Sparking Conversation with Georgina Arroyo
Beyond self-expression and adding beauty into the world, one of art’s greatest purposes in making statements. Using our creative voices to start conversations helps to expand minds through trading perspectives. Multidisciplinary artist Georgina Arroyo has been successful in creating work that challenges the way we think and conduct ourselves. We chatted with her about self-image in the age of social media, men who send shitty text messages, swimming through the endless sea of talent in the New York art scene and maneuvering through art hierarchies as an artist who is both a woman and person of color.
UC: Your series “Cut & Paste” explores narcissism and self-image in the digital age. As women we are acutely aware that our looks and visual presentation play a huge role in how we are perceived and even the privileges we are afforded. Could you tell me a bit about how you came to working on this project and your personal relationship with self-image?
GA: I started working on it mostly because I realized I was having a lot of days where my self-esteem was low. Whenever I had a bad self-esteem day, I’d take a selfie, upload it and it would get all of these likes. It made me wonder if what I see is really what I really look like and does it matter that people see this constructed image of me. It’s kind of like working through my own personal insecurities and self-esteem. I’ve always had pretty good self-esteem but as I get older I feel like especially with the rise of social media, I see so many people that look perfect all the time. I started to wonder, is it really that I look so terrible or is it this skewed idea based on what I’m seeing? I began compiling the good photos and the bad photos to breakdown the perfect image that I was consistently posting.
UC: It seems like with social media that is kind of what everyone is doing. Everything is very curated and contrived. Everyone is trying to look a very specific way. It’s rare that you see people, specifically women having conversations about that. How much do you feel social media affects those days where you’re having low self-esteem? Is it just a personal thing or is it one of those things where you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and you’re seeing all these things that kind of trigger it?
GA: It’s honestly more of a personal thing. It’s kind of crazy that this thing we all use to stay connected and stay inspired can have such an impact on our daily lives. But I realized it was just days where I was already feeling down, you’re having a bad day or you’re upset about something and you torture yourself a little bit. My instinct for some reason is to open Instagram and look at all the beautiful bloggers and try to watch all these YouTube videos. On those days, I try to limit my consumption of content but also create less content at the same time. In over-engaging, I wound up using the app too much to the point where I was working so hard to create that constructed image. We’re not a brand, no human is a brand.
UC: Another series of yours that is also a conversation piece is “Things Men Said to Me” where you assemble screenshots of conversations with men who seem to be very emotionally inept and incapable of giving you what you need. This is something I feel like a lot of women can relate to in our generation and in other generations but the way you used text messages is very important because that speaks specifically to Millennials and the way we communicate or the lack thereof. This project also speaks on the dynamics of heterosexual relationships and patriarchy which excuses men from having to do emotional work. Can you expand on what your intent was behind that project?
GA: It really came out of a tumultuous time in my life. People in my past were coming out of nowhere. When you get those kind of messages, the first thing that goes through your mind is “did the person who sent this even think about what they’re saying?” I was thinking how do people decide to send these messages that I feel they would never say in real life. Things that are either just completely bizarre or so mean or nasty. I’ve honestly never heard any of the things in that project in person. I tried to figure that out through taking multiple snippets of conversations and repurposing them and editing the conversation itself. The craziest reactions I’ve gotten about that project have been from men. For men to see them in the context of multiple stupid, mean text messages all compiled into one conversation, it has totally changed the way a lot of guys see the things they say because for the people on the receiving end, that’s what it feels like. The whole conversation feels like this constant bombardment of just dumb stuff. A lot of times it feels like a personal attack and it may not be but that’s kind of why I made it “Things Men Said To Me”. A lot of people sent me their screenshots to be part of the project and they could’ve all been things just said to me. It becomes this idea that all women have received these messages and they could be interchanged at anytime. It’s crazy how open women are once you put the conversations out there to want to share as well. Sometimes it’s a shock or an embarrassment feeling when I’m talking to men about it. It’s been really interesting to get both takes on it.
UC: Do you feel like men just in general don’t realize how stupid they sound sometimes and that project was a wake up call like “whoa. What am I doing?”
GA: Definitely, I think they just don’t think sometimes. As women we’re so used to hearing that kind of stupidity but I don’t think a lot of men realize that things women say are stupidities because we’re so used to them are actually hurtful. In a way, we say “oh, men are so dumb” because it is a way for us to push past and clear out some of that stuff that we hear. I think for a lot of guys it’s been like “we’re not just dumb. This is terrible.”
