Studio Visit with Tamara Becerra Valdez

March 14th, 2019 | Tamara Becerra Valdez is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Chicago and a current MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For the second in a series of two blog posts focused on her practice, Valdez met with Curatorial Intern Wyatt Fiore in her studio for a 40-minute interview leading up to the 2019 MFA Thesis Exhibition, Now & There

Entering Tamara Becerra Valdez’s studio, I see collections of found objects and large windows facing the city. It is a space of comfort. We sit down together as she begins to recount stories, from the people she has encountered to the found objects that she utilizes in her practice. Valdez is drawn to the tales of others and frequently finds herself enraptured in conversation with complete strangers or friendly folks from around her neighborhood. She describes her MFA Thesis artwork as a collection of “encounters with people, strangers, and surfaces.” As we speak, I try to imagine where the line is between a person and a stranger.

Valdez’s practice strikes me as both an attempt to grow closer to those who she has never met and an acknowledgment of the beauty in disregarded objects. She draws near to strangers through the process of listening to their oral histories and discovering marks throughout the city that, combined, form stories existing outside of the traditional narrative structure. In this way, Valdez’s practice seems primarily dependent on the interactions outside of the work itself—the human experiences that inform the physical objects she producesreminiscent of social practice and performance yet unable to be definitively categorized. Valdez speaks about the experience of seeing a door or window, in passing, on the sidewalk. The mind naturally wants to create a story, yet there is always a discrepancy between the narrative the mind creates about an observed object and history about it that is relayed secondhand. Neither is real; both are somewhat removed from the actual event.

As we continue to discuss her work, Valdez speaks to me about an older project through which she explored a collection of names carved into the sidewalk around her neighborhood in Pilsen. She chose to create rubbings of the sidewalk to record the names, and during the process of creating the rubbings, her neighbors eagerly began to tell her as many stories as they could recall about the names carved into the pavement.

Through conversing with her neighbors, Valdez realized that many desired to divulge either extremely happy or extremely sad memories but were noticeably less likely to recall things that one may consider ordinary. Many stories revolved around ideas of migration and what Valdez terms a ‘transitory stop’. Texas was often a pitstop for individuals migrating to the United States from Mexico, and as a result, many Pilsen residents have a connection to Texas. For Valdez, this is where the work gains traction. Her interest in working with people comes from the cultural yielding that occurs when she takes the time to get to know someone and listen to their histories. Sharing a place in common, like Texas, no matter how brief the time spent, turns strangers into relatives. “You both know where the other has been,” she explains, “a bond over Texas is something truly special to me. I’m a tenth generation Tejana. The sun, the earth, and the breeze are things I yearn for while being so far from home. Even those seemingly incoherent images or effects of the landscape are shared. A past, present, and future occur simultaneously.”

Valdez shares with me a recollection of a man that she found to be living in a home while it was still being constructed, an experience that made her ask, “how does a space become a home?” or “how does a space become a place?” What she calls ‘humanist geography,’ is a  theme threaded throughout her past and present work. Everyone she speaks with notices different aspects of a city that serve as ‘markers’ to describe a place. For example, Directions change based on who you ask because each person has a unique way of describing how to get somewhere; their own personal markers to describe geographies. As we speak, I question what it means to know someone only through the marks of a signature embedded in cement. I suppose there are multiple geographies of ‘knowing,’ and Valdez talks about ‘marks’ as being geographies themselves—‘warm marks in the city’—created, at one point, by a human being. I found this to be remarkable and true.

For the MFA Thesis Exhibition, Now & There, Valdez’s piece is a video installation involving found wall fragments taken from a building. These slabs are installed on the floor of the gallery and projected onto. This video project is the beginning of an archive based research project—”one that mourns, yet celebrates the everyday life, family occasions, and personal surroundings of Latinos living in the United States.”