"Take more pictures for yourself, not for others or for validation. Just for you."
Nina Titovets is a fantastic photographer from the border region of El Paso, Texas, which is famously known for its star on the mountain and the beautiful picture-perfect sunsets. In the recent years, El Paso's music, art, and photography scene has blossomed and the city has slowly but surely embraced it. Although it's not always the easiest thing to tap into, some of these people are making a name for themselves within the community. Nina is one of these people I am talking about. She has demonstrated her amazing talent through her pictures involving people, scenery, land scapes and even local bands. It really showcases her versatility and skills. Not only that, but she is really good at evoking certain emotions in her photos ranging from nostalgia to happiness.
I recently got to ask Nina a few questions and this is what she had to say:
Desert of my Eye (Pao): Who is "her vision"? How do you define your style?
Nina: Her Vision is an alias I came up with when I first decided to pursue photography full time around 3 years ago. I liked the idea of separating myself from my work. I wanted to have a sense of anonymity— any notions about me wouldn’t influence how you felt about my photographs. Also, my family is originally from Russia and Nina spelled in Russian begins with the English letter H, so the H in Her symbolizes that as well. I don’t think I have a defined style yet— it’s constantly changing. I love so many different genres of photography that I try to experiment and do new things as much as possible. That being said, I think the one constant has always been nature and landscapes. I’ve always felt my best when I’m outdoors.
D.O.M.E: When would you say is the moment you discovered your love for photography and how young were you when you took your first photo?
Nina: I was first introduced to photography by my dad. Growing up, he took countless videos and photographs of our daily lives and family trips. The camera was like an additional member of the family. I think I was about 7 when I got my first camera, a Kodak disposable (I still have some of my very first photographs). I used it to photograph our cross country trips to different art shows— both my parents are painters and we’d travel a lot when I was a kid. I think I really fell in love with photography when I started to look at my old family photos. My grandma has a shoe box filled with beautiful black and white photographs dating as early as the 1920s. I think it's when it really hit me that photography is a way to immortalize a moment, that I could capture how I felt and saw things exactly in that instance. There’s a particular Andy Warhol quote that sums it up nicely: “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes. Even when the people in it do.”
D.O.M.E: Growing up in the desert, I never really felt inspired by it. That was a mistake. It's only until I started my website that I started appreciating the scenery and this community. It's amazing. Did you have that "a-ha" moment too and when?
Nina: When I was younger I definitely had the “I can’t wait to get out of El Paso” attitude. I think that’s just part of growing up— you feel like no one understands you and you’ll be way better off in some other city you’ve romanticized in your head. I think I began to love El Paso more the older I’ve gotten. The sunsets here are like nowhere else in the world, and the people here are all so kind and helpful. I also think being a border city, a large part of the population is people doing things for the first time— first time going to college, first time buying a house, etc. It’s a city of firsts and in that way, it makes anything possible. T,here isn’t a specific ladder you have to climb, you get to make your own path.
D.O.M.E: I've noticed that lately you have been posting pictures with neon colors, is there a reason for this?
Nina: I recently took a trip to Northern New Mexico to explore some small towns along Route 66 for an upcoming project. Many of the towns are now abandoned or past their prime but at night they come to life with these incredible neon signs and colors you feel like you’ve gone back in time, maybe even the future. I was really inspired and decided to use these bright dazzling colors in my work— give more dimension and excitement to the seemingly straightforward. Things aren’t so black and white.
D.O.M.E: What do you consider a "good picture"? Is it what one captures, the style, the emotion it transmits? All?
Nina: I think it depends. Some of my favorite images are blurry and compositionally lacking, but they carry deep sentimental value to me. I can look at that photograph and be transported to that moment in time, where I was at that point in my life and how I felt— it’s magical. However, those same photographs aren’t ones that I would share with the public or expect others to take interest in. The photographs I share are the ones that I hope to get people to stop and really look at and possibly feel. I think today we’re so overwhelmed with content that we swipe through things and glance at things. I want my photographs to consume you for a moment and get you to wonder. If I’ve accomplished that, then it’s a good photo.
D.O.M.E: Do you feel like it's hard to be a female photographer in El Paso? Were you ever like "yikes".
Nina: I’m very grateful for the time period I’m growing up in. I think today there are so many more women visible within the industry and there’s this overall female energy of “Hell yes I can do it,” it is really empowering. There is definitely a lot more growing to do, sexism is still rampant and I have had moments where I feel like I need to do twice as much to prove myself or deal with the occasional creep. But I don’t let it mess with my head too much, I know what I want and I let my work speak for itself.
D.O.M.E: I grew up loving photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Hedi Slimane, and many more. Who would you say are favorite photographers?
Nina: There are so many. One of my favorite pastimes is looking at photo books and studying the styles/techniques of old and new masters of photography. To name a few off the top of my head, in no particular order are: William Eggleston, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Mariana Yampolsky, Renell Medrano, Daniel Arnold, Leo Berne.
D.O.M.E: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
Nina: I have a lot of small goals for myself and my work but I think, overall, I want to create photographs that resonate with people. Photographs that 10 years from now are still intriguing and get people to stop and really look.
D.O.M.E: Any ending thoughts/comments?
Nina: Take more pictures for yourself, not for others or for validation. Just for you.
"We are trying too hard to appease to the tourism that we are destroying our culture in the process. It prevents culture from growing."
2018 is coming to an end and 2019 is on the horizon. Although 2018 was a year full of heartbreak in regards to racism and dehumanization of people trying to find a better life, people need to be reminded that the United States, like many other countries were and are made up of immigrants. We are all immigrants. Through all that heartbreak there has been a surge of upcoming businesses, artists, and even musicians that are embracing their Latinx roots and are making their voices heard louder than ever.
Usually when one thinks of active Latinx artists one thinks of places like California, New York, Texas, and several other states, but not Nevada especially not Las Vegas, a city often characterized by colorful lights and abundance of booze and casinos. That is a very wrong concept. Some might not know that there are artists like Jess Vanessa, which I interviewed a few weeks ago, who are breaking through these stereotypes. Breaking away from the Elvis' and Monroe's and doing art that embraces the Latinx culture whether it's an altar or depicting a Quinceañera which are both very symbolic in Mexican culture.
Jess and I met at a local match shop where we discussed art, Las Vegas, real support for the Chicanx/Latinx movement and those that just want to profit from it.
Jess, a second generation living in the Las Vegas, clearly proud of her roots said that her story starts with her grandpa, who was from Chihuahua and started coming to the U.S during the Bracero Era. His journey started first through Texas and then California and eventually ended in Vegas due to the train tracks. “He was the first Latino to have a key to one of the boxes that operate, and he was super proud of this when he was alive. We still have it somewhere around the house.”
She continued by mentioning that her father also grew up in Las Vegas and he can recall a time to when it was a small city and how it has grown to what it is today. "He basically knows everyone. My mom came from Durango and she met my dad and I was born!" Jess mentioned that from growing up in Las Vegas she can recall a lot of building and casinos that are no longer in place in. "It's sad because many of these places were rich in history. One that they tore down was the Moulin Rouge, which was literally on the other side of the tracks on Freemont. That was the first integrated casino. People here don't really address that segregation. It totally existed. That was one of the casinos my grandpa and family used to go to back in the day. They tore it down instead of preserving it."
The conversation then continued and we talked about the very transient culture that Vegas has. "We are trying too hard to appease to the tourism that we are destroying our culture in the process. It prevents culture from growing." No truer words have been spoken. She mentioned that she was lucky to have a family that preserved their culture, including speaking Spanish at home.
That is one of the biggest reasons that Jess decided to do the art she does. She is trying to showcase her roots and her culture! "For example when you have a person walk up to your painting and it has nopales, to a Latinx person a nopal means growth. It invokes imageries of self-protection, medicine, food, jokes and so on. There is so much symbolism and cultural meaning in them that when a person who is not Latinix walks up to me and says, "that is a cactus, I don't get it."" She mentioned that many times they walk away because they think it's just another "Latino thing".
Jess and I then began to talk about this resurgence in embracing the Chicanx culture and how there are great companies with a great cause, but there are also companies that want to take advantage of it. I asked Jess if this has hurt or helped her art and she said it has definitely helped her, especially in connecting to other artists. "However, it does suck to talk to someone who is just in on it for the hype."
After she finished saying that, I followed up by asking her whether she has any Latinx/Chicanx heroes that she looks up to and that influence her art. "Lately in my installation work, what I try to do is to depict a person in my life or someone in the community. The one piece I really started getting into that was El Tejido de la Vida. In that one I focused on the matriarchy of Latinx families." She said that a lot of this stemmed from teaching herself abut Chicansimo because she never had good Chicanx professors. "It's throughout that leaning that made me want to do this piece. I wanted to show something that strays away from the patriarchy. I took influences from Dia De Los Muertos. I painting my grandma tejiendo. I chose my grandma because in most Latino families, the matriarchy starts from the grandma. I chose her to break away from the typical machismo." Jess depicted her grandma knitting a life from birth to death focusing on the life of a male. "It's even ground within the culture. From there I incorporated color symbolism and flowers to symbolize more about life and how people affect you. This piece is tying a community at the end of the day." Jess added that this piece connected both Latinx people and non-Latinx people.
