Rocio Graham joined the Women’s Centre in the spring as our Artist in Residence and has revitalized the side yard at the Centre. We sat down with her recently to ask what inspires her work and to learn more about how she views the contemporary art scene for women in Calgary.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I am from Mexico. I came to Canada in 2002. When I left Mexico, I experienced some mental health issues. It took a call to a mental health crisis line for me to get help, and [as a result of] that I have been on a path to health. I started using my art as a cathartic, healing force. I went to Emily Carr University for my Fine Arts degree and then moved to Alberta to finish my degree at the Alberta College of Art and Design (now Alberta University for the Arts). I graduated from photography. My work is all based on my garden studio. I’m interested in the land because I come from a family of farmers in Mexico. I grew up seeing how things grow. My family has sugar cane plantations and bean plantations and watermelon plantations that they use to sell for exportation. When I came to Canada [and experienced] the harshness of the weather I struggled with adapting to a new land. The language was different, and the customs were different. I found gardening then became a way to anchor myself and it then became my art practice. When I started to analyze myself and connect the dots, I realized that at the core I am a grower. I come from a family of growers. So I started to do urban farming and then focused my art in the landscape and how we connect to the land. That’s why my art practice is very deep into growing things from seed, or creating spaces where things can grow.
How did you get started as an artist?
When I was 9 I started writing poetry. I would write poetry and thoughts. I was fascinated by poetry because you can use beautiful language to speak about horrible things. At the time, I was struggling as a child. There were some dark sides to my history. My outlet was poetry. I would write a poem; I would fold it; I would hide it in my pillow. Poetry became my artistic form. I moved to South Korea and I couldn’t write anymore. There was a lot of losses in my life that made me unable to write. So I ended up taking photography and then eventually painting. It was that transition of looking for different language to express the things I wanted to express.
How did you get into photography and working with plants as a medium?
When I lived in South Korea I wanted something immediate, something transportable, because I was travelling so much. I found that photography became a very portable, immediate way of creating art. When I immigrated to Canada, and attended Emily Carr University, I wanted to expand on that. I was very interested in printing. What I like about photography is that it can record a moment in time and it was a way of preserving the good in my life, so I became quite obsessed. For me, and particularly with botanical photography, it came from a very particular day when I was working in my garden in September in Alberta. I was putting my garden to rest because I knew that the snow was going to come two days after. I was mourning my garden and I was photographing it to preserve it, to remember it. I remember thinking ‘I wish I could can my garden and I would have it for the rest of the winter’. I couldn’t do that, but photography allowed me to freeze it. So then I became obsessed with ways of preserving my garden. I was trying to freeze the beauty of the plants I was growing [because] I love them so much. So it was a way of preserving. I find that photography satisfies that journey to hold onto the good that surrounds me. [The] botanical world gives me a lot of joy and gives me a lot of peace. I find that gardening has been a very grounding force that has allowed me to reclaim my body, but at the same time connect with the land. So my art practice is very connected to this. People are very cyclical. Sometimes we don’t honour our inner cycles, but gardening allows me to tune into the life cycles of nature. In the winter, I tend to be more reflective, more inward, just like the plants that go dormant. And in the spring, I tend to sprout up, I’m reaching to my community and I want to be social. I think we all tend to have those cycles, but sometimes we are not aware. Nature gives me those cues.
How do you feel about being a woman in the art scene in Calgary?
This is a very exciting time for women in Calgary, particularly women artists. We have a powerhouse of young curators. They are really supporting female artists. I’ve seen a shift after the #MeToo movement. People are uniting in terms of supporting one another as women. I’ve seen for the first time in my life that expressing your emotions is not frowned upon. I find that we’re coming out of that very sterile type of art making. Maybe sterile is not the right word, but very masculine, thought out, brainial way of making art. Art about motherhood, or art about the struggles with being a woman and navigating the patriarchal system, probably wouldn’t have had the same audience a few years ago. In Calgary over the last few years more institutes are supporting mom artists. For example, Contemporary Calgary, where I will be doing an art residency later in July, makes accommodations to women artists. You’re welcome to bring your kids to the old planetarium and they’re permitted to run around while you’re doing your art. And I’ve seen way more artists who are mothers than ever before. In the past I felt a little bit isolated, but I think Calgary right now is shifting the tide and I’m very excited.
What do you think we can do in the city to better support women in art?
I think that the most important thing we can do is to make spaces truly inclusive and that includes children. I was actually asked to leave from the Vancouver Art Galley eight years ago when I had my baby in a stroller. My kid kept pointing at Picasso paintings and the security people started getting super nervous that my kid was going to jump from the stroller and rip a Picasso. I was enraged and I was humiliated and I felt the organizations were not welcoming children. Now, they have a family program, which is great to see. The Esker Foundation has a family program as well, which is great to see. Unfortunately, when my kids were little that was not something I had access to. I think the first step is to make sure that the spaces accommodate children and they don’t have to be so strict in how they work. [Limited] childcare [options] is very prohibitive, so it would be nice for organizations to think about other ways that children could be collaborators and ways to make it more accessible for women with children.
What are you most excited about for your residency here at the Women’s Centre?
The residency at the Women’s Centre has been so profoundly touching because every time I have come here I have met a different woman with a beautiful story who has given me a gift. I come to the Centre with no expectation. I come here open. I have a mental plan of what I’m going to do during my residency. But following the teachings of nature I’m realizing that plans change, so I’ve learned to surrender. I come here and have that in mind. For example, today is a downpour, so I have to think on the spot. But today, I met Alex who is a girl, 6, and I got to share the love of my garden with her. There are times where I have met other women and I have cried with them and I have hugged them. I think it’s a very powerful tool. I get so much from the community here. It is reaffirming my conviction that art can be a unifying force. Art can be a way of healing our community. Art is transformative. This residency is reaffirming those convictions and I’m seeing in action those ideas.
Who is, or was, an influential woman in your life?
I was very lucky that I had a lot of women who were amazing in my life. I had lots of aunts who were very strong. My mother too. She has a lot of resilience. I have learned so much resilience from her. My grandmothers are very resilient women. As a teenager who felt sometimes isolated in Mexico, I discovered the life and work of Frida Kahlo. In a bizarre way, she became not just an inspiration, but a mentor. I used to read every single book related to Frida Kahlo. I used to read her biography, her published diaries and through that I learned a different way of thinking. It was very cathartic because I realized that I could live life to my own accord. I could be different in a small town where there’s not a lot of differentiation; everybody went to church, everybody dressed the same way, everybody thought the same way. Actually the books of Frida Kahlo were my first introduction to feminism and they had a huge impact.
What does feminism mean to you?
I think feminism for me has been about openness and about truly embracing everybody’s differences. There’s a misconception about feminism that it’s about women hating men when it is the contrary. I think that through feminism I have learned to appreciate the wonderful aspects of masculinity. Because of my history, I always mistrust men and I mistrust men in power, so through feminism I realized there were some aspects of the male energy that can be very important in my life. I found that through feminism I really came to understand what inclusion is. Feminism is about reclaiming the power we were born with, that we inherited, which is our knowledge that women are cyclical. [Many of us] menstruate every month and yet we want to sanitize that aspect of femininity. We have hormones that fluctuate throughout the month, they’re not consistent throughout the month and yet we expect women to conduct very linear. We are not linear. Feminism is about accepting the aspects that are very unique to being women. We have cycles, we’re not linear, we have complex emotions, we are powerhouses, we are creators and also destroyers, so acknowledging those complexities we have as women.
Rocio will host a Flower Pressing and Preservation workshop at the Women’s Centre on August 7. Participants will learn how to preserve flowers and contribute to a larger installation that Rocio will showcase during Beakerhead festival in September.