Rituals, stories and charmed objects in the work of Astrid Terrazas

Astrid Terrazas’s deeply symbolic artwork merges dreams, ancestral folklore and lived experiences. Working in an illustrative style with expressive colours, her work resembles a visual dream diary full of transient figures, archaic symbols and illogical narratives. The vulnerability in Astrid’s work yields great power. She describes painting as “a process of finding and burying”, using symbols to make tangible emotional and psychological experiences. Her intensely personal visual language borrows motifs from Mexican folklore (and part of her ancestry), which she transforms with “secret” meanings into her own idiosyncratic charm vocabulary. For Astrid, painting is akin to incanting: a process of casting spells and weaving new healing narrative that write and rewrite histories.

Decoding the meaning of Astrid’s paintings requires a different way of looking, or rather, feeling. As with a dream, the meaning seems to hover at the margin only becoming tangible if you don’t focus too deliberately. Despite being intrinsically personal, the symbolism in Astrid’s art encompasses universal tropes and metaphors of transfiguration and transformation. Snakes, stairs, braids, windows are just some of the recurring motifs in her work which speak to themes of metamorphosis and passage. Her compositions are often divided into distinct planes that seem to signify different worlds or states of consciousness. These exist simultaneously with permeable borders through which the figures and symbols move freely. In this dream world the present is fluid and everything is connected by an invisible thread that spans the distant past and future.

Astrid lives and works in New York City. Her primary mediums are painting, illustrated ceramic vessels and mixed media sculpture. Her training in illustration is evident in her stylised visual language. Alongside making art and hanging out with the other artists she shares a commune with (and walking their dog) Astrid is an active member of the Ridgewood Tenants Union which advocates for housing justice.

portrait by Alex MacKay

AMM: Hi Astrid! Your art seems to be deeply linked to your personal story. To start us off, can you share a significant early memory that has in some way influenced your journey as an artist?  

AT: One of my most treasured childhood drawings is a series I made when I was really little, I must have been in kindergarten. I was obsessed with my grandmother’s encyclopedia set, when people still had those, there was a special part in it, that broke down the layers of the human body using see-through paper flaps. I’d flip through them and see the entire human body break apart.. from the skin to the muscular system, vascular system, the skeleton…and so I started doing that with my favorite cartoon characters. I made this little book called The Book of Nightmares, it had all my favorite characters, but without layers of themselves–without skin, without muscles. I especially loved the vascular system and the way it forms this bizarre map inside our body.

AMM: In what ways does your art reflect your personal experiences and psychology?

AT: I started making bigger paintings after it was suggested by my therapist, we were talking a lot about body dysmorphia, and she suggested doing paintings that would utilize my entire body. So that was really important. I see them as journal entries, I used to journal every day, but in recent years I’ve stepped away from it, it was almost too personal for me.  When I would go back to it, I would just relive all those anxieties, I know that’s obviously not the case for all writers, but for me it was jarring…everything was right there on the page. Some of the things I paint are subjects I never want to disclose, so I also think making paintings  is a way for me to create a tangible aid to help me work through issues. It’s a process of finding and burying. They are a way to deepen my understanding of my own psyche without being outwardly explicit. I’m comfortable with the fact that they don’t spell everything out.

‘Drawing a circle around you’, 43” x 33”, oil on canvas

AMM: Your compositions juxtapose flatness with depth: minimal surface texture and complicated narratives that take place across multiple planes simultaneously. Please tell us about your visual language and how this might relate to the themes and ideas in your work.

AT: I like to hide little secrets within a larger narrative. After waking up, I can only remember my dream if I “look” at it peripherally…when I try to focus on it the images begin to blur and overlap. I approach my paintings with that same sensitivity, I might craft a clear subject, but surround it with all these tangential happenings.

AMM: Your art evokes a complex symbolic world. From what sources and references do you draw inspiration from?

AT: I love researching  folktales, from my own Mexican culture and elsewhere and adapting them, re-working them. I’m borrowing my friend’s j-stor account to browse articles on there. Some of my latest favorite finds include; Knots and Knot Lore by Cyrus L. Day and The Global Making of a Mexican Vampire: Mesoamerican, European, African, and Twentieth-Century Media Influences on the Teyollohcuani by Edgar Martín del Campo. I’ve also watched almost everything on FolkStreams.net–I can’t get enough documentaries about rural towns-Blues’ musicians, quilting conventions, snake catching fairs, chicken bog makin!!!!!

AMM: Trauma and healing are overarching themes in your work. Can you tell us about some of the other ideas you’re currently exploring in your work?

AT: I want to be clear that I’m not attempting to recreate trauma, or encapsulate it. Some of my paintings depict a moment after the work of overcoming grief or pain has already been done. I don’t want to create anything that would cause harm at first glance but rather I want to create healing pathways through conversation. For example “auxin levels/tejiendo ojos” is the story of me taking lexapro to manage my anxiety. I was able to have a conversation about SSRIs with a friend of mine, who were themselves hesitant to go on them. That conversation removed some of the stigma around taking them.

I’ve started to make paintings merging myths with the day-to-day happenings within the Tenants Union. I’m about to finish a big one which deals with the predatory nature of landlords–Persephone is featured tending to a pomegranate tree. The single tree trunk is wrapped in a ruby-red coil, dripping blood (a landlord draining money from his tenants). A devil is being led towards a seed in the middle of a spiral; ultimately it’ll be up to the devil to decide whether to grow another blood-sucking tree, or to break the cycle and hand the seed over to the community. My hope is to sell it and donate the profits back to Ridgewood Tenants Union <3 And as I stated before–I’m starting on the shared-dream experience my mother had with her two sisters.

‘dos piedras para el cisne’, oil on canvas, 58” x 46”

AMM: Let’s speak about charms and magic. How did you become interested in these areas of divination? Do you draw any parallels with the act of making art?

AT: Some of our relatives, including my great grandmother, were curanderas (spiritual healers) living in various towns in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. They offered medicinal cures and lifted curses off their neighbors. My mom grew up around that energy–their rituals, stories and charmed objects, she passed a lot of that to me. My father is definitely a skeptic but was equally encouraging of my desire to learn more about it. As a child I would make potions out of flowers and old, old, old rancid perfume. To me, art-making feels like sorcery. I like to include milagros–silver charms I’ve collected from my family in Mexico (They’re meant to offer protection and luck) I grind up found snake bones and add collected soil to create an actual magical tincture.

AMM: There are many recurring motifs in your work: such as braids, crystal orbs, snakes, horses. What do these represent? How have you developed this pictographic language in your art?

AT: Through the past year I’ve worked on creating and growing a pictorial language, and I often connect certain feelings with recurring symbols in my work.

For instance if I’m portraying something in my life that causes anxiety or harm, I often imagine a bull charging towards me. I use horned beasts to symbolize anxiety and danger. When my body dysmorphia was at its most severe it felt like my skin was painfully wrapping my body, swallowing it. I was hyper-aware of it and I just wanted to shed… shed it, and shed it like a snake and become something else. I’ve since healed from that. Now I feel like I’m a new snake, and I use them as a reminder of that. I also think snakes get a bad rap, obviously, the initial sin!!

AMM: In what ways do dreams and memories inform the narratives in your art?

AT: My family did not retain many ancestral records—journals, photographs, objects, have almost all been lost or discarded, and the history I know has been passed down from my mother retelling stories. Because of this, I’ve been going through a period of ‘record-keeping’. I want to continue in this tradition of telling stories— interweaving my own life into them, adding tangible documentation by treating my painting practice as a personal folktale journal. I’m intent on finding out more stories from my mother’s side of the family, which have become mythologized due to the mutable nature of oral history. I have a really fun time painting from old memories, they have that same broken quality that dreams have. They’re corroded and malleable–you can easily replace or add elements.

I recently started a series on the shared-dream experiences of my mother and her two sisters. As teenagers they would decide on a location before they went to sleep–parks, friends’ houses, their grandmother’s ranch–and spend their dreams together. I want to explore further into that realm. I already draw some symbols and environments out of my own dreams. I have some recurring locations that keep coming back to me; a labyrinthine home, a vast garden with glowing houses etc. I always say that my dreams are all nightmares; everything is fog drenched and most situations verge on being fatal. but they’re also hauntingly beautiful.

