From 2019-2020, Lina Puerta was an Artist-in-Residence at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. Puerta creates mixed media sculptures, installations, collages, handmade-paper paintings, and wall hangings by combining a wide range of materials, from artificial plants and paper pulp to found, personal, and recycled objects. Her work draws from her experience as a Colombian-American artist, examining the relationship between nature and the human-made, and engaging themes of food justice, xenophobia, hyper-consumerism, and ancestral knowledge. Her most recent work centers around Indigenous relationships with the natural world and what they can teach us about alternative ways of living that will not only improve our livelihood, but ensure a sustainable and biodiverse future for generations to come.
On Thursday, August 12, 21c Museum Director and Chief Curator, Alice Gray Stites spoke with Lina Puerta via Zoom while Lina was in her exhibition at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, La Huerta y Yo/The Garden and I. Below is a select transcript of their conversation. To watch the full conversation check out the video HERE.
Alice Gray Stites: Are you at the Sugar Hill Museum?
Lina Puerta: I am, yes.
AGS: Great! So, we would love to have a look around at your exhibition there.
AGS: At The Vegetable Garden and I.
LP: Correct! So, do you want me to just give you a quick tour around and you ask me questions?
AGS: I would love that. I have seen it, I saw it in-person myself. It’s an extraordinary exhibition and such a beautiful space. If anyone hasn’t visited the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum, they really should.
LP: This is the entrance to my show which is the culmination of my residency. It’s normally a year but it started in Fall of 2019 and it was going to culminate with a solo show last summer. But, because of the pandemic, it was interrupted in March. During the residency I did mostly works on fabric, including and especially this large piece that is—I call it a quilt, but it is also a tapestry—and this piece took five months, so it took almost the entire time I was in the studio here at the Sugar Hill Museum.
AGS: The title of this piece, Lina, is?
LP: Moth(er)—so it’s like mother but moth.
AGS: Right! Because it is inspired by your mother but also you can see the shape of the insect in the center.
LP: The way this work started was with some fabric that I had digitally printed at the Joan Mitchell Art Center in New Orleans while I was there in residence in 2017. And I basically took different food wrappings from the different resident artists—but if you look a bit close, you can see—
AGS: Oh, the green netting! Oh, I see, its actually wrapping!
LP: Yeah, I think that’s like veggie sticks. So, many of these wrappings I wove them together, like the actual wrappings that were collected from different resident artists. I was not satisfied with the actual weaving as a finished piece, so, I put it aside to use as a material and I did incorporate that into other works but I also took a photo of that weaving and at the Joan Mitchell center they had a wonderful 36-inch inkjet printer, so a couple of other artists and I, we bought a roll of muslin, so I did a print out of this. And I had this rolled up in the studio for like three years, and then that was sort of my goal, to do something with these fabrics. So, when I put together the two—I have two panels of the same image, one was a mirrored image—and when I put it together I saw this image of an animal, I wasn’t sure what kind of animal it was. I simply outlined an image that was already there. And then from there I just added all of these other things, all of these other forms and it was interesting because having children come into the studio I would ask them like, “What do you see? Do you see an animal?” and they saw spiders, frogs, horses, insects, all kinds of things. Which I actually see, I see all of those animals and I actually love that, but I ended up using the Moth(er) title because definitely there is a mother-ness to it, and also this is a crochet flower that my mom crocheted and she passed away 11 years ago. It’s something kind of personal and special that made it into the work. There are other materials, like this fabric from a bag that I bought when I went to Peru and the seashells are also from necklaces that I wore at some point and that I kept. It has different materials that are personal and then there are all of these food nets that I’ve collected from my own grocery shopping, plus materials that I got from Materials for the Arts. I am really keen on using repurposed materials and not buying. I try not to buy anything because we have such an abundance of good stuff going into the landfill.
