BIPOC ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: CELESTE CONTRERAS
Juan Miguel Martinez
Celeste Contreras is busy at work in her studio. She draws deep, dark lines on brown paper which are concise and thoughtfully executed. Her studio is at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and it holds a breadth of her work, some prints and some illustrations. “I find absolute peace here, and I love being in the energy of a place of learning”, she tells me. School has always been a passion of hers, as learning new ways of thinking and explorations of worlds is something that aligns with the philosophy of her work. Formal education is truly important, as she is currently studying to obtain her Masters in Fine Arts from UW-Milwaukee.
Throughout her life, she has learned just as much from her surroundings, and lessons and methods are always translated in a contained universe. She is a Milwaukee High school of the arts alumnus, and though she has ventured into different mediums, illustration has always been the one where she felt she has flourished the most. Pens, pencils and paper are something she is passionate about, particularly the ways paper can be made.
“Our ancestors were able to make everything they needed to make art, and that is something that is important I do as well”, she states. She is a second-generation Chicana, a Milwaukee transplant who spent her early life in Texas. Since youth, she has taken to creating books. “Books are one of the most complete forms of art. Before this continent was colonized, people made books which contained sacred text. Most of those were burned in an act of aggression towards their way of life”, she teaches. There is a specific kind of mulberry bark in Mexico that was ground to pulp to make paper, and she says although that tree cannot be found in Wisconsin, it can still possibly be made. It is something that would tell the story of a journey, and a tribute to indigenous ingenuity.
Dia De Los Muertos is a celebration where people honor their dead by constructing “Ofrendas”, which are altars where objects are placed to remember those that have passed. Celeste launched the first Dia De Los Muertos parade in Milwaukee back in 2010, with help from the community. It is something that Milwaukee never had, but it was important for Celeste to bring to fruition, given the expansive Latino/a/x population in the city. “Community is an integral part to creating art, and this was a way for everyone to come together and showcase the effect it can have, as well as the lasting impression it can leave”, she asserts. It is something that rings true, and is the lifeblood of what art is meant to be.
Like the Mayan scriveners before her, she tells intricate stories with her work. Spirals and waving lines dance across the page like a moon cycle, with a sacred smoke billowing towards the heavens. They are an elegy to the work ethic and spirituality of her ancestors, and it runs deep.
BIPOC ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: IUSCELY FLORES
Juan Miguel Martinez
There is a line between extricate precision and sheer exuberance, and in that line dance the creations of Iuscely Flores, a community activist who has lived her life between Mexico and the United States. Identity is an important issue and theme that runs throughout her work, and is often displayed in dazzling colors and in the basic architecture of her work.
Community activism is a passion of Iuscely’s, and she is very actively involved in many different causes for people of color in the city of Milwaukee. “Being a helper is integral to how I was raised. It is important to always use your voice to speak for those that are not allowed or cannot speak for themselves”, she says. Indeed, the spirit of activism being tied into art is very present in the work of Iuscely, and it pirouettes magnificently.
Her artwork can be found on Instagram under @adelitas_mke, where portraits of pets and people alike can be found. They are made in a graphic design capacity, made from pictures that Iuscely feels captures the essence of the person. Portraits are sold to those who commission them, and are shown on her grid. They are often an expression of admiration and respect for her peers in the struggle, and are loving homages.
The history of people of color, particularly Latinx people in the United States is another subject she approaches in her work, and the medium she employs can always differ. In the late 1940’s, naval officers were docked in Los Angeles after having returned home from the war. There was a renewed sense of nationalism and a detest for anything deemed remotely “Un-American”. “Pachucos were Chicanx youth from the city, who had a taste for brightly colored suits and hats with feathers poking out. These were called zoot suits, and the kids wore them with pride”, Iuscely informs me. “The naval officers began fighting with these kids and the LAPD looked the other way as they met with violent clashes at the hands of those”, she adds.
Boyle Heights is a neighborhood in East Los Angeles where many of those zoot suits were made. The fabric used to make these consisted of heavy wool and cotton. Iuscely has been in communication with the last shop in Boyle Heights that remains open from the times when the zoot suit was popular, Her aim is to create a lighter, more free flowing version of the suit, that will be more easily manufactured and won’t be too heavy on the person that wears it.
Iuscely is a child of immigrants, and is an immigrant herself. She fully understands how people who come to this country seeking a better life have to work to make a mark in anything. The work ethic she learned from her parents is ingrained in her attitude and disposition. She has shown that she is a light to many, and even her art is a shared gift, something that is for the community, inspired by the community.
BIPOC ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: ANIKA KOWALIK
Juan Miguel Martinez
Installations are a special kind of beauty in the world of art, and Anika Kowalik knows how they can affect and reach people. They are a Milwaukee native, having spent time in the city as well as on the outskirts. There is an intriguing duality in their work, and they do not shy away from how special a blended upbringing can be. It is a valentine to all that is right and true, and how interspersed many of the facets of youth can be.
“Centering Black joy one pack of Kanakelon at a time”, is what their instagram bio says, and it is a declaration of their mission. “Everything I create has to do with black ephemera ”, they tell me. The MKE SEEN project is something they spearheaded in an effort to showcase this. The one shown at Alice’s urban garden consists of black cherubs with a flowing bouquet placed strategically under their smiles, floating throughout the lush greenery of the garden.
“I create works that evoke fond memories of black life. Through barettes, beads, Kanakelon hair, and other materials I associate with my childhood, I allow myself to grapple through personal memories and bring them into a tangible realm investigated as installations, sculptures and mixed media drawings”, they state. Memories are something that is concurrent throughout their entire work, particularly of black life in America. There is a commonality in their work that every person of color can relate to, and can even closely identify with.
The spirit and concept of possible confabulation is present as well. The idea of memories mixing with a narrative that is created in the imagination leads to the magic that is present through many mediums in art. It is something of an incentive for reflection, a kind of talisman for that which is kept very close and dear in the way we remember things.
Many of Anika’s installations have gone up throughout city parks, often with messages that are common phrases in the black community that offer deep wisdom. Messages like “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”. The floral arrangements that frame these words are from many different families and offer a certified tapestry of that which is fragrant and memorable. They can be collaborative as well, and Anika feels it is important to also work with people so ideas can be communicated in a manner that expresses many viewpoints.
An example of this is how Anika has worked with venues, particularly Cactus Club, making prints for their merchandise. It is no secret that venues and bars and the service industry overall have been hit hard by the pandemic, and are doing everything they can to stay afloat. Anika lent their talents, employing the diehard work ethic that comes with the territory.
The power of memory and unreliability of perception are themes in Anika’s work, and are infused into the black experience that is so prevalent in their work. The difference is that Anika’s work amplifies the clarity and straightforwardness.
About contributing writer: Juan Miguel Martinez
Juan Miguel Martinez is a Chicano writer from the south and north side of Milwaukee. He is a union organizer and considers himself a professional appreciator of all culture.