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In the Studio: Historians, Ancestors and Myth Makers

History offers a trove of inspiration for Jonathan Read, Isaac Farley and Jesus Gonzalez.

As we prepare for the 40th M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition on April 6, our “In the Studio” series gives readers the chance to get to know the artists behind the work. See what inspires our School of Art grad students! 

University of Houston artists Jonathan Read, Isaac Farley and Jesus Gonzalez are passionate storytellers. Through painting, photography and sculpture, they each mine personal and cultural histories, uncovering — and, sometimes, even inventing — complex and powerful origin stories.

Both Farley and Gonzalez dig into their family ties, tracing bloodlines and reviving traditions, to produce works that connect past to present, while Read’s paintings, bright works that evoke mythical deities and superhero action figures, blend religious elements with pop culture. 

Learn more about what inspires Read, Farley and Gonzalez in the Q&As below!

Jonathan Read, Painting

How did you start exploring creation stories and mythological imagery?
When I took my first painting class as an undergrad at Kent University, I really had no idea what to paint. So my professor said to go to the library and just look, research, take everything in. In a Renaissance Flemish painting catalogue, I found this piece, “The Last Judgment,” with people coming out of the ground on Judgment Day. I think I connected with it because I was so into horror movies, and the painting was so weird. Something about was really haunting about it and it resonated with me.  

How has your work evolved over time? What themes are you exploring now?
I’ve worked with a lot of mythology and religion for a long time, and those themes can still be seen in my work. But I’m less interested in religion, and more so in the work it produces. I started focusing on superheroes, and even toys, because I wanted to go in a direction closer to something I have a more spiritual connection with, which is comic books. I’ve started making pieces about superheroes, good and evil, how they gain powers and how their origins are presented. Comics and superheroes are interesting because they keep being reinvented; they’re always evolving with cultural values. 

In addition to comic books, where do you look for inspiration?
Terry Gilliam, the director, and painters Henry Darger and Hieronymus Bosch are big influences on me. I also look at a lot of religious art, especially illustrations, because I like the characters and the narratives. 

Isaac Farley, Painting

When you are looking for source material, where do you search for inspiration?
Everywhere. Sometimes I’ll see a picture in the news that looks interesting. Like, there was this photograph of a soldier from the Iraqi army with an M16 over his shoulder, and there was a bunch of smoke around him. He had a lot of emotion in his posture and I knew I wanted to use it in something later.

I’m usually drawn to ideas of human conflict. I think there’s always a connection between one thing and another, an unending cycle. It’s something that’s part of our history, part of nature. It’s always there, and it’s terrible but interesting.

How does your cultural background and family history influence your work?
I’m from Texas, and I’m Irish and Mexican. I’m interested in both cultures and the history of both countries. Over the summer, I was doing research on a relative that was in the Civil War. I really only had a family oral history about him before; we knew that he’d been in the war and that he came back with a cavalry rifle, but that was it. I found him in the 37th Texas Cavalry unit, which was active in east Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. It was really interesting because I never knew the specifics, and it gave me the idea for these drawings of men during that era, wearing the clothes common to both armies.

As a Texan, what role does Texas play in your work?
I’m working on this series highlighting the four main cultures that make Texas what it is. It started with this painting of a Native American, then I added a member of the Cavalry and I’m going to include a Buffalo Soldier and Mexican Revolutionary. Texas is a major influence; it’s part of me. When people ask me where I’m from, I always say “Texas” because that’s where it all starts.

Jesus Gonzalez, Photography/Digital Media

How does your family history influence your work?
My work is a rediscovery of my family history and heritage. It’s a way to remember and embrace my Mexican, indigenous roots and cultural background.

During my undergrad studies, I started making headdresses, creating myself as a neo-indigenous warrior. Everything was handmade, hand sewn, pulling from my background, from what I know. The materials I used were significant — branches came from my grandmother’s house, I used burlap because my parents picked potatoes in Idaho and out them in burlap sacks. A professor also encouraged me to start using denim, to connect to the present, so I started cutting my jeans into strips and adding them to the headdresses.

What are you currently working on?
I started thinking about border crossing, going back and forth, and I conceptualized these denim packs that can be installed as shelters. I install them in the desert near Eagle Pass, where my dad was from, using a metal spike and branches, facing the wind so that they are aerodynamic. 

As a kid, I was taught the constellations, so when I first mount these sculptures, I align the right side with the North Star. It’s symbolic because that’s the direction my parents went after they married in Mexico and migrated to Idaho. So, these sculptures are many things at once: a living map, my family’s origin story and a star guide.

Your major is photography, but your work is also very sculptural and site-specific. What’s the connection between the sculptural process, installation and documentation of these pieces?
I feel like I’m writing a history book with this work. Everything I’m doing here, I want it to be remembered. I want to make the sculptures functional and symbolic, making my personal history relevant. 

These sculptures mimic nature and the purpose of the documentation is to show how much the sculpture fits into the landscape. It’s like we’re supposed to fit together, to work together, to be together. I’m not trying to change the environment around me, but be part of it and connect with it.

The M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition opens at Blaffer Art Museum Friday, April 6 at 6 p.m. and will be on view through Saturday, April 21.