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The Bend Magazine

Creative Dispatch

05/27/2020 05:00PM ● By Kylie Cooper
By: Kylie Cooper  Photos by: Lillian Reitz

What does creativity in crisis look like? The answer is undoubtedly different depending on whom you ask. Some have flourished in the solitude, while others found mental roadblocks in the unknown, impeding their inspiration. Curious about art and creation amidst isolation, we looked to four local artists, with vastly different points of view, to extend the discussion. Beautifully gifted artists Meg Aubrey, Mark Clark, Robin Hazard, and Joe Peña sent us a message – a dispatch from isolation, if you will – to help describe how we might all be feeling right now. And when those words fail, thankfully, we’ll always have tubes of paint to communicate with. 


Joe Peña

Joe Peña’s rich depictions of Mexican heritage are undoubtedly recognizable. Ideals such as family, tradition, and culture are strung through each of his paintings, creating an identity within the artist’s works that feels relatable and familiar – like opening a window into his home and life. From a series of meat paintings inspired by his culture to urban landscapes, his work tells a story. One you feel compelled to shut up and listen to. Even prior to COVID-19, his work stimulated the notion of isolation. Now that remoteness is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the theme feels especially relevant and allows not only his work, but also his own self, to feel more open to interpretation than ever before.

Kylie Cooper: What is your first cognizant memory when it comes to creating art?

Joe Peña: My mother, Elva, was always sketching beautiful little portraits and I was mesmerized by what she could do. My father, Nelson, also drew these funny little cats. I would trace both of their drawings constantly. After that, I continued to draw all the time. I guess it was working, because I remember in the fourth grade, we were given an assignment to draw something from a children’s book, and I drew a small mouse in a boat. It was a simple little sketch, really, but knowing that I would often trace drawings, some classmates accused me of doing so for the assignment and informed the teacher. She then took my drawing and placed it on the page of the book to see if I had indeed traced it, [but] my image was larger than the one in the book. I still remember how to draw that funny little mouse in that boat.

KC: What would you say is your main medium, and is it the same as your favorite medium to work in? 

JP: Really, I’m a fan of all mediums and have worked in a majority – from acrylic to encaustic. However, my primary medium is oil paint and my other favorite is ink. Oil is rich, luminous, and forgiving. Ink is intense, transparent, and can also be forgiving if used properly. The funny thing is that I went back to ink as a primary medium when my twins were born, as I wasn’t able to get to my studio as often to continue my oil paintings. After struggling with it for some time, I finally gave up and allowed the ink to do what it wanted to. I eventually enjoyed the results so much that I am now trying to get my oil paintings to look like my ink paintings! 

KC: Were there ever moments of doubt about being a career artist? 

JP: There were, and still are, constant doubts. In my skillset, in my choice of imagery, in my materials, in the direction of my work, etc. But I think self-doubt can be a good tool if harnessed correctly. It can propel you to strive for improvement, which is what it has done for me. 

KC: What message are you trying to convey to observers? Does it change per piece/collection, or would you say all of your work follows a general theme? 

JP: On the whole, my work deals with the notion of home, family, tradition, and culture. It may not be apparent in some works, but there is an underlying thread that connects all of my pieces. 

KC: Of your many accomplishments and accolades, having a piece in Cheech Marin’s collection stands out to me. What was that experience like for you? 

JP: I am humbled to be in the Cheech Marin Collection, as a number of the artists who are represented have been, and still are, my heroes in the fine arts. To be in such company is a great honor. He and his associate Melissa Richardson Banks have been so kind throughout the years, and I am truly grateful to them. When I began my series of meat paintings based on food associated with my Mexican heritage, I really didn’t expect positive feedback. I was just making work that I enjoyed. After I heard of Cheech’s similar association with the subject matter, I was thrilled to know he understood its connection – and apparently still does, as he continues to collect my work. 

KC: You also teach at the university. What has that experience been like during this time of operating remotely?

JP: It’s been an interesting transition, to say the least, but one that has resulted in fascinating discoveries about the creative process. My colleagues have all come up with remarkable solutions and it’s wonderful to see how everyone is approaching this new (for now) normal. No one certainly would have expected or would have wanted this situation, but now we all have these great resources that we have created. It really is very inspiring. 

