IRW: Hello, here we are today at Oscar Magallanes’s studio. He is one of our up and coming artists in Los Angeles and we’ve been observing him not only in the artworks that he has been exhibiting in different galleries in Los Angeles but also the murals that he has painted in Los Angeles. Hi Oscar, how are you?
OM: Hello. Good, how are you doing?
IRW: Good, could you tell us your name and whether you are from L.A. – a little bit about your background.
OM: Sure, Yeah. My name is Oscar Magallanes and I was actually born and raised – well I was born in Duarte, not far from L.A. - and raised in Azusa. So I actually grew up in a Azusa neighborhood out there in the barrio and for the past about fifteen or sixteen years I think I have been living in Pomona. For the past three years, almost three years, I’ve had my studio in Lincoln Heights but I’ve been exhibiting my work in Los Angeles for – pretty much since about 2003, because I was included in one of the “Day of the Dead” shows at Self-Help Graphics. So from that came my inclusion in “Trece,” where I got to meet a lot of the L.A. artists. So that was really my introduction into the L.A. art world and I haven’t really stopped showing in L.A. since then.
IRW: How did you find yourself in the art world? How did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?
OM: I think, I didn’t really have a choice. For as long as I can remember, when people asked me what I wanted to do or what I was going to be when I grew up, I would always tell them I was going to be a famous artist and I think that’s – I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing you know, but I just knew that I was going to be doing my artwork. I just never really had a doubt that that’s what I was going to do. Life doesn’t always come out the way you think, you know, as far as the path you take but it’s important to continue moving forward towards your goals. So I always thought that’s what I was going to do and here I am.
IRW: Did you formally study art or…?
OM: No, I’m self-taught. I actually studied design – graphic design. Just a little even at that but I did graphic design work for about fifteen or sixteen years. I still do a little bit of it but for the most part for past three years I’ve just been living off my art.
IRW: Your artwork is so like a perfectionist. Every detail in your artwork is incredibly concise.
OM: Yeah, it comes from the years of design. Wanting to make sure that everything is perfect but it’s interesting. I would see a lot of my friends and fellow artists who would spend ten to fifteen hours a day painting and I would think I’m never going to catch up with these guys. You know, but I would spend ten to fifteen hours on the computer sometimes and doing this design work and you know doing these sketches for logos and things and that’s when I said, ‘wait a minute. This is what I’ve perfected.’ I’ve gotten these skills and I’ve merged that with my fine art and that hands to the style that I’m known for.
IRW: Where do you draw your inspiration from? How did you get inspired to do what you do? I know that you said you knew from the beginning that you wanted to be an artist but was it somewhere/something in particular? An artist? Your parents? A friend? A piece of art that you saw?
OM: It honestly came from me being able to claim art as it being mine. I would say I was kind of the middle child of society. I came from a really bad poor neighborhood but my father worked very hard to put me into private school. So then in the private school I was this poor Mexican, you know, where I was always picked on. I was always looked down upon and so when these kids played sports I would never get picked or you know I was just kind of ostracized. So when I was sitting there on my own I would draw. After a while I became fairly good at it and that was the way I was able to claim some kind of dignity; to say, ‘this is what I do. This is what I do well.’ You know, while they were all playing little league or doing something like that, I had to go mow lawns and do things of that sort so the family could just get by and make ends meet. So yeah, it was rough but from that came a different way of seeing society where you can see through the cracks and you could see what was being taught in the history books wasn’t necessarily what…
IRW: What happened.
OM: That didn’t fit with my reality. So, even though it was tough it made me tougher because I was able to understand a lot of different things then that from came a lot of passion that I would put into my artwork. So it was a long road but…
IRW: It actually made you very creative and I think that’s a wonderful thing about our experiences in life. That whatever has happened to us in our childhood had affected us for the future and who we become. By talking to different artists in L.A., there is so much creativity that comes from issues like what you’re describing, particularly in our Latino community. Many of us had to deal with issues that we don’t easily disclose to others. It’s wonderful that you were able to express what you felt in school in a creative/healing manner. Here we are, in your studio, experiencing your great art, which takes me to your murals. Before we go into that, can you describe yourself in five words? If you were to define yourself, how would you in five words?
