Alex Paul Loza is a Chattanooga based multi-disciplinary artist and educator. His work is focused on social advocacy and community engagement. Alex is the executive director and founder of CLAVA, the Center for Latin American Visual Arts, and sits on the Latin American Advisory committee at the Hunter Museum of American Art. He has had extensive training in the arts and has a concentration in classical drawing, painting, anatomy and sculpture. He is an artist who strongly believes in the transformative power of art. Alex’s works and community projects envision better futures, while acknowledging traditions and historical roots.
Your work often takes the form of public murals which reflect the communities they are placed in. How do you make sure your works communicate and are well received?
Since youth I’ve found ways to serve and connect with my community and contribute to my neighborhood, especially the children. A valuable lesson I received through service was that if you want to impact or create change in your community, you need to be willing to engage directly. This means leaving behind any preconceived notions and quietly listen; make every effort to understand their lifestyle, background, legacy, dreams and goals. Never approach a community with the idea that “they need help” and that you are their “savior”. A public artist is there to employ his/her skills; to serve by providing a clear visual language to communicate their message.
This lesson was echoed after I graduated the American Academy of Art and began to work as a portrait painter. Being able to “perfectly and anatomically” replicate the sitter’s likeness is not enough. A portrait artist needs to develop their sensitivity in order to use the medium to capture the spirit of the sitter. I found public art was the vehicle to merge these skills to create a portrait of the community where the artwork will live.
When commissioned to create a public work I meet with the organization/s and board that selected me, as well as with community members. It’s the community meetings that become most important. I listen to peoples’ stories and together we find a way to give their message a voice. Our project contributes to the building of stronger neighborhoods and has the capacity to inspire new generations.
It seems important that your art be a form of advocacy for community and social change. Can you talk about this? Have you always worked this way? Do you have any recommendations for artists who are looking to make more of a direct impact in their communities?
I strongly believe that visual art has the power to communicate, connect, and break down barriers while building stronger communities. I would like to share with you a quote by Jamie Bennett from ArtPlace America “When you share an arts experience with someone you can both maintain your cultural identity and share a bond.” The most important thing artists can do to make an impact in their communities is to be present. It’s easier to remain in the studio, disengaged, developing works that ostensibly will engage others. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, working in your studio. I do that too throughout the year. We all need time for self-improvement, reflection, and to create work that echoes our individual voice, but to create and directly engage a public we need to be out there, interacting, listening and building relationships, not networks. Earlier in my career I attended events with in order to exchange business cards and hopefully land a commission. I quickly learned how wrong I was. We all, regardless of our race, beliefs, or culture, enjoy relationships; a collection of business cards are just a pile of printed card stock. To be Present is to genuinely meet and care for those we wish to connect with. I’ve found that the most meaningful impact comes when the community you’re working in gets to know who you are at an intimate level.
Are there escalating challenges or has your work’s relevance intensified in the current political climate in which peoples of Central and South America are increasingly being criminalized and marginalized?
Fortunately not! I believe it is because of the approach and tone that I have taken. The message underpinning my public works is “We are all equal in spite of cultural differences, racial and ethnic groups we identify with, or our background”. Often that message isn’t communicated clearly enough, due to lack of research or vested interest in others. An example highlighting my desire for inclusiveness is my latest mural titled “Dreaming Forward/ Soñando”. This mural was Chattanooga’s first public Latino mural; and the first to be designed, led and painted by a Latino. As a Peruvian-born artist, I am proud of my heritage. The mural could have celebrated this, honoring Pre-Inca and Inca cultures or depicted contemporary influential Peruvians. It could have detailed the many Latino American flags or notable US-born Latinos. Although I don’t see anything wrong with cultural pride, but I knew that this would limit my audience. In addition, attempting to represent the diversity of 20+ Latino countries could present a chaotic composition, potentially alienating viewers. Public art is for all and should reach as many viewers as possible, while creating opportunities for individual discussion. This particular mural depicted four children representative of the main influences present in Latino culture: the Indigenous, African, European and Asian. The only fact that makes this mural Latino is that the artist behind the brush is Latino. I love it that anyone, regardless of their ethnicity, can understand and identify with the message of the work.
Often, Mural art is associated, or confused, with graffiti, but your work takes on more classical techniques. Can you give me an idea of your artistic background and influences?
Before I started my academic training in 1999 at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, I trained for two and a half years under master portrait painter, Harry Ahn. I also took elective classes in human anatomy and had the opportunity to dissect cadavers. My artistic influences are the Renaissance and 19th century European masters.
Are there any specific differences between your mural work and your oil paintings? In what ways are they alike, or different? Can you tell me about other aspects of your arts and cultural contributions, in particular ways in which you serve the community?
My approach to oil painting and mural-work is the same. I get to work on both in my studio as well as ask volunteers to pose as reference for the artwork. For my mural work I use an indirect painting method known as the “parachute technique”. This process consists of painting on multiple 5’x5’ squares of primed polytab fabric. This allows me to paint in my studio, especially during winter and inclement weather. Once finished, my mural team and I install the fabric onto the primed wall, paint any surrounding blank area, and later protect the work with a sealer and anti-graffiti varnish. A very rewarding step in my mural process that doesn’t happen in my oil painting is the opportunities I have to engage with the public. The community gets to participate during the design and underpainting stages. I also get to meet and work with other local muralists and emerging artists. I hold workshops with these artists as they eventually become ambassadors for the project, as well as assistants during our community painting parties, and mural unveiling ceremonies. Through these interactions we build new friendships, but most importantly the community is able to meet people from other cultures, backgrounds, and with shared goals. Every public project is more than an application of paint on a surface, it is a positive spark in each person, which is then spread in the community.
Lastly can you talk about any upcoming projects you are currently working on, or have planned?
I’m currently completing a sculptural portrait of Dr. Emma Rochelle Wheeler. I started this project late last year during a 12-week Residency at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, TN. For the residency I wanted to create a piece that would remain in the museum and contribute to children’s experience, particularly kids, due to physical challenges, have fewer opportunities in which to experience art. Dr. Wheeler suffered sight-related problems as a child but went on to become an inspirational figure in Chattanooga. In response I produced a tactile portrait, one that honored Dr. Wheeler and could be looked upon as well as touched by Museum visitors. At the moment I’m fundraising in order to produce a mural in collaboration with refugee groups in southeastern Tennessee.