender Studies, which is kind of a mixture of the kind of art that I do.
CLARK: What about Women and Gender Studies do you try to incorporate in your art?
VELA: I try to incorporate things that I wished I saw, or knew about, when I was young, especially the pride and Latina background that I have, because I didn’t see too much of that when I was a kid. I was experiencing it in my family, but I grew up in the suburbs.
CLARK: Did you live around KSU at the time?
VELA: No it was in Cumming, about 40 minutes north, and it was a very white town for a long time. Now it’s changing, and my younger siblings have more Latino friends. Which is cool for them.
CLARK: What are some things you incorporate in your art that you know now, but you didn’t know?
VELA: The first project I did when I saw “Oh, this is my style. This what I do” was back in college, when I did a portrait of my mother, and was reading a lot about immigrant artists and Hispanic culture that I got to read about in my Gender and Women’s Studies classes, so Chicana history and those kind of things. I did this portrait of my mom, and that was kind of a great way to pay some kind of homage and really make something from deep down somewhere, and the first time I’ve made something that really said something I was feeling.
But my newest stuff, I’ve been working on this series and it’s a mixed media series with acrylic, watercolor, and ink and it’s basically about catholic iconography, because I grew up catholic. I’m not Catholic. I’m not religious anymore, but just in traditions and different imagery really stuck with me, so the work is about catholic pageantry . So it’s a lot of different madonnas that are more abstract. And it speaks on the traditions that have really stuck with me as an adult, now that I’m not religious. I still find myself (crosses self) before I go in the car and before I drive and ask, what am I doing that to?
CLARK: So, It reflects how we form habits, even if we’re not religious, it can still stick with you. What kind of conversations do you wish to incite with your pieces?
VELA: I just want to make people think. Another example of a series, I used to do more realistic portraits of women holding things in front of their faces. It was about domesticity and the woman at home and what that means. So I just wanted people to think about, and see women as inanimate objects. It was just something I wanted people to think about and have conversation around. With this new series, I don’t know what I want people to think about. I think it’s something I’m still thinking about.
CLARK: The Gathering is an exhibit of artists by women and non-binary people. What does being involved in The Gathering, mean for you?
VELA: I think it’s really important, because the art world in general is pretty male dominated, I would say, it’s really awesome to see a show that’s made by women. It’s inclusive despite of race or gender and I think that’s very important in our community.
CLARK: What role do you think women play in art?
VELA: Women by nature are creators.
CLARK: I read that you base your work off of magical realism, which I’ve noticed a lot with Spanish artist; of course Salvador Dali, and as a writer, a lot of Spanish writers incorporate magical realism in a way that a lot of American writers don’t know how to do yet. What is your take on magical realism, how did you get involved?
VELA: I stumbled across it in college in my gender studies class, reading different books, and I thought it related to my work in a way. I started describing my stuff with magical realism in college, and I haven’t really thought about it in a while, but I think I’m still working in that field even with this new abstract stuff that I’m doing, just by the subject matter; the religious aspect, and the technical, tiny details.
CLARK: There are details, when you look at a piece that incorporates magical realism that looks real, but you’re trying to understand it’s place in the piece, but a lot of Spanish artists have mastered it, and I’ve always wondered why Spanish culture has nurtured these artists as opposed to here (in North America). Is it a way Spanish people and people of Spanish heritage perceive things as opposed to the Spanish outlook?
VELA: I feel like it also has to do with religious indoctrination. Not to say people here aren’t religious, but I feel that religion to Spanish culture is much more than going to church every Sunday. It’s super instilled in you in so many ways, and I feel like that spirituality, not even just the religious, but spiritually. I feel like that really connects with Latino culture in general.
CLARK: What does being an interdisciplinary artist mean to you?
VELA: I feel that I haven’t branched out into all that I want to branch out in, but it just really means working around different media, and different subject matters that I feel something about, and working with different women and gender studies issues. Not saying people make work about nothing, but making work that’s more than a pretty picture.
CLARK: I also wanted to ask what’s a piece that you have here (at The Gathering), and what was it like to create that piece from conception, to actually carrying it out?
At this point of the interview Laura and I stepped into the Gathering Gallery, where explained her pieces displayed at The Gathering, “Buscando los Arboles” and “Mujer”.
VELA: I have 2 very different pieces here. I have a piece from my newer stuff that’s more about religious stuff, and I have a piece that’s a photograph, so a totally different medium. It’s a film photograph that I carved into from a totally different series. This one’s called “Buscando los arboles”, which translates to “finding the trees.” So this one is actually an idea, but it has to do with some of my paintings as well. It’s about mental illness and mental illness in the Hispanic cultures. My mom is schizophrenic. It’s about when I was younger and she would have episodes, trying to remember that she’s a real person, and she’s my mother, and she’s not always like this. It’s just about finding that middle ground.
CLARK: Finding the middle ground despite someone’s mental illness, that’s interesting. So, you carved into this with what?
VELA: I don’t even remember. I carved into the final print, I feel like it was just a thumbtack. I just carved into it a different illusion. She’s looking for the trees, and I carved trees into it. I was making these photographs at the same time I was doing realistic paintings of women not showing their faces. Which is really supposed to be about not putting an identity on somebody that could be anybody.
CLARK: Where was this located?
VELA: This is actually in California, I think at a beach somewhere.
CLARK: What’s up with this aura over her head?
VELA: There’s so many different sides to mental illness. And in some cultures people think of people who are mentally ill with some sort of otherworldly insight, so it’s just a reference to that.
This one is mixed media, it’s called “Mujer”. It’s about the religious iconography that I was talking about, and this is the only one that I put an actual face on. It’s a lot of scratched out things, it’s kind of messy, and it’s about letting go.
CLARK: What kind of medium did you use in it, and did you see this before the final product? Did you know what it was going to be?
VELA: The initial shape of it, and the initial composition is supposed to mirror “The Last Supper”; so kind of wide with a central figure, but other than that initial idea, no. This was the last piece I made and I wanted there to be a face on it.
CLARK: How do you decide which pieces have faces and which pieces do not?
VELA: This one was the last one of that series that I made. So it just felt fitting to put it in. Without eye contact, you don’t know what the other ones look like. It was kind of like a progression.
CLARK: It was great to get to speak to you. Thank you.
VELA: No problem, thank you!