4.8 / Feeding Time

Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 3: Jaime Cortez

By Michele Carlson January 28, 2013

All images: Jaime Cortez in his Oakland studio. Photos: Michele Carlson.
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On a warm fall evening in his downtown Oakland studio, Jaime Cortez fiddles with a paper clip that’s sitting on an aluminum medical tray and explains that he is mad at Oakland. He says, “I adore it when I’m not furious at it. I just got my scooter stolen from a BART station so I’m really mad. Oakland is like a time bomb. It will remind you: this is not a playground.”1 Cortez is disarmingly articulate, and there is a distinct cadence to his voice that is calming, making the point even more impactful. This urban love story, fraught with its intermittent betrayals, is how Cortez narrates most situations. He is a storyteller, and his long career as an arts administrator and an artist are rooted in his own story.

“I’m always based in a story,” Cortez explains with a sheepish grin that lights up his entire face, which is framed in sharp contradiction between his black hair and his white goatee. For some projects, he creates stories for his comics or graphic novels; in others, he unravels narratives that dominate visual culture and history. Frequently, he is inspired by fairytales, popular culture, or mythologies. Evidence of his storytelling hangs on the walls, sits on the shelves, and lies scattered on the floor of his studio in no discernable order. Cortez’s space is in a commercial building with several floors housing various enterprises and an old elevator that is not for the faint of heart. As in many artist studios, work and storage needs vie—almost argue—for space. Tables of different sizes line the room while boxes, containers, and portfolios fill all remaining crevices.

Jaime Cortez

Cortez’s career reflects these competing forces. He often finds himself juggling his energies between the precariousness of freelance work and the drain of a day job or between the demands of commercial assignments and his own creative output. He has a multidisciplinary practice, but this term doesn’t seem ample enough. Cortez produces graphic novels and comics and is a veteran arts administrator with nearly twenty years of experience in the field. He is a visual artist, writer, teacher, editor, and curator. And these titles seem to cover his projects from just the past year.

In his career, Cortez displays an acute awareness of what it takes to build and sustain a creative lifestyle as an artist, which is distinct from finding time to follow one’s creative impulses. Finding a way to sustain a professional practice means engaging with creative impulses in ways that are sometimes counterintuitive. It can mean utilizing that creative instinct in non-artistic ways, and it often relies on channeling creativity towards a professional life as opposed to making art. For many artists, this can be damning. But evident in Cortez’s practice—as well as in his demeanor—is a tested patience,  a will to work, and a passion for making art that comes from decades of building a creative life. 

On the surface, Cortez possesses a quiet energy that one quickly perceives as dressing a voracious drive and commitment to work. He pulls out several foam-core portfolios and boxes and unpacks what he calls his “gallery practice.” Amidst the rustling of packing material, he explains, “I’m fascinated by the place where the artist meets the institution. It’s a really tortured terrain because the fluidity and the malleability of the artist are always more agile, always faster than what an institution can encompass, contain, or accommodate well.”

Jaime Cortez

Cortez’s work unravels how dominant narratives function within broader cultural and political histories. He is especially interested in the contradictory space between the narratives that pop culture and institutions construct and the unseemly reality these narratives obscure. He likens this to a love for hip-hop music, which he describes as being “so cool on your body, but then you listen to the lyrics and they’re poisonous.” Cortez rearranges these narratives in order to expose what these contradictions might say about their audience. No subject is off limits. For example, Cortez scrutinizes and strips both canonical paintings and Michael Jackson of their adoration, revealing on one hand the colonial and imperial histories that funded the paintings’ creation and on the other the troubled life of the pop idol.

Cortez sifts through storyboards of his current graphic novel, in which he chronicles his father’s long work history and the shape that work can give a life. “I’m moved by watching my dad flounder his way through retirement. If you base your whole identity on your work, what happens when you’re not doing that anymore?” Cortez’s father began working at age four, when his own father passed away.By age twelve he had worked as a newsboy, a shoeshine boy; he worked selling turtle blood at the beach. He worked washing corpses at a mortuary.”

