Change and Changing. This is something I have been thinking about since the debut of RGV x Art For Change, an exhibition on cultural and environmental sustainability. While the show may not have changed me, it did help me to reflect on the materials I use in my own body of work, and helped me ponder questions like, “Am I being a good steward by using fishing wire for my installation, instead of making my own rope with natural fibers?” Now, thanks to the show’s contemplative prompt, these are the types of questions I have been asking myself. If anything, the exhibition taught me that when I start to reflect, I do start to change. Incrementally.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) exhibition strove to show diverse artwork to help the RGV reflect on cultural and environmental sustainability, which curator and MFA student Keatan McKeever says are interrelated. The artists and poet involved in the show — all hailing from throughout the Rio Grande Valley — promote sustainable practices, either conceptually or in their materials and processes. The pieces ranged widely in materials, from colored tissue paper and newspaper (Piñata Paper Archive I; Piñata Paper Archive II, by Josue Ramirez) to a cardboard floor installation by students in Professor Brian Dick’s Design II art class. Although each student made a separate cardboard structure in this untitled installation (about 48 inches high, 72 inches wide and 72 inches deep), when the pieces sat on the floor as a group, they appeared to be one ginormous city with skyscrapers, unlike El Valle.
A piece that resonated with me, a Hungarian-American, was Sean Hughes’ massive border wall installation. In my Eastern European country, which was under the Soviet Union’s thumb, several Hungarians were shot fleeing their border wall in the 1956 revolution. Although I didn’t grow up in Hungary, I lived there in 1983, and I crossed its border several times that summer and many times since. I heard my family’s stories in Budapest in 1983, as well as many other family member’s accounts in the diaspora. I know my mother’s border-crossing stories like I know the veins of my breasts. And although I’m not from Mexico or Central America, I’ve lived in El Valle since 1995, and have served in Honduras for the U.S. Peace Corps.
But back here in the Rio Grande Valley, we face our own reality of a Mexico-U.S. wall. This comes through in the show, particularly in the piece Life Persists by Sean Hughs, which shows green cacti and red prickly pears intertwined on both sides of the wall’s vertical slots. In describing his piece, Sean said migration knows no borders and that a plant moves by seeding; in this case, the cactus is flowering on the other side of the border — moving, changing. I laid under the wall to sense its immensity, its threat. I felt the cold-hearted metal.
Another piece that caught my attention was Chachalacas at La Quinta Mazatlan (2018), a prose poem by Dr. Steven Schneider, a UTRGV Creative Writing Professor. La Quinta Mazatlan, an urban sanctuary for birds and wildlife, is the poem’s setting. La Quinta Mazatlan itself consists of a nature and birding center and an historical adobe mansion. Schneider’s poem is laid on the wall, unframed, with no glass or plexiglass. Apparently, Schneider printed it on cardstock, and it clocks in at about 11 by 17 inches. I liked that it sits there, unpretentious, just like the Chachalacas. One of the reasons Schneider’s piece intrigued me is because he inserted himself as a visitor to Quinta Mazatlan. In stanza six, he wrote, “I read on the bulletin board the history of this place.” I was equally thrilled by his work because I rarely see poetry in art exhibitions.
Schneider said he wanted to submit his poem because the exhibition focused on ecology and sustainability. According to Schneider, “My poem speaks to how over-development leads to the destruction of natural habitats, in this case for the elegant chachalaca, whose habitat has been severely reduced by development and over population in the Rio Grande Valley.” The poet and poetry professor wanted to support this important exhibition, raise awareness about the threat to natural species, and be connected to the community of artists and writers in the show. However, I did not see Schneider at the Gallery Annex’s opening reception. I would have enjoyed hearing him read his poem aloud or, as a viewer, being able to access a link to hear him reading it. For me, the best way to experience a poem is to listen.
Two other pieces, Karla Solis’ Belleza on the Border I and Belleza on the Border II, consisted of homemade paper, watercolor, and Bougainvillea petals from Solis’ garden. Solis, a UTRGV MFA student of Mexican heritage, found inspiration from the papel amate from the Otomi in Central Mexico. (Pre-contact Mexicans used this paper to create codices, and colonial authorities attempted to ban it). Solis submitted this work because of the exhibition’s focus on cultural identity and sustainability through materials. She said, “I chose to create a diptych to communicate the dynamic of our perception of life on the other side of the border.”
Solis continued, “When my people in Mexico thought about coming to el otro lado, (the other side), the U.S. was seen as a beautiful place full of opportunity. For that reason, Belleza on the Border I has the petaled paper on the US side of the border, and the papel amate-inspired paper is on the Mexican side, to represent the [Mexican] culture.” However, the beauty, according to Solis, also consists of remembering Mexico. Solis decided to minimize the papel amate pattern “to represent the feeling of cultural dilution that can be felt as parents of first-generation children who see their retoños growing up in a completely different world.”
The exhibition was presented in two phases at the UTRGV Library in Edinburg, TX, and then at the UTRGV Gallery Annex a few miles away. The show was sponsored by The UTRGV Center for Latin American Studies (CLAA), the UTRGV School of Art & Design, and the Presidential Research Fellowship grant, and was juried by Sarita Westrup, a fiber and sculpture artist who lives in Dallas.
While the exhibition closed on March 11, 2022, it was important to note for its work beginning the process of incremental change, especially in regards to sustaining our environment and ourselves within the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.
Kathy Bussert-Webb is an MFA student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in 3D studio, and Professor Emeritus from UTRGV’s Department of Bilingual and Literacy Studies. You can reach Kathy @3DbyKathy on Instagram.