Combining art and ethnic studies: 7 questions with Erik Escovedo

"Home" - 2013 (Ink & Graphite on Paper - 24x36 in.)

Image: “Home” – 2013 (Ink & Graphite on Paper – 24×36 in.) – See full image below.

Erik Escovedo
Erik Escovedo

Erik Escovedo is the 2021 student of distinction for the Department of Art and Design’s graduate program. Throughout his education, Escovedo conducted several research projects; has been a part of dozens of lectures, presentations, conferences and panels; and has been heavily involved in local organizations and committees within educational institutions and the community.

Recently, Escovedo was part of the “All Words Have Roots Here” exhibition at Fresno City College, which was part of the 2021 National Endowment for the Arts “Big Read Project.”

His graduate exhibition, “Decolonizing Place and Time,” will be on display at the Graduate Art Studios Gallery at the M Street Arts Complex in downtown Fresno beginning May 14 and running through the summer. Due to Covid-19, is it unclear if the exhibition will be open for in-person public viewing.  

We caught up with Escovedo to ask him about his exhibition, his art, and his passion for social justice. 

1) You are currently working on your graduate project titled “Decolonizing Place and Time.” When and where will the exhibition be held? Can you tell me a bit about the project?

My graduate show “Decolonizing Place and Time” will be exhibited in the Fresno State Graduate Art Studios Gallery at the M Street Arts Complex, downtown Fresno, CA. 

The project contains work that discusses the struggle of indigenous people, struggles that stemmed from generations of settler-colonial policy. For those that may not know what I’m speaking of, I’ll elaborate a little by giving a brief crash course on what Vine Deloria Jr. of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe called our “plight.”

Since Columbus got lost in 1492, the precedent of treatment set between European and Indigenous nations of the Americas has not been one that is (to put it mildly) favorable for our countries’ original inhabitants. The effects of government-sanctioned genocide, land theft, displacement, and forced assimilation have affected Native people for generations. But why? To grossly oversimplify: Native people were in the way of an abundance of untapped resources, and European nations haven’t been historically known to share things, especially with non-White human beings. Because of this dichotomy of those who’ve benefited and those who’ve suffered from this 500 year-plus relationship, we now have seen generations of wellness and of trauma, respectively.  

In my art, I give examples of intergenerational issues stemming from colonialism and examples of people standing against it. My goal with this current series of images is to facilitate an inner or outer discussion for people to check if they have had advantages or disadvantages from being on stolen land (or having their land stolen). 

The exhibit will be installed on the 14th of May. We’re still figuring out how viewing the show will work. 


2) Family seems to play a prominent role in your work. Why is it important for you to include those elements in your art?

The placement of my family in my work is done for multiple reasons. 

The first being that I want to recontextualize snapshots of my family’s history, as they are used in my art as a cathartic tool. A tool to untie my family from our traumas that occupied the time and space the photos were taken. In a way, I’m giving them a new set of eyes to see themselves and our family history. I’m giving my relatives an opportunity to allow themselves to admire and not lament their histories. 

"Wounded #1" - 4x3 ft. oil on canvas.
“Wounded #1” – 4×3 ft. oil on canvas.

The second reason is to confront and to make peace with the intergenerational traumas that led me to acquire unhealthy behaviors, like my struggle with alcohol, although, I am now going on four years of sobriety. The careful study of my family’s faces (who I see myself in bits of all of them, physically) has given me time to reflect on how I have gone from surviving life to living life, which I know is what my family wanted, as well as my ancestors. They survived so I could live a more fulfilling life. 

"Rumnation" 2017 (ink and charcoal on paper - 24x18 in.)
“Rumination” 2017 (ink and charcoal on paper – 24×18 in.)

The third reason is to place my experiences in the scope of the bigger narrative of settler-colonialism. To show myself and the viewers that I am NOT approaching this sensitive topic from an ivory tower. The subjects discussed in my work are from lived experiences, not only the struggle but the rising against it.


3) You received your Certificate in American Indian Studies and your AA in Art at Fresno City College, a B.A. in American Indian Culture and Art and now an M.A. in Art at Fresno State. How does ethnic studies inform your art? Conversely, how does art inform your American Indian studies?

I think the reciprocal relationship I’ve developed between the two fields of study has given me a few critical thinking tools. Looking at art as an artist, you tend to think of things like the intent of an artist, the mediums used, the form, the content, the composition and overall look of a particular piece of art. Looking at art as an ethnic studies student, you get a little more critical and analytical than one would expect. For example, when I see an art piece from the Late Renaissance period, I look at the paint colors and think about where they may be getting their resources from. Is it from an area where the pigments are being extracted from minerals sitting on stolen lands? The gold used to commission the artist for a portrait of the Medici, was it stolen? Well, of course it was.

The interdisciplinary approach to art and American Indian studies provides me as an academic/artist/activist the understanding of how interrelated everything is. I’m able to articulate myself in art spaces because of my studies in subjects like critical race theory, where I can better grasp the sociopolitical climate of most classic and post-modern art periods. I am able to be one of many Native voices that continues to make their move into academic and art spaces that seldomly have given us the platform to be open and authentic when critiquing institutions that have currently and historically benefited few people of color. My art reinterprets the written knowledge of ethnic studies into images on surfaces and aims to find wall space in places that are ripe for unsolicited social critique.  

