Jey Vargas, 17.
How did you get into art?
I’ve always been interested in art. It has always been a release for me, I guess, to explore myself. This kind of sounds like I’m bragging, but when people tell me, “Oh this is good, oh this is nice,” it kind of made me want to do it more. I realized as I got into advanced art programs, I was like, “Oh I want to do this for a living.” Like I want to pursue art for a career. [It] made me create more pieces and have a foundation for what I do.
Do you wish you had this opportunity when you first started doing art?
I think it would have been nice, but also I don’t think I was quite ready my sophomore year. I wasn’t that well-rounded as an artist. It was when I first started to get serious about art. At a young age I don’t think I would have been ready to put myself out there. I didn’t have enough pieces back then. I think where I am now is when I’m starting to look more into art interviews, putting myself into interviews. Now is when I’m ready, and now is when the opportunities are coming.
What are your plans for your career?
I do mostly paintings, but I actually want to do animation and character design as a career. So I want to pursue living in Los Angeles and trying to get in that little network. But I want to go to an art college, near Pasadena, in Los Angeles. It’s called Art Center, College for Design.
Do you have a particular artist that you look up to?
Not really. In my art classes we focus on researching a lot of artists and finding inspiration. I love Frida Kahlo, I’m Mexican. But I don’t ever look at work and try to reproduce it, even it’s for the sake of learning. I just do whatever I do. So I’ve never really thought about an artist that I want to compare myself to.
Why do you think Frida Kahlo was so influential?
I think it was because, at the time, she was very different from the other artists. She was a really strong, independent woman and was not about letting others tell her what to do. She would do whatever. She would dress masculine or feminine. I’m pretty sure she was bisexual, let’s just be clear. She really explored herself and used her art to represent her own self. Created images of her life and her dreams, and they were not always the most pretty looking things. And that’s why I always look up to her. A lot of my work focuses on me showcasing my experiences and what I get inside, and I just hope that other people will see it and relate to that, or see themselves represented as well. I think that’s what she strives [to do]. So I guess that was what was different about her at the time.
Why do you make art?
It’s almost asking what life is to an artist. I make art to explore my own self, to release emotions, to release baggage. I think I do it for myself first and foremost. So like one of my pieces was really big; it was a self-portrait. It was about my suicide attempt from last year, and when I painted that, it was like I was releasing my baggage and releasing this struggle. Putting it on a canvas to show how I felt at that time, and like, that’s it. I don’t want to think about it again. I do it for myself, but I also want to showcase my other identities being a transgender, queer, Mexican boy. I want to showcase my own culture. The transgender struggle with being queer in my artwork. Have representation. We can all be accepted. We are all people here. Have our stories be told.
Was there a struggle doing art with the lack of representation in the art world for you?
I think initially when I was coming out, like at the end of middle school, beginning high school, there was not really an issue. I didn’t focus on others artwork, I just focused on Frida Kahlo. That was the only Mexican I knew. I didn’t even know that there were other transgender artists, queer artists. I didn’t even know that was a big thing, a big topic I could discover and create art about. I’m in I.B (International Baccalaureate) and in my I.B classes, they push me to look at other artists, and to look at queer, Mexican, or transgender artists, or other artists of color. So I think that’s when I started to realize there was art out there, and there are other issues I can learn and create art about. Every year [the class] visits an art museum. Last year I think we visited [Tacoma Art Museum] , maybe Seattle Art Museum. I don’t know, I’ve been to both, and usually here, or in Seattle Art Museum, there are exhibits for people of color or for specific artists of color. I remember at the Henry Art exhibit there was a show on trans history. That was really nice, looking at other trans artists. I think just putting myself out and searching for what I wanted to search for, that’s when I realized there was a place for me in the art world.
“I want to showcase my own culture. The transgender struggle with being queer in my artwork. Have representation. We can all be accepted. We are all people here.”
Why is transgender and queer representation in the arts important?
I think it’s important; it’s the same reason why shows, media, and movies and all that are important. We need to have our stories be told, listened, watched, understood, in order for the rest of the world to be accepting and loving of us. I think especially trans artists and queer artists in general, it’s really important to show our stories the way we want to show it. We have to make our own films, our own writing, and our own art, based our own experiences. I don’t think anyone else can really make stories for other people, so that’s why it’s important to have representation and showcase our beauty; because art just isn’t about a pretty picture, or white, skinny, naked girls. It can be about anything. And I think since it’s about anything, we should show that at in museums, in exhibitions, you know?
Why would you rather paint something than take a photo of it?
I think the media that I use is because of the opportunities I have. I was in a photo class once. No one ever taught me Photoshop. No one ever taught me to do these things, I learned Photoshop on my own. But when I was in my art class, they really gave me the tools. You can do whatever you want with this. So that’s why I’m really multimedia. Drawing, painting. I think that’s why. Getting the tools out here, getting the ability to do these types of things [is of value].
Discuss your favorite piece.
I think one of the first big, important pieces I’ve done, because in my years that I was in art classes I mostly created pieces that were really sad, and about my struggle being trans and queer. It is a good thing, and I do like being trans, but I think I wasn’t as accepting of myself when I created that, so I needed to kind of release emotions, you know what I was saying? But I think being Mexican, I’ve been proud of being Mexican my entire life. Despite what people say, despite the media, despite racism. I’ve never really seen what was really positive about being Mexican, or Mexican culture. It’s always shared among us, but never out in the open. So I wanted to create a piece celebrating my culture, instead of focusing on the negatives. It’s called Los Flores de Mexico. So it’s like flowers that remind me of Mexico, paintbrushes, and little paint pots. Alcatraz’s are really prominent in Mexican art, so I used that to represent my Mexican side. The roses are with the hand to show my religious side. Even though I’m not really religious, it’s still is a really big part of our culture, so I wanted that to be represented. The marigolds are with the skull, and it represents our celebrations and our traditions. The skull specifically is for Dia de los Muertos; it’s a big part of our culture. I wanted to showcase all of it in a subtle way, I guess.
Why do you think it’s important to have triumphant pieces in art?
There are a lot of stereotypes about being Latina, being Mexican, being any person of color, a lot of different races. But it’s mostly surrounded in negative stereotypes. It is super important to talk about it. But, I still think it’s important to showcase our beauty and our worth. Because, if we don’t showcase our positives and what we can bring, and that we are just people, like everyone else, people are just going to focus on the stereotypes. No matter if we are combatting it or upholding it, or not. It’s all just going to be in the negative. So I think it’s just as important to remember that we have culture. We have beautiful things about us and need to put it out there.
“I think especially trans artists and queer artists in general, it’s really important to show our stories the way we want to show it. We have to make our own films, our own writing, and our own art, based our own experiences.”
Do you have an ending statement that you want to say to any teenagers, in terms of Queer issues, art, or other things?
There is a lot of intersectionality between identities. While I am Mexican, it is important to remember I am queer; I am trans. When you think about being Mexican, you think about a man or a woman. Or a cisgender, Mexican dude. When you think about being trans, you think of a white, gay, trans dude, or something like that. You don’t really remember that there are intersecting identities. I am all of these things combined, and that’s what I want people to remember.
Go follow Jey on Instagram @prettyboypaints