In a small studio on one of St. Paul’s tree-lined residential streets, artist Xilam Balam uses an acrylic marker to put the finishing touches on a surreal painting of an Aztec god riding what looks to be a John Deere tractor through a purple field.
The figure, specifically, depicts the Aztec water god, Tlaloc. And behind him there is a bright orange fire cloud, a reference to looming conflict, very much inspired by graffiti and street art.
Balam creates all his paintings out of Electric Machete Studios (EMS), a scrappy gallery run by a collective of Latino and indigenous artists, musicians and community organizers. The painting is part of a series called “Where we are now” that seeks to capture, at least abstractly, both the deep roots and the current political situation facing Mexicans in North America.
“I wanted to put our ancestors in their full regalia in modern-day situations,” said Xilam, 44, whose series is featured during a special event Friday at EMS. “This is the state that we’re in right now. It’s a war — not just a physical war but a mental war.”
The title of Friday’s event is “CSA: CSA (Community Supported Art: Community Supported Agriculture).” And it’s the product of a partnership with Sin Fronteras Farm & Food, a Stillwater family farm that grows a wide variety of peppers and other produce central to the Mexican diet. Eventgoers can take in a presentation by University of Minnesota students on organizing local farmworkers and snag a free piece of art when they buy a Sin Fronteras CSA.
Curated by founding EMS member Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra, the event exemplifies the gallery’s approach to mixing art, education and activism. In addition to Balam’s paintings, art lovers can take in spoken-word performances by Palabristas Latin Wordslingers. Or they can sign up for the gallery’s $100 “art share” program, which is kind of like a CSA, promising regular shipments of art four times throughout the summer.
Crisanta de Ybarra, 34, grew up between New York City and Austin, Minn. She moved to the Twin Cities in 2005 on a break from college, met her future husband and ended up staying for good. A self-described “interdisciplinary, postmodern folk artist,” she’s self-taught in traditions such as papel picado (a method of cutting paper into elaborate patterns), though she also studied studio art at St. Olaf College and at the Holtekilen Folkehøgskole in Oslo, Norway.
Where did she get the idea for a Twin Cities Latino art collective? She saw firsthand the obstacles facing artists of color. Calls for commissions, for example, don’t always reach Latino artists. Or maybe the application process is inaccessible to non-native non-English speakers, or someone who didn’t attend an expensive four-year arts college.
EMS aims to fill the gap, she said, by providing Latino artists with their own platform, and by coaching aspiring artists on finding opportunities.
Preserving the West Side
An interdisciplinary approach is evident as observers browse the EMS gallery, even on a quiet Sunday afternoon. In one corner is what Crisanta de Ybarra called a “screen printing octopus,” or bright yellow six-color press, used to produce T-shirts for fundraisers and hip local bands such as Balam’s Los Nativos.
As she talked, Crisanta de Ybarra busily prepared for Friday’s event by dismantling the gallery’s previous exhibition, a series of wheat paste posters against sexual harassment, done by a Mexico City-based female arts collective.
“The work we do is contemporary,” stressed Crisanta de Ybarra. “There isn’t another space for artists like it.”
With a rotating cast of six to eight members, the collective collaborates on brainstorming and organizing special events such as Friday’s CSA partnership.
Members even “pitch in for paint supplies, whatever we need to do,” added Crisanta de Ybarra. “Like most families, we work together.”
The gallery’s location is no accident, either. St. Paul’s West Side was the first Mexican neighborhood in the Twin Cities. As part of its mission, EMS seeks to preserve the neighborhood’s rich cultural history, where many of the group’s members grew up painting murals.
In the long term, EMS members have ambitious dreams for their art and their neighborhood. “Right across the street from our studio is a brown field that used to be a gas station,” Crisanta de Ybarra said, pointing out the window at a barren patch of grass. “We would love to turn that space into an art park.”
For now, the collective serves the neighborhood with its contemporary art events — and by hosting intergenerational workshops, where Latino artists team with elders to teach youngsters traditional arts and crafts.
Balam, for instance, teaches a course on making pre-Columbian clay flutes. EMS also has hosted workshops on papel picado and backstrap weaving (a traditional Mayan technique).
“We see it as a duty, a responsibility,” said Crisanta de Ybarra. “To pass it on to families who want to continue those traditions.”
Jared Goyette is a freelance writer based on St. Paul’s West Side. Follow him at instagram.com/jaredgoyette.