McCallen

Studio visits with Josue Ramirez.

I had been joined in Corpus by Sean once again, and from that point on we would be traveling together until our scheduled break in Austin. OUr next stop was the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), a place that had been a mental milestone for me since the road trip had begun. I was born in the RGV, specifically Edinburg, but had only lived there until I was four and my mom moved us to Austin. After that I would spend summers in the RGV until I was nearly in high school. Half of my extended family still lives in Harlingen and San Benito, and we would be staying with my family while we were there.

I hit the 1,000 mile mark on the odometer and realized I was 20 days into the trip as I drove in Harlingen. We were going to my Aunt Betty's house for the night, because we had a full day in McAllen the following day. I was nervous as Harlingen got closer. Mixing work with family is always hard, and I hadn't been back for a proper visit since my grandfather passed away more than six years ago. We had all seen each other, but visits mainly consisted of only two or three days maximum including the drive time to and from Austin. In that six years my family was strained further by the discovery that my grandmother's health was also in decline. The RGV has since been a hard place for myself and my brother, but with the support of my family I was there to mix both business and pleasure, and get as much time as I could with both. We went to dinner with Aunt Betty who treated us to nachos and tacos, and settled in for the night.

I woke up the next morning feeling fatigued by the travel for the first time since the trip started. There was something about being in a place with family that made me want to stop working and spend all my time surrounded by them. It was the feeling of waking up in a familiar bed for the first time in so long that made the travel weary finally set in, and coupled with a suitcase full of dirty laundry, I was finally starting to feel a little disheveled. The RGV, however, is a place I know well, but I was there in a different context and ready to learn about it.

We drove the 29 minutes or so to McAllen and straight to partner organization the International Museum of Art & Science, or IMAS. I was meeting Jennifer Cahn for the first time and really looking forward to it. Jennifer had been enthusiastically helpful as we were planning the road trip, and was immensely helpful in sharing our open call with her networks of artists in the region. It had also been a number of years since I had been to IMAS and I was eager to learn how it had changed and grown over the years.

At first thought it's hard to imagine a museum that is dedicated to both art and science. In our public education systems, in most institutions, and even in our North American culture art and science remain separated. IMAS, however, has found a way to use education as a means of bringing art and science together in one institution. Jennifer met us at the entrance with hugs and a warmth about her that made me feel instantly welcome. Jennifer walked us through the museum, and make us more than aware of the mission that her institution has to serve families in the area and along both sides of the border with educational activities and accessible yet challenging exhibitions. I got to pet a hedgehog, test rain patterns via ultrasonic sensors, and watch how weather patterns are predicted across the globe with a giant rotating interactive sphere. Needless to say, it was cool.

Then Jennifer led us into the exhibitions of contemporary art, which once again were programmed specifically with their audience in mind. On view at the time was an exhibition on contemporary art and superheroes, titled "My Hero!" the exhibition was a group show that had work by artists from all over the country. The bright yellow walls gave it a fun and inviting feel, but the work slowly dissolved definitions of heroism as the viewer walked through the exhibition, taking on a political voice that resonated further given the proximity to the border and the political climate.

Jennifer explained to me that IMAS had once run a regional Biennial of work in the area which had been well received, but do to infrastructure changes and budget cuts it had to be put on hold until further notice. I was surprised to learn of another Biennial at first, but then realized the geographic expanse that is the Rio Grande Valley, and the number of artists that live in South Texas, and I wondered how a regional Biennial could further foster community between artists in the area, and how we as a state-wide Biennial could help.

Our visit with Jennifer was too short even though we had a little under two hours. I probably could have spent the entire afternoon talking with her and learning more about McAllen and IMASS, but we had a visit scheduled with Chris Leonard and after visiting with Jennifer I was ready to meet with artists in the area.

Chris had applied to the Biennial but a studio visit with him was also recommended to me from multiple people. It was a hot and muggy day in the Valley, and we walked up the stairs into the relatively comfortable climate of Chris's studio, which was packed to the gills with work. Chris is a maker, and he produces quickly. His very figurative and gestural paintings and drawings give an endearing and mythical quality to domesticated animals like house cats. I flipped through countless drawings, pulled canvases, and Chris even told me about his recent exploration into ceramics. I was in a studio full of information and filled with the contents of curious experimentation that Chris had amassed and managed to hold onto throughout the years. Chris is also an educator and responsible for teaching and mentoring a number of students in the area. It was clear that he was invested in his students and his practice.

That afternoon we also visited with young artist Josue Ramirez. Josue was in the middle of a move and was gracious enough to pull out out work from storage and set it up in his partner's apartment to show us some of what he had been working on lately. I immediately gravitated to a series of work that he had just started and planned on continuing. Josue was playing with pop culture images that have transcended borders, while also defining the location from which is comes from. The series he had been working on was a series of hats shaped like Mickey Mouse ears, a popular image recognized by any child and one that makes any adult in the United States nostalgic for their childhood. Josue's treatment of the Mickey Mouse ears remixed with fabrics and objects that show the syncretic nature of Mexican and U.S. cultures, especially in pop imagery. Josue made the ears with nopales, traditional mexican embroidery and textiles, soccer balls, and the cheesy plastic tablecloths all our Mexican-American, Valley grandmothers would put over the table at any family event, including mine.