KC: In this new landscape of COVID-19 and social-distancing, has your perspective of or approach to creativity changed at all?

JP: Interestingly enough, my work prior to our current situation dealt with elements of isolation. If I presented figures in my work, they were usually alone or in very small groups. Now, it seems to be relevant to what we are all going through. More so, this situation has affected how the arts are being viewed. 

KC: How do you find inspiration and has it changed at all since quarantining?  

JP: Ideas usually come from various resources. From the more obvious, such as a window / street light or a poorly lit sign, to more obscure references such as a family member or a family argument. The method hasn’t changed much. I usually search for inspiration internally. I will say that as I use photographs as distant references, it has certainly added to my imagery.

KC: Has your new daily routine affected your creative process itself at all? 

JP: Yes, it definitely has. Between raising three little boys and my responsibilities to the university and to my students, what little time I did have to create work was drastically interrupted to dedicate time to creating content for my online studio courses. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my wife Diana, as well as my family, and I thank them profusely. Regardless, these are first-world problems, and I’m grateful to have a job when so many are left without. 

KC: What advice would you give to other artists struggling to create during this time period?

JP: Find a solution to get back onto your creative output. As difficult as this situation is, there is still no reason not to create work. If anything, it’s a great distraction. And besides, who knows where this need for creative solutions might lead you? I had a student who said she ran out of burnt umber (a rich brown color) for her watercolors, and instead used coffee to substitute. It was wonderful to hear! Also, I feel if your content is strong enough, then you should be able to merge it into any medium. Whatever your block may be, find a solution … even if it’s finding coffee to paint with. 


Meg Aubrey

When taking a deep dive into the works of Meg Aubrey, one can’t help thinking of The Truman Show. Everything may seem perfect in the faultless world of upper-middle class suburbia, yet the viewer is well aware of the cracks in the effortlessly paved sidewalks. Aubrey’s message? Nothing “perfect” comes without a price, and much of life and the choices we make have been predetermined for us by an overarching structure mass-producing them for every one of us. Sounds heavy, right? But the pops of candy-like colors bring an essence to her pieces that somehow feels contradictory and harmonious at the same time. The isolation experienced in her work prior to 2020 now takes on a whole new meaning: the emptiness of the unknown and how that is affecting our world.

KYLIE COOPER: When was your first cognizant memory of art, and how have you evolved from there?

MEG AUBREY: Art has always been a part of my life – from being the kid in third grade who could draw the best horse, to studying illustration at Rhode Island School of Design, to ultimately earning a Master’s Degree at Savannah College of Art and Design in Painting. Drawing and painting are intertwined in my personal and professional life. As an Assistant Professor of Art at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, I am honored to be able to share my knowledge of art and design with our wonderful students. 

KC: What is your main medium, and is it also your favorite medium to work in?

MA: My main medium is oil paint on panel and canvas; but recently I have been rediscovering my interest in printmaking.

KC:Were there ever moments of doubt? 

MA: As an artist, there is never a time when I don’t experience self-doubt. That feeling of uncertainty is ever present and an integral part of being an artist. As for teaching, I do not experience self-doubt. I am confident that I have practical and conceptual knowledge to enlighten my students and prepare them for a career in the arts.

KC: How would you describe your general point of view as an artist?

MA: My work centers around a sense of place – specifically the manufactured environment of suburbia. My paintings present domestic imagery and the organized tidiness often found in pre-planned residential communities. Each work, however, maintains visual clues that suggest something peculiar and disturbing is taking place. The manicured lawns and tree-lined streets are a presentation of ideal beauty and security, yet the images suggest that acquiring and maintaining this pristine environment exacts a heavy price.

KC: What message are you trying to convey to observers? Does it change per piece/collection, or would you say all of your work follows a general theme?

MA: My paintings have a candy-colored palette that belies the loneliness, disquiet, and isolation that I am rendering in my exteriors and interiors. Plastic toy furniture is substituted for the real, alluding to the commodified lifestyle that our culture participates in, suggesting that what we believe to be our personal choices are actually predestined and mass-produced by external forces. My realistically rendered but psychologically surreal paintings confront challenges such as identity politics, socioeconomic expectations, and a loss of autonomy within our modern society.

KC: Your work in the past has had a sense of isolation attached. How have you incorporated that same sense of separation into your current period of creation? 

MA: My work has always had a sense of isolation associated with it. Since the current Coronavirus crisis, my imagery has taken on new meaning. The empty spaces, once referring to the emptiness of modern society, can now be interpreted as a metaphor for the social distancing and unknown outcomes affecting people worldwide.

KC: You also teach at the university. What has that experience been like during this time of operating remotely?

MA: Since we have transitioned to online teaching starting in March, both the students and professors have needed to readjust and be flexible. The situation is not ideal, especially in studio art, but we have all risen to the challenge.

KC: What is one lesson or piece of wisdom you always try to instill in your students? 

MA: The practical wisdom that I find essential to success is self-direction and motivation. This situation requires students to work hard and progress without the structure of a classroom setting.

KC: In this new landscape of COVID-19 and social-distancing, has your perspective of or approach to creativity changed at all?

MA: Social distancing is part of being a studio artist. This situation is very hard, to be apart from friends and family, but my studio practice has not changed. I spend countless hours alone in my studio, thinking, sketching, and painting.

KC: How do you find inspiration?

MA: My inspiration comes from the suburbs that I grew up in and later where I raised my children. I considered that environment my laboratory that was full of inspiration everywhere. Even after moving to Corpus Christi almost 4 years ago, I am still inspired by the suburban environment I left. This current situation, where our consumer culture has been essentially shut down, has renewed my interest in the aspect of my work that deals with our hyper consumer culture and the house of cards our society is built on.

KC: With a big aspect of art revolving around the notion of people gathering in a space to observe it, has this time of distance influenced the way you think about gallery spaces, and how we might bring pieces of the technology we are currently depending on into the art space once this is all over?

MA: Art openings and the social connection are such an important aspect of being an artist, and this current situation has ended all that. I truly miss the relationships with other artists and the conversations and collaborations that these encounters can produce. I know we will be back to a new normal at some point in the future, so I am taking this time to relax and discover things about myself and my work.


Mark Clark

Mark Clark possesses a certain kind of “cool.” Having never met in person, our first phone conversation still felt natural and authentic. An easel painter at heart, Clark’s point of view can be described as both rebellious and anti-elitist; but in the same sentence, he might use the word “traditional” to describe his own work. Taking an axe to the shackles of Colonialism seems to be one of his top priorities as an artist. Along the winding road of his professional career, he’s made it a point to help pull young artists up along with him. Clark’s eccentric, yet at the same time, you speak to him and are instantly pulled in by his wisdom. He’s used the last few months to really spend time with his work – injecting more color, more magic, into his paintings. The outcome has lent itself to extraordinary pieces with a life of their own. 

KYLIE COOPER: When was your first cognizant memory of art, and how have you evolved from there?

MARK CLARK: My first memories of art as a kid growing up in Texas were framed reproductions of Van Gogh paintings, religious art (Praying Hands, The Last Supper, crucifixes), photographs my father took, and my mother’s Paint by Number pictures. I began my professional career in Washington, D.C., as a photorealist, and then moved into fool-the-eye still life and appropriation art. 

In 2005, when I moved to the border, I developed a style based on tattoo flash and Texas prison art. Five years later, I drifted into painting Aztec and Mixtec deities, using the codices as models. It is presentational, rather than representational, non-European religious art based on photomechanical reproductions, done in a method very similar to Paint by Number. So, I guess I wound up right back where I started.

KC: What would you say is your main medium, and is it the same as your favorite medium to work in?

MC: I work with oil paint on linen. I don’t use turpentine or solvents. Occasionally, I will get a commission or a wild notion to do something different. I’ve done polychrome cement relief sculpture for the zoo in Brownsville, papier-mâché or wood sculpture and murals, but I am an easel painter at heart.

KC: Were there ever moments of doubt about being a career artist, or just general self-doubt?

MC: Moments of doubt? It’s more like a lifetime of doubt. I keep setting the bar higher with each picture. It takes about six months for me to see anything but the flaws in each new picture. The most self-assured artists I’ve encountered have been egotists cranking out boring product for public consumption. They stick to their formula year in, year out. I’m glad it works for them.

KC: How would you describe your general point of view as an artist?

MC: My P.O.V.? Outsider, rebel, traditionalist, populist, dilettante. That’s a pretty complex bundle of contradictions. Right now, I’m following the rules of the indigenous arts of the Americas. For me, it’s far more interesting than the traditions of Picasso, Miro, and Dali or of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Zurbaran. It’s my own feeble attempt at throwing off the shackles of Colonialism. 

KC: Your time in Brownsville really allowed you to create a space for artists that might not have existed previously. Why was cultivating an art scene there so important to you?

MC: In 2005, I moved to Brownsville and bought an 1852 commercial brick building downtown, restored it, and started showing Rio Grande Valley art. I’d come of age in D.C. in the ’70s in a robust gallery and museum scene, and wanted to give others an opportunity to publicly express themselves. Painting and sculpture are forms of non-verbal communication, and if no one sees them, there is no exchange of ideas. Galeria 409 also did a lot of music events, and it resuscitated nightlife in historic downtown Brownsville and opened up a lively cross-border exchange of ideas with Matamoros. It really opened up my mind and improved my own painting.

KC: What ultimately led you to reside here in Corpus Christi?

MC: I followed my heart to Corpus Christi. I met the Love of My Life at K Space Contemporary. She’s the only sober and sane lady I’ve been involved with in mi vida loca, and it only took me 69 years to find her. She appreciates and accepts my peculiarities and imperfections.

KC: In this new landscape of COVID-19 and social-distancing, has your perspective of or approach to creativity changed at all?

MC: The COVID-19 situation has afforded me the luxury of spending more time perfecting my painting. I’m trying to put more life, more magic, and more brilliant color into my pictures. I’m a prime candidate for the bone yard, and if my number comes up, I’d like to leave something of lasting value behind for people to admire. I really want to do my best and inspire others to do theirs.

KC: With a big aspect of art revolving around the notion of people gathering in a space to observe it, has this time of distance influenced the way you think about gallery spaces, and how we might bring pieces of the technology we are currently depending on into the art space once this is all over?

MC: I’m afraid I’m still a technophobe. I worked in museums for many, many years, and objects speak to me through their cracks, chips, scars, and imperfections. A glowing image on an LED screen is only a shadow of the original object. I think we do need more public art – murals, monuments, and a remarriage of art and architecture. Art should be everywhere, available to everyone. My favorite venue for displaying my paintings is the Zocalo subway station in Mexico City. 10,000 people a day saw my show there in February and March of 2015.

KC: What advice would you give to other artists struggling to create during this time period?

MC: First of all: Get your paint brush moving. If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re wasting time. Set the bar higher with each picture. Encourage others to succeed. You are competing with yourself, not other artists. 

KC: What have you learned about yourself through the practice of social-distancing?

MC: You know, social distancing actually reduced the chaos in my life. It gives me time to be thankful for all the good and bad things that have brought me to this serene place where I can create what I want.


Robin Hazard

The bright and saturated works of Robin Hazard immediately force the onlooker to feel something when gazing upon one of her electric pieces. Both abstract and expressionist, her obscure nature and still life-esque depictions of the world around her have been displayed in countless museums and galleries throughout the years. Pastels are her love language – their vibrant colors and ability to tell a story in vivid detail seemingly put her pieces in a world of their own, one with blue trees and red water. Hazard’s main goal? Sharing the joy she has for this life with anyone who will listen. When it comes to creating from isolation, Hazard has learned that she is who she thought she was. While the current unknown has brought anxieties to our everyday world, this has allowed her to remove those anxieties from her consciousness and focus on what matters: creation.

KYLIE COOPER: When was your first cognizant memory of art, and how have you evolved from there?

