Panama inspires grad student Arias in her art, filmmaking

Born in Costa Rica, Jacqueline Arias was adopted by American parents and moved to the Panama Canal Zone at age 4. While she only spent three years there before moving to rural Ohio, the experience made a profound impression on the artist, independent filmmaker and educator.

Now a University of Arizona School of Art graduate student, Arias is working with artisan women from Panama — the Guna people — to make traditional mola quilts that incorporate her personal designs and reference borders, military presence and the canal infrastructure.

Jacqueline Arias

Arias held her first solo exhibition, “Mola: Truth Maps,” at Nogales’ Hilltop Gallery in March 2023. Through videos, prints and VR, she activated the molas as visual and aural maps — lived maps — that collect and narrate the lived experiences of the people of Panama.

In September 2022, her video “Panama Narratives,” which incorporates the mola mythology, was shown at the Arizona Underground Film Festival in downtown Tucson. The short documentary coincided with National Hispanic Heritage Month, which also celebrates Latin America heritage.

Arias’ video explores her childhood experience, the U.S. intervention in the Canal Zone area and the relationship between its residents and the Panamanian and indigenous Guna people.

“I’m drawn to the Guna matriarchal society, where the molas are worn by women as protection, a tradition drawn from the story of a young woman who finds enlightenment through overcoming obstacles,” Arias said. “Through enlightenment, she shares the gift of protection and knowledge with other women of her tribe.

“In exploring how this mythology speaks to my personal experience — I am returning to my indigenous roots to find healing and knowledge and re-examining my Latinx experience of dislocation.”

The Guna people are autonomous from Panama and have fought to maintain their land, heritage and governance. Arias’ designs deviate from traditional mola subject matter, which is usually apolitical, she said.

“I’m interested in the mola because the materiality represents a material embodiment of indigenous cosmology,” Arias said. “They use reverse applique technique with fine needlework that stitches together multiple layers and colors of fabric. These layers represent a spiritual labyrinth, which can trap evil spirits within their patterns.”

Arias said she’s begun to incorporate her mola panels into printmaking to “talk about invisible labor, constructed borders and U.S. occupation.”

A second-year MFA candidate in the interdisciplinary program, Arias was selected for the Border Lab Graduate Fellowship program by the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, a $10,000 award possible with funding from the Office of the Provost and University of Arizona HSI Initiatives.

She studied photography at Parsons School of Design, experimenting with video art and performance work. Her work addresses the invisible social barriers in society and the feelings of cultural detachment they cause, she said.

Arias is enjoying her classes and hopes to graduate in 2024.

“I’ve learned so much in the short time I’ve been here,” Arias said. “I The instructors are just as nurturing as they are challenging. My goal is to soak up as much knowledge as I can while I’m here.”

• Jacqueline Arias’ website

Doctoral candidate Chavez named Tyson Scholar

Ricardo Chavez, a University of Arizona School of Art doctoral candidate in Art History and Education, has been named a prestigious Tyson Scholar in American Art for the fall 2023 semester at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Chavez will spend the 15-week residential fellowship doing research for his dissertation, “The Lost Utopian Classroom: Radical Pedagogies in American Art.” The project involves the intersections of art, education, and activism in American art and the legacies of the social movements of the 1960s as they impact artistic practice today.

Ricardo Chavez

“The biggest thing for me is the feeling of reaffirmation for both myself as a scholar and for the value of the research I am conducting,” Chavez said. “The whole experience of being a visiting scholar at such a well-renowned American art institution feels incredible to me.”

Established in 2012, the Tyson Scholars Program in American Art​ has supported more than 70 scholars, attracting national and international academic professionals. Crystal Bridges, founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation, has a collection that spans five centuries of American art with 3,000 paintings, works on paper, sculpture, photography and new media.

“We believe your proposed project has the potential to advance the understanding of American art, and we look forward to welcoming you to the fellowship program,” Cyrstal Bridges executive Mindy N. Besaw told Chavez in his invitation letter.

For his “Lost Utopian Classroom” dissertation, Chavez plans to use his residency “as an opportunity to immerse myself in the museum’s social and community engagement programs that demonstrate the kinds of pedagogical and socially engaged art practices that are central to my dissertation work.”

Chavez grew up in Merced, California, in the heart of the state’s rural Central Valley.

“My location, coupled with being the son of immigrant parents who never entered into higher education, meant I had little exposure to art until I entered college,” Chavez said. “After taking some introductory courses, I really got into the subject when I took a course on contemporary art history and became fascinated with the diverse artistic voices and their creativity in expanding the definition of art in the present.”

Chavez earned his B.A. in Art History from California State University-Sacramento in 2011 and his M.A. in Art History and Visual Culture from San Jose State University in 2018.

