Ruby Chacón recently visited TANA and we were able to talk about her artwork and upcoming exhibition. For the last year, Ruby has been a frequent presence at TANA as she has been working with TANA cofounder, Malaquias Montoya. An accomplished painter, Ruby has been transforming some of her images into silkscreen prints.
TANA: How did you first start drawing and painting? What were some of your earliest creative influences?
Ruby Chacón: I started drawing with my crayons all over the walls and furniture, consistently reprimanded until I trained myself to draw on paper. In retrospect, drawing was my way of making sense of the chaos that surrounded me, my search to find where I belonged. I didn’t know it then, but I have always had a need to explore the creative fire within me that made my voice be heard. I didn’t want to be invisible or lost in the home where I grew up, where I had no bedroom or privacy to reflect. Everything was unpredictable, and at the whims and choices that others were making around me. Art made sense of it all; protected me, kept me safe. I would have rather faced the consequences of vandalizing the walls than to have my voice muted. This has become the core meaning of my work, to create a sense of belonging within myself and in turn, the world in which I belong. As life changes, my work changes, my internal exploration manifests in my paintings.
My earliest creative influences came from my uncle Covito who use to let us draw all over the walls wherever he temporarily sought shelter. Although I didn’t know the real meaning of his expressions (the power fist with the words “Chicano Power”), I later realized the significance of them. To find a place where you belong, where so much cultural oppression exists, is a statement of resistance. My aunt Ruby once told me that uncle Covito used to spend all his money on oil paints so that he had nothing left for food or shelter, and that is why he was always homeless. I realize now that part of our basic need is to nurture the spirit and dignify our existence, as much as it is to have food, water and shelter. To be alive isn’t just about feeding our bodies, it’s also about feeding our spirits.
TANA: The people featured in your paintings appear to be family or community members. What initially draws you to your subjects? Your painting style is realistic and yet you also incorporate bold colors and patterns to achieve this effect. Can you talk a little about your process?
Ruby Chacón: I grew up in a predominantly white, Republican state where the dominant religion was Mormon. I knew very early on that I didn’t fit into my own homeland where we were consistently being perceived and told we were the guests/trespassers. The first spark of anger that propelled resistance in me was when my three year old nephew Orlando Chacón died. I went to a “Stop the Violence” march with my sister and nieces. We listened as the victims’ names were called out across a silent audience of mourners. Not only did we know many of the victims, we knew the families. I saw my nieces’ faces as they internalized and normalized tragedy and victimhood. I saw it shape their sense of identity. Every cell in my body resisted. For the sake and livelihood of my community, I needed to find answers. I heard the first whisper of my ancestors calling to me. As the first in my immediate to family to graduate high school and college, I knew the only way to find our truths was to seek our story and translate it through painting.
Growing up with very little, we saw a lot of pain, but also felt a lot of love. We took care of one another through the harsh realities of life, and it made us strong and united. We were loyal together; we fought for each other. I needed to transition my formal education into the core values I learned growing up. I realized that the story we were receiving about ourselves was based on fears and stereotypes, and that had informed and shaped our identities for generations. That our identities were shaped by someone else’s story of us and the consequences of that story was too great to ever allow again. I started painting the people I love. I went in search of the counter narrative first by asking my grandfather Cosme Chacón where in Mexico we had come from. “No somos de Mexico, somos de aca,” was his reply.
The paintings you see on the walls are from different stages of my search for voice, resistance, and aspirations. They are all people who inspire, empower, and emanate spirit; whom I carry with me everywhere I go, and remind me of who I am. They are the embodiment of past, present, future that is sometimes difficult to hear, see, and feel. They are my search for that lost story and identity that took hundreds of years to strip away from my family and community. They are about reconnecting the severed past, repairing that harsh disconnection, and in turn, decolonizing the mind, body and spirit. They are about creating a sense of belonging within self and within the world; reclaiming and reshaping identity so that no one else will ever again be the victim of cultural oppression, but will have the vision to thrive. They are my late grandfather, sister, brother, nephew, and all those who matter and have always mattered.
My process starts first with a fire inside, something that impacts me. I wait until I am ready to paint about it, sometimes it’s immediate and sometimes it takes years to face. I am celebrating, healing, or angered over an issue that impacts the people I love. I am deeply connected to the human experience and am intrigued by the eyes of people. You can read a lot into a person by the way they hold experiences in their bodies through a gesture, the intricacies of the face, but mostly the eyes are the gateway to the soul. Once I see it as a painting, I start with a monochromatic study, finding the right composition in the process. I either work through models or photos or a combination of both. I then add details that I imagine and create. The painting of the Brown Beret young women, I added the background with graffiti that reads “JustUs” and below a reinterpretation of petroglyphs with symbols. If I don’t have a good photo of the person, and they have passed away already, I create with my brush ways to capture them, a very intuitive process. The photo I had of my brother was so small and blurry that I used a painterly way of expressing him. The image I used for the painting of my sister was also very blurry. I brought her to life in other ways, such as the Day of the Dead theme expressed on her face, juxtaposed with a tattoo that reads “Still We Rise” on her chest, and using her hair to whimsically inscribe “Chacones.”
TANA: What are some of the major themes of your work? In addition to family and community, you also depict people, scenes, and symbols associated with the Chicano/a experience, such as the Brown Berets, Danza Azteca, and indigenous imagery. What do you hope viewers take away from your paintings?
Ruby Chacón: The community works that I paint are about creating a sense of space and belonging that inspire and move away from cultural oppression. The women Berets represent voice and resistance. The backs of the women in “HerStory” are the underrepresented and/or unheard voice that we only hear about on the streets and within our communities. The feathers that are in the background carry these stories. The women on bikes are about disrupting spaces where we are not typically seen as participants. The latest series of Multigenerational Women Danzantes are about my own search for place and space. As a long time artist in a new environment I still search for home in the unfamiliar. I paint these women as a reflection of creating that space of belonging. They represent my ancestral spiritual practices that were denied to many of us in Utah. They represent an empowered sense of tradition where women play an equal role in the power structure. They break down patriarchy and inspire someone like me who is in search of home, belonging, and reshaping a sense of self where I often feel disconnected and displaced. They are my reminders of what it means to have a “home.”
TANA: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Ruby Chacón: Keep the fire lit, never allow anyone to water down your passion for who you are through your work. Be honest with where you are and embrace it. I often feel afraid, uncertain, disconnected, lost but my work keeps me questioning and grounds me. Even writing about my work was something I was putting off. I thought about it and realized that I am uncertain whether my work will be accepted, and since my work is a part of me I wonder, “Will I be accepted?” California is my new home and I bring along my lifelong experiences, crossing many borders not only geographically but within myself. I am uncertain whether I will be able to achieve a connection in California. This is a test of whether I am painting honestly, whether my work strikes a universal chord of what it means to be human. Whether my ever-changing sense of identity can touch another. So my last bit of advice to an aspiring artist is to stay open and vulnerable no matter how frightening the journey is and where your work will take you. Lean in and embrace it. Oh! And find mentors and surround yourself by people who believe in you and your work.
Thank you for this collaboration of space and continuous mentorship for the past year. I feel so ever grateful to find this space as it represents every sense of the word “comunidad.”
TANA: Thank you, Ruby! We’re excited to share your work with the TANA community.