Today we’d like to introduce you to Rizzhel Javier.
Rizzhel, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
I am a San Diego based artist and educator. I was born and raised in Mira Mesa, a suburban town in Northern San Diego, also known as Manila Mesa because of its large Filipino population. As a child of immigrant parents, I was largely impacted by growing up in a transnational family. This means that its very rare to see my family together all at the same time. As an adult, I am still learning how this shaped my identity, character and profession.
When I look at the collection of work that I have made in the last ten years, I see that dealing with communication and distance is what shaped my art practice. My earliest photos were of a very lonely and lost person, when I look at them trying to figure out why, I think about growing up in America and how it created distance between me and my family through culture shock, language barriers and my conflicting understanding of family. Television was my model, and I grew up idolizing families that did not resemble mine, and I was constantly confused between what I wanted and what I thought I was supposed to want. No one at school, or at home, ever really addressed how I was different or that different is okay. Let’s just say it took me a really long time to just feel normal and art has a lot to do with that.
For most of my childhood, my Dad was in the military and his job required him to be underway, which meant he was out at sea traveling the world for six months of the year. I have a lot of memories as a child speaking briefly with him over the phone (trying to hurry because our phone bills were expensive!) and making audio recordings to tell him about my day. Being apart was normal for us, and as an adult, I am still learning what is means to be “close” to your family. At 35 years old, I am only now seeing the clarity of my story unfold in my art. It is a strange sensation to feel the effects of all your experience come together now, lots of people think it happens in school, but it came much later for me. I think students in school that are looking for what makes their art unique, will only find it when they learn to be honest about who they are and what they really think about. It is inspiring to see the youth today so activated and aware, that wasn’t me growing up, but I’m glad I can do my best to contribute today.
My recent work is directly inspired by my family. In 2016, my first niece was born and given the name Lydia, the same name as my Grandmother who is also one of my best friends. I thought about what it would be like when Lydia grew up, all the questions that she may ask about where we came from and all the history connected to her name. I realized that I had no answers, and that as an adult, I hadn’t answered many of these questions for myself. So, when I turned 30, I decided to pack my bags and leave for Philippines for the first time. My parents were very worried because I quit my teaching jobs, where I had pretty good financial stability, to leave for a country where most of my family tried to escape.
My travels caused a distressed in my family that caught me by surprise. When I told my Dad that I wanted to go, he said, “You’re chasing a history that doesn’t belong to you.” Immediately my mind flooded with questions that haunted my youth: Am I American? Am I Filipino? What is my history? Where do I belong? No one ever talked to me about grow up brown in the U.S. I didn’t want Lydia to go through those same experiences, so when I arrived in Sineguelasan, I spoke obsessively to my Grandmother about our family and tried to catalog and archive as much information as I could. I felt like an anthropologist, and art became about navigating history, family origin and technology. Archiving included recording conversations, doing research on the different locations my family lived, collecting and archiving collected images/video and speaking to the people in my parent’s native community about who they were before I was born.
The development of technology has made it a lot easier to get to know my family. When I returned to the Philippines the second time, I gave my grandma her first iPhone and helped to setup Wi-Fi in her very rural neighborhood. Now we are able to talk and see each other whenever we want (when time allows of course) and it has alleviated a lot of stress on my end being so far away. I grew jealous of the people in the town when I realized that most of them knew more about my grandmother than me. I faced many internal battles that made me want to drop my life in America to be with her and dealt with the unspoken pressure to bringing home an authentic history to my family in the U.S.
My family story is still unfolding and all the art I make it about figuring it out. My hope with these projects is to build an archive that represents my family and culture in its truest form and to be the person that I needed growing up. My Grandmother plans to return to America this Fall and I am very excited to create art together. Through this process I feel the closest to my family that have ever felt, and even if I don’t have all the answers, I feel more prepared to share and talk about these topics outloud. I look forward to sharing stories to Lydia (and my new nephew Elijah) about family when they are older and hope that they find it as rewarding and valuable as I do.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
Art is an ongoing process, but where I find myself today, is exploring family, memory and culture. I am a
formally trained darkroom photographer, but in the last ten years, I have had combined my images with sculpture, installation and other digital medias. More recently I have been working on social art practice projects that include computer technology, audio interviews and archiving practices with the community. I work autobiographically, using art, to explore personal, community and global transformation. Through sharing my personal stories, I hope to encourage viewers to recall their own memories and reflect on their own life experiences.
My pieces are playful and often require the viewer to engage physically with the work. In my most recent piece, I upcycled an old card catalog for an exhibition at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music and Arts Library. As one of the 2017 San Diego Art Prize recipients, I was invited to share work in their space, so I wanted to make something site specific. I thought about my own experience in libraries growing up, looking and reading stories that felt so separate from my own experience. For this project, I interviewed 15 women of color living or working in San Diego. I took their interviews and created a series of flipbooks that illustrated the memories that they shared. Each of the drawers in the card catalog highlighted the audio interview and collected images and video, to share a story in a place where I felt these people would typically go unnoticed. I placed the card catalog strategically by the libraries own card catalogs, in hopes that people would start to think about what stories are made available to them in these public spaces.
My artwork is processed based, which means, a lot of it doesn’t look the same because I use materials that are specific to the challenge I am tackling. In Home(made) I am working with textiles and sewing to archive stories about my family. This project was majorly influenced by my grandmother’s talent for sewing, and all the memories I have connected to the clothing that she made for me. For me, sewing was storytelling time, my grandmother would sew and tell me stories about my dad, what I was like as a kid and what she hopes for our future. The conversations that we had together are contained in these soft sculptures which are more easily described as the toys I wish I had growing up. I made over one hundred milkfish, called Bangus in Tagalog, which is the national fish of the Philippines and also a symbol that is the catalyst for many memories in my family. These toys remind me of my Lola Pet (grandmas sister-in-law), who sold Bangus in Sineguelasan for over 40 years, and the fish market where my Grandma would take me to buy our daily meals. This work helps to bridge the gaps of my childhood where race, culture and identity were rarely discussed.
In the studio I am preparing for my second exhibition in Tijuana this Fall at Centro Estatal de las Artes Tijuana (CEART). I was invited to share work by my long-time friend and artist, Griselda Rosas, in a group show with many other San Diego artists that have contributed to my success and development. My interest in working across the border is largely influence by feelings of comfort, because almost everything there reminds me of the Philippines. When I started photographing there in 2006, I didn’t see the connection until I returned from my first trip to the Philippines in 2014. In Oct of 2017, I had my first installation there at the Instituto Tecnologico de Tijuana, inside an airplane. I created a series of lifejackets that were embroidered with different phrases that people use when they say goodbye.
How can artists connect with other artists?
Art can be perceived as a lonely process because it requires us to think deeply about who we are, what is important to us and what we feel is necessary to share with others. This is not an easy task, and as an artist and educator, I struggle with this challenge on a daily basis. No matter what class I teach, photography, video, drawing, design, etc. I try to get my students to use art to share their stories. Growing up, I never saw myself represented in media (or the toys) that I played with, so as I child, I focused a lot on what made me different than others. This made me feel very secluded despite the fact that I was born and raised in San Diego, CA. As a first generation Filipino-American in my family, I wanted to use my experience and my love for art, to help others find their voice. I am definitely a person that has faced loneliness on multiple levels, and when I design my lessons and workshops, my goal is to help others realize the becoming an artist is about using those self-reflective movements to empower ourselves.
As a student, I was fortunate to grow and develop with the support of my teachers, school and friends – but what I need people to know is that school was only a small part of what shaped me as an Artist and Educator. As a Graduate student at SDSU (graduated 2012), I began to use my scholarships and awards to create public workshops that required participants to learn off campus. I started to take trips out to the desert, inspired by my own teacher late and great Walt Cotten, and I began teaching participants a variety of photographic processes that I used in my own art practice. This was important to me because photography was the medium that gave me my voice, it provided a platform for me to share that I was thinking, and I wanted others to have this same opportunity. These early workshops really cultivated my love for teaching, and with my degree I was able to teach at many of the colleges in San Diego County. This year marks my tenth year of teaching at the college level and has given me a lot time to figure out why teaching is important to me, where I fit in the world of education and how I want to serve my community. Over the last two years, I have begun to make the transition into public programs that work directly with the community. I did not realize that these workshops would be the foundation of a project that I refer to now as BRIDGE.
In 2013, the project was still taking shape, and I took my first crack at organizing workshops and events outside of institutions and focused on the continuing education of San Diego Artists and Educators with workshops and events that were super outside the box. Our most popular workshop was Traveling Tintypes, a workshop where I took participants camping around Southern California to explore landscapes and create a one-of-a-kind of image called a tintype. People loved the process, and getting their hands-on materials, but what I found was most impactful were the relationships cultivated between our participants. We would have these really beautiful conversations around the campfire, where people frequently said, “Thank you. I really needed this.” “I’m so glad I came, I met some really awesome people.” “I miss just having fun and making art.” That was when I realized it wasn’t about photography, it was about community and filling the needs that I heard this community talk about. Participants started asking me who I worked for, where they could get more information and when they could come back to join us. So, I built my first website and BRIDGE as officially born.
