We're always intrigued to learn about what informs and drives the work of our Pew Fellows. In our ongoing artist interview series, we illuminate the distinctive artistic practices, influences, and creative challenges of our Pew Fellows, who represent a diversity of perspectives and creative disciplines.
In this installment, visual artist Cesar Viveros and photographer Ada Trillo, both members of the Mexican diaspora, ask each other about their practices and discuss the process of parsing through difficult imagery, staying true to their own perspectives, and what motivates them to create.
Viveros’ murals, public art projects, and mixed-media installations address issues of gentrification, spirituality, acceptance, and belonging. Trillo’s photographs document the migration of people through Central America and the US-Mexico border as she travels alongside them through dangerous conditions.
“I know what to put out in the world when an image hits me in the stomach.”
Cesar Viveros Ada, much of your work is documentary, a form of visual denouncing, therefore we see you exposing difficult-to-watch imagery. What is your process for deciding what images to share with the world?
Ada Trillo I know what to put out in the world when an image hits me in the stomach, evoking intense emotion: happiness or sadness, despair, hope, or fear. For me, transmitting that emotion to the viewer is what art is in any medium, from painting to sculpture to photography, etc. This is a method that artists have used to advocate for social change for centuries.
I work in series, not by single images. My body of work on immigration has taken seven years, but each series is a chapter that I tell cohesively with photographs. When I present a series to the world, I use a very selective process to identify the twenty images that tell the story of what I witnessed. Each photograph has to be strong on its own but prompts you to ask questions and want to learn more, which brings you to the following picture. My aim is that when people look at the series, they will see a different face of the immigration crisis. Refugees are not people leaving their community or country for a better life. They are fleeing for their lives. As individuals, we can start advocating for change. I believe people do want to make a difference.
Trillo Cesar, which one of your murals is your favorite and why?
Viveros I think the mural I am most fond of (and miss, because it is already gone), is the one on the corner of Germantown and Girard (now covered with a new building). The theme was personal as it was about Mexican representation in Philadelphia. I painted some of our heroes, some of our struggles, and some of our desires, and I felt that it was a physical marker for our immigrant community. This mural had a particular quality. I included a large relief representing iconic elements of Meso-American cultures: two chieftains in Mayan regalia discussing important matters and the Solar Stone acting as a calendar. They were not just recognizable pieces I displayed with pride, but also functional educational art. That mural helped people understand the register of time and language used by ancient educational art.
Viveros Is there a particular moment in life that made you want to define your practice as we perceive it today?
Trillo Since a young age, I've had a binational life; commuting from my home in Juarez to El Paso to attend school in the United States. Throughout my life, I have witnessed migrants crossing the Rio Grande with makeshift rafts to work in the US who would then return to Juarez at night. Those memories have inspired and haunted me since childhood and instilled in me the knowledge and appreciation of how lucky I am. The migrant workers I met during my life at the border were honest and very hardworking. When Trump said the atrocities and lies about Mexican people coming to the US, I was sitting in front of the TV at my parents’ house. I was so angry. That is when I changed my practice from painting to social rights photography. I knew no one would believe it if I painted what I saw at the border.
On an even more personal note, I make my work for Amapola. Amapola was the woman who worked at my parent's house when I was growing up. She was the kindest person I had ever met and the one who had the most positive role in my upbringing. The man she was living with in Texas, the father of her daughter Patti, called the border patrol on her to get deported along with her child, an American citizen. She died of a stroke the year I graduated high school. I always wanted to do something to honor her memory, and now I do.
Viveros How do you envision the mechanism for changes in our society when exposing injustices with your medium?
Trillo When my work is exhibited at universities, there is often a panel discussion hosted along with it. This work gives new voters a different perspective from what they might have heard at home. Because it is in an educational space, they are more open to new ideas. The new generations will make the most impactful change for refugees.
“I want people to know they can be part of my work. Interacting with people is part of my creative process and any medium I use is an opportunity for interaction.”
Trillo If you could give another artist a piece of advice, what would it be?
Viveros Do not dismiss your inner voice telling you to stick to your own path. Nourish that ability to trust yourself. Cling firmly to your ideals, to the intangible world you alone can imagine because of your unique perspective. Retain what fuels your inspiration. Whatever it is, make it your central totem, reminding you that there is only one time to go for it and the time is now. There will always be plenty of people telling you the opposite. Stick with yourself. You are the one who knows yourself the best.
Trillo Where do you find your inspiration?
Viveros I find my inspiration in my memories, especially first-time sensory experiences from my distant past for which I saw, tasted, heard, smelled, and felt. In memories, I allow myself space for exploration, for interpretation, following the inquisitiveness of my subconscious. I materialize ideas into a tangible form that can fulfill my inner self and trigger curiosity in the viewers who find themselves questioning their own needs for physical markers of remembrance. I do not limit myself to a layer of paint on a wall. I let myself go by curiosity and it can lead to absurdities, like building a mound of dirt and coloring it with herbs I plant myself, even if it ends up being ephemeral. Inspiration guides the outcomes of the work, but the new experiences caused by these instances in my life will fuel the inspiration of the new ones.
We wrapped up the conversation by asking both artists two of our own questions.
What’s the one thing you want people to know about your work?
Trillo That it will keep evolving as I am.
Viveros I want people to know they can be part of my work. Interacting with people is part of my creative process and any medium I use is an opportunity for interaction. I hope people can sense that. By getting close to my work, you are entering into a field where you will be able to hear the many voices echoing in my installations.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia?
Trillo Philly chose me. My ex-husband was attending The Restaurant School, and I came with him at the age of 24, pregnant with my daughter Bella. The arts scene here is fabulous. Artists want to help other artists, and that is beautiful. Not all cities have that. Philly is where I have lived the longest in my life, where my kids were born, and where I have a strong community both personally and in the arts.
Viveros Why move somewhere else when I feel rooted in the “City of Notorious Public Art Display”? I like how the art scene is very diverse and seems to offer room for every artist who wants to be noticed. You can go to an opening at one of many local art museums and find in its collection the work of local contemporary artists or find a temporary side project by a Philly artist. At the same time, you can find pop-up art erupting on the street almost every day in any random street or venue. For me, Philly has a collective vision of bringing art rooted in our inherited culture to the forefront of the contemporary art world.