OM: in five words…
IRW: yeah haha. I know its difficult.
OM: I think I can encompass it in probably two. I would just say I’m a Chicano artist. The only other thing that’s important besides that is being a father.
IRW: Oh you’re a dad? Wonderful.
OM: Yes, this is my daughter right here.
IRW: Aww, how old is she?
OM: Well, she’s thirteen now, but there she was I think three years old when – from the photo that I took this from.
IRW: How old is she?
OM: She’s thirteen now. I was young when she was born.
IRW: You were a baby. Haha.
OM: I was twenty-one.
IRW: Wow, how wonderful.
OM: Yeah, I am actually glad because I can’t imagine trying to keep up with…
IRW: oh yeah the connection is so wonderful.
OM: yeah and there isn’t a big generation gap.
IRW: yeah that’s pretty wonderful, the closeness. So, what has been the best response you’ve seen to your artwork when you are showing your artwork?
OM: Oh wow. Honestly, there is a few experiences where I’ve had people moved to tears and I was really surprised. You know, this is just what I do so – I don’t have that outside lens sometimes. That filter that other people see the artwork through. I’ve had some people- because it is political, some people get upset but there has been a few people that have said it’s so absolutely beautiful and they’ve cried. I did this large map of the Middle East and I called it the Trillion Dollar Landscape but it was done shortly after 9/11 and after we went into Iraq. There was a lot of sentiment and a lot of people from our communities end up knowing someone who has gone into the military, not necessarily because that’s what they wanted but there are very few opportunities at times so that’s- the military is one of them. A viewer, a mother whose son was in Iraq, who just said “thank you” and she was moved to tears just from seeing that. It was very simple. It was just a map of the middle east but the idea was that often times we are very uneducated and we’ll go in and bomb in these places that we really know very little about. Where we send our brothers and sisters and children off to die and we don’t fully understand why.
IRW: Well this is not necessarily part of what we are doing here but today is September 11th.
OM: Right, right.
IRW: and I suffered two September 11th I had to leave my country in 1973 because the 9/11 coup d’état. That’s the reason why I am here and then the second one that you know about. Today has been a very difficult day for me dealing with everybody remembering what happened here on 9/11 and here I am, I had my own 9/11 that changed my perspective, my life, and my whole family, my whole community, many of my friends were killed, many of my friends disappeared. Many of my friends are in exile all over the world and that day, 9/11/73, our lives as we knew them ceased to exist. So, I understand. If today someone were to show me a Chilean flag I probably would be crying. So that map, I totally understand what that woman felt, you know?
OM: Right. It’s really sad that the U.S. is involved in a lot of these things yeah that’s – what happened in Chile on September 11th, a lot of people are just not aware of it and the U.S. involvement in it.
IRW: Right, exactly. Absolutely. It was because of politics and because I grew up very politically involved why I had to leave my country (Chile). This takes me to public art and to the murals you have painted. We can’t separate who we are and how we are affected by and what’s happening in our world to what you convey on a mural. So talk to me a little bit about the mural that you did, “El Movimiento”. And you painted another one?
OM: the only mural I have right now standing is the “El Movimiento” which is a one hundred foot long mural that was done for the L.A. County Arts Commission and when they came to me – the way the LA County Arts Commission works is they separate one percent of any county project for art and they had so many left over from a project – no I believe they had some money left over from something else and at the end of the year. So they were going to put in a parking lot next to the Florence Library and from there, there was that one percent where they wanted to do a mural. So it was very very last minute. From when they called me up to let me know about the opportunity to when it had to be done, it was I want to say a month, which is pretty crazy because there is a big process.
IRW: From the time that the process began until you ended?
OM: Yeah, but then it got extended a little bit into the year so they were able to get an extension.
IRW: For one hundred feet long?
OM: For one hundred feet long and I had three days to paint it. So yeah, it was pretty crazy. The mural itself was in homage to a lot of different things. There was a lot of murals in my neighborhood when I was growing up which unfortunately are no longer there and they had a lot of the Chicano-Latino-Mexicano motifs and they were very colorful. So that was the first artwork that I ever saw and I didn’t set foot into a museum or gallery until I was fifteen years old. I had to get kicked out of school and admitted into the Herbert Rymen Program and they’re the ones who actually took me to the museums. So that was really the first art that I saw. So in this mural I knew that it was going into an [African-American] and Latino community, a lot more Latino now because the demographics have changed a lot in the past ten years but I did want to pay homage to that in so many different ways. There’s a lot to it. It’s a little more abstract. Its still got the graphic feel to it but its based on the celestial movements and using that as a metaphor for the movement of the day amongst people because the area where it is, it’s a pretty major hub where there is, I want to say, within two city blocks, there are eleven bus stops and then there’s the blue line that stops just on the other side of the street. So it’s a very busy neighborhood where people commute to and from work. So I wanted to have that mural be a nice kind of greeting in the morning and then something to welcome them home at night also. So it’s got the blues going into the warm colors of day and then going back into the cold colors.
IRW: well its really beautiful. So it was a good experience for you?
OM: Oh yeah it was great.
IRW: you have like in your plans – in your future plans to create another mural?
OM: Yes, definitely and I want to actually work a lot with not just murals but public art. So moving into more permanent – I did a little bit of it in this where I put the metal sculptures in it but I want to do larger things.
IRW: oh that’s right because yours is 3D. You have that round part where the movement is.
OM: Yeah I have the two arches with the poems.
IRW: Right, right. That’s wonderful. Do you have a future project that you’re working on now?
OM: Not yet. The way that it works – once you get some it a little difficult to get another one immediately or at least not in the same district.
IRW: you need to wait at least a year, as I understand it, to be able to apply again for a public project…
OM: Yeah its funny the way that works. So I’m working on – I’m probably doing a couple private ones. Private larger murals but we’ll see. That’s the life of an artist. You seek out project but yeah I would love to do some larger – something with a larger budget so I could incorporate some of the metal work and different things of that sort.
IRW: So who would you say are your mentors? The people that guided you not necessarily in the arts but they had kind of mentored you.
OM: There were a few people. As I mentioned when I was fifteen I got kicked out of school, I was a bad kid back then but, you know - I couldn’t get into an art class, you know, the classes seemed remedial. It was just funny so I started rebelling, just doing bad things but luckily when I was – well first of all actually, my parents helped me a lot.
IRW: they supported you as an artist because as you know, many parents don’t...
OM: well they didn’t really support me as an artist until I sold a piece. But that’s just because the way they were raised is very different than - they were both from Mexico and they couldn’t understand what I was doing with art. But what happened was once I got kicked out I met Nancy Moore and Nancy Moore was the Assistant Superintendent of the district and she kind of took me under her wing and got me back into school and introduced me to an art teacher and got me an art class. From there I got admitted to the Rymen Program and so the Rymen Program was really when I first had somebody tell me ‘you could be an artist.’ To that point I figured I would just paint and do whatever, but they were saying, ‘no you can make a living off it.’ And they actually brought people in, professional artists and one of the ones that sticks out the most is Kent Twitchell. He came in when I was fifteen because he was friends with Lamonte Westmoreland – he was actually on the mural, the “Marathon Runners.” Great, great artist. So he was there at Rymen for a very long time so he was my first painting teacher. So he brought in a lot of artist and I remember seeing the work that Kent Twitchell was – I mean I had already seen it coming to L.A.
IRW: You were fifteen at that time?
OM: I was fifteen so then there were a lot of artists who came in and I didn’t even know who they were but I knew Kent Twitchell’s work from coming around L.A. and plus the classes were held at Otis. So his mural was outside which I hear they want to get rid of. But anyways that’s whole different story.
IRW: it is a different story but you’re so right. Yes.
OM: But him coming in and saying, ‘if you want to do it, you can do it.’ So his story was very inspirational and I mean there’s a million different things but really, Nancy Moore and then seeing these artists and then really Rymen, what they did, Marshall Ayers who was the founding Executive-Director of Rymen. So they were really the ones who helped a lot and my family who took the time to drive me all the way out every weekend to take classes for a year and a half. There had been a lot of different people along the way and Self-Help Graphics helped a lot also. A lot of different people were involved. Chaz Bojorquez who was always very open in any advice when I was still trying to figure out what I was doing as far as my style and things of that sort.
IRW: that’s something so wonderful to the younger generation you know many of you look at him as a mentor and he’s so supportive.
OM: Yeah and the unfortunate thing is I’ve seen a lot of the older cats who don’t serve as mentors you know so there is this disconnect and then they don’t understand why. You know Chaz stays relevant because he is always out there and he is always doing something and he is always talking to people. He doesn’t close himself off so he is always accessible.
IRW: Yeah he moves forward constantly, which makes him always contemporary.
OM: He moves through different worlds very easily which is very nice. He knows how to not hit people over the head with things. Somebody told me that once. That’s something that a lot of people can learn from it and I’ve definitely learned from it is if you have a message don’t turn people off by being so – which is another problem in our neighborhood, you know, in our community often times we’re so passionate about things we just turn people off to it which is contrary to what we’re trying to do. We need to have a dialogue and I want to use my art to be a vehicle for that message.
IRW: absolutely and that’s so important that we should be united. To connect with each other, to help each other, to have a dialogue even though we may not agree but by the end of the day by talking to each other - you know I never try to convince people of my beliefs but I’m willing and wanting to listen to people and you never know. We might come to an agreement in the middle.
OM: Right and to me it isn’t even about trying to get someone to agree. I just want them to acknowledge that my world is just as valid as their world. They could live often times in a place that’s more afluent, a place that’s nicer and they don’t need to acknowledge a lot of the problems that exist in our community but through my art I want to be able to be present and be at the table to say, ‘this is going on.’ And after there is an acceptance of what’s going on then we can talk about right and wrong. There first has to be this acknowledgment of something that often is just swept under the table or not looked at and I think so many issues that come with it.
IRW: Absolutely, so when you are producing your artwork – you pretty much had answered my next question. What are you trying to convey with your art? And you just were saying that. How important it is that you say what you see happening around in your community and how important that is that you deliver that message – that you use your artworks as the means to educate people who otherwise would not know. You know, I see the artworks, like your artworks, for example, this one right here, it’s like a book. There’s a whole narrative here that I can read and we can elaborate on it. So, for example, this particular piece, could you talk to us a little bit about this artwork behind us?
OM: Yeah, this piece was done for the Chinese American Museum for the “Dreams Deferred” show that they did. That show opened in conjunction with the vote of the Dream Act and it was really nice that the Chinese American Museum – that the curator there, Steve Wong – that he had the foresight to do that because immigration isn’t an issue of just one community of Latinos or Mexicanos even though its often billed as that. You know, the Asian Pacific Islanders whose community is strongly affected by everything that has to do – anything that has to do with immigration. So it was nice that he got a lot of younger artists together to deal with that subject of immigration. So even though it was focused around the Dream Act, I wanted to take a broader – I wanted to focus on it in a little bit broader scope where I wanted to deal with the causes of immigration that often were U.S. foreign policies or European and a lot of the multinational corporations who kind of dictate a lot of the foreign policies. So that’s what this is. At the same time I don’t like to just be pessimistic about something. I want it to be just as reality and at the same time show the struggle that goes on which to me is the beautiful thing. Finding the beauty of the human spirit whenever there is some kind of oppression or challenge that the human spirit often rises to face that challenge and so I wanted to put some of the heroes that I see over the past five hundred years - you know, that represent kind of some of the struggles from like the Native Americans, indigenous people to slavery and African Americans and you know Latinos and campesinos and also then going to the foreign trade – you know, NAFTA, and all those issues with the Zapatistas rebelling against the free trade agreements. At the same time, just the idea that we have – that we could learn a lot from these past struggles. And so the piece is called “With Law Like These, Who Needs Criminal.”
IRW: Wow. Thank you so much.
OM: You’re Welcome.
IRW: This is really a great piece. Thank you so much Oscar.
OM: Thank you.