During this time, I also worked at two non-profits that really helped to shape my connection to the community and why I felt it was important to make art-making and learning more inclusive for others. This coming week, I am starting my third year as Media Arts Instructor for Pacific Arts Movement’s Reel Voices youth documentary film program. The focus of this program is to teach high schoolers the art of documentary film while examining their own experience as residents of San Diego. We encourage students to discuss their identity, culture and share stories about people, places and things that are unrepresented in their communities. The students are selected from all across Southern California, as far South as Tijuana and up North to Temecula. The students in this program premiere their films annually at the San Diego Asian Film Festival every November, these films are homegrown San Diego made films produce especially for us but really impact anyone that watches it. Our students receive national and international awards, and I have to admit, after watching their films over and over, I still get the feels each time.
I also work at The AjA Project, whose focus is to use photography to help transform the lives of immigrant and displaced youth. I just wrapped up a program called the Little Saigon Mobile Museum, where I worked with students that collected and archived the stories of the Vietnamese / Vietnamese-American community in City Heights. They taught me about pride and the desire to know more about who we are. To leave about our native land outside of popular history and make us responsible for constructing and archiving our own histories. This was especially impactful for me, because my students really helped me to get to the core of my own work and what made it important: CULTURE.
This year I was invited to join the New Children’s Museum team as their Artist in Resident where I created the People + Places Project. The mission of the People + Places Project is to provide an inclusive space for communities to share stories about who they are and places that they have lived. My vision is to provide people of all ages with fun and creative outlets to think, play, create and make art that is reflection of their communities. With the support of NCM, we have served the community through art-making, workshops and events. Each participant leaves the workshop with a unique one-of-a-kind toy that tells a story about who they are. All the drawings contributed to the project are transferred to fabric and sewn into a homemade toy for participants to keep. You can give each one a hug to hear a story about the person and the place where they live. An installation of the work can be seen on Saturday, June 23rd as part of Mass Creativity, a FREE annual event hosted by NCM.
My advice for others is to find a place that is important to them and start making the change that you want to see happen there. Changing the world is a noble task, but can be so daunting because especially now, there are so many changes that we hope to see in the world. I think a more realistic goal is to have people focus on their own communities, study the needs of people that surround them and provide opportunities to learn and then to model the change for others. By doing this, we will have more people power, more understanding about why community involvement is important and how art plays a major role in that success. I can promise you that you will find other like-minded artists (whom might not even know they are artists) there that share your mission, interest and love for what you do and what you believe in.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
People can support my work by sharing their story with someone today. A friend, family or someone you just met. To teach others about the diversity of San Diego, and to make talking about race, culture and identity the norm. I needed that growing up and being in the academic setting for ten years has reinforced, that there needs to be more people setting this example. There needs to be dialogue about who we are at school, museums, in the home and we need to cultivate more safe spaces where people feel comfortable to participate. Know your community.
Professors from UCSD, Luis Alverez and Yen Espiritu, invited me to work with their class. They were working on a Race + Oral History Project, where they were responsible for interviewing one person in the community, interview them and make an art piece about their interviewee. I was so excited to bring my art into a space where art feels foreign, and fun feeling, like when you have to teach someone something in a new language. We all saw how my work aligned with the course materials and assignments, and it was really great to feel the impact of art outside the art department, outside of school and in side by side with these students out talking to the San Yisdro community. The experience really revived me and my art and I am so grateful for their continual support.
Most of my work is available on my website for people to check out, but I also do my best to stay active and show work regularly throughout the year. I currently have work at the Japanese Friendship Garden, in an exhibition curated by my mentor Richard Keely called 50 Fish 50 Artists. This show was the catalyst for my research on fish in relationship to my family and how I arrived to making so many bangus! You can see my work there, alongside 49 other well-known artists across Southern California until July 15th.
Next weekend, on Saturday, June 23rd, I will also have an installation of the People + Places Project as part of the Mass Creativity celebration with The New Children’s Museum. This community project will be up for the day and will also become a part of their Community Gallery in the Fall, for the public to share and participate. I recently set up an online submission on the website, so that people all over San Diego and beyond can share their story and add it to our database. My bigger goal with the project is to have a search engine that people can use to locate stories more easily, for example, the teenager in me probably would have looked for: #filipinomerican #sandiego It is important for me to hear stories from the people that actually live in the communities that we reach so I hope that more people consider joining the project.
People can also follow me on Instagram or on my website, to stay updated with current projects, which recently involve the community through social practice art. I frequently ask for the participation of others in my work: That means I want to meet you, talk to you and learn about who you are. My work thrives on the participation of the people that surround me. Very thankful for all the people that have been a part of this process, I am eternally grateful for their participation and support.
- Website: www.rizzheljavier.com, www.building-bridges.org, www.peopleandplacesproject.com
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @rizzhel.javier @bridge_org @peopleandplacesproject
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/rizzheljavier, www.facebook.com/bridgeorg, www.facebook.com/peopleandplacesproject
Ale Uzarraga, Iris Lee, Rizzhel Javier