W

e’ve all seen Mexican and American identities packaged together when the goal is to sell something—a restaurant meal, a style of clothing, or media that includes Spanish words or Mexican customs. But what makes a person Mexican and what makes them American—or where they land in between—is a question that needs to be lived before it is answered. This is the question that multimedia artist Cesar Piedra explores in his work.

Born in Southern California and raised in Northern Nevada, Piedra has said he was born between two cultures, “the hyphen in Mexican-American.” His sculptures, ceramics, and performances often juxtapose historical Mesoamerican designs and traditions with contemporary culture, in an effort to explore his identity. 

Piedra is the featured artist for Holland Project’s Tri-Lab fundraising party today, June 13. In an email interview, he discussed his work with the Holland Project, his evolving taste for different media, and his goals for the future.

I read that you felted a piece by hand that will become a custom beer can label for Tri-Lab’s collaboration with Imbib Custom Brews. Can you tell me about the process for creating the piece and some of the themes that served as your inspiration? Did you approach the process any differently knowing it would be used for beer can labels?

So the Spanish burned, looted and did some atrocious things when they “discovered” the Americans, resulting in a limited amount of surviving texts and literature of the Mesoamerican cultures. Fortunately, we still have their monuments, stone sculptures and architecture. The codices from those times that survived have been reproduced as books and reinterpreted by contemporary artists to continue the traditions of the ancestors. One of which I draw a lot of inspiration and am always captivated by is the Codex Borgia.

The Codex Borgia is a 16th-century pictorial manuscript from Central Mexico. This page depicts the depicting the sun god Tonatiuh. Image: Creative Commons.

The design for the beer label is a desire of mine to take part in filling the void left by the arrival of the Europeans on this continent. I’m interested in exploring storytelling through iconography, much like those who illustrated the codices of Mesoamerica. This concept/theme coupled with the ritual of sharing beers and swapping stories with your friends felt like a fitting place to start.

Will more of your art be featured at the event? What kinds of work will be shown there and how will it be displayed?

My involvement with the Tri-Lab event is just with the label design. The now-framed original felted work will be up for auction. There will be lots of local vendors and artists present at Tri-Lab, please support them!

Although, I do have another felted work in the exhibition Hand Wash Only curated by Camryn Maher, Ana Newman, and Ingrid Stumpf. The exhibition is at the Holland Project and will run until the end of the month. Do check it out—they have lots of fun programming for the duration of the exhibition, it’s an amazing curatorial project!

You debuted your previous show Hija/e/o/x(s) de Su at the Holland Project last summer and collaborated with Pax Robinson for the Burrito Show before that. Can you elaborate on your connection to the Holland Project? What have your roles/shows/relationships there looked like in the past, and what do you consider to be the value that Holland Project provides to you as an artist in Northern Nevada?

One of my peers in undergrad once described me as someone who is “always down” because I was always helping move stuff, tossing pieces into open calls, and organizing with Häsler Gomez to throw unapproved exhibitions in hallways and unused galleries, which was a side effect of being in the studio all of the time. 

Through this mode of operation, my work caught the attention of Alberto Rodriguez, who was working at Holland. Alberto invited me to an exhibition they were curating with Krystal Ramirez, A Claiming Which Cannot be Tamed

Soon after, I was invited to run a few workshops and donate works for their All In group shows. [Las Vegas artist] Geovany Uranda and I applied for the curator series last year and had an amazing experience putting on Hija/e/o/x’s de Su-. The Holland Project is an integral part of the Reno community—they do so much for everyone.

Cesar Piedra’s ceramic Modelo bottles were part of an altar addressing alcohol dependency and healing in Hija/e/o/x(s) de Su, a 2023 exhibition he co-curated with Las Vegas artist Geovany Uranda. File photo: Alisha Funkhouser

Speaking more broadly about your connection to Northern Nevada, I read in your interview with Blackbird Journal of Literature and Arts that you moved to Reno when you were 9 and felt you had no real connections to anything that could inform [your] identity there.

Seeing as the exploration of identity is such an integral part of your practice, have you been able to forge a cultural connection with Northern Nevada you might not have felt when you first arrived? Perhaps through the UNR arts program or the local arts community? Or do you still feel the same way you did when you were younger?

No, I still feel the same as I did when I was a little kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate this place and the wonderful friends and mentors I made in those circles.

Ceasar Piedra. Photo: courtesy of the Holland Project.

I read that you mostly studied ceramics in your formal education, but have adopted mixed media practices—like felting, for example, which you consider more accessible because it requires less studio space than ceramics, or performance pieces like “El Vendedor.”

Are there any other mediums you’re currently experimenting with? If so, why did you choose to pursue them? Are there any mediums you would like to create with but haven’t had the chance yet?

At the moment I am content with the materials I have at hand. I’m making ceramics in my kitchen and felting in my living room.

I got into performance art because I had this negative preconceived notion about it and felt the need to challenge that perspective while I was in undergrad, and after my thesis exhibition, I noticed that all of my work was made up of construction materials that bolstered rough textures.

I felt the urge to flip those notions about me and my work on its head and began working with fiber, specifically needle felting wool. Now I use all of these materials to create works that play on their strengths and language, as seen in my work “El Ritual.” I’m interested in the collaboration of materials rather than the use of a singular medium.

I was really intrigued by something you said in the Blackbird interview about being the “hyphen” in the term Mexican-American, and how that term can look so different to so many people it might apply to. You’ve started to garner recognition for your own exploration of Latinx/Chicano identity in the United States.

Cultural identity is both deeply personal and, yet, still a shared experience by definition. In what ways has your artwork fostered a greater connection to people who share the Latinx label, and in what ways does your personal attitude towards Latinx culture set you apart from your peers?

Thanks for reading my past interviews. I am very appreciative about that. I really enjoy gallery sitting because you get to sit with the work and interact with the viewers, and sometimes they’ll ask questions, eavesdrop on conversations, laugh, and express their thoughts and feelings about the works. 

My work helps me navigate through my past experiences, Mesoamerican history, colonialism, and how it all culminates into the world we live in today. In the studio, the work I do is for me—it helps me come to terms with all of the things I mentioned before, when it exists in a gallery it gets to share space and have conversations with the other works in the gallery and in turn with the viewer. 

This is where both the work and I get to connect to the community. It’s a wonderful feeling, to hear that the work you do and the concepts you present with a work make someone feel represented and to know that these experiences are something that we don’t go through alone.

I personally don’t believe my attitudes towards the culture set me apart from my peers. We’re all at different stages with the work we do and our relationships with the culture. I understand that it is fluid and ever-changing, I do my best to stay open and love unlearning the things we were all taught growing up.

What goals are you currently pursuing for your practice? Are you planning any new shows or pieces that you’re especially excited about? Or are there new experiences you’re hoping to pursue to further your work?

Currently, my goal is to hop back on to doing research and staying informed. I’ve gathered plenty of research material from ancient Mesoamerican history texts and contemporary Chicano/a and Latinx writings. I just have to settle in and start reading them. As for my art practice, I want to pursue more felting and break less needles while doing so.

As for exhibitions I’ve been invited by Jovani Lugo to co-curate an exhibition for Good Luck Macbeth with Ruby Barrientos in October. Lugo is directing Night of the Living Dead and wants the exhibition to reflect themes of the show.

To see more of Cesar Piedra’s work, follow @ylasllaves on Instagram.

The Holland Project’s Tri-Lab summer block party and fundraiser is today, Thursday, June 13, from 4-9-p.m., at Craft Wine + Beer 22 Martin St. in Midtown Reno.

This article was funded by a generous grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.