SoEx Intern Jessi Gurrola Interviews Gina M. Contreras
This interview was conducted via Zoom on Monday, January 30, 2023.
“I was nervous about what I was showing …. I didn't want to hear lame feedback or have an old white lady ask me about being a Latina. I didn't want to answer those questions…Just putting yourself in those situations takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you more brave.”
As artists, we struggle everyday with creating a version of ourselves that conveys a more approachable and appropriate demeanor, but what if we didn’t have to? Creating a space of openness and vulnerability may be intimidating, but for many artists, doing so can weed out shallow connections, leaving you with the support you truly need on your journey.
I sat down with illustrious and acclaimed artist Gina M. Contreras to discuss the realities of embodiment, cultural expectation, anxieties in the field, and the fight to build a career organically in the San Francisco Bay Area. She notes that the journey may be long, but with enough dedication and support, the fruits of your labor will grow.
Born and raised in the Central Valley of California, Gina M. Contreras incorporates drawing and painting to examine the complexity of traditional and cultural standards. Contreras uses self-portraits to embrace the narrative between her conventional Chicana upbringing and her admiration for modern lowbrow culture of self-awareness and body acceptance. In 2008, Contreras received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been exhibited in various galleries and shows across the country ranging from Sho Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, RESPEC Gallery in Austin, TX, Hoxton Arches Gallery in London, UK, Nucleus House Gallery in Portland, OR and countless shows within the Bay Area. Outside of group and gallery shows, Gina has hosted various solo shows, dating back as early as 2010, with her most recent held in 2023, “Continued Comfort” with Chefas Projects in Portland, OR.
Jessi: Gina, I am so excited to finally speak to you. Just a preface for anybody who doesn't already know Gina – Gina M. Contreras is a San Francisco-based artist with a B.A. in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute. Gina has been a recipient of many grants, awards, and exhibitions throughout the Bay Area. Originally from Fresno, CA, her work is in the collection of the Crocker Art Museum and is admired for its vibrant and bold color, simplified line work, and themes like sadness, culture, religion, loneliness, and embodiment.
Gina, every artist has a different origin of inspiration. How early in life can you trace your passion for art creation? Did you know right off the bat, when you were smaller, that this is something you wanted to do, or did it develop over time?
Gina: I definitely didn't think about art much growing up, other than being surrounded by my family having stuff up on the walls. That's what I considered art. I was also a middle child, so I spent a lot of time with myself. In high school, I just didn't know what I wanted to do. I used to play basketball a lot and I thought I wanted to continue doing that. But I went through this funk in 10th grade where I didn't want to hang out with my friends, so I would frequent the library. Most of my time there was spent looking at art books. I also took an elective art class by chance and met my teacher, Miss Mallory, who was just so sweet and kind. She never talked to me but saw something in me and would give me gifts like colored pencils and stuff to take home. I never really understood why she did this but as time went on, I slowly started getting better. I attribute that to looking at books, looking at different artists and finding stuff on my own. While in high school, I was one of the last ones to apply for city college. I knew I wanted to take an art class, and the only class available was a printmaking class. I wasn’t too familiar with it but I knew I needed the credit so I took my first printmaking class there and again had another wonderful teacher who just completely brought me out of my shell. I think that helped develop my love for art. She encouraged me to apply for a job on campus and to enroll in more art classes. I was also lucky to have my uncle who I was really close with; he passed away last year. He was a writer and worked as the head of the English department at Fresno City College. So he also encouraged me to do art. I definitely didn't know where I wanted to go in life at a young age or what I wanted to do. But the more I started talking to instructors, and to classmates, I was like, “Oh, this is actually my passion!” My printmaking teacher encouraged me to apply to SFAI, because she knew there was a scholarship, and that’s how I came to San Francisco.
Jessi: That's so amazing, educators do not get enough credit for how much they completely launch us into directions we might have not even realized that we want to go in. Guidance is so essential for building foundations in life and I'm so happy that you had that, not only from your teacher, but also from your uncle as well. Now knowing that you originally started off with printmaking, I have noticed you've expanded your mediums. Would you say that your art style has drastically changed from when you first started to now?
