Studio Visit with Crystal Latimer: Reflecting on Westernization and hybrid cultures

Crystal Latimer’s multi-disciplinary work is concerned with the dilution of Latin American culture and identity against the backdrop of rampant Westernization. Using color, pattern and materials, Crystal has developed a visual language of resistance which critiques the colonial narrative and acculturation of Latino culture. Incorporating elements from historical paintings and Latino folk art, Crystal builds up layers of silkscreened patterns, flat color and graffiti “tags” which creates the illusion of depth on the flat surface as well as the metaphoric accumulation of histories.

Based in Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania, Crystal is immersed in the the local art scene and teaches at various institutions around Pittsburgh. She has travelled to her mother’s native Costa Rica numerous times and these visits have had a profound impact on her artistic practice. We really enjoyed this conversation with Crystal, learning about her influences, ideas and ambitions for her work.  

AMM: Hi Crystal. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews and in your artist statement how place, particularly Escazú in Costa Rica, has had a strong influence on your work. Does this extend to your studio space? Please tell us a little about the space in which you work.

CL: Walking into my studio, you’ll see that my Latin heritage extends to my space through the music playing in the background, in the colors beaming from my canvases, and in the Peruvian textiles strewn haphazardly about the space. Other than that, I like my space to be clean, white, and well lit. I’m fortunate enough to have two studios at the moment, one at home and one in the city (Pittsburgh), and they serve different purposes. All the dirty work is done mostly from my home studio; because, honestly, it’s convenient and has all the comforts of home, namely, my dog. The studio in the city, Radiant Hall, is used as a place to display my work, meet with curators, have workshops, and really be a part of the artistic community. Working in a private studio alone can be isolating, so having this community to tap into is truly invaluable.

AMM: What does a typical day in studio look like for you?

CL: Inspiration is born from caffeine (didn’t you know) so first I brew a cup—or 4—using a chorreador, which is basically a traditional Costa Rican pour-over. An ideal day then starts right after breakfast, around 8:30am. I don’t usually start working right away, but settle into the space. I might tidy up a bit, stare at the pieces I have going in progress, and come up with a game plan for the day. This likely gets jotted down and never looked at again. Then, I set the mood. If I have to lay out a composition, use spray paint, or produce some bold mark-making, then I play—or blast— some fast-beat Latin music that I can dance to while working. If my paintings call for intricate pattern work, or collage, then I have to switch strategies. These vary on mood and week. Sometimes it’s podcasts, my go-to is The Jealous Curator’s “Art for Your Ear”. Or, I stick to the tried and true Harry Potter marathon. Either the audiobooks or the movie playing in the background.

Typically, I’ll work on a 2-3 pieces at once, that way I have the flexibility to let one sit for a while if it’s having an identity crisis. I feel like I don’t hit my groove until about 3 hours in, and then, I swear the afternoon just flies by! I pretty much stay on task, I’m either painting, or staring at a painting; and, I’ll break once to walk my dog in the park. I usually end the day around 4pm, and snap some photos of my works in progress. I’ll likely refer to these pictures later on in the evening, and strategize for the next studio session!

AMM: A lot of your work responds to narratives of American colonization. Please tell us more about the themes and ideas you explore in your work.

CL: My work is inspired by the multiple trips I’ve made to my mother’s native Costa Rica. My first trip was in 1999, and I went with my family for almost three months over the summer. This trip was marked by dirt roads and pulperías, or small mom-and-pop grocery stops; it was truly a different world. I’ve been back regularly since then, first with my family, and now with my husband, and every trip back I find myself counting the ways that a beautiful, unique, culture has adopted the ways of the West. The full-blown realization was during a 2013 trip when my relatives had to run an errand at a local Wal-Mart in Escazú. Nothing says Westernization better than the clearance aisles of a big-box store. This is what I’ve latched onto, the hybridization of a culture due to Westernization. My work speaks of the contemporary, but also traces back the history of Latin Westernization to the first trips made by the Spanish in 1492. This history is rich, and provides so much metaphorical content for my current work.

AMM: The layers in your work seem like they could be read as a metaphor for competing cultural histories. What is the relationship between style and subject matter in your work?

CL: I am constantly working with metaphors. The biggest parallel for me is the graffiti process of “tagging” with spray paint, and the similarities of this process to colonization. In tagging, territory is marked as your own, boundaries are created and enforced, and the status of the one who does the tagging is raised. This holds true for the practice of colonization. In using the spray paint medium, I hope to allude to these attributes. I often use gold and silver metallic gilding as well, as these were the initial motives for colonization.
I use color as metaphor, too. The bold, vibrant, hot colors are reminiscent of the landscape of Costa Rica. For example, my grandmother’s home changes between the colors of a saturated sea-foam green and a teal blue; both of which are often found on my palette. White is also used metaphorically, in terms of white-washing, and the dilution of the bold colors, and cultural references, that lie beneath.

AMM: Please tell us about some of the pattern and floral motifs that recur in your work.

