Interview with Gabriella Sanchez
After just one look at Gabriella Sanchez’s website, I knew I had to interview and feature her work on our site. Introduced to me by fellow LA-based artist and animator Ambar Navarro, whose written for La Liga before and whose art show I recently reviewed, Gabriella is a freelance illustrator and contemporary visual artist that creates compelling gifs and illustrations as well as installations, photography, and miniatures that are at once vibrant and fun while still managing to get across her stance on important social issues such as sexual consent, body positivity, and self-esteem. More importantly, with her ability to make these statements on mediums and formats that are easily liked, reblogged, shared and reposted across social media websites, Gabriella’s work merges social activism with aestheticism in a way that doesn’t compromise her vision or her message. With an impressive list of professional clients, ranging from the White House to Tinder, Gabriella has managed to make a name for herself within an industry that often either ignores, undervalues or tokenizes brown (female) voices in media and art. In the brief conversation that follows, Gabriella and I cover topics such as political art, the difference between inspiration and theft as well as her upcoming art show.
Mia Rodriguez: Your paintings and illustrations feature very vivid colors and a style that I associate with my childhood, a very late-90s/early-2000s aesthetic. What is your earliest memory involving art? What do you remember about it? What made it stick with you?
Gabriella Sanchez: I guess that depends on what you mean. If you’re talking about art in terms of craft or skill of drawing or painting then I was pretty young. I remember enjoying drawing and I think my first memory in that regards is being about five years old and tracing this 101 dalmatians picture I had….over and over and over [laughs] If you’re asking about fine art, to be honest, I really wasn’t exposed to much of it until college when I started taking every art class I could fit into my schedule. It sounds so naive now but until then I literally had no idea contemporary art was a real thing. I thought art was mostly something from history and now it was just a luxurious hobby some people could afford. Before college, I guess my first memory of contemporary art was from some movie on TV. I don’t remember what movie I was watching but in one scene there was this red painting on the wall that the main characters talk about as being important and by a famous artist. I think that’s my first real memory because it’s the first time I remember feeling anything about art. That scene made me feel like there was this secret world that only educated or divinely talented people could access and that I was clearly on the outside because I couldn’t see whatever secret message they obviously saw in that painting - but I really wanted to find out. In college, I later learned the painting in that scene was a Rothko.
MR: You work across a variety of mediums from installations to paintings to miniatures and illustrations as well as photography. Is there one that feels more comfortable, more raw, more exciting for you? When you've had a rough day or need a release, in which do you find solace?
GS: My work definitely goes through a bunch of different forms. That’s something I’ve struggled with because in art school you’re told to stick to one thing and make it yours but I’ve been much more interested in expressing ideas in many different forms so I’m still working that out for myself. I feel the most emotionally connected to abstract painting. I really like the physicality of it and I like that I don’t have total control over it but instead just have to push, pull and almost carve into it to see what’s there.
MR: You've collaborated with some big names with your illustrations: Tumblr, Nike, The White House, Tinder, etc. How do these collaborations come about ? What does it mean for you to see your work displayed on such a large platform and to such a large audience?
GS: Most of it has come through social media. I think social media is one of the best things out there for artists right now to use because it really helps level the playing field since anyone at any level in their career can show their work and gain a following. It’s awesome seeing my work out there! I still have out of body experiences where I’m like “wow, I can’t believe I’m actually doing it” [laughs]. Which is totally ridiculous because comparatively I’m still at the very beginning stages of it all but there were definitely super dark days when I was first out of school where I really didn’t think it was going to work out at all. On top of it all, the fact that a lot of my work has been able to be a part of campaigns about women’s rights and sexual education makes it all even better.
MR: This is a perfect segway into my next question actually! Since your work often deals with themes such as women's rights and intimate female spaces, I wanted to know your thoughts on political art, art as being political, art as activism. Do you think art can be political? Do you think your work is political?
GS: I think the job of an artist is to be an observer and convey whatever that might be. In that idea each artist will naturally be drawn to different aspects of human experience and, for myself specifically, it often circles back to human hypocrisy. I'm drawn to the contradictions we constantly live in which I typically explore through speech (mind) versus body (mouth). Then of course that all goes through my personal filter of experience (in my case, a woman of color) and because of that I often focus on how we (women of color) are told publicly that we're equal but how that's often contradicted in everyday life. So, I guess my answer is yes [laughs]. My work is political in that sense but it's not coming from a certain platform and really think all conceptual work is political in some way - even if it's about the absence of message or meaning because it's tied to a specific time and cultural climate.
