Ana Teresa Fernández

My intention is to challenge old ways of seeing things... In the attempt to do these actions one can witness the beauty, the failure, the struggle, the impossibility or possibility, offering a new context, a new way of hopefully seeing something old with fresh eyes again.

Magic realism— about halfway through our studio visit, Ana let that pair of contrary words fall out of her mouth. She had been talking about various inspirations, and mentioned that Latin American writers within this literary genre have been influential to her work. She said, “I want to really find the magic in reality.” Beyond that single statement she didn’t spend too much time explaining, but she didn’t need to, those words immediately reverberated

Magic realism is often characterized by a matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastical elements that reach far beyond the limits of reality. This equal acceptance of the ordinary and extraordinary is noticeably present in Ana’s work, which includes community-based projects, sculpture, performance, video, and painting. Much of Ana’s practice is about playing with expectations and yanking familiar symbols out of context to dramatic effect. In this way there is a dream-like, or magical, quality to her work; it provokes feelings of the uncanny— that unnerving breakdown of familiarity in which something is at once known and unknown. Her work grapples with borders and looks to erase or at least re-draw them, and her performance-based work questions and re-imagines all the geographic, physical, psychological, and emotional delineations we have accepted in society. Ana’s paintings are prompted by her video work; each painting is explicitly based on a specific moment from a performance, documenting and extending acts that often force the viewer to encounter women as more than just a series of stereotypes.

When we visited Ana’s studio, she had several large-scale paintings on the wall. One in particular caught my attention. It depicted a pair of bare legs, high-heeled and elegant, straddling a horse’s submerged body. The horse’s legs churned at the water and sand, the agitated muscles bulging, as the woman’s legs tensely held on. Ana told us she had filmed this video in the jungles of Mexico while wearing a dress and stilettos, riding a white stallion in a sinkhole where virgin girls were once drowned as sacrifices to the gods. Ana’s painting, reproducing a moment from video documentation, looked like a magical happening and yet it was real; that moment had actually occurred. Her performance and painting had not only subverted my expectation of femininity, it had also written over history by creating a different narrative around that sinkhole, a new mythology, and a more complicated convergence of what is real and unreal.

IN THE MAKE’s feature on Ana was also published in San Francisco Arts Quarterly‘s issue 13.

Video still from documentation of a performance titled “Borrando la Frontera” 2011, courtesy of the artist.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
The subject matter or content is a mélange of bi-cultural experiences I have grown up with/in and around. Stories I have been a part of, or narratives that get told via my own family, or the news all affect the core of my work. Statistics that present great divides and unfairness is what fuels my work—I am often coming to my work while I’m grappling with being upset or angry. Though a healthy dose of anger is useful, I try not to create aggression in my work, and instead I focus on observations and questions. I often say that my work originates from my gut reaction to information. It gets processed and comes out in the shape of oil paintings, broken glass on resin sculptures, ice sculptures, video projections, etc.

What mediums do you work with?
I work in so many mediums. The idea dictates the form. However, I predominantly do performances that get documented as paintings. My paintings always come directly from my performative work.

Your painted work is based on documentation of your performances and you have said, It’s important to me that what I paint really happened, that you can see that it is real. Can you tell us more about thisidea of something really happening (but perhaps often going unseen), specifically how it plays out in our understanding of femininity, labor, and sexuality?
After I read Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it became much more clear to me why and how in creative history (literature, painting) women have been presented: mostly as fictional characters depicted by males, and often as the main (male) character’s lover, sister, mother, etc. Women’s autobiographies did not exist for a major part of history, and even less so in the art world. For me painting is a documentation method. It excites me to see it as a medium that can be non-fiction, especially since its history carries the heaviness of fiction, particularly with women. I am able to take the energy and dynamics I feel exist in performance and use the richness and allure in the beauty of paint, and put it in a blender to tell my story or my experiences. Being heavily influenced by poetic work of magic realism in Latin Literature, I want to really find the magic in reality… By presenting a real action that seems questionable or not possible, I’m able to highlight a subject that people think is passé. The political can be poetic and subtle.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Does personal history work its way into your practice?
Yes, it is autobiographical—when I’m working I have to access all my experiences and memories, I have to let everything that has happened to me come swarming in, so that I can inhabit the mental space I need to get into my work authentically. But it is also biographical of other people’s stories… My mother’s life is a predominant inspiration for my protagonist, as well as other family members. Their struggle, their cultural frictions are my fuel.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
My work is my main job, which includes painting, making videos, sculptures, but also writing grants, applying for residencies, and managing large projects. My part time job is teaching either at university level or high school level. When I teach teenagers it is always at an after school program through a nonprofit that offers art to immigrants or inner city kids. I have worked with more than six non-profits all over the Bay Area as well as in Haiti, South Africa, and Mexico, offering a more conceptual approach to art making for kids with no resources. The combination of an intellectual exchange with the artists of the future at universities, and the teenagers that are looking at art for the first time is incredibly challenging and rewarding. It feeds my own work constantly and (hopefully) keeps me humble. I love being amazed at my students’ work, drive and tenacity.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m so inspired by water, the feeling of surfing.
I’m reading both Richard Feynman’s Surely you are Joking, Mr. Feynman! and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I listen to NPR in the car and all sorts of music in the studio; Beatles, Frank Ocean, to Mexican groups like Zoe…

I’ve been reading Feynman’s books because I like how he observes the world, especially communication. He sees communication on both a microscopic level with all its nuances as well as a more expansive cultural vehicle. When I teach or work with different communities or non-profits I constantly try to find out not only what they tell me but also what they are not telling me and how they act, and how I can best be of help.