ROBIN HAZARD: My first memory, outside of coloring, was wanting some Play-Doh. From there, it evolved into colored pencils on a white mat board. I couldn’t wait to hit the drugstore for that perfect, pristine board and a new box of colored pencils. I dabbled in acrylics, pen, and ink, and made my way to SMU in 1973 with a major in studio art. I left in 1974 and returned in 1982. It was a much better experience to return to school as an adult; I was ready and hungry to learn. I moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1992 and connected with the arts community there. My work was so different from everyone else’s that it began to get some attention. I studied drawing under Roger Winter, who featured my drawings at the Kimbell Museum’s “Creative Process Drawing Symposium” in 1983. Since then, I have had the great opportunity to exhibit my work in various galleries and museums through group and solo exhibitions, and have continued to push myself and my creativity through it all. 

KC: What is the main medium you prefer to work in?

RH: My main medium is pastel. I still enjoy it very much and it is usually my go-to – except when I want to go really large, then I go to oils. Pastels are quick, oils are slow. Then somewhere in the middle for a quick, large piece I go to acrylics.

KC: Were there ever moments of doubt? 

RH: Doubts? Yes. I always thought I was supposed to have a “real job” like everyone else. I kept trying to find that, and I did for a while, but I didn’t have a degree. No advancements without a degree. I was fortunate to go back to school, and graduated with a BFA from SMU. 

KC: What message are you trying to convey to observers? Does it change per piece/collection, or would you say all of your work follows a general theme?

RH: I like to convey to viewers what I see. I enjoy a viewer’s questions, and not understanding why my trees are red or blue. I enjoy the surprise in their eyes when they look at my work. I had one viewer tell me, “Hey Robin, I like your carrots!” I had painted trees in orange. Some viewers just don’t get it – hey, it’s not Norman Rockwell (one of my dad’s favorite artists)! I just want to share the joy that I see, whether in its habitat or from my imagination. I guess if you call landscapes a general theme, I suppose so. I’ve also been known for my large abstract expressionist paintings. 

KC: Your work is so rich in color. Have you always been particularly drawn to color, and how has that influenced your art?

RH: I was born in color. I love color. Color excites me. I went through a period in college where everything I did was in black and white. Then in printmaking, I discovered monoprints. POW! I landed in Oz!

KC: The artist community in Rockport is so amazing. How has being involved in that scene affected you as an artist? 

RH: The arts community in Rockport is such a dynamic force of artists. I have been through a lot since I moved here in the fall of 2015. I feel like have been accepted into this community, and their support has been amazing and has given me opportunities and strength.

KC: In this new landscape of COVID-19 and social-distancing, has your perspective of or approach to creativity changed at all?

RH: I have found it very, difficult to create during this time. By that, I mean time in the studio. I was looking forward to a time without interruptions, and instead I have been doing everything else or nothing. I have been working a lot in my garden. As far as art goes, I have been doing a lot of thinking about future pieces.

KC: Has your new daily routine affected your creative process at all?

RH: Most definitely. I spend a lot of time trying to be prepared – then trying to give myself time to rest.

KC: Do you possibly feel more connected to your creative process and your pieces as a whole because of the time of solitude?

RH: This solitude really isn’t solitude for me. There is a constant nagging unknown that steals my solitude. I have to very consciously remove these thoughts to find peace; I have started meditating again.

KC: With a big aspect of art revolving around the notion of people gathering in a space to observe it, has this time of distance influenced the way you think about gallery spaces, and how we might bring pieces of the technology we are currently depending on into the art space once this is all over?

RH: I’m grateful for the technology. It’s pretty amazing. But I have to say, there is nothing like the experience of art face to face. I’ll never forget getting off the elevator in the Museum of Modern Art and being face to face with Matisse’s “Red Room!” That was in 1983, and it seems like yesterday. I try to encourage people to let go of the posters when you can, and buy original art. There is nothing like it.

KC: What advice would you give to other artists struggling to create during this time period?

RH: I would give the same advice I give to myself: Take your time. Don’t force it. Keep your mind open. Make notes of ideas. And one I am starting – just spend time in your studio.

KC: What have you learned about yourself amid the chaos? 

RH: I have learned that I am who I thought I was. I am very comfortable on my own. I love my time alone – with my two Aussies, Scout and Texas Sky. I’ve learned I still have a lot to learn. I’m not sure the Camp Fire Girls prepared me for this!