MR: You're a latinx that's been able to establish themselves well into the digital and physical art realms. Have you found any resistance along the way because of your ethnic background, because you are perceived as a woman or because of the themes your work explores? How do you navigate those often white, rich, male-dominated spaces?
GS: I haven’t experience that much outright or conscious resistance. Anything I have faced has been more subtle. For instance, while in college I had great professors that I really appreciated but unfortunately they were all white males who all worked in similar mediums and themes. That, in turn, created this kind of boys club with the other male students and I definitely felt a lack of mentorship in comparison. Now I think young women artists are starting to speak up more and ban together through the help of social media so there’s been more support than I’m used to but in the larger art world it’s still very much a problem. I’m optimistic that a change to the art world is coming though because you can feel it building it up and people are echoing the similar calls of outrage at the lack of representation in the art world and the alienating nature of minimal white-walled galleries and museums.
MR: Recently, you've had a few cases of big companies essentially stealing your original designs and illustrations without contacting you, giving you any credit, and definitely not compensating you. I know you're currently looking into possible legal actions so I don't want to stir the pot too much, but, as women of color, as artists of color, how can we best protect ourselves from big companies that we know are often looking at our Instagrams, our websites, our Tumblrs for "inspiration" but end up just flat out stealing from us? How can we, as conscious consumers and supporters, protect each other? Do you think there's a way to stop creative theft or is it sadly just part of the game?
GS: I literally knew nada about my legal rights or even how to pursue legal action. I didn't think I really could since they're such large companies and I didn't have money to pay for a lawyer but after I posted about it on Instagram I started getting a lot of messages from other people who had dealt with this sort of thing before and they gave me some advice and encouraged me to research the issue more. The best advice I have for anyone dealing with this is to do your research! When you create something you automatically have intellectual property rights and you can also apply online on the US government website to get registered copyright over a specific piece which gives you even more weight in a legal case like this and it's not expensive at all. I paid $30 for my registered copyright. Also, I set up phone calls with a couple different lawyers to feel them out see who I felt most comfortable with and who I thought would be straight with me about my chances rather than leading me down a long expensive road of court trials. I ended up going with a firm called Wilkinson-Mazzeo and I was totally upfront with them about my financial situation and expressed that I wanted to pursue the companies for compensation but wasn't interested in racking up huge legal fees I wouldn't be able to pay. They totally understood and clearly gave me my options. On top of that, I'd say you definitely have to do your own research on the company as well and don't take their word for anything because they're obviously trying to get the best deal for themselves so always try to verify everything they tell you.
As a consumer, I think the best way is to try to steer away from fast fashion brands. I personally shopped at Zara because I liked that I could get popular fashions that were a little higher quality without the huge price jump so I understand that shopping at boutiques or brands that are made locally by artists isn't really feasible for everyone. If that's the case then just being aware of what's going on and calling them out on it really helps too. Creative theft is bound to happen but I think it's far more rampant then it should be. I'm not at all against someone being inspired by certain piece and taking the idea and making it their own unique vision; artists are "inspired" (steal) all the time but the difference is when someone takes that initial idea and goes beyond it that it becomes something different. I think it's actually a healthy thing when that happens because we're all constantly building on each other's ideas and pushing each other further. However, when people take designs and essentially copy them that's not the case at all. It's not being inspired by a piece and creating their own - it's sheer laziness and stems from the corrupt desire to skip paying an artist for their work and is completely unacceptable - which is exactly the case with Pacsun and Zara.
MR: What's up next for you? Do you have any art shows or gallery openings coming up? Any collaborations we can look forward to?
GS: I’ve started an independent gallery in downtown LA called Wayside and we’re having a show on August 12th that will feature over 10 female artists of color. I’m really excited! The theme of the exhibit is the fluid nature of identity. It’s no secret that people of color, and woman in general, are underrepresented in media and society's consciousness at large. One of the many results of this underrepresentation is that when a person of color is given a voice they are often seen as speaking for their entire community rather than as their individual self. In this exhibit we’ll be exploring that idea and hope to deconstruct that view through showing a wide variation of work that spans differing viewpoints and materials to display the complex, individual and even contradictory natures between a collection of women of color. The artwork itself will be varied in nature as well from paintings, video, installation and live performance pieces. We’ll also have some awesome WOC DJs performing that night as well. It’s gonna be fun.
Written and edited by Mia Rodriguez
Cover photo is "Where U From?" by Gabriella Sanchez