Phoenikera Artist Celebrates Every Thread of Her Indigenous Fiber
She’s a jeweler, not the kind that wears a loupe at a store or sits in a dark room inside a diamond & gemstone warehouse. She makes earrings, bracelets, and necklaces; ones that reflect the connection to her ancestors. She designs her pieces considering what they would wear as adornments.
She’s also pursuing a fiber arts degree.
While she sips a cup of joe, she expresses that art is a blessing, a divine energy, and it excites her to learn different techniques from our ancestors; what they created for us and the identity it gave us, the sense of belonging.
“Their work made an impact. It sent a loud message: we are here, we are important,” she says, wild-eyed and with a spark that’s fueled every time she talks about art.
I order a Sessions but the server can’t copy my accent, I crank it up so she gets it, but end up sounding like a cheesy actor doing a mediocre British impersonation.
We retake our fiber arts convo (she lights up again) and tells me about the manual labor involved and the manipulation of fiber materials, how it is an ancient process practiced by many cultures around the world and it’s deeply communal.
She appreciates the influence of fibers on clothing and jewelry, the historic value of weaving as one of the oldest art forms. Dyes are also part of the chat; she tells me a story about a classmate who dyed cotton using plants and bugs like many ancient civilizations did.
Her interest expands to experimentation with mixed media and it has helped her regain confidence, even to call herself an artist, because as she says, it takes guts to do that. “When you call yourself an artist, you put yourself out there, all your beliefs and all who you are for people to see and judge,” she says.
She laughs at how shitty she thought her sketches were and now with some guidance, she’s producing stuff she’s proud of.
For a sec I get distracted with the light entering from a nearby window, brightening her eyes like two mirrors and bouncing it off on to me, when I snap out of it she’s talking about the moment of “the unknown,” the instant when she’s about to create something, when she’s in that energy of making and wants to forever get lost in it.
The arts weren’t part of her life growing up in León, Guanajuato, or even when she migrated to the U.S. at 8 years old with her mom, grandma, two older brothers, a younger sister and a cousin.
I’m mesmerized by her story about a seal, blue-lit by the full moon and dead on the beach while on her path to the border; about the two times it took for them to cross and effectively stay on this side; about tip-toeing the shallow water of the Rio Grande River all the way to shore, and then making it to the city with just a plastic bag; about being stared up and down on the bus because they were dirty from the journey.
It was the first time she felt unwanted. “As an immigrant, you constantly feel unwanted, especially now,” she says. I hear sadness when she tells me these details. I also hear joy.
She laughs the way people do when admitting a guilty pleasure and says her first bought cassette was Christian Castro’s, and also is a hardcore fan of La Trevi, Alejandra Guzmán, and Timbiriche.
The first encounter with art was near her house on Tamarisk St. on the South Side, when she saw local artist Martin Moreno painting a mural. She lights up once again.
Takes her time letting me know about her photography classes in 7th grade and later on in high school, her first fiber class during the same academic years, where she discovered jewelry-making and her love for it.
She hopscotched through the South Side with her family and graduated from South Mountain High School. Her hard work as student created plenty of options for her future and went on to become a nurse with a scholarship, but couldn’t get her license because she was undocumented.
The unwanted feeling she’s always had hit her like a punch in the gut. Inevitably she also remembers being picked on her because she was a few shades darker, the prietita people would call her and because of it, she suppressed her indigenous side.
Gloria Casillas-Martinez says that now she’s reclaiming who she is; she now understands that the side people otherized is precisely the one that gives her the feel, the spark.
When Gloria wasn’t allowed to practice nursing was when she became an artist. At a time where things were rough, she saw how Kathy Cano-Murillo, la Crafty Chica, had a lot of success selling her crafts, she decided to sell them too and join The Phoenix Fridas. Art was a way to channel energy and it made her feel good about herself.
She can’t hide her excitement about the possibilities, says her craft and the new incursion she’s taking with fiber arts compliment each other. There’s no doubt a new era awaits.
Gloria is also psyched about her new show with other 3 La Phoenikera artists on September 2nd at The Sagrado Gallery in South Phoenix; how it unifies the voices of artists with similar experiences as undocumented immigrants, as creative beings and women of color.
She’s hella fired up about collaborating with Gio (Áviles), Chela (Meraz) and Carla (Chavarría). To tell their story and allow herself to communicate and have a dialogue about the real impact of policies upon communities.
For Gloria it takes people like her involved in the project who are targeted on multiple fronts, to use art as a platform and show others how is affecting her life. She tells me the artist’s job is to point the finger, be conscious of what you put out there because of how it affects society, and this show is part of that.
The server asks us for the twelfth time if we were ok, she seems annoyed at us. We’ve been too wrapped up on our roles (I try to keep up with Gloria’s anecdotes; she tells them to me), I want to ask a few more Q’s before the server comes back with hot oil and pours it over our faces.
She tells me her favorite place in La Phoenikera is South Mountain, it is what connects her with her place. “No matter where you leave town to when you come back and see those lights at the top of the mountain, you know you’re home,” she says with a full smile.
La Olmeca is her favorite place to eat and thinks the term SoHo isn’t one she really connects with, and she thinks it takes away from what the place really is. She thinks SoHo is bougie.
As interesting on that steamy day marching towards 4th Ave. jail; at The Sagrado Gallery when we discussed the future of the South Side; or at a downtown eatery finding out what she’s about, talking to Gloria is never empty, never hollow, never inconsequent. Hopefully, you get to hear her experiences first hand at the show on 9/2.
The exhibit starts at 6:00 p.m. at The Sagrado Gallery located on 6437 S. Central Ave.