Printmaking to cultivate peace
Glenwood Springs artist Vanessa Porras honors heritage, experience as an immigrant
Vanessa Porras said she remembers repeating words over and over again trying to sound more Americanized, even mispronouncing words she knew how to say properly in Spanish in an effort to feel like she belonged.
“For a long time I felt really ashamed… I tried to really work on my accent to make it as white as I possibly could. I would just really hyper-focus on the way somebody said something and then just repeat it over and over again until it sounded like what they were saying,” Porras said.
Porras is local to Glenwood Springs and has lived here since she moved with her family from Chihuahua, Mexico when she was 6. She said the experience for children of immigrant parents is very distinct — more responsibilities are taken on and you step into the role of a translator on their behalf.
“You somehow become the eyes and you become the mouth, and you become the ears. You are the translator at that point…you see that (your parents) are struggling even more than you are to navigate,” Porras said.
She currently works for Aspen Art Museum as a teacher for the mobile story art program they offer. Porras said prior to the pandemic she would visit caretakers and children from the ages 0-4 in their homes to lead art lessons and read books to them. Now, everything is done over Zoom but Porras said she still feels compelled to do this work since it helps fill an educational gap many of these children have before they attend kindergarten.
“It’s basically like trying to help minorities, these kids, have that head start and not be going into kindergarten and not knowing anything,” Porras said.
Porras said she relates to these children, especially following her experience when she first enrolled in local Glenwood Schools without knowing any English. When other kids don’t want to play with you during recess or the teacher puts you in a corner separate from other students, it’s motivation to learn the new language even quicker, Porras said.
“I knew not a single word of English. It was like a fight or flight type of experience where I was in survival mode. I had to adapt pretty quickly,” Porras said.
Seeking representation within the art world
In addition to her work with Aspen Art Museum, Porras is a printmaker and is expanding her work to include wood cuts and bookmaking. After attending school, she had an art residency in Oaxaca in 2019. She said she was motivated to return to Mexico after nearing the end of her college education and only knowing Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera as Mexican artists.
“I was partly frustrated that I had taken all these art history classes and all we had learned about was these European and American artists. And it was mainly white men,” Porras said.
During her time in Oaxaca, Porras said she met many Mexican artists and learned how to do reduction printing. She said she knew there were female Mexican artists in the area but they were overshadowed by the men there. She said this gender dynamic was frustrating to her — the women artists there were just as talented as the men.
“It’s not like a men versus women type of thing, but they are still in the shadows and it’s like why?” Porras said. “These guys, like 99% of them are making prints and they’re making nudes and so it’s like, you’re using the female body but you don’t want the female artist. It kind of pisses me off.”
Wewer Keohane, another artist local to the valley who is also known as Dr. Keohane is a mentor to Porras. Porras sought out Keohane when she was considering a career path in art therapy, since Keohane has her PhD. in psychology. Keohane said she and Porras discuss the connection between dreaming and the subconscious with art and Porras will continue on her legacy from the book she published titled “Artful Dreaming” discussing methods on how to create art with those intentions and teach the method to others.
“I feel like we were kindred spirits from the moment we met…I think it’s an honor to her heritage that she is so dedicated to her art and that will inspire Latinos to make art and do this deep work. But I think her work is universal,” Keohane said.
Keohane also said she and Porras discussed Porras translating “Artful Dreaming” into Spanish, which would broaden its reach even further within the artistic community in the valley and beyond. Porras’ work is authentic and her approach is autobiographical, Keohane said.
“I’m just thrilled to have someone as young as Vanessa so interested in carrying on my ‘Artful Dreaming’ work and I know she will do it with integrity and great skill,” Keohane said. “She’s just this perfect combination of artist and dreamer. She goes deep, she’s sincere, she’s honest…(and) she also is able to express in a therapeutic way.”
Reconciling her roots
Porras said her artistic process is a way to reconcile with her Mexican roots that she once tried to distance herself from. Her work is a way to come to peace with herself and the disconnect towards the Latino community worldwide, she said. She recounted a story of when she went to the post office with her mother shortly after moving to Glenwood and was trying to ask the employee for scissors. Porras said she had trouble pronouncing the “sc” sound. Trying to push her apprehension aside, she made multiple attempts to communicate what she and her mother needed. All she received in response, however, was an “I can’t understand you.”
“It was at that moment that I was like, no she could understand me, she just chose not to…There was a lot of that like understanding that even if you were walking into rooms you weren’t supposed to be in accidentally, there were certain areas where people didn’t want you to be in. Navigating that was a whole ordeal,” Porras said.
She said experiences like this taught her that adults aren’t always there to help you, and while she was met with a lot of kindness in the valley, she also dealt with many unkind people. Her initial move to Glenwood with her family felt like an uprooting, but now after having traveled to Mexico and back, Porras said she considers this town to be home.
“When I went back in 2017 to Mexico I realized that this was home, but it isn’t home anymore.
Coming back to Colorado after that trip was the first time I was like ‘this is home.’ Looking at Sopris Mountain, if there’s a symbol of home, that’s it, you know?”
While the addition of resources for Spanish-language speakers in the valley is moving too slowly for Porras, she said she is still happy to see it happening. In the 21 years that she has lived here she said she has seen change happen, but she looks forward to when Spanish-speakers and residents of Hispanic heritage are no longer viewed as less-than by some.
“I think we see it a lot in cultural appropriation where people are so OK with going to Mexico and vacationing there…but once you have it in your home it’s like not OK. Or like you can take clothing from the indigenous people like you feel good giving them a peso or whatever and then you come back here and you don’t even turn to look at your neighbor that’s Latino mowing your lawn or scrubbing your toilets…I wish art could mend that.”
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