He chose the University of Arizona School of Art to pursue his doctoral degree to work with Professor Larry Busbea, his adviser who specializes in design and art of post-war United States and Europe.

“I also was drawn in to earn my minor with the Art & Visual Culture Education program, due to its strong focus on using art education for social engagement,” Chavez said.

“My studies have thus pushed me to find ways to bridge the gap between what the fields of art history and art education have to offer one another,” he added. “Doing so while finding my own voice as a scholar and educator have been both the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my time here.”

Chavez, a graduate teaching assistant for the School of Art, said students interested in Art History and Art & Visual Culture Education should “expand the field.”

“Push it beyond its disciplinary boundaries,” he said. “That is what art history needs the most. It is not just a matter of studying creativity, it is also about being creative while doing so.

“Begin by identifying what interests you the most within the field, whether it is a movement, a time period, a medium, or a theme, and then try to build on that,” Chavez continued. “Try to build on the way art history perceives it, and eventually you might find a new and unique way of doing so that the field has yet to consider.”

Prof Saracino receives fellowship from prestigious Huntington Library

Jennifer Saracino, an assistant professor of Art History at the University of Arizona School of Art, has received a Barbara Thom postdoctoral fellowship from the prestigious Huntington Library near Los Angeles for the 2023-24 school year.

The fellowship will allow Saracino to revise her dissertation on the Uppsala Map of Mexico-Tenochtitlan into her first book manuscript. Uppsala is the earliest known map of Mexico City, painted by indigenous Nahua artists after the Spanish Conquest (c. 1540).

Jennifer Saracino, assistant professor, School of Art

“I’m so honored that they’ve recognized the significance of my project,” Saracino said. “The Huntington Library has always been an institution of which I’m dreamed of becoming a fellow. The strengths of their collections include the Hispanic Americas, Maps & Manuscripts and the history of science. These are all avid research interests of mine, so it is an ideal setting in which to carry out my research and manuscript revision.

“Not to mention, it’s absolutely stunning,” she said. “I’m really drawn to the fact that it has a research library, art museum and botanical gardens. It’s the perfect fit for an interdisciplinary art historian like myself.”

Saracino grew up in Western Pennsylvania but received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Southern California, not that far from the Huntington Library.

“I’m very excited to go back to my old stomping grounds and spend some time by the coast,” Saracino said. “Much of my Filipino family also lives in Los Angeles, so I’m excited to be able to spend more time with them.”

The Huntington complex, in San Marino, Caliornia, is one of the world’s top independent research libraries, with over 11 million items from the 11th to the 21st centuries. The Thom fellowships, lasting nine to 12 months, include a $50,000 stipend and are intended to support non-tenured faculty who are revising their dissertation for publication as their first monograph.

In the past, Saracino said art historical scholarship regarded the Uppsala Map of Mexico-Tenochtitlan as having a pronounced European influence compared to other Indigenous-made manuscripts of the same time period.

“I felt that a deeper analysis of the map was missing because of this,” she said. “These artists were extraordinary cultural brokers between the local European and Indigenous populations. They were fluent not only in multiple spoken and written languages but also visual languages.

Jennifer Saracino at the Newberry Library in Chicago

“As the daughter of an immigrant and someone with my own multicultural identity, I felt that these artists were owed more recognition in the scholarship as the extraordinary individuals that they were,” Saracino said. “I wanted to explore what it meant to hold multiple identities and how that is reflected in their representation of the dynamically changing world in which they were living.”

Last fall, Saracino presented a paper, “The Ayer Map of Teotihuacan as Embodied Action & Performance,” after being invited to the 21st Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr. Lectures in the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

She also enjoyed participating in an interdisciplinary exhibition that saw University of Arizona professors across departments imagine how a Charles Dickens tale, “David Copperfield,” might find a homeland in the Sonoran Borderlands. From digital installation to performance, sonic experiments to film, cartography to micro-publication, the exhibition explored questions about the relationship between arts and public-engagement, literature and everyday places, and authors and readers.

“Art History is important because it allows us all to learn about different people, cultures, values and worldviews through the things they made,” Saracino said.

After earning her undergrad degree from USC, she received her master’s and Ph.D. in Art History from Tulane University in New Orleans. She was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection in Washington, D.C., then taught at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, before coming to the University of Arizona in August 2021.

Saracino co-organized a panel, “Ecocritical Art Histories of Indigenous Latin America” on Feb. 18 at the College Art Association (CAA) conference in New York City.

“Art History has broadened my worldview and afforded me the opportunity and privilege to travel the world and meet so many different people,” she said. “I think that to learn about others and their artistic and cultural traditions instills in you a greater empathy and appreciation for difference and diversity.”

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