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Explore perspectives on mark-making in painting and beyond with PreCollege student-artist Elizabeth Gomez, teacher Kara Maria, and teaching assistant Mariela Montero (MFA, 2017), brought together in the class, Between Thought + Thing: Expressive Works on Paper.

Describe the type of work you create.

Kara Maria: I’m a painter, and I mostly work in acrylic paint on canvas but I also make works on paper and prints.

Mariela Montero: I do large-scale, two-dimensional works on paper with watercolor and gouache. I also do sculptural paintings with acrylic paint—carving pieces of wood, mounting the shapes on wood board.

Elizabeth Gomez: I do a lot of drawing and collage work, as well as video and photography.

What ideas do you explore?

KM: My work rewards looking; I really like it when painting works differently from a long distance, middle distance, and up close. You could pass by and only see an abstract painting, but if you get closer, you can see something else—smaller, figurative elements. This imagery tends to have a sort of political intent or meaning behind it; I’ve explored issues of women’s bodies, war, and the military. My current theme right now is endangered animals. I am also interested in species that live in the wildland-urban interface, like mountain lions.

MM: l tend to explore politics of identity, postcolonial theory, race, and sexuality. My watercolor paintings are more figurative and draw from Filipino mythology. In my sculptural paintings, I’m replicating Filipino food but pouring acrylic over the surface so that it has a visible trauma and obscurity.

EG: I’m kind of still figuring that out, but what I go back to in a lot of my work—especially my video work—are themes of youth in 2016. I feel like with technology people misunderstand and misinterpret teenage emotion and self-awareness for narcissism. So I explore these ideas to validate teenage emotion and experience. I often incorporate themes of binaries, like gender and sexuality, because I think it’s pretty common to find teenagers today who break those boundaries. I like to draw people but with strange faces and strange emaciated bodies.

I use text often in my work. I feel like using a few words or a sentence adds a lot. I’m especially inspired by people I see in everyday life, like finding the beauty in everyone sort of thing. I like to imagine what their internal monologues would be and reflect on that using words in a clever way—writing a caption that’s funny or has a double meaning.

Tell us about the class Between Thought + Thing: Expressive Works on Paper.

EG: I like this class because I’ve been learning different elements, like collage, transfer, color, and painting, which I now can incorporate into my work and branch out more. I haven’t really taken many art classes in my high school, but I think the way this class is taught is different just because there are so many styles of art mixed together.

KM: This is the fourth time that I’ve taught this class, but the first three times were to adult students—twice in SFAI’s Public Education program. The class is really flexible, incorporating painting, drawing, and some printmaking techniques without falling within each medium. Most art is trying to express something about something, and I feel like working on paper leads to a different thought process, a little looser, quicker, and freer.

As artists, how do you use painting techniques (abstraction, line quality, color) or the medium itself to express your concepts?

EG: When I paint, I do a combination with collage. I think it’s really effective to mix an image you’ve created with one someone else made, to synthesize them for your own concept. I like to focus on texture in painting, using a drier brush, sponges, or working with the texture of the paper. I think it’s more interesting piece if it has a lot of different marks and mediums. If I want to do details, I’ll use an ink pen, and if I want to do a wash I’ll use watercolor or watered down acrylic.

KM: The way I paint is more technique-based or more formally based. I started college studying music composition, and so I think of painting a lot like how you would build a symphony. You need low and high, and you need these different elements coming together. I use a lot of layering, slowly building up a surface and juggling elements like transparency and opacity, darkness and brightness. Color is really important, it’s what attracted me to painting. I tend to lean towards the more keyed up, amped up, and saturated color. Something I’m working with right now is to put more breadth and space in that by adding in more earth tones to set off that color.

MM: I start painting with a bare-bones idea that I want to communicate, but I try to bridge what my hands want to do and what I’m thinking. It’s a back and forth between concept and technique—the process itself is just as important as the finished product. On the Yupo paper, the pigment and water sit on top of the surface, so the paint will sometimes move on its own accord—I like the tension. A lot of my work is about being in a transitory state of being, so the process reflects that.


What have been your experiences in PreCollege?

MM: This is my first experience as a Teaching Assistant, and it’s made me reminisce about my development at high school age. I’m also really impressed with what the students have brought to the class since day one, their diverse interests, fresh ideas, and willingness to take risks. It’s been really rewarding to see everyone’s progress and dedication, working hard during studio hours and after hours.

EG: I really like it; I also appreciate that my peers care a lot about their work and everyone here wants to be here. So many of the students are like-minded to me. I don’t go to an art high school, so coming here it’s really nice to be in an environment where everyone around you wants to make art.