Gina: Oh yeah! I wanted to continue screen printing and really tried. I tried to get jobs, but it was just so hard to not have the equipment and studio space like I did at SFAI. My subject matter when I was in school, and when I left school are totally different from what I do now. Yesterday, when I had my talk at the Crocker, I had an “aha!” moment. We talked about my older work and how it involved loneliness but specifically loneliness in the elderly. At the time of my work creation, I read a lot of articles about how people find love at the end of their life in retirement homes, and become “vulnerable teenagers.” Like I mentioned, I'm a middle child, and I always grew up by myself and spent a lot of time being independent. I had always had a lingering feeling of being lonely, so I would mask myself behind these elderly people. When I transitioned to painting, I started finding myself more in the process. I don't know why, but I think it's just more hands-on and intimate instead of using machinery to help my process. I definitely think it opened me up more. And now, my subject matter is myself rather than masking behind elderly people.
Jessi: I find that really insightful given your youth. Growing older can get scary at times. I’ve spoken to my mom about this before and she had made a similar comment about regression. After spending all your years looking after everyone else, it's completely normal to question who will take care of you now. I can completely understand why elders may feel that vulnerability again.
Gina: Yeah, I definitely think my background too of growing up in a Mexican Catholic family contributed to my development. My parents were very open and spiritual. They are definitely my biggest supporters, which I'm really grateful for, but I definitely had other family members who believed that you have to follow these traditional formats. Based around ideas like art not being a career, body image is what they focus on so I put that in my work. But like I mentioned, my parents, my uncle, and teachers were my number one supporters. I'm just so grateful that I had that understanding and I didn't stay stuck.
Jessi: Gina, my first exposure to your art was actually at SoEx’s Monster Drawing Rally (MDR) event. I was so ecstatic to see you create your work live. Having witnessed you at work, I was wanting to know a little more about your subject matter. Looking over your pieces, I can identify themes of loneliness, sex, isolation, self-image, our culture, of course, and religion. How would you characterize the meshing of these themes together? How would you say, overall, that it's incorporated into your creative process?
Gina: I always like to say I create artwork to please myself, not to please others. It's always been my choice what I want to put into my work. I don't want to have to dwell so much on the past. Just being able to create artwork with so much empathy and love, I think people can see it. At MDR, I'm basically just redoing smaller versions of bigger artworks or previous sketches. Every year, I have such a great time doing that, because so many people come and talk to me. Although sometimes I just keep my head down and paint, I do listen, I do like to see people gathering and excited for my work. I like talking to people afterwards, but not so much when I'm painting. Regardless, it's really cool to see people connect with you in that way just through art.
Jessi: Yeah, definitely! I know just walking around the table and overseeing some of the artists at work, I was definitely kind of intrigued by your quiet demeanor. I was just thinking, “Ooh she's focused!” It just conveyed an honesty within the work itself.
Gina: I’m just such a hater and a poser! I'll put my headphones on, but I'm not listening to anything, like on MUNI, like “put your headphones on, nobody's going to talk to you,” I guess. Being in San Francisco for 17 years now, I'm picking and choosing what I want, when I want to talk. There's a lot of pressure when people are just walking around and looking at your artwork. So, sometimes, I do get a little shy and in my zone, I guess.
Jessi: I'm sure that reservation definitely helps in terms of actually staying in the zone. I know it can be difficult having to pull away and then go back to your work. It almost tires you out faster. Everybody's creative process is different. Obviously, you learn throughout the years as you create but, do you feel like you've learned anything about yourself in the process of going from where you started and where you're at now?
Gina: With my work, I’m definitely a notetaker. So, a lot of my titles are based on my notes, reminders I want to tell myself, or stuff I like. Getting to where my career is now, I think it's just trusting your gut honestly. As cheesy as it sounds. Make work based on what you want to base it off. If you want to do still lifes, do still lifes! Just continue making artwork no matter in what shape or form and don't be afraid to. It's crazy because my artwork involves nudity, and childish dick drawings, but that's because that's me! If you ask my friends, I'm a jokester. My artwork, it’s my personality. I think that's what people connect with.
Jessi: Absolutely, I know that's what drew me to your work personally. And actually, as I was preparing for this interview, my partner and I were really looking into your work, specifically any recurring themes you had. He just kind of turns to me and asks, “Why are there so many doodles of penises on notebook paper?”