It’s clear that work is something Cortez knows how to do. He was born in San Juan Bautista, a tiny agricultural city in California tucked outside Monterey Bay; when he was eight years old, he moved with his family to Watsonville. A middle child with two sisters, Cortez grew up in a family of what he calls “workhorses.” “My father raised me to be a verb. He raised me to be about my actions and the things I was able to complete or accomplish…. Just being myself was not validated.” He describes his early love for drawing as an internal drive that also served as a refuge for being an outsider in school at a time when “nerds were nerds, unlike now, when nerd is a code word for cool.” He didn’t take his first formal art class until he was in seventh grade, but he did have an art teacher in elementary school who pushed a cart around to all the classrooms to do creative projects with the students. “I remember all of them: we made a wishing well out of popsicle sticks and a pipe out of construction paper for our dads; all the macaroni shit; the turkey hand.” Chuckling, Cortez recounts, “I stole money from my mother’s purse to buy a drawing pad and got busted.” The story crafts the image of Cortez finding ways to sustain his practice on his own as a young boy.

At eighteen, in an attempt to escape his small town, Cortez enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his undergraduate degree in communications, motivated in part by what he describes as “working-class issues.” As he was the first in his family to attend college, studying the arts seemed a frivolous endeavor. But he continued drawing on his own. After spending two years in Japan teaching English and a year back home, Cortez moved to San Francisco in 1993. He lived in the city for a decade. Cortez fondly recalls this period of his life as one when he found his tribe: “They were queer and mostly Latino but pretty multicultural; they were all in HIV-prevention work but all involved in creative endeavors around that work.” This community re-enlivened his practice, and in 2001, Cortez decided he was an artist. “I was working like a madman into the night. There was something incredibly stressful but incredibly joyful in it for me…and I knew that I wasn’t just creative or artistic but that I was an artist.”

In 2003, Cortez’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. He left San Francisco to move back to Watsonville. For a year, Cortez was his mother’s caretaker by day and worked on his graphic novel at night. “It was a really structured routine I flourished under…. It crystallized that this is what I wanted to do.”

Cortez began studying at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 with the intent to acquire an MFA in Art Practice, without debt. Cortez says, “I had a very strong belief that I was not going to go to grad school unless I felt like financially I would come out even or with very little debt.” Prior to the U.S. economic collapse, UC Berkeley offered tuition remission, fellowship money, teaching jobs, and generous encouragement from advisors to work independently in the studio. Cortez says, “I lavished a lot of quiet time on my work…. That was one of the benefits of being hella old when you go to grad school. You can think this through and know what it means to come out into the world with a degree of very marginal marketability and twenty, thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars in debt. That was not cute to me.” During school, Cortez also consulted as an editor on publications for AIDS Project Los Angeles, an organization with international reach that offers HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and education. He left UC Berkeley debt-free and high on his work.

But fear is always the first to crash the party. Cortez remained unsure about the instability and impracticality of a life as an artist. He caught wind of a two-year fellowship at the San Francisco Foundation as the Multicultural Fellow for Arts, “and even though I wasn’t in debt, I was already afraid…. Just getting to grad school used up all of my courage. And I didn’t seem to have any left, to continue not knowing. I wanted something more secure. So I applied, and I got it.”

Jaime Cortez

Leaving graduate school can feel like stepping from a warm house into the winter cold: it may take a minute to feel the impact of the temperature change, but when one does, it is hard to rationalize staying outside. Cortez spent the next two years working aggressively in grant administration. “It was an amazing job. I got to see so many amazing artists and organizations, to meet amazing people…. And I felt, like, you know what? I can do anything for two years.” But Cortez’s art practice withered as a consequence.

“My practice died. After about a year and a half, I realized [not having a studio practice] was making me sick.” Balancing work and life is always demanding, but for artists, the balance between a job and a studio poses distinct challenges and extorts quite a toll. “I had a great talk with Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a dear friend of mine, and I told him, ‘I don’t feel good.’ And he said, ‘Of course you don’t feel good…. I see you as a true artist, and you have to understand that your practice is an animal, and it has to be fed. You neglect that at your peril.’ And I’ll always remember those words. It was something that hugely impacted me.”

When his tenure ended at the San Francisco Foundation in 2008, Cortez took a huge risk. Instead of finding another stable job, he began freelancing on numerous consulting projects in order to create a more flexible schedule and free up more time to work in the studio. “It happened a few months before the economy collapsed. I decided to go out on my own and start consulting, and amazingly it all worked out…. There were times when I was absolutely bonkers, trying to keep up with all the consulting.” Cortez juggled a number of projects, including writing wall text for the Oakland Museum of California and administering the Native American grant program for the San Francisco Arts Commission. He created a publication for AIDS Project Los Angeles that he describes as “an HIV journal that looked like an art magazine…[harnessing] cultural production as a tactic of wellness for gay men.” Cortez humbly admits that he never really had to “pound the pavement” but also displays a particular kind of trust in himself that can only come with experience. He can recognize when it is time to play it safe or take a risk and make that risk work.

