Advice to Young Artists: Rio Yáñez

"Dinosaur on the Ark" Self-portrait of artist Rio Yáñez on 24th and Mission Streets.

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Mission Loc@l: We read on your website that you were conceived in an art studio. Did the magic really happen there?

Rio Yáñez: Yeah, it did. When I was a little kid, whenever we’d drive by Project Artaud my mom would point out and say “See that window there, that’s were you were made.” For the longest time I thought it was normal just for parents to freely tell, like “Oh, yeah that’s where we conceived you.” Then I’d go to school and be like, “My parents said this,” and they’d be like, “What? Eww — that’s gross.” But I figure since I pursued a career in the arts that it was all part of the story.

ML: What memories do you have growing up with parents who were heavily involved in the arts?

RY: Well, it was both good and bad. My father for most of the ’80s was the director of Galería de la Raza, so I got to see him do a lot of cool things. But also see him negotiate with artists and have good moments and bad moments. The same thing with my mom. She was a visual artist. Since her work dealt with a lot of Catholic images, there were occasionally protests and threats against my mom. She had a show once at the Galería and they smashed the windows and left threatening notes for her. I was like five years old, and it was terrifying for me. So part of my experience was being exposed to a lot of beautiful things and meeting very fortunate people. But also seeing the real side that not everyone is going to be accepting of your work.

ML: Do you feel like you have advantages here in the Mission?

RY: There’s no use in denying that I have some sort of inside track. Because yeah, I grew up knowing a lot of artists. I’ve been here all my life. I would say it’s probably opened up some doors, and closed some in the process, too. I’ve also inherited some baggage, some East Coast-West Coast beef on occasion.

ML: What’s it like to work so closely with your father, René Yáñez?

RY: It’s been really good. My dad is one of my best friends. All the other people I know that work their parents — it’s like a corner store where they’re taking over the family business. I would say that our family business is not really lucrative, but it’s an exciting business to be in.

ML: What schooling did you go through?

RY: I went to City College of San Francisco, and I ended up getting an associate’s degree in photography. From there I went on to get a bachelor’s at California Institute of the Arts in southern California, and graduated in 2005. I decided I wanted to come back to San Francisco to make my living as an artist. I figured this was a good time for me to go back to school and learn some new things.

ML: What are you studying in school now?

RY: I’m in the graphic design program at City College, and I’m studying Flash animation and Adobe Illustrator. One of the reasons I wanted to go back to school was because I went to art school — Cal Arts — and it’s an amazing school, but the focus is all on concept and meaning. So I can tell you why a plastic fork is a postmodern representation of man’s inhumanity [to] man — that duality of human nature. But going there, I didn’t learn too many technical skills, and that’s really why I went back to school.

ML: Do you think it’s important for artists to have those technical skills nowadays?

RY: I would say for artists living in the Bay Area, yes. In San Francisco there’s a lot of design companies and video games companies. Those kinds of computer-based technical skills are what they look for in the creative people that they hire.

ML: What elements influence your work?

RY: I grew up in the Mission as a big comic book nerd. I was exposed to a lot of art through my parents, who were both artists, but really the motivating factor was comic books. Up until I was about 16 or 17, I was convinced that I was going to be a comic book artist. So really, in terms of developing my aesthetics and my interests as an artist, a lot of it was comic books.

ML: In addition to comic books, what other elements influence your art?

RY: One of the things I’m interested in is iconography. And that’s also an influence on my mother’s work. My mother did a series of paintings of the women in her family as the Virgin of Guadalupe. So this whole idea of what an icon was, was etched into my mind from a very young age.

ML: What icons are you most interested in?

RY: To me the icons of my childhood, as an artist still carry a lot of weight. And that’s everything from comic book characters to pro wrestlers. I was obsessed with Godzilla movies when I was a kid. And there are things that I never really grew out of or lost interest in as an adult and as a professional artist. It involves sampling or remixing of those icons, but it’s really kind of a cultural study of presenting tropes and icons in a new light, a new way.

ML: Speaking of representing icons in a new light, why did you decide to make Frida ghetto?

RY: Frida was a badass to me. She drunk, she got down in bar fights. So I figured if she was going to revamp herself, this would probably be a good direction for her to go in. Part of it was adapting her look to an urban Chicana look. There were these interviews with Ghetto Frida I wrote to accompany a lot of the artworks. A lot of those were based on interviews that I had grabbed from hip-hop magazines. Instead of The Game talking trash about 50 Cent, it would be Frida putting younger Chicano artists in check for ripping off her work or her image. You should be having fun and be able to laugh at some of these things.

ML: What is the Great Tortilla Conspiracy, and what do tortillas mean to you?

RY: We were the first collective of artists to really modernize tortilla art-making. We silkscreen on tortillas with chocolate syrup and black food coloring. That allows us to have a very sharp and fine-line image on the tortilla that’s fully edible. It’s chocolate, so it’s almost like a little mole sauce. For me, tortillas are definitely a way I connect to my indigenous roots as a Chicano. There’s nothing more indigenous to America than the tortilla. It’s almost sacred.

ML: How do you feel when you’re eating them?

RY: Great art should be consumed. So we don’t mind that the images we create are being eaten by people. It’s really tasty. So it’s our way to put our images out there and feed people.

ML: Food aside, what’s your daily schedule like?

RY: It varies day to day. But I go to school in the mornings. Then I come to work at SOMArts. Then the night is where I set aside for my art practice. That’s the biggest challenge for me — to make that time to create art. I start working about 10 p.m. It can be hard, like last night I worked until 5 a.m. Then I had to go back to school at 7:30 a.m. and then to work. It’s still a challenge, and I’m still learning the best way to negotiate time for myself. At 31 years old, I’m still trying to learn the best management of my time.

ML:What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as an artist?

RY: Find a mentor — and that’s something my mother told me. The feeling of knowing that you can go to someone to talk about your work and to problem-solve in your process really does make all the difference in the world. Right now I’m collaborating with an artist named Stan Heller, who’s taught me everything I know about 3D artwork production.

ML: From one young artist to the next, what advice can you offer to budding artists?

RY: Know what you’re getting yourself into. San Francisco is an amazing place to be an artist. Take advantage of the resource, which is the community here. Find collaborators, find a collective. The best thing an artist can do for themselves is to engage in their community. Any artist here would be a fool not to take advantage of that. I think every visual artist, no matter what they do, should have access to a computer and Photoshop and Illustrator. I think they’re essential tools to know if nothing else.

ML: Do you think you’ll ever leave the Mission?

RY: About a year ago I would have said no. But in a new relationship, I’ve been trying to find where I want to be not only as an artist, but as a partner to someone that I love very much. I’ve spent 30-plus years in the Mission, and the Mission, with all its changes and twists and turns, it’s still been very good to me. We’ll see.

You can see some of Rio Yáñez’ recent collaborations with Stan Heller, “Mission of the Dead” in 3D, at Mission Comics and Art, 3520 20th St., until Nov. 27.

 

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