Gina: I struggle with writing and describing myself on paper. Even when it comes to my artist statements, I still struggle. But my favorite artist statement I've ever had was just to the point. It was, “I like penis, but only dicks like me.” Because people get it! There's no need to research, to waste your time thinking about society and all this stuff. With the dick drawings, instead of painting the faces of these guys that have been in my life, it's just funny to draw them as a dick and the word “dick.” To address the note papers, it's like passing notes to yourself again.
Jessi: Yes, there's definitely something organic about it. Your pieces are very beautifully painted and illustrated, so having something so simplified (like notebook paper) shows that it's a current communication from you. So, given the themes of your artwork, I feel like there are still so many conversations that our community should open up in terms of our embodiment and sex. I feel like those are topics that are still so taboo for us. Do you feel like there are still some roads that need to be paved in our community as far as transparency with these topics?
Gina: Yeah, definitely. I'm lucky that I live in San Francisco, where there's more acceptance, specifically body image acceptance culturally. At a very young age, I was aware of who I was and what my body is, and what it looks like, and how much space it takes up. Even little things like being told to wear underwear a certain way, so that your belly doesn't grow over it – definitely mentally screwed up things that sound horrible. But in a way, I thought they were trying to protect me. As time passed, I realized I didn't need that. I didn't need that input about my skin or about my body. I moved here when I was almost 21. I definitely learned how to accept who I was. It's still a day-to-day thing, because Catholic guilt is still in me. I'm just very grateful that I have supportive family and friends, because it takes a lot out of you to be that vulnerable through art. I'm grateful that people don't ask me much about what my body looks like, it's kind of cool that they know that through my art.
Jessi: Yeah, definitely, I feel you. From such a young age, we're told paler skin and light eyes are more desirable. Even something as personal as being told to hide your lonja, it gets to you. But it's all just a mindset that they struggle to break from. Seeing artwork like yours, and just knowing that your parents are so supportive of it, is refreshing to hear. Most Hispanic/Latino parents want their children to set the example, but on the terms that it's Catholic-based. I’m happy to see that you're breaking those boundaries, and you've had such a strong backing with it. Have you ever gotten flustered or overwhelmed with all the new faces that are being exposed to your art throughout your career?
Gina: It's weird because when you're having a show or a talk, something just happens where you don't think about stuff. I almost enter “customer service” mode a little bit. But when I see friends or artists that I admire, it's surreal. I don't know how to describe it. I had a workshop on Saturday, and it was an older crowd of museum members. I work at SFMOMA, it's my full-time job so I know what a museum member is and what they perceive art to be. So, during my workshop, I was nervous about what I was showing them. I didn't want to hear lame feedback or have an old white lady ask me about being a Latina. I didn't want to answer those questions. I felt bad because I went into it thinking of what I should prepare to say to explain myself. When it happened, they were actually there to see my artwork and thought that it was beautiful. Just putting yourself in those situations takes you out of your comfort zone and makes you more brave.
Jessi: Also being an artist myself, it gets a little bit frustrating when you've created this portfolio of work and people diminish it down to “Chicanx art” or base it solely on your identity label. But it's very encouraging to hear that they were there for your skill, ability, artwork and what it really means to people. So moving from a smaller area like Fresno, were there any awakenings that you had when you were coming over to the Bay Area? Were there any harsh realities that you might have realized about the art community that you didn't before?
Gina: Yeah, I transferred as a junior from Fresno City College and went to SFAI. It was a complete culture shock. One reason being because City College had thousands of students, as compared to SFAI having 200 students max. It was also my first time being around rich kids, and seeing their work ethics. Going to class with my Virgo tendencies, I calculated everything. For example if I missed class, that's $300 gone. I knew that I needed to take advantage of my time there, so I got two jobs on campus. One of my jobs was working in the printmaking department and cleaning the classrooms after sessions, and then the other one was working in the library. It was the best job any art student could have. So that was definitely a culture shock.
As a little kid growing up in Fresno, it got super hot. When it would get too hot, my dad would say, “Let's get in the car and go to San Francisco for the day. We can get some fresh air.” So that was another reason why I wanted to move to the Bay Area, because of those memories. But when I moved here, it was definitely a culture shock seeing kids with money making art. Meanwhile I was cleaning classrooms so I can use the supplies for free. But it definitely helped me grow as a person.
