Elizabeth Velazquez makes powerful installations in response to the history and geography of a site. While her work often unleashes dark secrets from a hidden past with particular sensibility to social injustice, it also elevates our gaze upwards, conjuring an essence of spirituality out of the materials she is using. The artist shares with Art Spiel the ideas and process behind her recent body of work.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art
Elizabeth Velazquez: I was raised in Monticello, NY. My parents came to work in the hotel industry of upstate NY in the 70’s as part of a low-wage immigrant workforce. I am of Puerto Rican and Peruvian descent.
As a child, I played a lot outside with mud, sticks, pebbles, grass, leaves, water and anything else I could find. My mother would buy any art supply I had an interest in whenever she could. My father taught me so many things about using anything in sight as a tool. My brother and I were his assistants whenever he needed to build or fix anything outside. The work ranged from handing him water, tools, patching roofs, digging holes in the ground, building “casitas,” and mixing cement.
Art classes were part of my elementary and secondary education. My last year of high school, the art room was my studio- I was there all day. After school I was also alone in the art room until the last late bus would take me home. After high school, I studied at SUNY New Paltz for both my bachelors and master’s degree, and in my second year as an undergraduate student, I gave birth to my son.
AS: In your statement you say that destruction is central in your process. Tell me about your process. How do you start an installation?
Elizabeth Velazquez: I interrupt blank surfaces, spaces and raw materials through a process of literal and imagined destruction to begin a process of reconstruction. Various actions, like ripping, cutting, soaking, and making gestural marks, are part of the process I use to change materials I work with. My work consists of paper, fabric, recycled materials, string, plastic and wood. Oftentimes, I use a sewing machine to reconnect pieces I have torn or cut apart from a whole to create new fragmented pieces.
I use an intuitive process to construct my installations, which are site specific and/or site responsive. My installation work stems from a desire to create tension towards an upper corner.
AS: You are committed to the color Black throughout your work. You refer to its primordial and natural characteristics. Can you trace what brought you to this preoccupation and elaborate on its meaning for you?
Elizabeth Velazquez: Black is sacred. I want to uplift its sacredness. Black is the color of many naturally occurring things, such as, charcoal, graphite, charred wood, and the night sky. Black has an immense presence, ancient traces, and a primordial quality, which is what I am seeking to connect with in my work.
AS: We first met in 2018 in a panel at your Living Gallery residency. What can you share about your experience there?
Elizabeth Velazquez: The Living Gallery residency was my first residency. It was short, one week, but it provided me with the experience of creating a large-scale installation. I enjoyed working in the unique storefront studio space until late at night and it was valuable to receive feedback from arts professionals as part of the residency.
AS: Tell me about “Innumerable Voids” from 2018 and its performance element, “Ritual-Admonishment: An address To Those Who Have Markets” – your meditation on the healing of trauma. How does performance work with your installation?
Elizabeth Velazquez: Those works exhibited as part of The Southeast Queens Biennial held at CUNY York College. It was a commission by No Longer Empty Curatorial Lab. Both Site-specificity and creating work outdoors are important in my work. When planning for the works mentioned, I looked at the York College Campus Map and noticed three old cemeteries on site. when I visited the cemeteries, I noticed extreme disparities between them. I wondered whose burial sites they were and what would cause such drastic differences. This, in turn, led me to think of those whose burial sites and places of death that are unmarked and unknown. In addition, performance activates my installations. I make the pieces to be used in the rituals I create. My body and its movement through space around the installation work is a continuation of its sculptural elements.
“Innumerable Voids”, was a series of three outdoor pieces attached to the campus fencing in three different areas near 2 of the 3 cemeteries and the main building. “Innumerable Voids III” acted as the apex of the triangular formation of the three. The placement of each piece connected the energies of St. Monica’s and Methodist cemeteries.
The ritual, “A Tribute to the Innumerable Voids”, was performed in front of “Innumerable Voids III”. It was a unique experience because the timing of the wind at particular moments affected the movement of “Interstice”, a handmade piece consisting of fabric, cordage, vellum, wood and mineral placed on the ground under my feet.
