Emily’s Update from her studio at Mana

Corntalks, husks, and roots. Materials for an upcoming installation.

Corntalks, husks, and roots. Materials for an upcoming installation.

This season of my studio exploration is influenced by some recent reads, which you can find here and my grandmother’s memoir titled Along the Banks of the Rio Grande that I am currently editing and helping her publish. Another reality that has been heavy on my mind is our nation’s struggle with xenophobia in light of the elections.

Along the Banks of the Rio Grande details my grandmother’s experiences growing up on the border of Mexico and the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. She lived her early years in an adobe hut a mile from the Rio Grande River, in the traditional indigenous way of the Mexican-Indians of her region. Her parents, Dona Rita Bejar Velez and Carmen Evidencio Velez, lived the majority of their lives working in the labores, harvesting cotton for farmers and raising their eight children. The world and culture of her time is completely foreign to my experience growing up in a U.S. suburb, yet I feel intimately connected to the simplicity and everyday practices of her early experiences.

Another key influence has been Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait on the Border Line between Mexico and the United States, which is now showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their special exhibition Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950. I recommend you make a trip to Philadelphia if you reside in the northeast and check out this rare grouping of Mexican Modern painters.

I would like to keep some elements of the projects that I am working on during the residency under wraps until they exhibit; however, I will share my process, materials, and some visuals. As research for my installation, I have partnered with two farms in central New Jersey. I have been hand-harvesting cornstalks from these farms, which turns out to be rather difficult without the use of tools. I will be altering the surface of stalks, presenting them as precious objects, and arranging them in between two opposing environments. For one of the environments, I am building a panel that will resemble a desolate landscape. At this moment it involves a 5 x 11 x 3’ trough, which I have lined plastic, filled with foam, and am now layering with red clay slip and cement. I have been embedding corn stalks in between the layers of cement and clay and allowing the materials to crack in the open air.

Trough being sealed and prepped for red clay “slip”

Trough being sealed and prepped for red clay “slip”

Process image of embedding cornstalks into wet clay slip.

Process image of embedding cornstalks into wet clay slip.

Contemporary Western hostility towards immigrants, specifically immigrants of Central and South American decent, has been central to my thinking about this project. Many in the United States have little understanding of or interest in their neighboring nation of Mexico, outside of their food, vacation destinations, and goods/services that alleviate us – drugs, lawn care, and house workers, for example.

As another work in this series, I will be making masa, a paste developed through boiling raw corn and grinding it with a molcajete and a stone. Masa was the central food for my maternal ancestors and is a main ingredient for several modern Mexican dishes. Women would grind the tough kernel for hours until it formed into soft, muddied, edible paste, which would then be made into tortillas and tamales. This work will most likely culminate in a video accompanied by a series of sculptures made from a mixture of masa and resin.

Quick gestures for masa video and sculpture series

Quick gestures for masa video and sculpture series

A third work I have begun involves a cotton and lace tablecloth belonging to my husband’s late abuelita, Guadalupe Perez. I am currently collecting glass and porcelain figurines for this work. These objects will be stacked to form precarious towers. Each figurine tower will be supported by a mauve glass goblet at its base.

Observational sketch from the first install of this sculpture, I am still locating the proper objects for this work.

Observational sketch from the first install of this sculpture, I am still locating the proper objects for this work.

I typically do not make formal drawings for my sculptures, however I do scribble a quick image to remember the idea. These gestures help me to remain flexible while making, leaving room for discovery. A project is initiated through readings, viewing exhibitions, and researching materials so that I have a better understanding of their characteristics before working with them.

By Emily Nelms Perez


This past week, I took a trip to Los Angeles and saw a few amazing shows. If you’re on the West Coast, I recommend the following exhibitions that are currently on view:

Doug Aitken: Electric Earth, at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, on view until January 15, 2017

UCLA Department of Art MFA 2017 Exhibition, UCLA New Wight Gallery, on view until November 10th

London Calling, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Special exhibition with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, and R.B. Kitaj. On view until November 13, 2016,

Simone Leigh, The Hammer Museum, Special exhibition on view until January 8th, 2017

James Turrell, Breathing Light, LACMA, ongoing

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