Q&A: Eric J. Garcia's Ink Show

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He makes art for everybody and yet avoids the masses. Don’t ask him to paint you something with oil on a canvas-not going to happen. Instead, political cartoonist and social commentator Eric J. Garcia has evolved into a prominent voice among the arts community in Chicago for his mix of Chicano nostalgia and timely work. What began as pen and paper rants during his time in the US military has evolved into one of the nation’s most published political news strips.

Why political cartoons?

The political cartoon is a perfect way to disseminate information out to the world.  A concise drawing, that can be easily read visually, mass-produced and distributed to the public.

When did you start this type of work?

I believe my first political cartoons were done while I was serving in the United State’s Air Force. I would draw caricatures of buddies and poke fun at the work we had to do. A month before I was supposed to get out of the military, I was put on Stop Loss (which means my enlistment to the military was extended indefinitely). I started making cartoons about my aggravation about the situation and posted them on the bulletin boards at work. My Lieutenant would rip them down and give me a “briefing.” This might have been my first encounter or awareness that my art could cause such a negative emotional reaction in another person.

Tells us about your choice of materials?

My artwork varies in materials depending on each idea. Of course, my political cartoons are made by pen and ink drawings on paper, but this is because this is the medium of the art form. There are materials I have strayed away from. While in grad school I was introduced to the “Fine Art” hierarchy, where paint sits at the top and drawing, sculpture, print making and the rest of the art forms are beneath. The epitome of art being oil on a framed canvas. My drawings on paper and prints were considered lower class, especially because of their cultural and political content. In reaction against this class structure I stopped using the “techniques of the elites” and choose as my own little protest to stop painting on canvas. This has become my personal retort to the very old ideas of Western art, which still looks down upon us.

Best compliment for your work?

Though I do love hate mail, there was one positive instance that stood out to me. Once at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was in the elevator with a janitor taking the garbage out for the night. Somehow he recognized me as the guy who had made this particular large drawing of a Chicano GI Joe. He told me he really liked the work.  He wasn’t an art historian or a painting professor; he was just some guy that related or found something within that piece of art. I don’t necessarily make art for the elite “Art World.” I make art for everybody.

How has Chicago influenced your work?

Chicago has opened my eyes to many different things. Coming from the “small town” of Albuquerque, this was a drastic change for me.  Definitely, the landscape has affected my work. I see myself building or drawing more skyscrapers verses mountains and mesas. To be immersed in a city with world-renowned art museums, tons of cutting edge galleries, and pockets of fellow artists you can relate to, Chicago has pushed my work forward visually and intellectually. Of course, going to one of the elite art schools in the country here in Chicago has impacted the way I think about art and the art world itself.

Current projects?
I leave in June, back to Albuquerque to help lead a mural project in a program similar to Yollocalli Arts Reach in Pilsen. Coincidentally and unfortunately, Yollocalli is now being threatened because its building is being sold. This would truly be a tragedy for the community here. I got involved with Yollocalli when I first came to Pilsen and was very impressed with the organization and how it impacts the lives of the youth. I relate to this organization because I came out of a similar arts youth organization and have never forgotten the opportunities it gave me and the impact it had.

Tell us about reviving El Gato Negro?
El Gato Negro is one of Carlos Cortez’s old printing presses. After he passed away a lot of his things were donated to the National Museum of Mexican Art and Yollocalli inherited the press from them. It’s a very old hand-cranked letter press, which Cortez dubbed “El Gato Negro” or “The Black Cat.” I’m guessing because it’s a four legged black thing with a handle that sticks out like a tail. Yollocalli also was given boxes of old fashioned letter type used for printing text. Not too many people use this type of printing anymore because everything is digital now, but I have seen a reemergence of the technique by printmakers. So it’s a shame to have this great tool, with a great history, just sitting there and not being used. Which is why we are having this fundraiser to get press up and running again. I think Carlos Cortez would have wanted it this way. It needs to be utilized by these next generations of young artists that pass through Yollocalli.