Another amazing piece that Jess made, shown below, is her Quinceañera piece. She said that she reached out to several women via social media. "I use social media a lot because it's easy to connect to several people and artists." Jess ended up asking women across several states, "write about a moment that you realized you became a woman. I am not asking for anything biological or loose-your-virginity stories. I am looking for something emotional. You don't have to put your real name if you don't want to." She need up getting around eighteen letters and some were intense and while others were relatable. "I ended up putting them around the girl's dress. I also asked a girl that was turning fifteen to pose for me and she was all for it." Jess added that the butterflies around her represented change. Besides some people crying, she mentioned that, "a lot of people came up to me and said, "I didn't know Quinceañeras are so profound.""
Overall, Jess Vanessa is a "Chicana, illustrator, artist, story teller, and desert valley dweller" as put in her own words. I want to thank her for this opportunity and make sure to keep up with her on Instagram @jessvanessa. I am elated that she is doing something wonderful in the Las Vegas art community.
Many people use art as an outlet and others use it as a form of therapy. That’s the case for the multi-talented Ebonie Adame, Chuco Relic’s artist of the month.
After being diagnosed with PTSD and depression during high school, Ebonie turned to art and ever since then art continues to be a big part of her life. In hopes of one day opening her own art studio while providing art materials for aspiring youth, she hopes to share with people the positive impact art can have.
Ebonie’s relationship with Chuco Relic began after high school and she is currently part of the Chuco Relic team! Not only does Ebonie work for Chuco Relic, but she also teaches special art classes. Through her classes she is able to share her skills, techniques, and love for art with people who are possibly trying a class out for the first time.
“I realized that I love seeing people’s reactions. Seeing that they see that they can paint and seeing them take pride in that is amazing. My classes are designed to be simple. They are meant to be for relaxing and creative. There is so much satisfaction in creation.”
Besides teaching fun art classes, Ebonie is always keeping it fresh with her own art. I mentioned to Ebonie that I love how she fuses modern and old school concepts. Also, there are many elements of la frontera in her artwork. For example, she has a painting with the El Paso star on the mountain and a rendition of the Starry Night above it. To that, she answered, “I try to do a little bit of everything. I didn’t always focus on artwork exclusively on El Paso. Once I started my leadership program, I saw the beauty of the desert. I became more observant of the sky and I like to show that. Our sky is forty shades of color! “
Overall, Ebonie’s art is vibrant and full of life. It showcases the desert life from such a unique perspective. I encourage anyone to go check out her art and take an art class with her. Enjoy the power of art!
"Free your mind and your nalgas will follow."
A few weeks ago I had the honor to catch up with an amazing person down here in the border of El Paso and Juárez. Zeke Peña's art has become emblematic here in la frontera. He is one of the many painters and illustrators here that uses the art of story telling in order to reflect on culture, issues, people, events and much more. Zeke has done a lot of commission work across the U.S. He recently had a few of his paintings at the Rubin Center of the University of Texas at El Paso.
He recently published a book along side Isabel Quintero called Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Zeke is currently working on several projects so keep an eye out for more fantastic illustrations. I welcome who ever is reading this to get to know a little bit of Zeke, how he started, and some of his thoughts on art. Throughout the article, I will refer to Zeke as a story-teller or as an illustrator due to the fact that we had a conversation in which he mentioned that he does not consider himself an artist for many reasons. One of them being "capital A art" and how art now is seen as such a commercial commodity that it looses it's meaning in the process.
"In some languages there is no name for art. When people think of art now, they think of something they can buy. It makes no sense to me. I am being critical there and thinking critically of the work art and the practice of making it."
Zeke has been illustrating for quite a while now. It all began from his love of comic books when he was little. He told me that it started out as him trying to re-draw comic book characters, but then it developed into something more.
"For me as a young kid, my first encounter with being intentional with drawing was around comics. My dad got me into comic books and I also grew up in the Simpsons era where there were some really good cartoons. I gravitated towards those things. I come from a family where we like to joke around with each other and you know with cartoons it's also that dynamic. As a kid you start out with crayons and draw things that comes to mind, but once you reach a certain age you are expected to draw more intentionally and direct. That's when I started trying to recreate comic book characters."
Zeke added that in high school he had a great art teacher that encouraged him to be in AP Art. He mentioned that thanks to his teacher, he learned to paint and draw and use certain techniques that he continued to use throughout his art. During high school he also took a Journalism class and he mentioned that those two things led him to become an illustrator and cartoonist.
