Shape Shifter: Laura Garcia-Penn's Polymorphism

Laura Garcia-Penn,  Instrument , Pecan branch with core shavings and sagebrush, 13 x 5 feet

Laura Garcia-Penn, Instrument, Pecan branch with core shavings and sagebrush, 13 x 5 feet

By Bernardo Diaz

Laura Garcia-Penn’s body of work consists of residual objects that manifest from strategic utilization of transformation and subversive transference of meaning. A bricolage of found objects, sculpture and film provide ample opportunity to explore and derive new meaning, purpose, and channels to the various worlds that Garcia-Penn inhabits from one moment to another or in simultaneity. Garcia-Penn embodies qualities closely associated with the archetype of the trickster; nomadism, boundary-hopping, and shape shifting; all qualities that are themselves born of crucial intuitive exchanges between Garcia-Penn’s identities and the spaces, materials, contexts, and experiences she encounters as she jumps borders between the worlds she inhabits. An identity that flexes, warps, and stretches as needed within encounters in her lived experiences create an air of non-commitment in the responses Garcia-Penn offers to some of the questions raised during our exchange.  This strategic utilization of redirection is not one grounded in a lack of self-assurance, but rather, a hybridized thought process rooted in experiential knowledge and muscled intuition that dictates that a definitive commitment to one of these identities and worlds and her reaction to them could mean the ‘loss of access to’ or death of the others. What appears to be a launch of false nostalgia is not rooted in a yearning to be a part of a past that never was; instead, mythology, storytelling, and personal narratives become the compass with which she gathers her bearings that then inform her continued journeys across and into symbolic and literal realms that would be otherwise inaccessible to her.

What artists influence your work? What type of artists and art making inform your process?

I am influenced by Yinka Shonibare MBE, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Gloria Anzaldúa and Guillermo Gomez-Peña. I am inspired by an artist that reflects their creativity in everyday living. I view creativity as a form of daily ritual and performance.

What are the rituals in your daily life and how do these rituals function with the context of your creative output? Are these rituals spontaneous or contrived or both?

The creative rituals come from both spontaneous and contrived situations. Creative ritual can be as simple as finding a way home if I’m lost. Or figuring out how to balance all the demands in life. One of my daily rituals is to allow myself mistakes and to work through them quickly and intuitively. Intuition is the main creative muscle that I am wanting to enhance through daily ritual.

In conceptualizing your work, what forms of negotiations do you encounter in addressing the underlying theme of hybridization? When and how are these negotiations informed by lived experiences?

For myself, the word negotiation has a fixed and permanent undertone to express the underlying theme of hybridity. To have a negotiation is to have a clear and confirmed standing and in turn to have a mutual agreement in a conflict. When discussing hybridity in relation to my life there is a never ending and fluid way of existing. I consider myself an individual that lives in between worlds. Growing up I thought of myself as if I was a part of everything and nothing at the same time. I lived with an awareness that was sensitive to my surroundings and wanting a sense of belonging but felt I had no sense of belonging to culture, language and people. As if I was this floating entity inside my body with a voice that only spoke to the wind.

Spanish was my first language however I lost it as I began public education. My experiences in this transition began an identity shift for me. Language connects and defines unity in a grouping. I have memories as a child feeling disconnected with family and with my environment in school. When you are young the scope of things is not fully understood until you are an adult. 

What are the various worlds that you inhabit?

All of the various worlds that I inhabit live inside me and each world is inhabited by a persona of myself. I psychologically walk in and through my worlds envisioning them with no borders or containment. They are Spanish, American, Indigenous, white, brown, Chicana, Mestiza, gendered, female, and male. Recently, I have taken a DNA test to understand further and uncover all that I came from. The results were both confirming and revealing of some new cultural identities. The DNA journey made these worlds hugely layered and affirming for me. 

How do you determine your proximity to the borders or thresholds between these worlds?