AGS: Abundance is such a good word associated with this particular presentation of your work. I was struck by the multiplicity of various different materials particularly repurposed materials in your work. I mean, its paper pulp, its weaving, its textile, and it has been, but the range and complexity of the design was really striking.
LP: Thanks so much. Yes, this piece it was, like I said, five months in the making, and it was a bit hard like I was really focused on finishing this piece alone because normally I work on more than one piece but this piece took so long and I just really wanted to get it done. It was totally new and so it was bit like “I don’t know what this is” or even if it was good. But, so I am glad that it has been well received. And then from here I’ve done these other fabric works and just sewing, even though this has machine sewing also, it just takes so long the process of working with fabric.
It also made me reflect on time. On one hand the pressure we have as artists to produce, made me question that, and there is something meditative about this process of sewing and embroidering, and attaching things, so sometimes it was meditative and sometimes it was like “Oh No! I can’t believe I am spending so much time.”
This is a design that I borrowed from Indigenous communities from the south of Colombia near the Amazon border. They are the Kamëntsá and the Inga and they weave these wonderful designs into belts. And this is the design of “la chagra,” which means cultivated land, or cultivated garden.
“La chagra es un solo tejido que puede llevar a reflexiones externas e internas, físicas y espirituales, a diferentes escalas, a pocas o muchas posibilidades. Las externas al reconocer la chagra como un espacio físico que puede ser contemplado, sitio de interacción donde es visible un “policultivo” que ya no es “monocultivo.” Es orgánico, es un aparente “desorden” como a veces lo llaman a la primera impresión o un “cuasi bosque” lo que lleva a reconocer este espacio con diferentes posibilidades de existencia e interacción, diversidad biológica o vida de colores. Así las abuelas y los abuelos dicen que la chagra es vida, es sabiduría, es matemáticas, es alimento y medicina a través de los colores que nutren para dar salud, para vivir más, para sentir el sabor rico en la sopa, para ver los animales que visitan la chagra entre ellos colibrís, abejas, mariposas que se acercan a las flores y ardillas que vienen por maíz o granadillas (fruto).”
“La chagra is a single fabric that can lead to external and internal, physical and spiritual reflections, at different scales, few or many possibilities. The external ones recognize la chagra as a physical space that can be contemplated, a site of interaction where a “polyculture” is visible and no longer a “monoculture.” It is organic, it is in apparent “disorder” as it is sometimes called based on the first impression, or a “quasi forest,” which leads us to recognize this space with different possibilities of existence and interaction, biological diversity or a colorful life. Thus, the grandmothers and grandfathers say that la chagra is life, it is wisdom, it is mathematics, it is food and medicine through the colors that nourish to give health, to live longer, to feel the rich flavor in the soup, to see the animals that visit the farm, including hummingbirds, bees, butterflies that approach the flowers and squirrels that come for corn or fruit.”
— Aura Tisoy Tandioy, Inga Kinde Kocha Woman from Valle de Sibundoy Biologist, Graduated from the University of Nariño
AGS: Ah! I was wondering! I was going to ask you to connect these works with your references to The Garden.
LP: Yes. So, before I started all of these fabric works, I was working with paper at Dieu Donné and I did a couple of series that are here in the show also.
AGS: These are the Willard Crops?
LP: The Willard Crops specifically are about a New York Times article from 2016 about this agricultural hub in Willard, Ohio that produces celery, cabbages, radishes and many vegetables that make it into our salad. And for decades they have welcomed the migrant workers that come to tend to the crops in the spring, and to welcome them they would hold a festival. But, in 2016, because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that was associated with the election, the festivities were cancelled. Before this, I did work that was more focused on the workers and they were the central figure in these works. But then I started to think a lot about the plants and how they are similarly exploited, just as the migrant workers are. I started imagining the plants in solidarity with the immigrants, so, in this series I imagined the plants welcoming the migrant workers and this is why I choose I all of these very joyful and celebratory type of colors and in some of them there are some subtle figure of the hands—sort of like the human presence.