However, he didn't know that was what he was going to end up doing in life. "Most of us from this area come from families that want us to make a good living and have a family. I come from a working class family so, you know, my dad always knew I was good at drawing but he also wanted me to earn a good living. He wanted me to be an architect or an engineer. So after high school I went to go study architecture."
Zeke then started talking about how he studied at Texas Tech for a while, but did not like Lubbock at all. Not to mention, he encountered a lot of racism which did not help at all. That's when he decided to come back to El Paso and study art at UTEP. "I had a really good art teacher. I went to UTEP for three semesters and then I finished at UT Austin. I originally applied to do graphic design, you know, keeping my dad in mind to get a career. To me graphic design was a good choice, but I was put on the wait list for graphic design and I had to pick a major so I ended up picking Art History. It's funny because in my head, it was never an option to get a B.F.A and study for art. As a young person, I never thought that one could make a living off of illustrations and photography."
Zeke continued on telling me that those were basically his formative years and that after graduating from UT, he came back to El Paso.
"When I came back there were a lot of friends doing DIY shows, so we would look for raw spaces and we would clean them up and set them up and have one-night shows. "
He added that that was some of the experimental stuff he was doing and then he did some film and photography as well. "I worked int the film industry for about six years. Learning about the film industry was great. After that, I went into graphic design and started a small business. It was three of us. I forgot to mention that when I was in Austin, I did a lot of community organizing. My work in graphic design has always been a mixture of community work and commercial work. The community work is something I will always do." Zeke mentioned that he did not continue graphic design for so long because he was not too happy with it. He said that was when he decided to follow his instinct and take a leap of faith and do painting. That decision led him to do what he does now which is free lance work, cartooning, book work, illustration, storytelling and much more!
He and I talked some more and he brought up wanting to paint again with a child-like innocence. Not approaching it so direct per say. He also mentioned that "capital A art" is not all there is. He said he learned most of his techniques from his high school art teacher and from watching Youtube and seeing tutorials. He said that during the past two years he has been trying to really focus on what his style is and trying to revert to a more child-like approach. Not everything has to be so direct.
To follow up that comment, I asked him whether he always wanted to make art based on la frontera and whether that has anything to do with the political undertones in his work and if so, whether it is intentional given his history in community organizing. His face lit up when I asked this and said, "my mom is where that all comes from. The community organizing. As a kid, my mom always told me, "You always help the underdog." Try to help people in need. Pretty simple. That's fundamental and it's very cultural. My mom, specifically, her first teaching job was in New Mexico and it involved working with migrant students. She continues to do that. She helps high need students. I think that that is where a lot of it comes from, seeing it from my mom. It's always been with me since I was a kid."
Zeke is clearly a very caring spirit and he is very involved and the community and does what he can to help. His work showcases much of the community whether it's an issue or an observation. He is passionate in his story telling and he is all about helping and servicing his fellow citizens. After telling me about the influence his mother had, he added that during high school he started politicizing his work. "I went to Coronado High School and it's a very white school and my sister and I have always been on the darker side. As you get older, you look back on those things and think, "oh wow, I was probably treated differently in a lot of places."" As a side note to that comment, Zeke mentioned that Hip Hop has always been a big part of his life growing up. It allowed him to radicalize and express himself.
"The thing that really radicalized me was reading Malcom X's autobiography as cliché as it sounds. This was in 1998. I was like "oh shit, this is heavy". This was a formative experience because I was looking on my own and looking for answers." From that, he mentioned that it led to himself questioning several things like "where am I and who am I?" He mentioned that years after high school he worked with Resistencia in Austin, Texas and he has had several mentors throughout the years, which have shaped him even further. "I feel like everyone has their role in their community. A lot of us who are de-tribalized and have been assimilated, we don't have as strong of a sense of our place in our community. Many times it is handed down. I think, me, identifying myself and going through the process of making the graphics, it helped me identify my place and realize I can help people with that. Helping get the word out and helping to story tell. It's what I can do it's what I can provide just like I can pick up a shovel and help as well. With the organizing I do now in the community, that's what I find the most need for. People need help getting the message out and branding events."
It's this type of compassion for his community and his willingness to help, that has allowed Zeke to be recognized in the border community and across the U.S. I really hope that anyone reading this article has the opportunity to look at Zeke's work and understand the story he is trying to tell. His work runs deeper than just a simple picture. It reflects upon life and a culture. It's an observation and trying to convey it.
A big thank you to Zeke Peña for his time and service in the community. For more updates, follow his Instagram @zpvisual or check out his site: zpvisual.com
"We are writing a book called: "Keep Writing, Walking and Rocking". I am writing and my brother is doing the pictures. We hope to inspire people to follow their dreams."- Brandon Bailey Johnson.
This month's artists for Chuco Relic are the talented Brandon Bailey Johnson and Chance Bailey Johnson. Through fate, Chelsie Evaldi, owner of Chuco Relic, has been working with the boys for a while.
A few weeks ago I caught up with the child prodigies, Brandon Bailey Johnson, 15, and Chance Bailey Johnson, 11. For those that don't know, Brandon holds the Guinness World Record for "Youngest Professional Music Producer", which he achieved at twelve years old and he released his first album "My Journey" in 2015. Chance on the other hand, focuses on art and has been painting ever since he can remember. He has been involved in many art shows around the city, and has also taken part in a solo show at Chuco Relic.
The two brothers along with their sister, play as a classical trio at times displaying their music capacity beyond their years. As we sat at a round table at an El Paso Public Library with their mom and sister, I noticed how unified their family is. An undeniable thing between the two brothers is that they both inspire each other in every way, whether it's art or music related.
This interview will be cut up into two parts since both Brandon and Chance are Chuco Relic's artists of the month and they specialize in different areas. Beginning with Chance Bailey Johnson, this young artist has been painting for a few years, but already has a bright future ahead of him. He mentioned during the interview that he is very inspired by historic El Paso landmarks. "This city is inspiring to me. The Plaza is my favorite. It's old and back then, they had old films playing there and then they remodeled it. It's nice!"
I asked Chance if he liked anything about El Paso besides the landmarks since his love for them is evident in his artwork and he added that, "El Paso has it's ups and downs like the construction, but I love the giant Pistachio too." Chance is referring to the Pistachio statue a little outside of El Paso as if one were going towards Ruidoso.
Besides being inspired in "El Chuco", I asked Chance who his major art influences were and the first person he mentioned was Hal Marcus. "Hal Marcus is a major influence for me because he is always there for me. He bought my first painting. My second art influence is Joe Acosta because he gave me my first art supplies and he taught me how to use oils."
It's nice to see older generations of painters inspiring the younger generations like in Chance's case. Chance's personality is very colorful and so are his paintings. His collection of art this time around for Chuco Relic is a reflection of "Spring-colored El Paso" and it's called "My El Paso Spring Fling." I hope everyone has an opportunity to see Chance's art. It really is one-of-a-kind and he puts his heart into each one of the painting he does.
As mentioned before, Brandon Bailey Johnson already holds a Guinness World Record, he played at the Neon Desert Music Festival last year, and his seventh self-procuded album, HEAVEN, is now available for pre-order. Brandon told me that he wrote his first song at the age of eight and that he started playing guitar at six years old. He also told me the story of how he came to produce his first album. After he wrote his first song, his parents jokingly told him that he should just produce an album and after looking at the costs of producing an album, his parents helped him build a little studio.
Since then, Brandon has been producing and trying to release as much material as possible. He added that the material that he is more known for is his Prince tribute and that as a result he got invited to the Princeology concert in Los Angeles alongside other musicians this summer. He is also getting ready to do a big tour in June and part of that tour is the Prince concert in L.A. The rest of the date are located on his website.
As a follow up question, I asked Brandon what music means to him and he replied with, "It's natural. It's a part of me and it comes easy." He also mentioned that his musical influences include Prince, Slash, and Lenny Kravitz, but he added that his sound is different from that of his influences. When asked about his concept behind “HEAVEN”, Brandon said that, "it (heaven) is a state of mind. Chance designed the cover for it. It's a mixture between the pisces sign and an H. I did all the instruments on the album as well."
That is definitely not an easy task to take on at fifteen years old, yet Brandon manages to keep at it and pushes himself musically. As a result of his music production and wisdom beyond his years, Brandon has also done a TEDX talk in which he addressed music production and the art of collaboration. Not everyone can say they have done something like that before the age of fifteen!
As the interview reached an end, Brandon told me that he and Chance are writing a book. "We are writing a book called: "Keep Writing, Walking and Rocking". I am writing and my brother is doing the pictures. We hope to inspire people to follow their dreams."
I am pretty sure these two brothers will inspire many people. Besides being inspiring, the boy's mother added that she always tell her sons that the most important thing they can do is "to be responsible and give back with their time." She hopes her children continue having these principles. Every year Brandon hosts a benefit concert in which the proceeds are donated to a cause of choice. It really shows the values these two boys have and I hope people check out their work because it is wonderful and they are truly talented.
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