Jessi: I can completely understand what you mean. It is eye-opening to see that somebody's parents or families can just write a check. Granted, we all wish we could do that for our kids, but having their tuition completely paid for, they don't have to worry about it. So they think, “Meh, I’ll skip for today.”
Gina: Yes, I would apply for every single scholarship that was available to me. My parents, my first year, helped take out a smaller loan. My last year of school, I only had to take out a $5,000 loan and I got $35,000 in scholarships. I was on it because I didn’t want to be a burden to my parents financially. I grew up middle class, but I grew up poor too. Coming to San Francisco was expensive, but it's always going to be expensive coming from Fresno. I definitely had the heavy work ethic that my parents had when I moved here. I think it's just made me a solid person. Two weeks after graduating SFAI, I got the job at SFMOMA. This is my 15th year there, but I've always had two-to-three jobs on the side. So, finally after 15 years of living here, only two years ago, I was able to afford my own studio apartment.
Jessi: When it comes to San Francisco, a lot of people complain that prices are so high and about its slow and unfortunately steady gentrification over the years. But I feel it's difficult to live there if you already don't have family there. I'm so proud of you for being able to solidify that for yourself. That's such a big accomplishment, especially coming from the Valley.
Gina: Thank you so much. But yes, here in San Francisco, there's really endless possibilities in art. But you have to make those possibilities happen for you. At SFMOMA, I work customer service for the museum store. That being said, all the benefits and perks from working there are essential for my growth as an artist. For example, getting free admission for family and friends, and spending my breaks in the gallery. Living in a city with museums and galleries is why I love living here.
Jessi: It's one of my biggest dreams to be able to live over there. But I know just as you said, it's gonna take a lot of hard work and passion. Working with Southern Exposure, I'm glad that I get to speak with amazing artists like you, hearing that motivates me towards that goal.
So I understand that you received your Bachelor's in Printmaking. Since then, your art mediums have completely expanded from printmaking to murals, acrylic paintings, and illustration. Are there any mediums that you are looking to maybe expand into this year? Maybe try something new that you haven't before?
Gina: I definitely would love to do ceramic sculpture. I've never really done anything like that. I've never even taken a proper painting class, I've only taken screen printing or drawing classes. I definitely would love to try out oil painting, as well, to see if I like it or not. But on the top of my list would be ceramics.
Jessi: Are there any mediums that you feel are like an absolute no or are blacklisted for you?
Gina: I’m kind of anti charcoal drawing. I don't know why, I think it's too messy. It's a great starter. I just don't like using charcoal.
Jessi: I could completely understand, it's definitely one of those mediums that you have to build up constantly. If you move your arm the wrong way, half the piece is gone. There are so many frustrations to be had with it. So during your time at school, would you say the friends that you made were also a great launchpad as far as motivation in your art career?
Gina: I met all of my best friends when I was in school. My core best friends and I all worked together on campus including my best friend Karen as well. After we graduated, she ended up with our boss and they've been together for 17 years! I'm still very close with about 15 people that I went to school with, and it's great to see us all evolve. Karen is an amazing high school art teacher and I always go to her when I'm stuck. For example, I'll ask her questions like, “What do you say to your kids when they can't progress past a certain point?” And she’ll encourage me as the teacher should. It's awesome seeing us all grow up here and together. Like I said, I'm still very close with my SFAI crew. We actually even lived together when we graduated college. We’ll go see each other's families.
Jessi: Would you say that you still have any ties with anyone from your time in Fresno other than family?
Gina: Not really, I didn't have that many friends when I was there. I was always closer with my cousins than friends. I did have a couple of good friends but other than family, I don't have many ties to that city.
Jessi: That's completely understandable. We learn, we grow over time, sometimes we've got to cut those cords that have passed. But, I can tell that you still hold that place very dearly to your heart.
Gina: Yeah definitely, and in Easton. My grandparents lived in Easton so, when they passed, my uncle took over the house. When he passed, my aunt moved over there. So, I still go to Easton, which is 20 minutes southwest of Fresno. But yeah, both places are like home to me.
Jessi: So I know, the typical day to day isn't usually stable for anyone, but what would you say a day in your life looks like? What is that like for you living in San Francisco and also being an artist? How would you say that your day pans out?