The thresholds are constantly open however they are determined by the encounters around me and the contradictions inflicted on me from society. It’s about survival and having the opportunity to belong or being seen beyond the exterior of my physical traits.  I think of it as having the magical power of shapeshifting. For me fluidity is power.

Laura Garcia-Penn, Passage, Digital video of a performance, 5:07

Do you observe aspects of your identity that are relegated to one world or the other? Can you speak to those aspects of your identity that move between these worlds?

Yes I have identities that are relegated to one world or the other. I think of these identities as a way to survive and or to have the opportunity to belong in a situation that could otherwise not.  A common example of this is that I come to know well is the fact I have a light complexion and I am aware of some privileges that this carries. Apparently I have the ability to pull off whiteness well. When I answer people’s questions about my ethnicity, that I am Chicana, ….etc...many respond with “I thought you were white”. Many base this notion on the idea that color relegates culture or ancestry. On the other hand, I am sometimes devalued and or not granted ownership of culture because of the degree of knowledge I know with the Spanish language. As if the percentage of knowledge in the Spanish language amounts the percentage of ethnicity.

How do you work around or within the contradictions that may arise between these worlds?

I seek solidarity with people that have contradictions with me. However it also depends on my ability to have persistence and consistency. Contradictions are draining and take creative energy to a whole new level of problem solving. Sometimes I need to work around them so that I may self preserve.

How do these negotiations inform the materialization of your work in terms of object making?

The foundation of my material making is exploring my identity through genealogy and history. Often I come across materials that happen to be resistant and strong. I enjoy when this happens and feel those qualities express an undertone of life and endurance. Sometimes the connection with the material is not always instantaneous and I use intuition to further investigate. Other times material is seen as a journey and a story for me to venture through. I try to look at the relationships it once had with ancestors and its place in my life. I find this can be an emotional process and can be left with disconnect and frustration. In my work I seek common ground with my surroundings, human nature and mother nature by using my six senses and body.

Where are the residues of your body and its six senses situated in the objects you create?

I define these six senses as sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch and intuition. The senses I used predominately are touch, smell, sight and intuition. The residues of my body are both tangible and invisible. I create the objects to tell a story as a human being. In the process of object making I am attempting to converse with the sensory faculty. My objective is to communicate in an intuitive way. Intuition is the ability to communicate through visual and emotive transcendence without words or body language. Intuition is the language of the animal being inside the human. Its what connects us to nature and the interconnectedness of our planet.

Does this differ between the objects you create and your video work?

Yes, I use performance as a form of using my body to relay commonality through action. I want to convey the emotive through psychical movement or action. Time based work, particularly live, can be challenging for me because I am sensitive when it comes to my body; my appearance and the contradictions that will possibly devalue the uniqueness and beauty of my body.


How do you self-curate your work? Selecting which pieces to show, working with space, and deciding how to place the work with in an exhibition?

For me, depends on how I feel at that particular moment in my life. I will also work within a timeline of events that inspired me from life. I am also intuitive when deciding location and space to place work. I do think about some natural elements like natural light, access to fresh air and cardinal direction depending on the work itself. 

What worlds are you in at the moment and in which direction are they moving your work?

I am in a world where I am resting and needing self preservation. I am currently looking at vocal lessons and trying to understand the process of storytelling in other ways than visual object making.

What do you say to other artists who are exploring similar concepts in their work?

I think it is beautiful when artists come to a similar conclusion in their processes or work. That means that they have reached a connecting consciousness however this is recognizing that a concept is what someone does when they are deciding to work abstractly or traditionally and then to test this theory with this other theory, etc. and then they have an answer to their hypothesis. I don't think of my art as a concept, I think of it as an expression of my life. When you look up the definition to concept the word defines an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity; a plan or intention; an abstract idea; a general notion. There are other artist out there that express similarly in their work as I do and I welcome more artists to do the same if that is where their heart is. To have many that express similarly means that we have an underlying concern that is not acknowledged and the only way this can begin to heal is to listen.