CL: Pattern is a MAJOR part of my work, and it’s my favorite part of the process! I refer to Mexican tile designs quite regularly, as I find their tessellating patterns provide structure to my compositions. Although I sometimes draw these designs by hand, I usually screen-print them on the surface. I also reference carreta designs of Costa Rica. The carreta was an intricately painted oxcart popularized in the early 1900s, and used to transport coffee beans coast to coast. Because of the carreta, many of the roads and villages around central Costa Rica (where my relatives live) came to be. In 1999, I visited a studio in Sarchí, Costa Rica, where they continue the tradition of painting these designs on oxcarts. I was completely enamored. I re-visited the studio, Joaquín Chaverri Fábrica de Carretas, in 2014 for a residency in order to learn how to recreate these ornate designs. It was such an incredible experience to work alongside these artists and learn the techniques that have been passed down from their mentors, as the process has not changed much. They even use gasoline to thin their paints! Incorporating the carreta and tile patterns, both derived from Latin folk art traditions, gives my paintings a sense of place, identity, and history.

As for the florals, they have only recently come into my work. Feminism has been a hot topic here in the U.S., especially in our current socio-political climate, and I began to reflecting on femininity. This was translated into an exploration of florals and greenery found on my canvases. I’m still trying to figure out if they’ll fit into my long-term studio practice, or if this was only a short flirtation with the subject matter.

AMM: The composition of your work often plays with intricate patterns and flat fields of color. How do you typically work? What is your creative process?

CL: Oh, dear, the creative process! Well, I usually begin by building a composition. Sometimes these start out very loose, with a large paint pour and a slaughtering of graffiti tags. Other times, I start with a line drawing—a historical painting reference, flowers, large patterns, random mark-making… or I’ll just overlap all of these ideas! I’ve found that I can’t begin until my canvas is loaded with visual information, possibilities, and choices. At this stage, it has to look like a mess. I’ll then search for shapes to provide the major structure of my pieces—positive and negative space… foreground and background. I’m also pinning down a color palette at this point, which I’ve been sourcing from photographs of homes & architecture in Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. With these general guidelines, I forge ahead and try to discover the painting; I never go into a painting with a certain expectation in mind. I find that the most successful pieces are the ones I’ve struggled with most—the ones that hold evidence of trial and error, and from that have developed a rich surface history.

AMM: In addition to painting and drawing you also work in collage. This seems to bear a conceptual parallel to some of the overarching themes in your work. Can you tell us a little about the mediums you work in and why you’re interested in them?

CL: I do! I’ve actually noticed recently that the way I paint has a very “collage-like” feel to it, as it’s based on working with the formal element of shape. So, it felt natural to introduce paper collaging into my work. But, I’m also just very curious when it comes to new techniques. I enjoy the process of learning a new medium, and experimenting with how I can push the boundaries of that medium. Currently, I work with acrylic, oil, drawing, metallic gilding, screen-printing, paper collage, image transfers, and spray painting. I’ve also produced hand-printed ceramic tile. I’m interested in the histories and metaphors these mediums bring to the overall conversation. The incorporation of these different mediums fragment the identity that is being built on the surface, and this is relevant to the fragmentation of the Latin American identity… I’m so glad to hear that you’ve caught that conceptual tie—how very keen of you!

AMM: From an artistic career perspective, how do you balance your own practice and teaching work? Do the two influence each other at all?

CL: Very much so. I love teaching because I’m constantly learning. In teaching, you have to assign words to the “why” and the “how” you do what you do. You’re also forced to stay relevant with artists, trends, galleries, etc., in addition to knowing your proper art history. In this way, learning never becomes stagnant, and I feel like I’m always evolving as an artist. And, my goodness, it’s incredibly inspiring to watch my students learn and grow! Hands down, the best part. As for balance, I’m still trying to work that out! Luckily, I have a caring husband who is more realistic than I am, and he’s pretty good at helping me edit, compartmentalize, and set structure to my schedule. I’d be lost (and overwhelmed) without him!

AMM: What are you looking at, listening to and reading at the moment?

CL: I’m looking at the work of Firelei Beaz — one of my favorite artists. She currently has a solo exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum here in Pittsburgh. I’m listening to 2000s R&B and Hip Hop—takes me back to high school dances! I’m reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood—which is as relevant as ever. And, re-reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. That book is my creative bible.

AMM: You’re going to be showing your work later this year at the Three Rivers Arts Festival. Do you have any future career goals? Where do you see yourself as an artist in 5 years’ time?

CL: I will be; it’s my second year at Three Rivers and I’m definitely looking forward to it! I’ll have a booth in the Artist Market, but I’ll also have a large installation in the Juried Exhibition. The longevity of my arts career is a subject always close to mind. As for the near future, I hope to become more established in my regional area, with more publications, exhibitions, and experience under my belt. I’d then like to branch out to more national and international exhibitions and galleries. And teaching, always teaching.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview conducted by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.