When I work in the studio, I can go into the zone as soon as I pick up a paint brush. I guess it is from all my years of competitive swimming. It is very easy for my to get into it. But when I listen to music I get completely immersed in the lyrics. I pay attention to every word, every instrument, the crescendo… So when I’m listening to someone like the Beatles I start making up stories to their songs, like with Norwegian Wood, did they sleep together, did the woman make him wait, was it a one night stand? What really happened!? I’ll put faces to characters in songs and go on tangents of the meaning of songs and life in general… So what does that have to do with my work… I’m not quite sure.

I know surfing has made me survive and cope with the uncertainty of the art world.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m working on several public art projects. The 5Ws project consists of a collaboration with Johanna Grawunder and Intersection for the Arts where we designed, and are now making, five different large scale light sculptures around the downtown area: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY.

Troka Troka is another public art project I’m finishing up that has been incredibly moving for me. There are these home-spun vehicles that circulate the city picking up recyclable cardboard, piling it up so high that someone might be scared to drive next to them. I stopped several drivers as they were collecting cardboard and asked if they would let me paint the wooden panels on the sides of their trucks that serve as walls. They agreed and thus far I have painted four. I developed a really beautiful relationship with them through the process. These drivers are immigrants that work six to seven days a week, having very little time or money for anything else. Jacobo, one of the drivers, had terrible vision. I worked with my sister Maria (who does public health) to find him free eye-care. He called me excitedly when he finally had his first pair of new glasses. They also narrate these beautiful stories as to how people react to their now-painted-trucks; kids stop their moms in all neighborhoods in awe wanting to look at them, adults smile and give them compliments. It has changed their relationship to passersby in the city.

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
In Mexico we say, “It’s better to say you are sorry than to ask for permission.” There are times where I think I’m going to get myself arrested or hurt myself— like when I went to the US/Mexico border wall for the first time and painted it blue. The police actually arrived on the scene with sirens sounding off and shouting on the loud speakers. I thought for sure I would end up in jail. I had scaled a 15ft ladder in heels and a dress holding a paintbrush, but luckily I was able to explain the project and talk my way out of getting into trouble, and I managed to finish the project. I went a second time to the border to re-paint the fence because it had been painted black. This time, two helicopters flew right over me for about 20 minutes. My legs were shaking the entire time.

There is a beautiful quote by Goethe, “At the moment of commitment, the entire world conspires to ensure your success.” I have to believe in this. My ideas seem somewhat wacky or actually just insane, but somehow people trust me. I convinced a group of people to help me film a video where I rode a stallion in a sinkhole in the jungles of Mexico while wearing a dress and stilettos. It was crazy— I got stepped on by the horse, kicked, and thrown off.

And then there was the time I decided to make stilettos out of ice…. Having to go to a drag queen store to buy enormous stilettos, working for months with a mold maker and the amazing artist Jeremiah Jenkins to make these shoes wearable.

Almost every project I’ve started has required a leap of faith, working with some unknown medium, or doing an action that’s just crazy. And what’s at stake? Failure, success, and everything in-between.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
My intention is to challenge old ways of seeing things. My work aims to transcend the given. “A broom is not dirty when placed on the floor, but becomes dirty when placed on a pillow”. I take actions and myself and place them in a completely different context. Most often the action and the place make for a really uncomfortable scenario, i.e. mopping the beach with my own hair while dressed in a cocktail dress, straddling an ironing board while ironing, trying to ride a stallion in the water. In the attempt to do these actions one can witness the beauty, the failure, the struggle, the impossibility or possibility, offering a new context, a new way of hopefully seeing something old with fresh eyes again.

How do you navigate the art world?
Asking a lot of questions and spending a lot of time in the water.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I think my work is so not what people identify as Bay Area Art. It is quite the opposite. Maximalist, realist, not-ironic but serious and political. I don’t know necessarily being in dialogue with, but artists that blew my mind are more often writers, like Angeles Mastretta, Octavio Paz, Virginia Wolf and many more. I’m totally inspired by performance artist Jennifer Locke, and (my teacher) the painter Brett Reichman. I also learned to paint by spending hours looking at Thiebaud’s work. I am his number one fan. I wish I could meet him one day.

Do you have a motto?
“Let go.”
Also, I drink Yogi tea every morning and there are always little profound sayings on the tea bag wrapper… I try and have those sayings as intentions throughout the day.

To see more of Ana’s work: