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In past years, MINT concluded its Leap Year artist residency with a final group show. However, when organizers announced the fellows for the 2015-2016 cycle, it came with the news that every participant would have a solo show. For Leap Year resident Natalie Escobar, this will be her first. Transitioning from group shows to a solo show is a big step for an emerging artist, one that initially made Escobar nervous.
The challenge of a solo show has energized her as a result of focusing on her artistic practice in the year-long residency. Escobar explains, “Now I’m flooded with ideas related to this body of work,” and she’s already conceptualizing her next show. Escobar graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta with a BFA in painting in 2013 and was the recipient of the 2016 Emily Cameron Art Scholarship. Her show, Falling Stranger, will be at the Flatiron Building in Atlanta November 11–December 3, 2016.
ArtsATL: Your recent work is all about you trying to figure out who your father is and was. How does empathy play into this series?
Natalie Escobar: I’ve been reading a lot about the history of madness and how the mentally ill are treated. My father was mentally ill. Mental care has come a long way. In the past, patients endured terrible conditions: they’d be thrown into a room, chained by their feet, barely fed and whipped. Today, I feel that people turn their heads at somebody going through an internal battle. I do think that empathy is the foundation of my work and that’s why I’m doing this, to empathize with his life.
ArtsATL: Have you learned anything about yourself through the process?
Escobar: Totally. One of my biggest fears is to figure out that my genetic makeup will cause me to become mad also.
Regarding image-making, I’ve learned a lot about myself. Before I was painting from photographs. Using a new process I’ve figured out a way to create imagery without having to rely on outside sources and just paint from my imagination. That’s basically what these paintings are for me, to break out of old habits and create a new process for how I approach a painting.
They start out as a collage of shapes made from masking paper, and I put tape on it to make a kind of sticker. I arrange them on the canvas, and then I go back into the work with an airbrush. It’s a good way to let me see the finished work in advance. It was only recently that I became comfortable enough to paint directly on the canvas.
I feel like the subject matter is a personal thing that I’ve always thought about that I’m finally putting into visual imagery. Painting for me, in general, has always been learning about the process.
ArtsATL: This series started as passport pictures of him, right? How did the series evolve in these paintings?
Escobar: I started the ink drawings, and they got mundane and repetitive. When I got my airbrush, it changed things up. I was playing with different ways to mix it up and test what I can do. At the end of the passports, I started doing images of things I kept thinking about, like the sunflowers for some reason — which sometimes I think of like self-portraits, which sounds so cheesy.
Then the puppet came, and the idea was to have him be my model and appear in all the paintings. That felt kind of cheesy and forced, so then they became landscapes with different symbolic imagery that I created. I don’t think they all have a fixed meaning, at least not yet.
They all formed organically, like that one. Before the grate was there, it was just all leaves, and I was going to have the figure intertwined with the leaves. Then it seemed like just the perfect opportunity to make the grate.
ArtsATL: It seems to me that the process and the subject matter aren’t so distinct because you are using your imagination as a tool to re-create these histories and relying heavily on that fantastical version of reality.
Escobar: I’ve been thinking a lot about the airbrush, in general, this is my first time using one. The distance that I get between myself and the painting is something that is cool. It ties back to the distance between me and the canvas and me and the subject matter instead of just going straight in with a brush.
ArtsATL: I would like to know more about the repeated elements you use throughout the works, like the lush foliage rendered in black and white that consistently appears throughout the body of work.
Escobar: So the black and white — I was trying to learn how the airbrush worked. Reloading it every time you want to change the color is a pain. It also kind of works, because I think of these like imaginary psychological mindscapes. Since these landscapes are imaginary, I feel like putting color in them would kind of take away something. The color would make the paintings seem more illustrative. The monochrome gives them a mysterious quality that I like. I do want to start adding temperature to the painting, to give it more of a distinct place.
The imagery is something I pull out of what I’ve been reading and memories of stories I’ve been told about my father. It’s kind of like an intertwining of both things. The environment, in general, it started out by thinking about something overgrown and taking over. The tropical landscape alludes to the place where my father grew up in El Salvador. That’s also a place where I’ve never been that I totally feel disconnected from — I don’t know the language, I’ve never been there, no contact whatsoever. So there is that separation. Sometimes I look at photographs to get some variation on leaf structure or else I’ll just paint the same leaf shape over and over.
ArtsATL: Could you tell me more about the chains, grates and prison themes that are present?
Escobar: With the chains, I was thinking a lot about the support that the mentally ill need. It’s also this thing that kept them bound in their mindset. The idea of support is intriguing, something I want to explore more.
And then the grates; I was thinking of these places where people don’t ever go — out of sight, out of mind. I feel like how any mental disability is. It’s like if you don’t see it, is it there?
ArtsATL: Do you have feelings of disconnect with your cultural heritage as well? [As someone who is also half-Latino] I’ve experienced the feeling of not fitting in, not quite feeling quite Latino enough. As well as politically with all the anti-immigration sentiment feeling very anti-Latino. What has been your experience with your cultural heritage?
Escobar: I didn’t realize the color of my skin and how people perceived me until later in my life. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and there is a huge population of Latinx there. In middle school, there were these girls who were Tejanos who wanted to be my friend. I got to eat lunch at their table, and I felt so cool until they suddenly shunned me one day. They realized that I didn’t know Spanish. They started to make fun of me, and I didn’t understand because I didn’t know what they were saying. I didn’t realize it until later. I experienced that a lot.
I just recently, within the last five years, found my family on Facebook and got in contact with them. El Salvador is a dangerous place to be right now, which is unfortunate because I want to visit, learn more and meet the rest of my family. I do feel disconnected from them.
ArtsATL: How has it been being a part of MINT Leap Year Program?
Escobar: It’s been such an amazing experience. I love everyone involved. My mentors, Nick Madden and Ben Steele, are both great. I love Nick’s intuitive way of thinking about materials and all of the possibilities. Ben is so all about painting, which I love because I’m all about painting as well. I do want to steer towards being more interdisciplinary. Nick is great about pushing that. I feel lucky.
ArtsATL: So for you, has the mentorship been the most influential part of the residency?
Escobar: Having a studio has been the most influential part. Before this, I had a home studio, and it was so hard to stay focused. Netflix is always right there; my cat is right there, and my bed is in the other room. I like having a destination to go and work undisturbed. I can just unplug because there’s no internet in this studio. The studio has been a dream come true.
Working with the other artists [in Leap Year] has been fun. We did that group project on Tybee, and they are making great work. We are just really supportive of one another.