UC: Let’s scale back and chat about your background. You’re a native New Yorker from Queens. You went to Lesley University in Cambridge where you got a BFA in Art & Design. How did you get into visual art and what inspired your decision to go to go to art school?
GA:I have always been an artist in the everyday sense of the word. As a kid, I got into a lot of drawing mostly because I was a little bit sheltered. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV and I wasn’t allowed to play video games. My main sources of entertainment were writing, drawing and reading.
UC: That’s good!
GA: Yea, now I’m super grateful. As a kid I just wanted to watch cartoons. I’m really grateful because I read so many books as a kid and I had such a vivid imagination. I’ve always wanted to in some shape or form pursue art. I spent a year at LaGuardia High School. Up until that time I had only gone to private school. I wasn’t really ready to be a serious artist so I took a break from art and went to another school. I initially went to Lesley for Art Therapy and while I was there I just found myself being jealous of my friends that were taking Fine Art classes. I wanted to do Art Therapy but I really just wanted to be drawing. I feel really lucky because my family was very supportive of it and I just decided to switch it over and dive in as much as I could. I was only officially a Fine Arts major for two years but I was already taking the classes before that. I just had to really get into it.
UC: How do you think being from New York has influenced you creatively? Did you have culture shock when you moved for college?
GA: Oh yeah, definitely. I love Boston, it’s such a sweet city and I actually miss it quite a bit but it really is so different. In a way, being from New York has definitely influenced me but I don’t know if it’s influenced me so much as an artist as it has as a person. I really feel like I was able to hone into my creativity in a quieter city. Boston was a city where I really felt like I could totally focus and learn to focus as a creative person which I brought back to my practice here. Being a New Yorker informs the way you move through the world. There’s no other city that has the same kind of people that grow up there. It definitely informs my attitude and the way I see the world and I think that helps me with my artwork in terms of the way I’m always looking for ways to dissect and look at reality in my art. Growing up in New York is one of those places where you grow up kind of fast , you see the realities of life very early. You see people who are very poor to very rich all in the same city. This is something you just grow up knowing these sort of realities. And I think it’s definitely helpful with my work and how I kind of see myself now.
UC: You’re a multidisciplinary artist. You do printmaking, drawing and digital work. How does your creative process vary between those different mediums?
GA: They’re all really similar for me because I’m a very experimental person. I am so bad at having a plan. I just work terrible with plans. The digital stuff kind of just came out of necessity to create. Everything I make digitally, I create on my phone. I’m on my phone all the time so if I snap a photo or see something and grab an idea, it’s kind of a way for me to play with ideas. That informed the collage work and drawing work that I’m doing now. It’s just been really experimental. They are very different in the sense that when I’m doing digital collages, I don’t do those in the studio. Not because I don’t think they’re worthy just because one of the greatest things about them is I can make them anywhere, which I love. Every place that you are is inspiring in a different way. With printmaking or with drawing, it’s really about where my headspace is at in the studio and you know just cutting stuff up and playing around like puzzle pieces – it’s very similar in that way. I just like to put things up and take them down. I’m really big on cutting something up that you already made and reusing it some sort of way.
UC: Has there ever been a time where you felt artistically inclined but afraid to tackle a specific concept or knowingly controversial topics in today’s media such as politics or social injustices? Are there any topics that are off limits for you?
GA: Not now. My creative process is in phases and right now I’m in a phase where I’m figuring myself out and so I’m talking about myself in my work. I think in a way it’s about creative and personal maturity. In college, I was trying to make work about myself and personal experiences such as sexual harassment and assault and I felt that I wasn’t getting good responses and so that became a topic that was off limits for me. As I was finishing out my college career, I decided to not make work about myself or those kinds of issues. Now I’m back there in my own way. Putting something off limits for me was out of fear. I’m trying now not to be fearful creatively. I definitely think some topics are not for me to tackle.
UC: What do you feel are some of the unique challenges women of color face in the visual art space?
GA: As a female artist in general, it’s baseline that all of your work is put into a category of “feminine art”. Even in college, I got away from making personal work and moved to abstract work and it was still regarded as very decorative and feminine. It didn’t bother me at all because it was from me so I didn’t take it as an insult. I do think that’s very interesting though. It does become a barrier because there’s going to be certain shows about certain topics where maybe the curator is going to say feminine work doesn’t fit which I don’t understand how that could be a thing. I think especially as a woman of color it’s just another added level where if you’re talking about being a woman and also talking about racism, you’re talking about two topics a lot of people don’t want to be confronted with. I think you are already seen as controversial or pushing the envelope before you are even allowed to explain your work. People tend to either review things or look at things in a different way than they would otherwise and it’s not always a positive because the people reviewing or looking at work are white men a lot of the time. I think a lot things get misread and almost made out to be more dramatic than they are or darker than they are. There’s sort of this desire for your work to be out of extreme struggle and this terrible stereotype about artists that we should be making art out of our troubles. I think even more than that, there’s an expectation of what our stories should be. If you don’t fit it, you have a much more difficult time finding your place.
UC: As a visual artist, do you feel obligated to have definitive goals or a space to be in that would consider you a success?
GA: Yea, that’s a question I deal with a lot especially for a visual artist that studied visual art it becomes so much about “well, if you just work really hard, you’ll get into a gallery and sell". That’s the measure of success. I don’t personally feel that pressure. If just a few people connect with my work, I have succeeded. It’s very personal for everyone. There really isn’t a direct path or end goal. For a lot of people good end goals would to be in a museum or have your own solo show somewhere. I think those are important goals to have but I also think we have to kind of go back to our DIY, New York artist roots in that sense. If you’re not getting solo shows, it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad, it may just mean that nobody is really looking for your work. It’s worth considering to set up your own show or a group show. For me, success is not so much about any specific goals. I just want to make sure my work is seen and appreciated even on a small scale.
UC: New York has such an overwhelming amount of talent and it can be hard as you said for your work to be seen because people may not be checking for your art. What has your experience been like on the New York art scene?
GA: I have honestly tried to stay out of a lot of the mainstream or big gallery competition, mostly because there’s a lot of group shows, jury shows and there’s a lot of open calls. And like you said, there are so many artists and there are so many galleries and pretty much each of these galleries charges a fee for your work to be considered. I don’t know about everybody else but if I want to apply to five shows a month and the fee is $35 per application, that’s a big chunk of money for me and I don’t know if I feel validated with a group of jurors deciding my work is good enough to just be hung up with a bunch of other people. I have done a lot of submissions and I have been turned down a lot of times --- maybe it just wasn’t the right time or the right place. I’ve also been in a lot of small friend-built shows that have just had really good energy and that has felt very successful to see somebody that I know put something together all on their own. We know we didn’t have to go through this big art hierarchy to put on a great show and have people come out and get excited about the work. I’ve sold work that way too. I’ve never been the person who knew they were going to go for the galleries, that wasn’t my goal when I left school. It’s still not really a goal. My experience has been that it’s just really competitive. If you go to school for art in New York, that’s a great path to take. There’s going to be a lot of avenues to follow. If you’re a self-taught artist or you went to school somewhere else and you just want to dip your toes, there’s so much to be said for DIY type shows and pushing your own artwork out there.
UC: How do you feel about the way art is monetized and the commercialism of art. Do you feel it takes away from that DIY approach or do you feel it’s a necessary evil to get certain types of art seen?
GA: It's definitely a fine line. With some artists in particular I feel sometimes that there can be a little bit of that exploitation happening, especially when it’s a Black artist making work about Black issues or struggles and these works are being picked up by white collectors. I find it very interesting. I think that we do have to be aware that when you get into that market, that is who you’re selling to. I also think that it is necessary because there has been so much discrimination and so little opportunity for artists of color and female-identifying artists so I encourage everyone to make their money and be seen as much as possible. In reality, the goal should be that the galleries don’t just have a few black artists or a couple of artists of color that are talking just about their struggles. The goal is that everyone in the museum is talking about whatever they want. We’re not going to get any closer to that goal if these artists don’t take those opportunities. In terms of museums and galleries, I’m all for it. When it comes to advertisement, I’m a little bit on the fence. There’s all these brands that love the young artist idea but not the message. I don’t know if I could change my message or go with a brand that’s offering me a lot of money that doesn’t actually believe in what I’m trying to say. In terms of getting your artwork seen on a global scope, that’s really important. We all should be conscious of taking money from things that we don’t believe in or agree with.
UC: What does self-expression mean to you?
GA: It means freedom. It means confidence. It means the ability to communicate who you are at a given time. It’s a blessing to be able to express yourself, especially creatively. It’s truly a gift and anyone that has been given the gift should just use it to their absolute best ability. We can’t all be famous superstars but the ability to express yourself cannot be taken from you, it should be harnessed as power.
Follow Georgina on Instagram @supgeemun. Check out her curated playlist below: