Artist Diana Yesenia Alvarado discusses Los Angeles’ influence on her work, the materiality of clay, and creating ‘small memories’.
Words: Yves B. Golden
Images: Alexis Gross
Diana Yesenia Alvarado’s pieces draw you in with their eyes; pulling you into the realms from whence they came or suggesting a glimpse at a familiar yet forever-fluctuating Los Angeles. Alvarado, who is of Mexican descent, is partly inspired by the “recuerdos” – clay objects created as keepsakes or physical memories of special occasions – of her childhood homes. It’s a term which could easily be applied to her own pieces, each one full of personality and mystique.
Alvarado is part of a wave of acclaimed emerging ceramics artists who are based in LA, including Alake Shilling, Amia Yokoyama and Murjoni Merriweather. Indeed, the city has a history with clay. This new cohort feels reminiscent of the 1950s California Clay Movement, which saw artists such as Ken Price, Viola Frey, Manuel Neri, and Peter Voulkos shift the perception of ceramics from craft to fine art, making work that often blurred the distinction between the two.
Threads of this approach also run through Alvarado’s practice; her work evades easy categorization and she is committed to leaving her pieces open to interpretation. She invites viewers to make their own minds up, and wants the spaces in which her work is exhibited, and the neighboring art, to shift the meaning of her pieces.
Alvarado currently works out of a little studio that doubles as her grandmother’s garage: “Sometimes she comes in to grab a blanket or something and will run into my works. She doesn’t fully get what I do, but I know she enjoys having me around. She’ll come in and ask how my ‘little sculptures’ are doing.” When we speak in early March, she is about to leave for a residency in Guadalajara, Mexico, to create pieces for her first solo presentation – “I promised myself that I’d come back one day to work there and now just feels like the appropriate time for me,” she says. Here we discuss how LA has shaped her work, the physicality of working with clay and the spiritual weight of objects.
Yves B Golden:
Can we start with what it was like to grow up in Los Angeles, and your sensory memories of life here?
Diana Yesenia Alvarado:
My parents separated when I was very young. My mom lives in southeast LA, and my dad moved around a bit within east and south LA. During these drives, my face would be glued to the window in search of the neighborhood’s best hand-painted store and advertisement signage. The animated characters and graffiti I spotted during these routes also really stood out to me. Those were some of my first true memories of “art”. They were visual expressions that were meant to be eye-catching and I loved them. At the time, I didn’t understand that you could choose the path of being an artist. My mother’s first time going to a museum was when I worked at one a few years ago. That kind of culture wasn't part of my parents’ upbringing and neither was it part of mine.
I can see the aesthetics of sign painting in your figurative sculptures. When you were a kid did you have favorite cartoons? And how did you decorate your childhood room?
As a kid, I would tune into cartoons available on local television, like The Simpsons, Animaniacs and Pokemon. I had music posters and cutouts of different images on my walls, but as a child I always fantasized about leaving and going elsewhere. I didn't know exactly what that meant but I remember making the decision not to settle into my childhood rooms. I feared getting too comfortable would somehow push my fantasies to take off and explore further into the future, you know? So I tried to stay ready.
Your work now seems like a sweet reflection or homage to some of the subtly fantastic parts of being young and growing up here. There seems to be some reclaiming of that childhood space or an expansion of it. The first time I saw your work at Jeffrey Dietch, I was struck by a surreal looking dog chained to a vessel. Los Angeles is a place of dog worship, so your piece Cosimo Azul (2021) feels fun, familiar and still a bit eerie. Did you grow up with dogs?
Dogs are one of my favorite animals. I have two old doggies that live at my grandma’s house and they’re always with me in the studio watching me, wanting to be held. I grew up with dogs as one of my first companions. When I work on fantastical forms or mystical creatures, I typically start with the structure of a dog in mind. It's a classic four-legged animal and its familiarity allows me to work without having to stop and look at many references.
What else inspires you, beyond your upbringing? What kind of art or artists do you admire?
I go through periods of time where I’m looking at different art, artists, mediums – from writers to illustrators, and often these people are my contemporaries. Fairly recently, I was part of a critique group with some homegirls like Rikkí Wright, Sonya Sombreuil, Lizette Hernandez, and Savannah Levin. We would invite each other into our personal studios and each time, I left feeling very inspired. Having the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about our work, and simply share intention and care with each other felt very sacred for me. As much as I love going back and reflecting on history, I get really excited by what my friends are doing right now. Luckily I’ve managed to find a community of artists, and each one inspires me to imagine and feel a bit more limitless.
In a sense, the materiality of clay lends itself to that exploration of self, because you’re molding something, molding yourself, molding the world. I’m interested in where you started with clay and how it stuck with you.
Before I started working with clay as my main material, I didn’t really know much about it. I had an idea that ceramics were mostly cups or plates and my understanding of the material was strictly utilitarian. It wasn’t until I started familiarizing myself with it, touching it, learning the process, that I realized its force and possibilities. And I think because I didn’t have this background in ceramics, I wasn’t constricted.
Once I started to grasp the alchemy of taking a piece of clay to a ceramic, the figurines and objects that once just stood in the background gained an entirely new significance. I even gained a new appreciation for the mechanics of functional objects in the home. Like, how a handmade cup was made for a hand, and so that it’s not too heavy with liquid in it.
When my dad would visit family in Mexico, he’d come back with ceramic trinkets or handmade objects. He’s always been kind of drawn to artisanal things like that and probably inspired me without me fully realizing it. If you go to a traditional baby shower or something, sometimes there will be gifts in the center of the table for you to take home as a keepsake or a physical memory of that moment, to signify your presence in that space. My house was full of “recuerdos” which loosely means “small memory.”
What does it feel like to hold one of your sculptures? I’ve never picked one up, but they look almost dense.
I have heard people say they’re heavier than they look. For the larger ones, I can sometimes use up to a couple hundred pounds of clay. I like the idea of weight as force, how it can function as a reminder of presence and that you’re holding something with significance.
You used the word ‘alchemy’ before, which made me think about the spiritual weight of the objects you create. Is there a spiritual exchange happening, whether it’s between the audience and the work, or you and the work, or the work and your ancestors?
Working with clay definitely feels like an exchange between me and the material. When I surrender to what's in front of me, my hands will know what to do. It works best when I go into this other space without questioning it so much. Most forms I work through feel guided, intuitive and necessary. When I begin questioning too much, it's like I break a beautiful spell. So I do my best to stay present and that’s when the work comes out the best.
That feels very immersive and deep!
DYA:Yes, it's labor intensive and exhausting at times. Such a long process to get something from one point to another. From clay to something that has the possibility to withstand weathering and time. Something that will outlive me.
WIP magazine issue 08 is now available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.