November/December 2018 – Natalia Arbelaez

The Stats

Name: Natalia Arbelaez
Current Location: Boston, MA Ceramic Program, Office for the Arts Harvard
Education: MFA The Ohio State University, BFA Florida International University
Preferred Medium(s): Sculpture
Children (ages and genders): River 10
Website address(es):

The Questions

What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?

My parents immigrated from Medellin, Colombia when my mother was pregnant with me. I was born in Miami, Florida but a couple months after my birth I moved back to Medellin with my mother where I spent the first four years of my life. My mother and I would move back to the states when I was four, to a little blue collar town in the middle of Connecticut. We spent about 5-6 years there before moving back to Miami, FL. When I’m back home in Colombia, I’m very much an American and my family are quick to point that out to me. When I’m in the states, I’m very much asked about where I’m from and reminded by people that I don’t look like I belong. I guess I’m most from Miami as its where I spent the most of my time. Miami is like it’s own place, where you are most likely 1st or 2nd generation, most people speak Spanish, and where you’ll be relentlessly teased for things like not knowing how to dance or speak Spanish. I didn’t know how to do either before moving back to Miami, but I can proudly say that because of Miami, I’m a Spanish speaking, booty dancing, baby mamma.  I got my BFA at Florida International University in Miami, with a concentration in sculpture and ceramics. I also had my son while I was in the middle of earning my BFA. I went on to receive an MFA with a full ride and enrichment fellowship from The Ohio State University. I spent four years in Columbus, OH with my family. We would eventually move to NY where I was a Rittenberg Fellow at Clay Art Center. I spent my first year there as a fellow and then my second teaching. I am currently in Boston, MA at the Ceramic Program, Office for the Arts at Harvard University as an Artist-In-Residence.

Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?

I pretty much had to learn everything about being a mother and artist on the spot and made a lot of  it up as I went along. I was a younger mother and nobody around me had children. I was also in undergrad while I had my child and the community wasn’t the most inviting. I’ll never forget a professor addressing the women in one of our upper level classes, telling us that we were going to have to make a choice if we wanted to be mothers or artists. People in Miami definitely underestimated me for my choices, making it harder for me but it also lit a fire. I’ve had to work so much harder than the rest of my colleagues and I continue working hard because of these stigmas that I have felt placed on me from a young age.

Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?

My mom. She came to this country so young at age 16 while she was pregnant with me. She came here by herself in the hopes of starting a new life and family with my father. She raised me as a single mother, she did it so young and all on her own. Her story is very inspirational.

Can you talk about how you balance your role of artist and the role of mother? Did you take time off after the birth of your child(ren)? How did that work? What about childcare? How did you navigate making artwork?

I was in the middle of undergrad while I had my child. I had River at the beginning of summer and took the summer off to be home. I returned to school part time in the fall semester. My mother was a huge help and moved next door to me. I wouldn’t have been able to return to school without her. I went to classes two days a week and would make all my work at home in my tiny studio. I made during naps, nights, and when my mom was watching River.

Later when I moved away to Ohio I had to rely on childcare. My partner also played a huge role and did most of the work while I was in grad school. Childcare was really expensive in Ohio and Ohio State University provided no help at all. I was placed on a waiting list for their child care program and it was very expensive. Schools need to do a better job at helping all types of students be able to go to school. Not having the right childcare or being able to afford it was the most stressful emotionally and mentally while I was in graduate school.

I would also take River everywhere with me. Luckily my department and cohort were very kind about it. My fellow studio-mates encouraged me to bring River to the studio and sometimes even watched him when I didn’t have childcare and an exam coming up . I had a studio hammock that River would play in every weekend while I worked in the studio. River went everywhere with me; potlucks, art shows, and the studio.

Not everyone was kind to me and I was often excluded. I was even asked to be taken off of a show in a Ohio museum and I know it was because of my child. People often ask me to speak about my experiences in disparities as a latinx artist and honestly I have not faced any like the ones I’ve had to face being a mother.

You use the human form to tell stories, express emotions, and/or impart a narrative. Your figures are often androgynous, race-less, and ageless. Do you feel this makes the work more accessible to the viewer? What does it allow you to do as an artist in terms of expressing ideas? How have the forms changed over time?

Yes, I do think that this makes them more accessible. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to pre-Columbian figures. There’s just something really fun about them and I think they were made with everyone in mind. The figures they chose to represent were everyday people, to deities, they were used in funeral rituals, and in being play objects. I think that this speaks to my work, I’m referencing these historical objects with the addition of my families’ stories. I’m able to storytell personal narratives that are vulnerable and find hard to speak about. But because my forms are fun and simplified they make it easier for me to express and I also feel that it’s easier on the viewer. I love seeing children interact and react to my work. They love my work the most. It’s something about the cartoonish imagery and that they have no problem laughing and asking questions. Meanwhile, sometimes adults will see the work and start laughing but stop themselves and apologize to me. I make the work to tell these stories but also to have fun and laugh about it.

My forms have changed over time by being more simplified and loosening up. I’m still working on this even though I think the forms are simple. I know my ticks and neurosis are physically present in my work as pattern but I want there to be more sporadicalness.

