Public art in Austin is growing into a robust scene and gaining attention around the country. The latest addition to Landmarks, the public art program at The University of Texas at Austin, is a powerful, 4,000-square-foot mural by multimedia artist José Parlá. The work evokes the vast skies and expansive landscape of our beloved central Texas. The Brooklyn-based, Miami native finds inspiration in the history and experience of urban environments and Austin has proved to be a striking muse.
Below are aggregate responses to questions posed during Parlá’s residency in Austin during fall 2017. Questions have been edited for length and clarity.
Catherine Zinser: Welcome to Texas! This mural is unlike anything in the Landmarks collection or in central Texas. One of the principles of building the Landmarks program is bringing great art to a broader public. As someone who started out as a graffiti artist and now works all over the world, what do you find appealing about commissions like this?
José Parlá: Landmarks is significant because it is not your typical museum space. It lives in the public. This is where I began my work as an artist. As a kid, I dreamed of being a painter. I used to sneak into a vocational school library in Miami and look at books on Picasso and Matisse. I knew I wanted to be a painter very early on. I got started painting walls, running around at the early stage of what became known as hip-hop culture. My dad was sort of the intellectual support for my dream and he would say to my brother and me — my brother Rey is also an artist — that what we were doing was similar to the historic cave paintings and that we were communicating with the public by making work on walls like the walls of caves. Public art is still holds a really strong and dear place for me.
The concept of this painting is storytelling through abstract painting. I’m always looking at history to give significance to abstract art. I believe that abstract art, in general, has the power to have a very wide, open, democratic conversation. That is one of the attractions that I have with it, because just about anyone from any walk of life can potentially find a message in abstract art that means something personal to them. Your imagination takes the lead and you become my collaborator, working with me to try to figure out this painting. Working in public spaces like this allows for the conversation to grow in many different directions.
CZ: So the commission was in place and a location in the newly built Robert B. Rowling Hall was selected. What happened next?
JP: Over the last four years I’ve been working with Landmarks to produce this project. At first we thought about doing a more traditional approach of hanging a painting in a large space. Andrée (Landmarks Director and Curator) came to New York to meet at the studio, and we met with Bryce Wolkowitz, who represents me, and the building’s architects. Together, we started thinking about different ways to approach it. Looking at the architectural plans, knowing that the space is underground, I kept thinking about cave paintings. I envisioned it as a prehistoric site that was excavated. When the building was carved out of the ground, the mural was there. In the end, we decided the mural should expand across the entire space, all 4,000 square feet!
I wanted to make something very approachable and very simple based on the location: the corner of Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. This is really interesting in terms of American history, not just the United States, but America as the New World. Because the mural is situated underground, I wanted it to feel anthropological; I wanted it to have traces and roots of what may have been, and also what the future could bring. I wanted to have a conversation that I think is important to have with art, at any stage in history, but particularly in the United States at this time.
CZ: How do you begin to approach a work of art of this scale?
JP: I have worked on several large-scale murals before so I was very excited to figure out some of the challenges for this project. Before this, my mural at the World Trade Center was 90 feet by 15 feet — still pretty big — but it was approachable and I could jump from ladders and do certain things that allowed me to do gestures around the surface.
I had to think in a similar way for Amistad América, and I expanded my techniques to an even larger scale; for example, I painted with one hand on the surface while I drove the genie lift with another. I used a large-scale collage made from a modello I made in my studio before arriving at the building site. I worked to make massive amounts of texture by using plaster and layering, massaging, and sanding, then adding washes of color transparencies.
CZ: Why are text and calligraphy common elements in your work?
JP: I use text as a signifier of language and culture. Most countries, or cultures going back in time, might have a sort of signifying calligraphy. The United States is so young, I keep imagining what will become the American calligraphy and how it will be defined. People may try to decipher the calligraphy in my paintings. Even if they can’t read it, there is the idea that there is gesture in language. The other part of calligraphy that is interesting is performative. The gesture is performative. There’s a dance. There’s a flow. To me, that is very important. I came from an art form that involved calligraphy; it’s in my roots as an artist.
So-called graffiti has had so many challenges because it was born out of the ghettos. It was born out of the necessity for kids to express themselves. In the 1980s, my friends and I were inspired to make art. That was what saved a lot of us inner-city kids from getting into trouble. We were focused on art! For me, it was a phenomenon more than a movement. We weren’t really aware of what we were doing in terms of being a part of art history. It was very underground. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but maybe people will say that if there was a defining calligraphy in the United States it would have probably been born out of subcultures in the ghettos.
CZ: How did your origins as a young artist help to inform the art you are creating now?
JP: My friends and I grew up feeling that collaboration is the way of the future because we used to paint walls in groups. Sometimes it could be up to ten of us, and you would be on somebody’s shoulders and the other artist was holding you up while you would paint the background and someone else would paint the outline. It gave us the opportunity to do larger works because there were more people involved that could do it faster. We planned things with sketches. We would look at what we were doing and then if you had a line in your sketchbook that was this big, you had to do it this much bigger on the actual mural. I learned how to do it as a young kid and it stayed with me.
I had a scholarship to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) right out of the tenth grade, but before I went to painting school, I had ten years of training with older artists who were from the neighborhood. I was in Miami at that time, some of them were from New York and some were from other neighborhoods, and they had tremendous skill. A lot of them didn’t become artists for the long haul, but they were people that I looked up to. There were rites of passage. They passed down style. They handed you something that would change your life. Looking back now, I realize these key people in my life injected me with ideas and style and folklore that would forever become a part of who I am as a person, not just as an artist. I think that shows in Amistad América in particular.
CZ: Where did the title Amistad América come from?
JP: In the Caddoan language — a tribe native to Texas — teysha, meaning “friends” and “friendship,” is the origin of Tejas. I tied that into the idea of amistad — a Spanish word also meaning friendship. Being historically important to this work, Amistad is also the name of an 18th century Spanish slave ship that was located in Cuba, one of the centers of the New World. When the Mende slaves on the ship rebelled, they took the ship from its Spanish captain and attempted to sail back to Africa. Their journey, however, took them to Long Island, New York. The Amistad became the center of a widely publicized court case in New Haven to settle legal issues about the ship and the status of the Mende captives. They were at risk of execution if convicted of mutiny. This became a popular cause among abolitionists in the United States. Since 1808, the United States and Britain had prohibited the international slave trade. When paintingAmistad América, I was inspired by world maps and made compositions of abstract shapes that might resemble the outlines of countries, land, oceans, and I imagined the continuous journeys people have done migrating from place to place over the centuries.
That’s a great segue to tell a story grounded in history but also becomes very contemporary because we are still a young, diverse, and growing country. Amistad América is a signifier of unity that is to come, unity that is much needed.
Parlá will discuss his work with art critic Carlo McCormick at the public opening of the mural on Friday, 26 January 2018, followed by a reception. Event details can be found on the Landmarks website.
Amistad América is permanently on view in Robert B. Rowling Hall during regular building hours.
Catherine Zinser is the Education Coordinator for Landmarks. She has been an art historian, educator, curator, and writer in Austin more than 10 years.