‘Los Rostros Falsos’, oil on canvas, silver charm, snake bones, 60” x 60”

AMM: Alongside painting you also make ceramic sculptural and wearable vessels. Your work in this medium seems to play with the distinction between functional and decorative. Can you tell us more about this and working with clay?

AT: I’m working on a group of sphinx-like creatures. They’re masked, inspired by luchadores, they’re winged and horned. They each have a small bird figurine tied to the inside of their body, dangling from their exposed rib cages–the bird protected. They’re guardian angels. They’re tiny altars to honor the didactic relationship between strength and vulnerability. The one’s I have in my studio are riddled with spiderwebs, which I really love. They turned into homes! It’s not always about humans you know?

AMM: In a post on Instagram you describe a ceramic charm as “not a necklace, a means of transportation”. Where will it take you?  

AT: I make every vessel and winged-creature with an intention: to protect the wearer; to give them luck and provide them with comfort. I fidget a lot, I carry pebbles and acorns in my pockets to touch and ground myself. That’s what I want from my clay charms–my version of a worry stone. Where they’ll take you…I don’t know, hopefully a future where… everyone’s safe and housed and well-fed.

AMM: What does a typical day in studio for you look like and what is your process of working?

AT: It’s definitely changed since Covid. I had to carve out a studio in my bedroom and bring all of my art materials into my room. I actually love working from home, we lucked out and have a beautiful backyard. I wake up early, I do most of my work in the daylight hours, my energy dips when the sun goes down. I walk our dog Frankie at 1:30, so that’s a nice break built into my day.  I get to walk around, get my third cup of coffee and talk to neighbors. Then I do some more painting, some reading. We cook a lot in my apartment, there’s five of us total and we love doing “family meals”. After that I become joyous and full and end the day sketching while watching a movie or TV show.

‘auxin levels/tejiendo ojos’, acrylic on canvas, 64”x58”

AMM: How did the collaboration with Paloma Wool come about? Do you enjoy working collaboratively?

AT: I met them at one of their pop-ups in New York, I had always loved their photography and the way that you could see their friendship was so present in the work they did, always so dreamy. They really loved my clay necklaces–I think half a year later, they emailed me and asked if I wanted to collaborate. And that was really sweet; they’re all incredibly supportive and encouraging.

Absolutely I do, and not just with art projects–people power is the only way forward. I’m a member of the Ridgewood Tenants Union, an organizing group in my neighborhood building tenant power and solidarity. Right now I split my time 50/50 between volunteering and painting.

AMM: Has the pandemic affected you creatively? What has been your experience working during this past unprecedented year?

AT: I’ve had to slow down, but I’ve regained independence over my schedule. I actually got laid-off early into lockdown. Up until March, I had been teaching at a ceramics studio working 8 hours a day–I wasn’t able to prioritize studio time. I felt really lucky to live amongst friends (Alex, Mike, Tessa, Leo, Eli, and our dog Frankie are my angels), the awfulness of the pandemic was cushioned by our mutual support and love for eachother-the first months of proper lockdown felt almost like a little art residency. I turned inward and began to reassess my practice. I had more time to read and do research. I’ve also had more time to create community with my neighbors through the Ridgewood Tenants Union, it has offered an unexplainable amount of intrinsic inspiration. It feels so good to work alongside people who care so much about the well being of others, it prevents me from dwelling on the negative.

AMM: Do you have any projects or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

AT: I have a lot of exiting projects coming up! Some group shows in the near future; ‘Recovery’ at P.P.O.W, an outdoor show alongside the Connecticut River’s oxbow in Northampton (thank you Charlotte & Emma Kohlmann) and a still unannounced museum group show highlighting contemporary women and non-binary artists.

I’m looking forward to next year–I’m planning my first solo show at Campeche a new gallery in Mexico City!
Also trying to delve into making some sound art pieces to accompany my paintings. I’m collaborating with my partner, Alex MacKay, he’s a musician and sound engineer.

Find out more about the artist: www.astridterrazas.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘los Conejos del Pueblo’, oil on canvas, 36″ × 46″

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