Altered State
Painter, Art Nun, and Shaman Maya Gonzalez

by Maureen Foley
February 12, 2004

Chicana artist and children’s book illustrator Maya Gonzalez uses Latin American indigenous imagery, pop culture, and icons drawn from her vivid imagination to create narrative paintings and ink drawings. For a few weeks, a collection of these striking works by the Bay Area artist will be on display at the Multicultural Center Lounge Gallery at UCSB. Take this rare opportunity to view Gonzalez’ work now in this intimate space, because she is definitely an artist to watch.

Already a successful illustrator with 17 children’s books in print (published by Children’s Book Press and others), Gonzalez’ fine art work is now garnering equally rave reviews with dozens of solo and group shows. And as perhaps the most obvious mark of her success, one of Gonzalez’ gloriously brilliant paintings of a young woman seated next to a ghostly mirrored version of herself was chosen as the cover for a new textbook on Latin American art, Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art: Artists, Works, Culture, and Education, Volume II.

Gonzalez lectured recently at UCSB and I met with her to discuss the origin of her images and to investigate her influences. As a painter myself, I’m always curious to learn how other artists derive their colors and forms. Although she was slightly under the weather due to continued health problems that have plagued her over the last year, Gonzalez graciously walked me through her processes and ideas. Wearing a black Mexican folk dress, yellow scarf, many layers of heavy jewelry and with several tattoos peeking out from her sleeves, Gonzalez was the very picture of the dynamic artist, alive and engaged in this world.

Maureen Foley: How did you get the show at the Multicultural Center?

Maya Gonzalez: I was contacted a year and a half ago by the last director. She saw the cover of one of my books.

What was your reaction to finding out that your work was chosen for the cover of Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art, Volume II?

I had a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe for a few minutes. (laughs) And it’s pretty hard to shock me.

How did you prepare for the show at UCSB? Did you have a body of work already,
or did you have an idea for work in mind?

I prayed. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough work to show. I’ve been seriously ill this year. I haven’t really worked in 10 months. I had a one-woman show in San Francisco, so I had some work. I prayed. This show is really a different kind of work. It’s related to my sickness. I see myself as a shaman.
I go into deep unconscious zones and gather and learn and communicate. Then I come back with an image that’s related to the journey. I started using brush and ink because I was too weak to paint. Someone gave me one of those Chinese brush kits. There was so much going on that I needed to express myself. This has been an amazing shift for me here. [The brush and ink drawings are] easy to do. They’re immediate. There’s a strength of image and a vulnerability in the close contact to the page. I’m mostly known for the use of really intense colors. This work has a whole other type of feeling.

Can you talk more about your recent shift in color?

My colors have always been very intense. Now slowly all the colors started washing out of my work. For a while they were color free. Now, they’re still stark but I work with maybe three colors. And I’m only working with a pen. My work is dramatically changed now. I had this compulsion to create and express myself — not only did the color wash out, but the work kept getting smaller.

In the brush paintings, I see all these Aztec and pop culture references and I instantly thought of Bay Area Chicano artist Enrique Chagoya. Tell me more about how you created these brush drawings.

I was thinking a lot about Meso-American codices. Part of my health problems are the result of high-level lead poisoning, which affected my perception. I started understanding these really ornate codices. I had all of these really distorted intense [visions] and the codices really started to affect me. And simultaneously all these images from my childhood came up — Holly Hobby, Snow White.

How did you choose the paper?

They’re all pages from antique books. I had all these books already just because I thought they were beautiful. Part of my choice to use them has to do with the fact that I’m biracial, Mexican-European. I wanted to use that iconography on that paper to create a synthesis. The quality of paper is so attractive.

Earlier, you mentioned the idea of vulnerability in your work. Is that an idea you work with often?

Totally. Even more now. I’m so slow. I’ve softened so much more with my health issues. I needed my process to be part of that. I don’t have access to how I paint. It’s powerful communication. It’s intrinsic in how I touch the paper, my physical vulnerability. The images [in the brush paintings] are really intense and really disturbing. I am limited by my vulnerability. [The paintings say] this is an experience and I’m human.

You also mentioned working as a shaman. What do you mean?

Generally I think of myself as an art nun. That is what keeps it really fascinating. I don’t just paint. I turn into an altered state. Each work advances me on my spiritual path. It’s difficult to put into words. I try to process my internal experience. I can sit alone for hours, engaged in my inner life.
I pray a lot when I paint. People respond to that. I have people come back, people who had contact with these paintings, with tears in their eyes when they see my paintings. That’s what I did — that’s the power in the paint. Letting it go in ways that it needs. I am really just the lucky dog who gets to stand in front of the easel.

How would you place your work nationally, or whom would you associate your work with?

Energetically, I would place myself among a group of Chicano artists working in San Francisco. I would have to say that I’m one of the youngest. Nationally, I make all the sense in the world. I would say that my work has a commonality of culture and experience.

What are your influences?

The family Bible. We had one of those old Bibles with tons of fabulous art . . . angels. We were one of those families who acknowledged that we saw things that other people didn’t see. I never intended to be an artist. I was about to finish graduate school in writing when I accidentally took an art history class, and art took over my life.