A Place of Inspiration
By Kirby Tello
Portrait of Jennifer Garza-Cuen by Asa Gilmore
By now, we should all be accustomed to the fact that some pretty spectacular artists and creators can be found right in our own backyard. Nevertheless, discovering a new prodigy never loses its brilliance. Though our town may be small in comparison to other major art hubs in the world, artists such as Jennifer Garza-Cuen, photographer and Assistant Professor of Art [Photography] at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, remind us that regardless of our size, Corpus Christi is home to dynamic creatives who have earned their rightful place in the big leagues.
Garza-Cuen comes to the Coastal Bend by way of the Pacific Northwest. Her resume is showered with educational honors from nearly every university, school, and program she has attended. She is also the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, most notably the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for Photography in 2019. To put this prestigious award into perspective, only 168 artists receive this honor from the Guggenheim out of 3,000 applicants, and just three from the state of Texas were awarded the fellowship. One might think that an accolade of such notoriety would catapult an artist into an untouchable stratosphere – but Garza-Cuen does not shy away from expressing her appreciation. “The Guggenheim Fellowship is such an extraordinary honor, it’s incredibly validating,” says Garza-Cuen. “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and to all the institutions and individuals that have supported my work over the years.”
For the past 10 years, Garza-Cuen has focused on “myths of place,” exploring the role images play in defining people and photography itself as a medium of expression. For her most recent collection, Imag[in]ing America, Garza-Cuen explains her creative process as starting with “research followed by a period of one to three months’ residence in the city or town [she is] photographing.” She is no stranger to life on the road. In fact, she spent 15 years living and traveling abroad, delving into the idea of “home,” and questioning the role geographic origin plays in shaping a person’s identity.
“Using my own experiences, loose family ties, and those I’ve inherited from films, songs, and literature, I make images and build them into a series in order to create an idea of place as I imagine it,” says Garza-Cuen. And there is no shortage of inspiration flowing through Garza-Cuen’s consciousness. That child-like curiosity that allows us to seek new answers to age-old questions is what Garza-Cuen calls being “inspired by inspiration.”
Perhaps that is how she is able to honor the unique life experiences each of her students brings to the classroom. “They come from a different space, a different time, and they carry different traditions, views, and opinions,” she explains. “The beauty of the classroom is that at its best, it provides the safest possible space for those differences to collide. Just as they are there to learn from me, I learn from them, constantly – and that is an incredible gift.”