An Interview with Guillermo Trejo
Guillermo Trejo is a Mexican-Canadian artist and educator who pushes the limits of printmaking, and often breaks into the realm of sculpture. Although we would have loved to meet in-person to have a chat, during this time, we fell within the contraints of the pandemic safety protocols, and thus, he was gracious to sit down to answer some of our questions via email. Read more to find out about his process, influences and recommendations for others who have interest in this medium.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I am an artist in general, (I don't like the term multi-disciplinary). I like to make things! I am an educator, and a father. I think becoming a father has changed so many aspects of my personal life and my work, and I think it is these aspects that define me the most currently, especially during covid!
For hobbies, I am really obsessed with chess! I play online almost every day lol! (not good!)
I am originally from Mexico, I grew up in Morelia, a city in the center of the country, then I moved to Mexico City to start my undergrad at the ENPEG (National School of Plastic Arts) and moved to Canada 15 years ago when my girlfriend (now wife) started her Master's at Carleton University.
Tell me about your process and how different materials can help show complexities in your work?
My process is something that is always evolving, but if there is one thing that defines it is experimentation and a heavy DIY aesthetic. In other words, I like to make things by myself!
Regarding this, if you remember in the last response, the name of the university in Mexico is The School of Plastic Arts. Honestly I never understood the meaning of plastic when I was at that school, but now I get it completely! The idea is to find plasticity (flexibility)) in/of material and how materials are malleable.
Guillermo installing a work for a project with the City of Ottawa
Through following you on social media, I get the sense that your work is influenced by brutalist architecture in Ottawa. Can you tell me more about your interest in this?
WOW, that's interesting that you mention that because no one has made that connection before, or at least I have never heard about it, but yes you are right! Architecture is something that I really enjoy and that is definitely an influence. In the context of Ottawa, brutalist architecture is something that is always a form of inspiration. However, my favorite style is the early modernism or international style.
My interest in architecture Brutalist or international is the idea that something can be completely functional and aesthetically pleasing, regardless of the lack of decoration. I think what I find appealing is the utopic universality.
Interesting fact: Mexico has a boom of modern architecture from the 1940s to the 1970s after the revolution (1910 to 1020). Most of the public buildings from that era are really modernist in nature, so I think there is also a kind of nostalgia for me reflected on my taste for gray concrete and faux marble.
I’ve noticed a link between your printed work and the bold, angular chairs that you’ve been building. Can you tell me how you made the transition/connection between the two mediums?
The furniture, or functional sculptures, are something that kind of evolved randomly after a chair broke in my house and I decided that rather than buying a new one I will make one. After many years I am still trying to make a chair that will work! Lol! So what happened is that as I was building the chairs I realized that they have great sculptural qualities. The next step was to make these elements more obvious, and that is when I started to take reference from my drawings and prints. The next step was to basically print the chairs because the wood pieces worked just like woodcut plates. The connection was the use of materials and the transformation of the same from flat to tridimensional.
I believe that your background as a Mexican immigrant plays a big role in the work that you produce. Can you tell us how the differences in our cultures and ideologies have impacted your work?
I guess any immigrant regarding their condition will agree that immigration is hard, moving from a familiar place to a new one and for many learning a new language it is hard! I find that being an immigrant from Mexico, especially in North America, has a negative stigma; if it is not drugs and violence is illegal workers in the USA. All of these preconceptions obviously start to affect the way I think and consequently, how I think about my art. This was a big part of my work for many years, however, after I became a father my ideas started to change.
I think the main cultural difference between Canada and Mexico, is the lack of noise in Canada, and the time base gatherings. For example in Mexico, the public transport has music really loud all the time, the businesses have music, people speak louder, it is as if the noise was part of the person.
Gatherings in Canada are too planned and have time limitations. In Mexico a gathering could last hours. Christmas, for example, could easily be a 10 hour event! A wedding could be the same! Actually, there is something called "rotoboada" that literally means "party next day of the wedding".
I miss that. However, I REALLY, REALLY enjoy the quiet times that Canada gives.
How do you think Ottawa and Canada can encourage other immigrants to participate in the local arts and cultural scene?
That's a great question and one that I think is kind of easy to answer. Institutions should be welcoming to different forms of art and aesthetics. For example, years ago I visited a commercial gallery and asked how I could show there. The response was, "we only represent Canadian artists." I don't want to put too much attention on this, but it was obvious what she was trying to say was, "we show white Canadian artists that make Canadiana art".
I also think there is a level of responsibility for the artist to go and take the space that is necessary for them to be part of, like the murals of Andre or Kalkidan.
I think we have to normalize the fact that Canada is a multicultural place and we have many forms of art and artists from different backgrounds. Institutions definitely have to push to normalize diversity, something like what that the Ottawa Art Gallery is doing.
One more thing is art education. Just recently, I had a situation where a student of mine was working on drawings and he was using a really traditional western standard, to the point where the drawings look like very generic western-style and not his drawings. That's when I thought, "Wow," we have to decolonize how we teach and how we appreciate things.
“Trejo adeptly juxtaposes politics and protest with theories of design and aesthetics, re-positioning iconic imagery, symbols, and fixtures as propositional, and at times provisional, ways for understanding specific moments in history.” Can you expand further on this?
Well first, a good tip for artists: Ask a clever friend of yours that knows how to write, to write something about you so you look and sound fancier! Like the previous statement.
I guess the simple translation of that statement is, I find that everything has a political undertone, and I mean everything: Food, clothing, furniture... This is because everything is designed and based on necessity and capacity and design is not insular to the sociopolitical context.
Design happens as a reaction to these tensions. So, part of my interest as an artist is to think about how the relation design/art and politics are intertwined. For example some of my older works on letterpress were based on the idea of revolution and print matter and how the ephemeral quality of paper has a relation with the ephemeral quality of revolution. Most recently, I am interested in how we give meaning to symbols like the street signs that are completely abstract but we are educated to interpret them. I link this idea to my current work where I use yellow and black similar to a street or parking lot. Making the point that abstraction is not abstract but rather an alternative system of communication.
From the West Coast Series, N and X
How do you determine when an artwork is complete?
Depends on the work. If it is a print, sometimes I have a set plan like, print A color first, and then B color and then it's finished really quickly. Then it is more a decision to print past the cut or not.
For other things, sometimes it is more laborious. Sometimes I leave something as is and then I go back after a week or so and reassess. However in my case, I know that if I start to overwork a piece that I know will not work, then I stop right away. I like to work fast and have results fast, too.
Can you tell us about your biggest success or accomplishment in your art in the last year?
Professionally speaking last year 2020 I participated in a couple of good exhibitions out of town and got a grant, so the pragmatic response will be that. However, I think that my main success in 2020 was to pour leveling cement on the unfinished basement of my home (a true work of art to do that in the proper way ) where I have my press and studio. I signed the floor when I finished so now is art! I did this as an homage to my Abuelo, Guillermo Trejo (we have the same name) that was a construction worker. Going back to the question about architecture, [my Abuelo] was involved in the construction of many of the modernist buildings in the 1940s and 1960s in Mexico City. So that may be another connection.
We have several beginner artists who will read this blog. What is your best piece of advice that you can share about starting and maintaining a successful art career? Specifically, If someone wanted to start on a printmaking journey of their own, how would you suggest starting?
About starting and maintaining a career...
First, start making things but don't jump into the Instagram wagon or #wip... first develop your work and find some kind of topic. This may take time. If you can, take classes.
The most important thing to remember is that techniques and materials are not art. To be an artist is a much deeper thing, it is about self-expression and communication. So if you are only concentrated on the technique your work will lack something and that something is you in the mix. That's why there are so many self-taught artists that are great because they have the need to say something.
About maintaining... Well, that one is hard. In my opinion, you have to make a pragmatic decision, to basically find a time for your art practice and be consistent. Not only making things, but to be informed, like checking shows and meeting people, and reading about art. Also, APPLY TO EVERYTHING! But always remember that you have to be able to survive so you need to have a job.
In relation to printmaking, my first tip will be to have the space to work, it does not need to be perfect but space is really important. Take a class if it is possible, because there are a lot of steps and transitions in printmaking and it is good to know the proper steps.
Linocut is definitely the best technique to start, there are many materials that are home-friendly and Speedball has a lot of new inks for printing on material. From there you could jump to silkscreen, but the same space is important. It is important to know that silkscreen is really a mechanical industrial process, so there is not that much experimentation there, is mostly to reproduce, this is good if you want to make t-shirts or posters, etc.
What else would you like to add that might be interesting to our readers?
I think that's a lot already! I just want to say that if you are interested in printmaking I teach at the School Of Art, also if you have questions you can contact me on social media! I am also in a show at Ottawa City Hall in the spring with Claudia Gutierrez and Marissa Gallemit, if you want to check some of my work you can check Studio Sixty Six Gallery!