Jose Alvarez (JA): I always drew. It was the way that I, as a child, interpreted the world. Whatever I saw, I wanted to draw. As time went on, I started experimenting with making objects, sculptures, and then ceramics, and then eventually started painting. But it was always a visual thing. It was always wanting to represent the world somehow in a visual way. I knew since I was a kid that that was what I wanted to do, to be an artist. Then I got exposed to the images of Andy Warhol and everything that he was doing. I was probably around 13, 14, something like that. I just felt that that was the most interesting way of doing things, and I felt that he kind of showed me a path of how to activate my life as such. He was always a hero of mine. And then little by little, as you accumulate experiences in life, then you know how to go and achieve them or [identify] the steps you need to take in order to go in the direction that you feel is what’s going to lead you toward achieving that desire.
A&C: What are some of the prominent themes or topics you like to explore in your work?
JA: One of the themes is consciousness and the idea of expanding our awareness. Expanding our consciousness, our connections with other human beings. Our desire or at least my desire to make my work a bridge, in a way, to connect with the viewer. It is a way to establish a common ground as people. Somehow, I hope, people will get lost in the work and, in doing so, be inspired. However brief, for their narrative of their own world to be stopped and encounter an experience that, hopefully, is expansive. So, the idea of expansion, of becoming larger than our own narratives is important to me.
A&C: There seems to almost be a hypnotic quality to your work. Can you speak to that?
JA: I like to have or to bring into the work an intensity, that the viewer must feel the degree of commitment and desire to communicate. That communication and that intensity, I believe, is achieved through layering of materials, techniques, and textures. It’s always about bringing you higher.
A&C: Talk to us about your use of natural materials—such as feathers, porcupine quills, and mineral crystals—in your work. How are they inspiring to you and what does their use convey in your artwork?
JA: That came out of my readings of a writer, Carlos Castaneda, early on in my childhood. He was an anthropologist who created a whole cult behind him in the ’70s, early ’80s, where he said that he went to New Mexico [and] he found himself with a shaman of sorts. He started an apprenticeship with this shaman, and the shaman told him that he needed to go into a state of high consciousness. In order to go into that state of high consciousness, what he called the nagual, he needed to go to that space with objects of power, and those objects of power were feathers, crystals, and porcupine quills. My interest in his writing and how I developed my own lexicon of imagery came together independently of whether the stories in his books are true or not—that is not really interesting to me. What is interesting is the fact that [the books] were like a platform of image making. As I read the books, as any fiction book could be, it triggered images in my head. But it was an important book to me as a child.
A&C: As an LGBTQ+ artist, what does it mean for you to be heard and seen as it applies to fine art?
JA: We can only be who we are whenever we make work. Early on in my life, I felt that I talked about those issues in an oblique way. But times have changed, and I feel that it is through the work of a few generations before me that [I] have the space to be talking to you right now about this specific subject, which before, let’s say 30 years ago, people would not have been that interested. It’s an accumulation of steps and gestures of people all around us who move all of us forward. Me as a gay man, I want to participate as well. Jessica Ransom [the director of artist services at the Cultural Council] called me, and I was just so honored that she thought of me as the person to be creating this with. I feel that the more you create activities for groups that are marginalized to be seen and heard, and the more you understand their stories, the less suffering we’re going to cause the world. Anybody’s story, if you [hear it] you empathize, because it’s another human being, no matter what. It’s showing us a mirror of who we are. The more we are able to demolish those walls, the better it is, in the end, for all of us to create a space of understanding, compassion, and respect.