But this trust is inevitably troubled, even for a practitioner such as Cortez. “The artist’s path is about renegotiating the same four or five factors configured differently: How’s your money? How’s your courage? How’s your time? How’s your will? It’s always the same combination of things. Are you getting enough recognition to feel like you’re actually having an impact?… Sometimes money is looking okay, but your courage is down the toilet. Sometimes there’s recognition, but your money is really bad. It always gets renegotiated.” Cortez accepts that part of his job as an artist is adapting his practice to the ever-changing forces of his life. He recently went back to work at the San Francisco Foundation to add some stability to the untethered freedom of freelancing. “I realized I liked having a couple of big boulders to roll up the hill instead of having a bunch of medium and small ones. It’s exhausting to me after a while…. It’s not how I’m happy. It’s not how I do quality work.” Cortez reveals that being an artist is not only about what he makes but how.

In his studio, Cortez flips through a series of intricate charcoal drawings on paper, part of a series called DiviNation (2012) included in his recent solo exhibition at Martina Johnston Gallery in Berkeley. For the series, Cortez reproduced assorted shapes from an eclectic group of canonical paintings such as Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) to create abstractions that reference their sources to varying degrees. In this work, Cortez explores how the artists were constrained by orders from their patrons or, as he described in his exhibition text, “the artist as PR hack.” But in his research, Cortez says, “I realized the mirror-opposite: the artist as prophetic critic. I was reminded that life is complicated and that those artists who functioned as shills to ‘the Man’ sometimes functioned simultaneously as wily subverters of nation, empire, and Church.” These artists, who may have made political sacrifices in order to be artists, were in their own way fighting against these institutions from within them or on their own. Given the social and political landscapes of the time, such acts were quite courageous.

Audiences are historically fickle in their tolerance of political and activist art. Acceptance of political art is bound distinctly to and is reflective of the broader cultural response to the politics of the time. Additionally, the historiography for certain types of artists and cultural production that have been deemed as political in the past can quietly influence institutional acceptance of this work today. Cortez has spent much time grappling with the presence of politics and activism within his artistic practice. “I have lived a certain anxiety about my position in that spectrum of artist/activist…. If you are called an artist/activist, you’re basically failing at both simultaneously…. You’re not a real activist, and you’re surely not a real artist. You’re just kind of an ungainly chimera.”

As Cortez shares this anxiety, night falls and several magic lanterns fill the room with spinning images and colorful projections of light. These lanterns were a part of a 2011 installation at Southern Exposure, in San Francisco, in which Cortez was mining the popular narratives and mythologies around the recently deceased pop icon, Michael Jackson. Cortez tinkers with one simple yet whimsical device, which projects with a clumsy innocence around the room the dark fairy tale he created about the musician’s childhood. It is fitting that this image, made for an art exhibition, roams over the sketches sitting on a nearby drafting table for a comic commissioned by Family Acceptance Project (FAP).

Jaime Cortez

FAP is an organization geared towards parents with children who are queer. The comic offers ways for parents to support their children’s expressions of gender and sexual orientation in the family and at school. With such support, according to FAP’s research, queer children are less likely to contract HIV/AIDS and more likely to finish high school, attend college, and live healthier and happier lives. When I ask if Cortez considers these comics part of his art practice, he recounts that he and his best friend, who is also a multidisciplinary artist, have been having these discussions for years. “And over time, I’ve gotten very comfortable with the idea that, yes, it is all a part of the practice. What I think is important for me now is to understand that I don’t want to offer a translation of myself that’s based on disciplines or platforms. The way I translate myself more and more, now, is [based upon] the recurring ideas that I explore across platforms, across mediums…. When I look at myself that way, I make sense to myself.” Cortez is an artist and he is a worker; he is an active verb. He employs those attributes to all aspects of his life and has worked to unmoor his creative practice from any qualification, opinion, or structure that might get in the way. Cortez dares you to forget that being an artist is not a playground but a draft of a story that he has the opportunity to keep retelling.

 

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NOTES:

1. All quotations are from the author’s interviews with Jaime Cortez, September 12, 2012 and January 20, 2013.

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