Longtime followers of the Phoenix art scene must have done a little happy dance upon hearing of Annie Lopez’s solo show at the Phoenix Art Museum. Lopez is a fourth-generation Arizonan and has been a steady presence in the Phoenix-area art scene since the early 1980s. Remember MARS Artspace? Lopez showed her inventive photography and mixed media works at that gallery and — perhaps unbeknownst to many — at galleries across the country in the ensuing years.
In 2012, though, Lopez was awarded the prestigious Contemporary Forum Mid-Career Grant under the aegis of the art museum. That gave her free reign to spend a year creating works for a solo show, knowing that the end result would throw a brighter spotlight on this seemingly modest artist.
If you’ve seen the show in the Chase Lobby since it went up in April 2013, you can attest to the emotional power and beauty of both Lopez’s hand-sewn cyanotype dresses and her written vignettes accompanying family photographs. The show has been well received and a fitting validation for longtime Phoenix artists such as Lopez who keep making quiet yet significant pieces, not worrying too much about fame and glory.
In a recent appearance on KAET-TV’s “Horizonte,” Lopez explained how several of the 14 dresses in the exhibit came about. She is a consummate pack rat and had held on to many love letters, snapshots, medical records, report cards and sketches over the years. After spreading out various documents at her home studio and analyzing her emotional reactions to them, she began to realize that they could take on another life as artworks and perhaps offer a bit of compartmentalization for painful memories. But how would the new works differ from previous ones in which Lopez had shared family documents and photographs? One day, after a frustrating text-message exchange with a family member, she told PAM curator Sara Cochran, “I would like to sew my burdens into a dress,” and the idea for the text-laden blue dresses was born. Lopez decided to use the cyanotype process on commercial tamale paper, liking the texture, and used vintage dress patterns as well.
Clues to the dresses’ meanings come from their titles, such as “Naturalized Citizens,” referring to family members and showing naturalization papers, and “Failed Relationship,” having to do with a high school breakup and reproducing her ex’s letter. Another dress defiantly shows Lopez’s “C” grades in art from old report cards.
In the exhibit, the dresses are clustered together, while the surrounding walls display several of Lopez’s family photographs, artfully enlarged and mounted and accompanied by poignant narratives about her life, along with smile-inducing memories of growing up in Phoenix in the 1960s and ’70s.
I enjoyed conducting this question-and-answer interview with Lopez, and urge you to see the museum show before it leaves on June 30. You might also want to check out my short review of the show on Visual Art Source at https://visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&pcID=26&aID=1729
Q: What are the primary art mediums that you have been working with over the years?
A: I began my art career in 1982 with black & white and color photography. The subject matter was whatever caught my eye. In 1987, I began to build installations, beginning with altars and working up to entire rooms.
Q: What led you not only to working with cyanotypes, but also to creating dresses as your “canvas”?
A: Everyone had a camera and everyone was a “photographer.” This was in the days of film! I decided I needed a different way to express myself. I took an alternative photography class at Phoenix College in 1985. There, I learned new (old) ways of printing and developing. Cyanotype just stuck with me and I have played with it ever since. I constantly attempt to print on new surfaces and change the color.
I made dresses because, as a girl, that was how I expressed myself. I made what I wore. Also, I feel if I wore these dresses, I wouldn’t have to deal with the subject matter because I wouldn’t see it.
Q: Has your work always been highly personal and narrative? If so, why do you think that is?
A: That first altar I built was about the loss of our first child. That was my way of dealing with it. I am so fortunate to have this outlet. From that point on, I have used my art to deal with my issues and say what I have to say. I have been criticized for that reason, but my reactions to my own experiences are what make my work unique.
Q: Is there a dress in the Phoenix Art Museum exhibit that you would call your favorite? And which of the dresses was most difficult — from a personal standpoint — to create, because of the story that it tells? And why tamale paper?
A: All the dresses were my favorite at one point as I created them. “Remnants of Long Term Memory” is my favorite because it is covered in my late father’s handwriting. (The work deals with Lopez’s father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.)
The most difficult dress is the one that inspired the series. The “Bully Dress” came from text messages from a family member as I cared for my father in the final year of his life.
I used tamale paper because of the cultural connection. My family never used tamale wrapper paper. I discovered it at the grocery store.
Q: How do you feel about being the recipient of a “mid-career” award? Does it seem like your time as an artist has gone by quickly or slowly, and is your best work yet to come? Can you give us a hint of your next project?
A: I love being recognized as a mid-career artist after 30 years. That means I have 30 more years as an artist ahead of me! The award also acknowledges I have an art career. I sometimes doubt that I do.
The past 30 years have gone by in a flash. (As for the next project) I have so many ideas I cannot wait to get to. I would like to make a few more dresses on the subjects I have not yet covered. I want to do a few other garment items, and I want to create pieces about my DNA makeup.
Q: What has it felt like to bask in the spotlight of a solo Phoenix Art Museum show, after so many years as a key player in the Phoenix art scene?
A: It is so odd to have this spotlight on me. I would prefer the spotlight be on the artwork alone.
Q: What’s your assessment of the downtown art scene, given that you’ve watched it through many ups and downs?
A: I have been part of the art scene in Phoenix since 1982. There has always been an art scene here. It grows, it divides, it shrinks. That’s natural and normal. (Lopez was one of the regular artists at the Grand Avenue gallery Deus Ex Machina until it closed a several months ago.)
Q: It seems that your storytelling abilities lie not just in your sculpture-like dresses, but also in the written vignettes that accompany the old family photographs. What’s your assessment of yourself as a writer, and what’s the balance like between that aspect of your creative output and your studio time?
A: I love to write. Writing relaxes me. I keep and carry many notebooks where I write out story ideas and sketch out ideas for artwork. Often, one grows out of the other. I don’t know if my writing is any good, but it is written in my voice.
Q: Where can fans see your work this year, after the PAM show ends?
A: For once in a very long time, I do not have a thing scheduled! I hope it won’t be long before another opportunity presents itself.