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12 Questions: Mandy Cano Villalobos

1.Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Having grown up in a migrant family, I’m always seeking a sense of permanence in life. This is why a lot of my work has to do with time – time as chronological progression, time as history, time as narrative and memory, and time as eternity, or at least this liminal space that bridges the everyday with a transcendent experience. I believe our perceptions of time are directly related to our perceptions of self. It’s how we build a coherent sense of self. So, storytelling and ritual become a main focus. I grew up listening to my mother and aunts recounting their childhood memories. I also grew up in the Episcopalian church, participating in liturgical rituals (lighting candles, leading a procession of rectors and choir members to the altar, collecting tithes, etc.). All of this factors into my work, in that these generational memories and childhood rituals condition the way I think about myself and my time on earth. Inevitably, these experiences inform my practice.

Fun facts: I have three kids, my great, great grandfather built a house out of tombstones, I’ve lived in 14 states and two countries, and I used to wear fake glasses so people would think I was smart.

2. What first inspired you to become an artist?

My mom says I “came out drawing”. I was an only child of a single mother in the army. So, I had a lot of alone time and I had to entertain myself. My mom recounts coming up the stairs to the apartment where we lived when I was three, and seeing a knee-high gallery of crayon and scrap paper taped to the walls. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t carry a sketchbook and pencil. I still do.

3.What is your studio like? Could you share an image?

My studio is a small, super cramped attic space without a door. I call it “studio minor”. Usually the floor is covered in papers and cloth, and every surface is loaded with multiple works in progress. It’s not ideal, but it’s my she-shed.

4.What are some of your rituals in the studio to get the momentum going?

I have three kids. I don’t need rituals to get in the mood because I’m always craving studio time. Whatever free second I have I rush to my studio to make a few marks on paper or stitch some cloth together. It borders on a pathetic addiction/escapism. 

5. How do you overcome ‘failure’?

I love this question. I teach at the college level and feel like failure is rarely addressed, yet it’s a huge part of artistic practice, and life. I’ve come to see failure as an opportunity. It can come in many forms, whether a bad studio day, financial crisis, or rejection from an exhibition. I don’t enjoy failing, but I’ve learned so much from failure: perseverance, self-soothing, cultivating a mindset of thanksgiving, creatively finding alternatives to Plan A, bootstrapping, etc. Failure really sucks, but it’s the vitamin that makes us stronger. 

To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to this question, because I think failure should be embraced, not overcome. I’m not saying seek failure out, but I think it would be difficult to call myself an artist if I did not constantly put myself and my work on the line. I think artists and creatives fail much more often than those in other careers because our profession necessitates risk. In my opinion, art is impossible without failure.

6. What is the most inspiring place you have been to?


7. Do you have any other interests or hobbies?

I love watching British murder mysteries while downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food. Also, I spend a lot of time with my kids. I love literature (usually via Audible because I don’t have time to read), and I’m all about history, especially Spanish colonial history, African American history, and the U.S. Civil War.

8. Do you collect anything?

Yes. Unfortunately, I collect everything from old books, old tools, old dolls and knick nacks to human hair and teeth, chicken feet, and used teabags. Don’t judge. And, no, I’m not a witch.

9. What are 1-3 books that have influenced your life?

This is such a hard question. There are so many amazing books that have forged my way of thinking, so I’ll just pick three out of the many. First off, the Bible. That book is seriously crazy – full of murder, sex, hatred, love, interpersonal reflection. I also consider it the first forward thinking book that argues for racial and gender equality (if you’re willing to read through the lines and recognize literary sarcasm). Camus’The Myth of Sisyphusis also at the top of my list. A lot of the ideas Camus presents at the beginning of the book are really influential in the way I assign value to my art practice and parental chores – especially when it comes to the futility of repetitious labor. I also love Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Okay, that’s an essay, not a book.

10. What are the biggest challenges you have faced as an artist? 

A few years ago I lost my full time job, my studio and my computer. I also popped out a kid around the same time. It was probably the lowest point in my entire life. But, the good news is that now I can dedicate the majority of my time to studio production, and I’ve learned to find opportunity in devastation. I’m currently working with a fundraiser to find patrons, and I’ve never been more productive.

11. Who/What are influences for your work? 

My family (the women in particular), myths, literature and fairy tales, my faith, nostalgic singer song writers from the 60s and 70s, and global histories.

12. What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m experimenting with multiple 2d works that include visceral materials with cultural connotations. For example, I recently did a collage/drawing with pomegranate seeds pressed into tea stained paper. I not only love the way that turned out, but I also love the reference to the myth of Persephone, as well as Louise Glück’s poem “Persephone the Wanderer”. I’m now looking into other fruits that are equally rich with allusions. I’m also continuing work with human hair, gold, bones, found cloth, and other materials. In addition to the 2d work, I’ve been developing a series of performances called Simple Actions, in which I do repetitions, seemingly purposeless gestures such as filing a brick to dust and hand-picking seeds from raspberry jam.


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