The words form a colorful rectangle on the dry-erase board in the pristine, white-walled art studio at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
"Alma. Identidad. Injusticia. Arte. Libertad," are among several dozen words written in neat, capitalized script.
"Soul. Identity. Injustice. Art. Liberty."
The words served as inspiration for "Uprooted Dreams," a singular, ambitious public art project by El Paso artist Margarita Cabrera.
"Uprooted Dreams" is a site-specific installation for the foyer of the new addition to the MACC.
And though Cabrera was awarded the commission from the city's Art in Public Places Program, she is not alone in the creation. Over an intense monthlong series of workshops, she has involved some 19 people from the Latino community and two master artisans from Oaxaca to make large-scale, colorfully painted wooden sculptures in the style of alebrije, the vibrant creatures found in Mexican folk art.
Together, the sculpture will hang in the foyer of the MACC's education center as a permanent installation.
All new public building projects in Austin have an art component. (The city's public art program allocates 2 percent of municipal building projects to commission or purchase art. Started in 1985, Austin's is one of the longest-running civic public arts program in the country.)
A few have incorporated an element of community participation, but with its long workshop process and cooperative creation "Uprooted Dreams" moves the concept of community-informed and participatory public art to a complex new realm.
"The telescope isn't so narrow. There are many different ways of making art," Cabrera says. "There are so many levels on which an artwork can exist. And I wanted something that would really speak to the mission and purpose of (the MACC) and what it represents to the community."
Participants in "Uprooted Dreams" are all immigrants from Latin America — people awash everyday in the emotional swirl that comes with cultural dislocation.
Cabrera choose the alebrije tradition as the project's essential form because of its familiarity, its origin in indigenous Mexican culture and its current ubiquity in the contemporary folk art market. Even the materials to make the sculptures were gathered from a public park with a long-standing significance to Austin's Latino community.
Cabrera received the $51,500 project commission in 2010 after a competitive selection process. (All public art proposals go through a lengthy review and interview protocol.)
Since then, she has connected with Latino organizations in Austin to recruit people willing to commit a month of their time to their first-ever art-making experience. And she traveled to Oaxaca where she convinced master alebrije artisans Ranulfo Sergio Santiago Ibañez and Lucila Sosa Luria to leave their considerably busy craft-making operation for a month's residency in Austin. (The couple employ 48 people in their Oxacan workshop.)
Last month, Cabrera gathered everyone and, along with guidance from a city arborist, combed the sprawling Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park in East Austin for fallen branches and tree limbs that could be fashioned into imaginary animals.
Since then, participants have spent hours learning to carve with the traditional knives and machetes used by alebrije artisans and mastering the intricately patterned painting technique.
"Recent immigrants are not in the position to be cultural producers," Cabrera says. "I think that this is creating a platform for them to be a part of the cultural dialogue in Austin. They're now a part of that cultural dialogue."
Evan Benitez, 27, is from El Salvador. His contribution to "Uprooted Dreams" comes in the form of a large fish, specifically a trout capable of powering upstream, he explained through a translator. Benitez said the trout holds significant personal symbolism. In order to get to the United States, Benitez had to make the arduous journey over three borders.
A busy father who works as a piano technician at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Francisco Chavez, 57, said he never had time to pursue formal art classes. Now, using his time off in the summer to take part in workshops, Chavez was blending mythic animals from Aztec creation myths to fashion his own symbolic critter.
"People call me the pianoman at work," says Chavez. "Now I get to show off my artistic side."
Cabrera's own immigration story begins in Monterrey, where she was born in 1973. She moved to the United States at age 11 when her father, a mining engineer, took a position in Utah. The family then moved to El Paso, again following her father's professional trajectory.
Along with much of her immediate family, Cabrera now lives in El Paso, where she shares parenting of her two young sons with her ex-husband, cellist Zuill Bailey
But after high school, Cabrera lit out of West Texas and headed to New York, where she scooped up bachelor's and master's degrees at Hunter College.
Cabrera immersed herself in conceptual theory, intrigued by the cerebral advancements of minimalist sculptors such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd.
"Absorbing everything about the New York art scene, the international art market was critical," she says. "But we learned nothing in art school about any non-European art-making or craft traditions."
Medium and message
Though Cabrera's work is critically acclaimed and widely acquired by both museums and private collectors (software billionaire Peter Norton is among her collectors; the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has bought her work), "Uprooted Dreams" is Cabrera's first public commission. (She has since a received a commission from the City of El Paso.)
And yet Cabrera has been increasingly involving others in her art-making process, which has grown increasingly complex.
Austin art audiences first gained an introduction to Cabrera's work through "Maquila," a 2004 solo exhibit at the nonprofit arts center Women & Their Work.
"Maquila" featured Cabrera's sculpture that cleverly confronted the maquiladoras, the vast factories just south of the border that churn out products for the international market yet employ Mexican workers for substandard wages.
Cabrera made a series of consumer products — a blender, waffle iron, coffeemaker, vacuum, food processor, toaster, among others items — by using soft, colorful vinyl fabric to replace the "made in Mexico" plastic components of each appliance. The floppy vinyl is instead sewn around the metal or electronic parts of each work-saving yet unusable device, sloppy threads dangling.
If Cabrera's critique of U.S.-Mexico economic relations is not necessarily new within the trajectory of Latino art practices of the past several decades, her whimsical, subtly funny and ultimately conceptual approach is refreshing.
Though they have an immediately appealing handmade and heartfelt quality, Cabrera's art objects are unmistakably subversive.
Selected in 2007 as a finalist for the $30,000 Texas Prize — the flashy, buzz-seeking competition sponsored by contemporary art organization Arthouse, now AMOA-Arthouse — Cabrera exhibited "Arbol de la Vida: John Deere Model 790," a full-size John Deere tractor handcrafted from clay and covered with handmade clay flowers typical of Mexican folk art. "Arbol de la Vida" proved a gorgeously rendered yet rebellious monument to the invisible hands of immigrant Latino agricultural workers.
Soon, Cabrera began deepening the way she used her art to explore the economic, political and cultural relationships between the United States and Mexico.
"I realized I can't just talk about these issues," says Cabrera. "I had to have the people involved in these issues as part of the work itself."
During a 2010 residency at Houston's Box 13 Gallery — a former Singer sewing machine showroom — Cabrera invited members of the surrounding Latino neighborhood to sew sculptural replicas of potted cacti and other indigenous desert plants out of discarded Border Patrol uniforms. Cabrera established the means to sell the cloth cacti sculpture, sharing the proceeds with her immigrant co-workers.
Shortly after that project, Cabrera initiated Florezca Inc., a fully incorporated entity under the auspices of which she instigates the creation and sale of traditional Mexican crafts according to fair labor standards with profits distributed per Fair Trade practices.
Florezca's most visible means is a taco truck that Cabrera has converted to be a roving art vending stand. Last year, as part of 2011 Texas Biennial, Cabrera set up the truck in front of Arthouse and sold Oaxacan black clay pottery.
‘In the public sphere'
Installation of "Uprooted Dreams" begins this week. Cabrera will pack up the house she has been subletting in East Austin for the past month and head back to El Paso. Ibañez and Luria will fly back home to Oaxaca.
A formal dedication for the piece will be held Oct. 13 as part of the MACC's five-year anniversary party. At the same time, a short documentary about the project that Cabrera has commissioned will also debut.
Laura Bucio, whose made an elegantly long serpent with imaginative antlers and a curling tongue, says she can't wait to bring her family members to see "Uprooted Dreams" once it's installed. "I love that everyone will be able to see what I can do, that I can make something like this."
Says Cabrera: "My work has found a home in the public sphere."
Contact Jeanne Claire van Ryzin at email@example.com or 445-3699