Esther Fuentes: A Journey of Artistry and Ambition

Intervista di Francesca Mazzella

In the vibrant tapestry of Oakland's creative landscape, Esther Fuentes (@ripple.crunch) stands out for her artistic expression and academic dedication. Originally from Los Angeles, Esther's journey has led her to the esteemed halls of Mills College at Northeastern University, where she navigates the realms of higher education as a first-generation student.
With a fervent passion for the arts, Esther has carved her path as a Studio Art major, honing her craft in the diverse mediums of drawing, painting, and, more recently, ceramics. Esther finds solace and inspiration in the act of creation, as it pushes her to learn and grow. Her art is not only a reflection of herself, but a medium through which she connects with her roots, conversing with her inner child and her family. Although she would love the freedom of pursuing art as a full-time occupation, she grapples with the uncertainty of the future and contemplates the possibility of obtaining a certification in education, to share her passion as a teacher. 
“Family Series Vol 1”, risograph & stickers on paper, 2023.
“Family Series Vol. 4”, risograph and stickers on paper, 2023.
In class, we always discuss what it means to be an artist and people tend to say we are, but I believe I have much to learn before I can consider myself one completely. I also feel like being an artist is a process of constantly learning and relearning, and it is not a stagnant thing, I’ll always be a student no matter what. I think of myself as an artist, but more so as a student who wants to become an artist. 
I’ve been doing art for as long as I can remember, originally when I went to college I wanted to do Pre-Law, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to make it in that field. I don’t regret the switch completely but the art world can be scary at times.

How do you see following one’s passions as a career nowadays? How do you perceive society's inclusivity or lack thereof of artists with different backgrounds/ethnicities/genders?

Hard. Most passions are not beneficial in a capitalist society, especially art. There is an oversaturation, it is hard to do it regardless. Economically, art is not going to make me rich, but rather “happy”. But I’m glad to do it at the expense of financial stress. At the end of the day doing this will triumph over that pain, as it feels worth it right now. I’m unsure about the future. 

My brother just finished a graduate program and has seen how the art industry works, and how even though art is such a beautiful and complex thing, it functions in society through its own industry. Even if you are doing it to represent your community, you are still making it digestible for an audience. To make it, unless you are excessively rich, there are things you have to give up. Questions of morality and gray areas persist. Entering the industry for artists of color and women, there is a certain expectation, more asked of them. To be amazing, experienced, and exceptional, to be accepted. As the subject matter changes and becomes more delicate or just personal, to be recognized you must make a brand of yourself, and at times not even that is enough.

The way the media and art are socially perceived is clearly different. Do you still think of art as a luxury?

Art, in its basic form, is for everyone. Regardless of your level of experience. The luxury is making a career out of it. Anyone can just do art, buy a canvas, and paint, but the minute you monetize it, and enter its business, it is not so easy. Being an art collector, a curator, and working for a gallery, is different, that is itself a luxury, being the foundation of “elite” artistry, but making art isn’t. Art as a form of expression is accessible, private, and personal, and should never be policied or defined as something lacking meaning. 

So how do we decide what’s art? As art becomes a business and carries characteristics of what can be considered luxury items, do you believe it is important to focus on the correlation between the perception of art and its industry? And if so, how is it evolving?

Though. We have different opinions of what can be considered art. For example, Jackson Pollock makes art and his work is considered art because of how controversial it was during its time, but for me, it isn’t, it's a part of a larger transition and move towards a different movement. It depends on the era, who is viewing it? Who is making it? Who is consuming it? What I might consider art, you might not. I believe it is too subjective to define, it isn’t black or white, but gray. 
When people think of art - generally speaking - they picture it in a museum: can it be displayed? But it could be hanging on the walls in your room on your desk, or your refrigerator. It does not have to meet any expectations. We are seeing the correlation, especially with AI, it has become a new thing, more than it is now. You type in an idea, and AI can construct it for you. The construction of it, the way it has been until now, is going to continue alongside it, as the industry surrounding it will continue to exist. Both things, art and the perception of it can exist at the same time. The way art is being made it is changing and evolving.

You mention AI as a way of constructing art, what is your opinion of it? Do you think that the use of AI will affect the creation of “original” art pieces?

It’s interesting. I’ve seen artists I follow integrate it into their artworks and art practice, and I hear the debates on the issues surrounding it. Should we be doing this? Aren’t we stealing from artists? We haven’t come to a consensus and I am not sure. The people who are integrating it have an understanding of how to a certain extent AI will be taking from other people so they change it and find ways to make it their “own”. At the same time, the Writer’s Strike has the same basis, art is no longer in the artist's hands, and it’s hard to know what direction it is going in.
I believe artists will still make original art. In order to get traction they have to put it on the internet, where AI will continue to take from. Technically what people who use and make with AI is “original”, as they are creating it with their own ideas, but I am unsure. Original ideas are subjective as well, even if we think it’s new, someone has done a different iteration of it before or some elements of the work we do can be seen in historical and recent art. Most of the time we recycle ideas at the end of the day, making them fit us. I do think when it comes to art made from one’s own hands or mind, there is no replacing its efforts/time. 
In your own experience, have you faced skepticism because you wanted to be an artist? 