Memory is most often associated with the mind. In your 2018 NCECA Emerging Artist Speech you talked about the body as having memory. Can you elaborate on this idea? How do you use the concept of body memory in your work? Did the process of becoming a mother inform or shape this idea and if so, how?

I talk about memory of the body and how I have had ideas of how a body should be. I’ve studied the body for many years, taking many figure drawing, anatomy, and figure sculpture classes. I’ve moved away from making contrived bodies and want to use my memory of the body. I no longer look at references and because of all my years making and studying the body, when I make it’s a combination of muscle memory and mental memories. When I talked about the body having  a memory I’m talking about the bodies that I make. They are all memories to me, I’m usually using a memory to make a body, like, my grandmother’s body or Colombian women’s bodies.

Becoming a mother changed my body and I often reference this in the bodies that I make. There’s exaggerations in areas that have changed and when I’m making males or children they too will have the exaggerations even though they are not women. Even though I’m making family members or historical references I still feel like they are all influenced by me, whether physically or emotionally.

In your 2018 NCECA Emerging Artist Speech as you describe immigrating to Bristol, CT I was struck and saddened by your words. “We would quickly assimilate and become proud blue collar Americans ……I also learned English in a month but quickly forgot how to speak Spanish as we were encouraged to assimilate. I felt to be a proud American meant you had to forget your past and look to the future.” From where did you feel the pressure to assimilate? Can you talk about the dangers of being insensitive to another person’s past experience? What is the peril of forgetting? 

The community and school was strongly encouraging us to look ahead. When I started school, speaking two languages wasn’t looked at as an advantage but as a disadvantage. I was held back and I didn’t have anyone to advocate for me that maybe I wouldn’t be able to hit learning milestones in a single language as fast but I would have two languages that would benefit in the larger picture.

The dangers of being insensitive to a person’s past experience is not giving that person value. We are made up of experiences and conditions and if we cannot acknowledge or let people talk about or celebrate their identity you are helping to create a stigma that that person will have to live with. I know this because I have had such a complicated relationship with education and self worth.

The perils of forgetting are things being lost forever. I was just researching Peruvian Moche vessels for this new body of work I’ve been creating. I wanted to title some of the pieces after the Moche language Moshica, to pay homage to the culture. The language was lost sometime in the 1920’s and replaced by Spanish. That wasn’t that long ago to lose a language that was spoken for hundreds of years, probably because certain people imposed value on one over the other.

Research of Pre-Columbian artwork, both gold and ceramic, is a significant influence in your work. Storytelling and ancestral preservation is another notion in your sculptures. Your practice strengthens your connection to the culture and people of Colombia. How has your research evolved the histories that interest you? What rituals are you interested in explaining and/or preserving? Do you view your research as a form of healing?

I’m doing this residency at The Ceramics Program at Harvard, part of the reason I’m doing this residency is access to their libraries, museums, and collections. In my research of Colombia there is so little information compared to places like Mexico and Peru, and even less in English. While at Harvard I get to have physical access to these objects that I’ve been mostly looking at on my computer or through books. While this research is important to me and my work I also feel that it’s important to preserve the information and share it. I haven’t figured out how yet but I want to document my research and create more accessibility to the information.

I feel like my work has always been therapeutic to me personally. Even the physical act of making being repetitive and meditative in a soothing way. In the bigger picture, I hope it can be conducive to Latin American’s complicated history of colonialism and Amerindian ancestry.

 Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find that they feed your practice? If so how?

I wish I could have outside projects or hobbies. I’m so busy with teaching, making work, and family that there is little time for anything. I wish I had time to give to my body like running or swimming but I just can’t afford it right now. It’s such a privilege to be able to be a maker and unfortunately there are things I have had to sacrifice.

Anything else we should know or be on the lookout for in the near future?

I’ll be talking at the CAA conference about Clay, Stories, and Identities on February 14 with some great artists I look up to; Roberto Lugo, Sharief Bay, and Patsy Cox, put together by Josh Green.

And I’ll be at NCECA demoing at the Makerspace Thursday March 28th.
MAKERS’ SPACE: TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES FOR UNTRADITIONAL FIGURES By Natalia Arbelaez Using traditional techniques like pinch and coil that is influenced by pre-Columbian technique and style to create zoomorphic contemporary figures.

One last thing I would like to add is I hope we can change the art fields culture of how mothers are seen. I feel like the arts are one of the more progressive fields, open and accepting. Unfortunately, this same openness is often not extended to mothers. I have had to hide or restrict personal information in fear of not getting fellowships, jobs, and artist residences. I have know many women who have not gotten things because they are mothers. I have also seen my male colleagues be applauded and celebrated for the same roles. So what I want to ask people is to question the biases they may have, realized or not, and look at their position and how they can help make things equal. And lastly, please, lets ask fathers these same questions of how they juggle fatherhood and work.

 Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?

Joji- Yeah Right
Syd- Body
Childish Gambino- Redbone
Fatlip- Whats up Fatlip     (this is my all time favorite song)
Suicide- Cheree