Interview with local artist Irene Juarez O’Connell and MAH’s upcoming free exhibition opening, Community is Collective Care.
Irene Juarez O’Connell is a local mentor, educator, advocate, and the exhibiting artist for the MAH’s upcoming exhibition, Community is Collective Care. Get to know Irene in the interview below as she shares her inspiration for the vibrant new mural, how she connects art to community organizing, and what collective healing looks like to her.
As she explains during the interview, Irene is a community-based artist passionate about uplifting the voices, art, and traditions of marginalized voices throughout Santa Cruz County and beyond. Originally from the San Fernando Valley area, Irene came to Santa Cruz to study Public Art and Latin American & Latino Studies at UC Santa Cruz. For the past 12 years she has served the community through mentorship and organizing roles for organizations like Barrios Unidos, The Resource Center for Nonviolence, and her current employer FoodWhat?! She has also recently accepted a role on the MAH Board of Trustees.
We hope you enjoy the interview and draw inspiration from her community-centered approach to muralism. Let’s jump into the interview…
What was your inspiration for this mural?
Irene: The people. The concept of community-based healing is something that I am always curious about, so when I was approached to do this mural I was really excited. It feels like a natural combination of my work, as a community organizer, visual artist, and as someone who is very interested in traditional healing modalities.
For this mural, I selected six figures who I have had the privilege to meet throughout the community and who I consider bring healing in some way to the community or are embodying or practicing a version of healing that doesn’t often get portrayed in dominate media. I wanted the figures to represent experiences and identities that don’t often get invited to the table when policy is being drawn up or when conversations around health and safety are being considered. I wanted to make sure that each of the people portrayed had a chance to have their story told.
In addition to the mural, I’ve invited each of them to share with me a recording of themselves answering questions along the lines of what does community healing look like to you, what does healing look like to you, what is your medicine. That is why each of them are portrayed with an item that represents their healing in some way.
What does “Community is Collective Care” mean to you?
Irene: The topics of community healing felt so broad when I first started that I decided I wanted to give a little bit of language to different iterations of what community healing could look like. One iteration, is collective care work. Collective in that not one of us can do our healing work in isolation, it takes processing and reflection in community. For example, a lot of these systems that tend to bring us healing thrive when done around others who are in that similar journey.
And another iteration of that really speaks to my interest in mutual aid work. Which we are seeing a lot of right now considering the recent fires and a lot of the injustices highlighted by the pandemic. We’re seeing a lot of mutual aid networks really shining in these moments as our established medical system leaves so many people out.
I wanted this mural to be a testament to the power of mutual aid and grassroots networks and trust networks. One thing that I will be painting at the bottom, in the soil, is mycelium. Mycelium is an intelligent life force that forms networks under the soil and connects the pulse of all the living organisms. The mycelium’s underground networks of intelligence sustain the ecosystems. I want to allow that to reflect the kind of care networks we are practicing in our community here in Santa Cruz and beyond.
It’s like the nervous system of the soil. It’s also related to why I have the purple flowers on the edge. Bougainvillea flowers, these flowers in traditional Mexican herbalism help with respiratory issues. Which is particularly relevant now with the pandemic and now the fires. These flowers help with respiratory issues and their deep purple color is also known to help relieve grief. I wanted the people that I portray to be held in that and for the viewer to feel like they are also in a large grove of bougainvillea flowers. And that is where my personal statement as an artist comes in of what heals me. Working with plant medicine, working with color, and putting myself into these environments brings me a sense of healing and care.
How did you get into social justice work? And when/how did that tie into your art?
Irene: I grew up with strong values pertaining to human rights, justice, and equal opportunity for all people. My father is a civil rights attorney and since I was a kid the regular conversations we had in my family home allowed me to develop an awareness of the inequality that exists. And then coming to UC Santa Cruz and my Latin American and Latino Studies program helped me develop a critical awareness and lens. Then in the last 10 years, I have been pretty plugged into organizing efforts here in the County. And really digging deep into the many ways racism and oppression are hidden but in plain sight here in Santa Cruz.
I am also very inspired and informed by the muralism tradition from Mexico. And the Chicano movement of the 1960s in LA, and the great wall by Judy Baca and going down to San Diego and seeing all the murals in Barrio Logan and just understanding that the murals were the peoples’ museum. The people who were historically barred access from institutions like museums or art galleries have to create those spaces where they can.
I gravitate towards muralism because of its ability to build community, to help form relationships, and to allow the community to define their history, legacy, and visions for the future. Murals give the community an opportunity to define themselves and I love to facilitate that and hold that space for the community to find itself.
What has made you want to stay in Santa Cruz long term after graduating from UC Santa Cruz?
Irene: I love it here. It’s so beautiful. So for sure the geography, but really it was about the community organizing spaces I was able to be in. I lived in a really cool co-op that was made up of activists, teachers, artists, and we were all around the same age, most of us POC, and working in the community. It was one of the last co-ops in Santa Cruz and then I started working for two organizations, the Resource Center for Nonviolence and Barrios Unidos. And then I also worked in Santa Cruz High School and the Juvenile Hall, and then Food What?! I’ve been really fortunate to have work, and work that aligns with my values. Then I get awesome opportunities like with this institution, so I can’t seem to leave.
What is something you are looking forward to as you begin your placement on the MAH board of trustees?
Irene: I am looking forward to being part of the timely and much-needed conversation around what it looks like to create more points of access for the community. Particularly connecting with our underserved and marginalized communities such as the Latinx community and pockets of families that don’t often get extended the invitation and making it really accessible for them to enjoy the kind of things that are happening here at the museum. I am also excited to share the perspective of an artist… and an artist that is a woman of color. I also plan to advocate for emerging artists to be taken seriously and be paid our worth. I feel like artists and culture workers are essential as we do a lot of this culture-shifting work. And considering the importance of artists, we need to make it possible for them to thrive here.
She’s pretty incredible, right? Are you feeling inspired?