The beauty of illustrator Carmen Pizarro‘s work is in the details. It’s the discreet Sana Sana arm tattoo one of her heroines sports on her arm. Or it’s the Bioshock reference she makes with her “Incinerate” matches, which features a devil woman setting fire to stuff. Taken together, these two pieces synopsize her work: colorful, playful and woman-focused art that incorporates her Latinidad and geek culture.
The methodical artist didn’t always have this vision. As an art school student at the School of Visual Art, she didn’t have a focus point. Though she tried to put her twist on things, she was merely trying to fulfill the assignments. “The work could be anybody’s,” she says. “There was no distinct features or anything.”
But as she completed her sketchbook assignments – which basically had no rules and could come in any form, even writing – she’d doodle on the margins. When her professor looked at it, she asked Pizarro, “Oh, why aren’t you drawing these?” Carmen didn’t think much of them. They were just things she drew without thinking about it. This and the rest of her art school experience taught her a very valuable lesson: One day she’d likely have to relinquish complete control to a client, so she should take the time to develop her own voice.
“I’m like tatted up, which is very nontraditional for my culture.”
Now, the 24-year-old artist draws what she most knows best: women. Growing up in Las Vegas, she didn’t have any male figures in her life. Instead, she had her Chilean grandmother and mother. Her art is full of nods to the two women who largely shaped who she is today. The Sana Sana tattoo on her “Don’t Burst My Bubble” heroine – which is a piece she created for The Bettys, a New York-based art collective that produces zines – is modeled after her grandmother. Much like other Latinos, her grandmother, Paulina, used to say the phrase to young Carmen.
In a way, she’s also following in the footsteps of the women in her family. Carmen’s mom studied art history in college. Her aunt is an architect. And her grandmother worked as a seamstress. As she took care of her, she created clothing and eventually branched out and set up a small tailoring business. This year, she teamed up with Dominican-American artist Tony Peralta for his Around the Way Girl collection. Named after an LL Cool J song, the collection featured tees with phrases like “La Sirena,” “La Necia,” and “La Bruja.” Carmen created the illustrations of the women.
The women Carmen draws are imperfect and don’t feel like stereotypes. They feel real, and they’re a bit like her.
“I’m definitely not the normal type of girl,” she says. “I’m Chilean and Mexican. I’m like tatted up, which is very nontraditional for my culture. So it’s just like I kind of want to break out of that mold. That’s why I’m motivated to do that in my work to kind of show that it’s all right to be like that. All of these women are either tatted or wearing different clothing from like the normal standards. It’s like my great aunt went to be a nun, so the very Catholicism and everything is very constraining, to say the least. So I’ve definitely felt the way that is, and especially the male predominant thing. Women need to just find a way to be heard and level out the volumes. So I feel that’s why I draw mostly women.”
Her work is also very phrase heavy, which is fitting considering Carmen has a soft spot for comics. Though she considers herself a mediocre storyteller, she knows she can effectively communicate a message through her images and the phrases she loves to use.
“You’re never gonna grow if you’re always doing perfect stuff and creating these ideal images.”
Currently, she’s working on a zine called Crybaby. She describes it as a “passion project,” and it’s something that has created with another artist for about a year. It hasn’t gone as smoothly because she’s busy juggling other projects and she’s so critical about her own work. She hopes to release it this month, because she doesn’t want it to turn into a years-long investment. With this project, just like anything she creates, there’s a chance it won’t live up to her expectations. But part of art is about learning.
“You’re never gonna grow if you’re always doing perfect stuff and creating these ideal images,” she says. “Sometimes you make an ugly image and you have to deal with it, you scrap it, and take what you learn from that and pour it into something else and it makes a better piece that works better that has a better composition and better poses and stuff in it. I look back at some of my ideas and I’m like, ‘Oh God, why did I do that?’ But it’s like I look back at that and it’s like I saw what I was thinking then and what I’m thinking now, and it’s kind of crazy that you’ve grown so much and you don’t realize it at the time.”
Additional reporting by Itzel Alejandra Martinez.