Gina: Well, I wouldn't say I'm a full-time artist, I work full-time at SFMOMA, so it is a struggle to find time to make work. I typically paint after work, or go to the gym. On weekends, if I have deadlines I lock myself in my apartment, and I paint. It is a struggle having a full-time job, but I'm also grateful for working at the museum because of the environment and employees there. Managers are very understanding about taking time off for personal reasons like if a show is coming up. But yeah, my day-to-day life is: to go to work, get off at five, and then if I'm in the mood to paint, I’ll paint. I definitely devote my weekends to getting my work done. The stop-and-go method is terrible. That's why I have to take time off. But I think I find that balance with it. It's awesome seeing friends that are full-time artists who are able to constantly make work. But I know the reality is that I need a steady income to pay rent, I don't want my artwork to be my rent.
Jessi: That definitely gets a little bit scary only because you never know how the month or the week is gonna play out for you. So that's great, you’ve managed that stability, I'm really happy that you're in such an enriching environment with other artists, I'm sure that's been very supporting in your creative career. I researched your CV and noticed you've gotten so many accomplishments on your hands. Do you have any advice for any artists that are looking to branch out? Maybe in the city or within a bigger city? What is the mentality that you would need to carry throughout that?
Gina: I would say just be like a nice, kind human. Go to openings, go support other artists. Also branch out of your comfort zones, and introduce yourself to people. I love seeing artists talk, too, so I go to a lot of lectures. Just put yourself out there and just be nice, meet people, volunteer, intern. Do what you have to do to not only make yourself feel better, but to grow.
Jessi: I definitely agree. A lot of people think in order to come off professionally you have to be more stern and serious. It just seems so exhausting because you can get so much further in life with kindness and connection.
I wanted to ask, if you could speak to Gina from 10 years ago, what would you tell her? And what advice would you give her?
Gina: 10 years ago, I would have been 27. I would tell her to do the same things all over again. I have a great life, a great art life, a great work life. There were definitely some complications throughout the 10 years, but be patient, and don't worry as much. Because in 10 years, it's just gonna get better. Also, don't talk to fuckboys! It can be a good thing or a bad thing, but just leave them out!
Jessi: That is completely valid advice, some of these fuckboys are out here to kill! So my final request for you would be to share any upcoming plans or projects for us to keep an eye out for. Is there anything you want to make known?
Gina: I'm kind of in a time crunch. I have a solo show coming up March 24 in Portland. It's my first solo show outside of California, at Stephanie Chefas Projects. I had a group show there last year. And so this is my first solo show, and I’m expected to do 14 paintings. I've only done four so far, so I’ve gotta get on that. I have some group shows coming up next month as well. And then the auction with Southern Exposure on April 29th.
Going back to giving advice to people, I’d say, say yes to group shows. Put yourself in any group show that you’re asked to be in. You get to meet so many artists and curators that way. I was in a group show at a bar outside of SFMOMA and that led me to another group show at a gallery and that led to other things. So say yes to group shows!
Jessi: Are there any other ventures actually that you'd like to try? Are you interested in theater or maybe performance? Is that anything that interests you?
Gina: I definitely like photography, I have a TikTok devoted to all of my cable car rides to and from work. If you're on TikTok, I'm “singleridersf”. A single girl who enjoys a good ride!
Jessi: For anyone reading, take the time to support Gina through her artistic endeavors and follow her TikTok! She's got plenty of amazing work on the way. It was such a pleasure interviewing you! I learned so much, not only about you but your origins and just your overall thought process with creativity. I just wanted to thank you again for taking up this opportunity.
Make sure to check out Gina's upcoming work and shows on her website: https://www.ginamcontreras.com/ Thank you so much, Gina!
In addition to being the Programs and Exhibitions intern with Southern Exposure, Jessica Gurrola is a Chicana artist, born and raised throughout the Central Valley. Gurrola has been honoring her skills in traditional art, focusing primarily on Illustration and painting as well as maximizing vibrancy within her pieces. Originally a self-taught artist, Jessica is now a youth art instructor in the central valley area. With interest in psychology and art, Jessica’s work dives into the lens of social, surrealist, emotional, and personal exploration. The perfect mesh of the two, inspired her to pursue her career towards art therapy, hoping to contribute to the environment of community safety it has once brought to her.