“Admonishment: An Address to Those Who Have Markers”, was a ritual focused on the tension created between the innocence and privilege of those buried at Prospect Cemetery. Among the buried are the Sutphin, Van Wyck, Nostrand and Lefferts families, some of which were slaveholders. The ritual called on the innocence of a baby girl buried there, one of three sisters that the Chapel of the Three Sisters commemorates.
AS: Tell me about your project: Bodies, Water & Spirit Realm” at WoW/Underwater NY Residency in Governor’s Island, in 2018
Elizabeth Velazquez: After my work for the Southeast Queens Biennial, I started to think about the water as a site for the cyclical forces of death and life. After reading the book, Saltwater Frontiers, I learned how instrumental the bodies of water around NYC were in the founding of America and also how many lives were lost in the warfare that occurred not only on land but also in the waters. Bodies, Water & Spirit Realm is a remembrance of people who have died in the waters around NYC beginning with the arrival of settler colonists. The project centered water, its beauty, sacredness and the injustice that water holds.
AS: Let’s look at your recent exhibition at Cigar Factory. Tell me about your experience and resulting show.
Elizabeth Velazquez: What a remarkable experience it was to create work within Cigar Factory. I was able to work in a huge studio space and on large-scale pieces. It provided me with another opportunity to create site-responsive work. I began by thinking about my relationship to tobacco and the relationship such a site had in the desecration of the sacred tobacco plant. The space made me want to bring a spiritual presence to a space that felt void of such a thing, resulting in 10 sculptural pieces that stayed off the walls. I used close to 100 pounds of salt for the exhibited pieces. Salt became a spiritual substance and resonated with the pieces I created for its cleansing, preserving and life forming properties, along with other uses and associations.
AS: You talk without any hesitation about “spiritual presence”. And I am saying “without hesitation” because “spiritual” is a loaded word in contemporary art. What does “spiritual” mean to you and how do you see your work in contemporary context?
Elizabeth Velazquez: I was raised Pentecostal. Although I don’t follow any religion, I believe in spiritual things and focus my attention on the spirit realm and nature. By spiritual I mean that I believe in realities more than my physical reality and that I acknowledge all those realities in my day to day thinking and being. My work expresses this belief.
AS: You are also an educator. Does teaching inform your art and if so, in what way?
Elizabeth Velazquez: I have been teaching for 17 years, 14 of those years have been at a dual language public school in Brooklyn. My position as a visual arts teacher is an important responsibility. I am an advocate for my students’ right to have a quality arts education. In my art classroom, I am constantly witnessing the power of human creativity, joy and pain. It is a humbling experience.
Through my commitment for making a curriculum centered on social justice, I have learned so much about different artists’ life and work by watching videos of them speak. I have found encouragement and incredible strength in their stories and I share this with my students. Artists such as, Judith Scott, Amy Sherald, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Shinique Smith, Varvara Stepanova, Wangechi Mutu, Elizabeth Doxtater, Elizabeth Catlett, Firelei Baez, and countless other artists.
Another role I’ve had is as a summer camp arts instructor teaching in a weave shop, wood shop and graphics shop. I learned how to weave with looms using youtube, how to sew with a machine like my mom did to make dresses and anything campers wanted to make, how to work in a woodshop with different power tools to create wood work, and how to do all sorts of printmaking, screen printing and paper making at the graphics shop. Most importantly, I collaborated with children in problem solving ways to create their ideas. Through this experience, I found a love for different ways of making art that continues to inform my work.
AS: You participated in an international residency recently. Can you tell me about it and a bit about your present projects?
Elizabeth Velazquez: The apexart International Fellowship to Jerusalem was a remarkable opportunity for my individual and professional growth, as well as a challenging one. Unlike other fellowships, I didn’t create any new work during this time. The program focuses on cultural immersion and also placing the artist outside of their comfort zone in order to allow the experience to impact the artist and their work after returning home. As part of the fellowship, I wrote about my day to day experiences in a blog accessed through the apexart website.
I am back on Governors Island at a residency with Works on Water/UnderwaterNY, continuing my work from last year and focusing on creating an undulating rope-like sculptural mass, experimenting with seaweed, mugwort and other material found on the island to make paper, and an original, interactive map inviting participants to visit four placards on the island to enact a water ritual.