Not skepticism, I think my parents trust what I want to do with it and ask me questions about it. They seem concerned rather than skeptical or distrustful of me. I don’t think they have seen someone have art as their career so it’s hard to conceptualize it. I think it might be a bit hard for them to fully understand the things I make and the reasoning behind them, but when it comes to the future I see for myself, they trust me with it. 

Can you share a little bit of your artistic process and inspirations? How do you create? - Starting from “March favorites, 18x18, acrylics on canvas, 2023”

I think Frida Khalo comes to mind right now, seeing the art she’s made, I’ve known her since high school. Collected books, and read her diary. I feel like she’s always been an artist who made me believe I could do it too and I draw a lot of inspiration from her color palette, subject matter, and rendering. 
The piece you mentioned, like most of my work shown, is from school assignments. I still can’t find the motivation to do art for myself outside of school.  Most of the process is drawing from personal subject matter. Here, you can see my quetzal earrings, which have always been a symbol and a motif for my long search for identity in a physical place whether that be Guatemala or more reluctantly the United States Especially in this piece, I was able to show off parts of myself and interests.
March favorites, 18×18, acrylics on canvas, 2023
Recently, the bodies of work that I’ve been making have been inspired by my efforts to try to find identity within and outside my family structure and translate that into paintings, ceramics, and book art. 

How much does your family inspire your work? As a way of conveying emotions and explaining relationships, do you view Art as a healing practice or a search for further human exploration?

Most of my focus so far has been on my parents. You go through phases where you really care for them or really love them, but also see them as a big cause of your pain. Even after anger, the fact that I can’t change them and will have to love them for what they are has allowed me to create this art, a physical manifestation of that. I don’t feel very close with my parents, specifically my mom, but I still value the relationship I do have. 
Interlinked, Acrylic, 2024
Memorializing that through art, especially Book Art (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_Art) has helped me use other people’s words to define the relationship with her, and my dad or my nieces. I don’t feel confident in my writing, and so I use words spoken by others. I am a better visual communicator rather than a written or vocal/oral one. I have been told, read, and understand that making art should not replace what therapy does for you, for me it is part of the process. There is no real end goal with all of this.

I’d like to shift the focus to another piece of yours, Family Series Vol. 2, Mami y Pa (18x18 in, oil on canvas, 2023). Can you explain it, given everything you have shared until now?

As the title says this is a painting of my mom and dad. They came to the US around 1987/1988, and these two pictures are part of the same page in a family album. I hold photos like this in high regard because I don’t have any physical records of them in their youth. I love how the page is formatted. I feel like this is a record, that I’ve created, of who we are. It has inspired me to do a royal-like portrait of them for my Senior Exhibition. These paintings are ways for me to commemorate them. 
As much as I speak Spanish and am able to have conversations with them, it’s still hard to communicate with them fully so these paintings are a way for me to talk to them.  
Family Series Vol. 2, Mami y Pa, 18×18 in, oil on canvas, 2023
Might you say something on missing? (varying sizes, ceramic, 2023).
missing? (varying sizes, ceramic, 2023)
This piece touched on the shutdown period of the pandemic and I tried to make something that encapsulates the emotions that came out of social distancing. For me physical touch, regardless of that, has been something that I don’t actively participate in or like. Through the pandemic, it has become even more evident what I “lacked”. The statues themselves are not anatomically correct and through this, I express how I don’t even know what physical touch is supposed to feel like or look like. It seems like such a big thing for people, and I wonder why I don’t seem to understand the need most people have for it. Platonically, and romantically. 

And what about Family Series Vol. 3 (oil on canvas, 2023)?

Family Series Vol. 3, 12×18 (oil on canvas, 2023)
This piece focuses on imagining or producing a space that reminds me of my childhood. All these images come from photos of me when I was younger, inspired by La Danse by Henri Matisse. It represents the youthfulness and childhood I’ll never be able to go back to. I don’t remember what was going on in these photographs, but there is hope in capturing these moments, of innocence towards the world and self-realization. Seeing yourself as a person in society, before that burden, being able to have a mullet, and dress how I want to. The flowers are California poppies and white Nun Orchids (flowers of Guatemala). They represent the frustration and feeling of not being connected to the US or to the place my parents are from. I wanted to create an imaginary space I could inhabit both at the same time. Even if it’s just a fantasy.