"Uncle" 2013 (soft pastel and charcoal on paper)(18x24 in.)
“Uncle” 2013 (soft pastel and charcoal on paper)(18×24 in.)

4) Now that you have your M.A. in Art, what’s next for you?

I am currently looking into a few prospects for Ph.D. programs. I’d like to write a dissertation looking into the normalized dehumanization of peoples developed by using art mediums like film, print, photography, and graphic design. The dissertation wouldn’t be all doom and gloom, as I want to focus on artists that have used their work to fight against propaganda.

Beyond my studies, I’d like to work at a community college either in the ethnic studies department as an American Indian studies instructor or work in the Art department where I could develop exciting courses on art theory and content. 

In the meantime, I’ll continue to read, write, paint, and advocate for social justice. 

"Standing Rock" 2017 (acrylic on canvas - 96x36 in.)
“Standing Rock” 2017 (acrylic on canvas – 96×36 in.)

5) As a recipient of the Edward O. Lund Foundation Scholarship, you were part of the London Program in 2019-2020. What stands out to you about that experience?

First, I’d like to thank Lisa, Buddy and the rest of the Board and Advisors that made my trip possible. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity. 

The experience had so many highlights: the food, the culture of the city, the history, the music, the art — you get the point. I had Stonehenge on the bucket list, so yeah, it was very wonderful and fulfilling. 

However, since we were there studying art and empire, I think from the educational standpoint, the lack of acknowledgment from the British institutions stood out the most for me. The absence of any substantial recognition of their role in destroying countless civilizations and profiting from that destruction was an eye-opener. I think it took me by surprise because the museums were filled with plunder of countries they raided, and the museums have items in their collections that they refuse to repatriate to the rightful owners. And I just thought that maybe there were more “forward-thinking” people in the U.K. than in the U.S. — I guess I was wrong.  Lord Elgin’s marbles (also on my bucket list) are a prime example of stolen cultural artifacts that may never see their original homes again. 

But overall, great experience, wouldn’t trade it, ever. 

"Home" - 2013 (Ink & Graphite on Paper - 24x36 in.)
“Home” – 2013 (Ink & Graphite on Paper – 24×36 in.)

6) Can you tell me a bit about your recent involvement with the American Indian community on and off-campus?

On-campus, I have worked as the American Indian programs and services student coordinator at the Cross Cultural and Gender Center. There I used my position to help build a cohort between all entities on campus that serve Native students and our community. I was given the chance to create educational programming and events that raised awareness about Native American culture and community needs. I held that space, not for myself, but for other people in the Native community to take the opportunity to come onto campus and teach everyone about Native values. I’m thankful to have worked there, being able to go lecture in classrooms, sit on panels, and learn about others in the process. 

Off-campus, I have volunteered my time to facilitate G.O.N.A. (Gathering of Native Americans), which is an annual youth summer retreat hosted by the Fresno American Indian Health Project. 

G.O.N.A. is held to help youth understand and focus on obstacles and solutions that aid in their overall wellness. The mix of traditional and modern approaches to wellness have been beneficial to all who have been involved with this program, including myself. 

7) Can you tell me about the monument you designed for the Yokuts Plaza at Fresno City College? Why is it important to you? The students? The community?

Being commissioned to develop a design for the Yokuts Plaza monument was such a wonderful experience. It gave me the opportunity to talk with the valley’s local traditional basketweavers about the patterns and significance of the imagery according to their culture. I feel privileged to respectfully learn their patterns and carefully arrange them onto that rock. 

It is important to me because it is important to the original people of this land. The monument unveiling in 2014 brought together tribal members from most of the surrounding rancherias in the Central Valley. Their acknowledgment and appreciation of the monument, along with the blessing from several traditional spiritual leaders from both Yokuts and Mono peoples, has been such a wonderful form of validation that good work was done. 

The monument serves as a reminder to Native students that they’re not alone on campus. Even though we’re the minority enrolled and teaching there, we’re on Native land, and the ancestors are with us. That sense of belonging is crucial for retaining Native students and getting them to graduate or transfer to a university. 

When I look at the monument, I am reminded that when Native people work together, we are able to not only Decolonize a space but we’re also able to Indigenize it. We got the campus to move beyond acknowledging the original caretakers of the land. We got them to implement resources and programs on campus to better serve Native people. You reading this, Fresno State? Just kidding, (kind of).  

Is there anything I missed? Anything you’d like to add?

Thank you to everyone that has been a support in one or more parts of my life.

Those who held me up when I felt like I couldn’t stand on my own. To my professors who educated and mentored me, both at Fresno City and Fresno State. To my fellow students that have pushed and inspired me to do better by being a good example. To my family, my friends, and Native community members. I am here doing the work because you support me, and I live to support all of you. ‘Ixehe (thank you)

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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