The teachers are really helpful in facilitating your ideas as well; they won’t shut you down or say you can’t do that. They’ll help you and try to make it happen no matter what the idea is. I like that; it’s a welcoming environment at SFAI, and that’s really cool.

KM: This is my first time teaching SFAI PreCollege, but I’ve worked with high school-aged people in a lot of different contexts before—at Urban in San Francisco, the Oxbow School, and California College of the Arts—but I have to say, this group really exceeded my expectations of what people in high school would be able to accomplish in four weeks time.

The closest equivalent I’ve worked with are the people who went to Oxbow, and I think for a similar reason, because it’s young people with a lot of enthusiasm for whatever it is they want to learn or do; they seem to all really want to be here. They just sit down and start working; three hours later, they’re still working as hard. I wasn’t expecting that level of seriousness about what we’re doing, so that makes the class really fun to teach. You see people’s work progress a lot between the beginning and now the end of the program—everyone has made big leaps in the time that they’ve been here, so that’s really exciting.

What are current inspirations in your work?

EG: I live close to London and there’s a really strong alternative youth culture, particularly tied to fashion and streetwear, so I really like exploring that. Youth culture is always evolving and is never accepted really by older people, so I find it a really fascinating concept.

KM: In my current body of work, I’m using endangered animals to talk about climate change. There are a lot of issues right now in our country, but for me climate change is the issue that trumps, for the lack of a better word, anything else. In my lifetime, this issue has gone from something that people didn’t think about at all to something everyone worries about. I read this book by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Sixth Extinction, and right now our planet is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in it’s history, and people call it the anthropocene era because it’s caused by humans. Kolbert’s book focuses on different animals in each chapter, such as the Panamanian golden frog, that illustrate what’s happening to life on our planet. In my paintings, I’m trying to represent that too.

MM: Since I explore race theory and political theory, I also have a hand in movements that are happening in San Francisco that involve Filipino Americans, issues of gentrification and immigration. Having my finger on that pulse is also what’s informing my work.

What’s next?

KM: I’m working on a new series of works on paper inspired by my own class. I’m currently a Fellow at Montalvo Art Center, so I’m looking forward to going back and spending some more time there where I’ve been developing this new body of work. I’m hoping to exhibit those eventually. I’m also looking forward to doing some more teaching; I’m teaching another summer class right now at UC Berkeley; and then in the fall at San Francisco State and another at CCA.

MM: I just closed a group show this past weekend with nine other Asian-American women and queer artists, Appendix at UC San Diego; going forward, we’re talking about forming a collective. I’m also on the planning committee for APICC, an arts festival for Asian-Pacific Americans in San Francisco in September, so I hope to have work in that as well. I’ll also be participating in campus exhibition in my next and final year of grad school.

EG: I’ll be finishing high school, and then hopefully art school, maybe SFAI. I want to focus a lot more on my art in the next year of high school. I’ve got a few project ideas in my mind, surrounding video particularly, but also works on paper. I’m getting into working with textiles, fabrics, and stitching, so hopefully I can find a way to incorporate that into my art practices. But other than that, just going to school.


See Elizabeth Gomez’s work in the PreCollege Exhibition, on view July 11-15 at SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. Join us for the opening reception on Friday, July 15 from 4:30-6:30pm, with an Experimental Cinema and Video Screening at 3:30pm.

SFAI PreCollege is a four-week, college-credit program that brings together high school juniors and seniors from the US and internationally to study and explore visual art in a college setting. Students are supported by professional-artist faculty as well as teaching assistants, who are current SFAI Graduate students.

Learn more:

Kara Maria »

Elizabeth Gomez »

SFAI PreCollege »


Image credits: 1) Photo (left to right): Mariela Montero, Kara Maria, and Elizabeth Gomez; Photo by Stephanie Smith; 2) Kara Maria, Innumeral Infinite Songs, 2016; Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inches; Photo credit: John Wilson White; 3) Mariela Montero, Manananggal Recline, 2016; Watercolor and gouache on Yupo; Courtesy of the artist; 4) Mariela Montero, Manananggal Facegrab; 2016; Watercolor and gouache on Yupo; Courtesy of the artist; 5) Installation view of Elizabeth Gomez’s work; Photo by Stephanie Smith; 6) Photo (left to right): Mariela Montero, Kara Maria, and Elizabeth Gomez; Photo by Stephanie Smith; 7) Detail of Elizabeth Gomez’s work; 8) Detail of Elizabeth Gomez’s work.

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