I did this work before coming here and then I had started this other work at Dieu Donne called, the Kinship series. In this series I did do a lot of work with gouache. This I did during the time that we were isolated. It was kind of perfect because they were small and I needed a break from the fabric, so I worked on these. I think the materials were making me reflect more deeply on our relationship with plants. And then I started to read about Indigenous knowledge and their relationship to nature and then it started to make a lot of sense that we have almost this synergy that is inherent in us and our ancestors. I can say, universally, our ancestors were much more connected to nature in ways that I feel that we are missing out. And the connection is spiritual also. I think it’s about respecting more the natural world and not seeing them as just resources but thinking of—also, I think what has been revealed to me in doing this work—is that for a long time I felt that this world would be better off without our human presence but with this work it’s the opposite. I feel that we are nature and therefore we are part of this ecosystem and we are needed for there to be a balance. We need to be in this connection with nature but not just having appreciation—appreciation is needed, but also care and respect.
The Indigenous people refer to plants as relatives, and it’s been interesting to me that Indigenous knowledge from North America is very similar—there are so many similarities to South American and Central American, so that has also been beautiful for me to learn about.
AGS: Nature doesn’t have borders.
LP: Exactly. As we know, many of the Indigenous social leaders are the biggest environmentalists and have been for a long time so I think there is so much we need to learn from them. I think there is hope too, with all of this climate crisis and emergency and all of this mess that we have created as a society, I think. I think what we need to change is our mindset.
AGS: Yes. And understand that our preservation is integrated with the preservation of all other life forms, especially the natural world. Your work is both thoughtful and joyful at the same time. You can critique the way that we’ve been living but you also point towards a different possibility while looking back at some of this ancient knowledge that is so relevant.
LP: Exactly. I think we can rescue this knowledge that we have lost through this modern way of living, but I think it is still in us. So how do we connect to that?
AGS: Lina, this has been terrific and I just want to ask you two easy questions. One: Do you have space to grow your own vegetables and flowers?
LP: (Laughs) I wish!
AGS: So, my last question: How did your young audience respond? Did you learn anything that surprised you through the children’s responses to the work?
LP: Yes. For them it is just so natural to see what we sometimes have a hard time seeing. I especially enjoyed hearing them point out things that maybe I hadn’t completely seen before so that was great.
AGS: It’s just beautiful. What an accomplishment! The Vegetable Garden and I. it’s a beautiful show, thoughtful. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful exhibition. It’s a wonderful reflection of what you have been working on in a very challenging time.
LP: Thank you so much!
Lina Puerta was born in New Jersey, raised in Colombia and lives and works in New York City. Puerta holds an MSEd in Art Education from Queens College/CUNY and has exhibited internationally. She is currently the 2019/2020 Artist-in-Residency at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling in Harlem. She has also been honored with the 2017 NYFA Fellowship in Crafts/Sculpture, Fall 2017 Artist-in-Residency at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, the 2016 Dieu Donné Workspace Residency, Artprize-8 Sustainability Award, 2015 Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant, 2015 Kohler Arts Industry Residency (WI), 2014-15 Keyholder Residency at the Lower East Side Printshop, 2013-14 Smack Mellon Art Studio Program, 2014 Materials for the Arts Artist Residency, 2013 Wave Hill Winter Workspace, and the 2010 Emerging Artist Fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York. Exhibition venues include the Ford Foundation Gallery, The Museum of Biblical Art, El Museo del Barrio, Socrates Sculpture Park, Wave Hill, and Geary Contemporary in New York City; 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville, KY and Bentonville, AR; and Pi Artworks in London. Puerta’s work has been written about in Hyperallergic, The New York Times, The Brooklyn Rail, and Artnet News among others.
To learn more about Lina Puerta’s work, check out her website https://www.linapuerta.net or follow her on Instagram @linapuertaart.