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 there to get a blanket or something and I’m like, ‘That’s FRAGILE!’ She doesn’t fully get what I do. She’ll come in and ask if I sold my ‘little sculpture.’” 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 mainly stayed in southeast LA and my dad moved around a bit within east and south LA. I remember the drives between houses or my dad’s partner’s house in South Central and seeing lots of cartoony, hand painted signs around for local stores and household products. The animated characters and graffiti really stood out. I had an art teacher in elementary school who would visit maybe once or twice a month. He would draw Dr. Seuss characters for us or have us do exercises in class. I remember once he had us try and use our feet to make an art piece… Those were my first memories of art. Like, I never went to a museum. My mother’s first time going to a museum was when I worked at one a few years ago.
YBG: 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?
DYA: Well, I never had cable or anything like that, so I feel like I was tuning into The Simpsons or Animaniacs or something like that when I was a kid. I had music posters on my wall more so than art. As a kid I always kind of fantasized about leaving and going elsewhere, and I can remember trying to not settle into a room too much. I didn’t want to get too comfortable so that my visions for the future might be pushed further into the future, you know? I can remember feeling this since I was 12, it’s almost like I was supposed to go discover something elsewhere.
YBG: 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?
DYA: Dogs are probably my favorite animal. I have two old doggies that live at my grandma and mom’s house, and they’re always with me in the studio watching me, wanting to be held. I grew up with companion dogs. Also, a four-legged creature as a form is just so classic or familiar. I feel like when I’ve worked on more fantastical forms or mystical creatures, I start with a dog and try not to look at too many references.
YBG: What else inspires you, beyond your upbringing? What kind of art or artists do you admire?
DYA: 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 get together and go into each other’s studios. We got to discuss what’s on our mind when it comes to our practices. We invited each other into a sacred space for these exchanges and dialogues. For me, that was very inspiring. As much as I love going back in 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 to be limitless.
YBG: 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.
DYA: When I started working with clay as my main material, I didn’t really know much about it. When I took my first ceramic class, I had an idea that ceramics were mostly cups or plates and my understanding of the material was strictly utilitarian. But when I started touching the clay and familiarizing myself with it, I realized the 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 and using heat to make a form or an artwork, I revisited familiar spaces with a new attention to the figurines and objects that were in the background before. I gained a new appreciation for even 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.
Both of my parents are Mexican. When my dad would go to Mexico to visit someone, 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.” My stepmom had a big family and I’d help her with the hot glue gun or ribbons when there was a shower or something. Sometimes the aunts would fight over the coolest one.
YBG: What does it feel like to hold one of your sculptures? I’ve never picked one up, but they look almost dense.
DYA: 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 reminder that you’re holding something with significance, holding a work.
YBG: 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?
DYA: Working with clay definitely feels like an exchange between me and the material. There are times where I try to approach it without acknowledging that and it doesn’t work. When I surrender to the material, I know my hands know what to do. It works best when I go into this other space without questioning it so much because I am guided by something. Every form I work with, I feel guided or it feels intuitive and necessary. But, when I question it too much, I feel like I’ve broken a spell or something. So I allow myself to be present and that’s when I feel that the work comes out the best.
YBG: That feels very immersive and deep!
DYA: Yes, it’s super labor intensive. Such a long process to get something from one point to another. From clay to something that’s going to withstand weathering and heat. Something that will outlive me.
WIP magazine issue 08 is available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.