How the studio survives

The VPA Visiting Artist Series welcomed Tanya Aguiñiga on Thursday, March 3, to speak on her activism, art, and advice.

Juan Luna-Avin, a lecturer for the VPA department, introduced Tanya Aguiñiga at the start of the event. Avin referenced her website, stating Aguiñiga is an artist, designer, and craftsperson who “works with natural fibers and collaborates with artists and activists to create sculptures, installations, performances, and community-based art projects.”

Her work focuses on the experiences of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, from Tijuana to San Diego. “She established a community center in Tijuana to bring attention to injustices that the local community faces through art initiatives,” Luna-Avin said.

The focus of the night’s lecture was Aguiñiga’s advice on how to fund significant works of art successfully. She discussed early studio space, merchandise, commissions, residencies, and grants.

Aguiñiga’s first studio was local, located only two blocks from her house, where a lot of early problems solving took place.

“We had a deal with my landlord, but we still didn’t have enough space. We had to work in the hallways. We had to use every bit of space because the studio wasn’t big enough to do large-scale pieces,” said Aguiñiga.

“How do I make it work with furniture design? We can’t do welding; we can’t work with large machinery in the same space as flammable objects,” she said.

After some trial and error and years of working, she found “an all-fem studio, with female-identified folks, LGBTQ folks, [and] nonbinary folks – that’s what was best and happiest for us.”

The studio began working more and more on large-scale fiber works and working on things that affected women-identifying people, such as a large-scale, naturally fibered work of intricate knots exploring postpartum depression.

“The way we were able to hire people, scale-up, and do a lot of what the studio did in the beginning, was because I had an accessories line,” said Aguiñiga. “If the furniture didn’t sell, or if a piece of furniture took five years to sell, I always had smaller things people could buy that would help us make rent,”

Her accessory line developed into clothing, home goods, weavings, and one-off pieces. She sold wholesale to museum stores, design stores, small boutiques, and flash sales.

“I would do fairs, like the International Contemporary Furniture Fair by applying to get into an Alumni booth, applying to get into Furniture Society, any group that would cover the cost of a booth, so it wouldn’t cost me to participate,” she said.

She explained another way to keep customers interested is to create art at these events. “Educate people in the importance of craft by creating items in front of people, so they understand the process – how long it takes to craft items, how special the materials are.”

Commissions are the primary income source for Tanya Aguiñiga’s humanitarian aid.

She advised people to “take jobs, take whatever jobs you can get to get funding for what you want to do.” She featured a few of her previous commissions, including pieces for the Laguna Art Museum, the Ace Hotel, Nike, Disney, The New Children’s Museum, and private residences.

“I do a lot of residencies; some of the residencies are some I have funded myself, some are ones where I applied and gotten in, and some come with stipends.” One of Aguiñiga’s residencies was five weeks in Chiapas – the southern part of Mexico, with the largest concentration of indigenous people in the Americas – working with Mayan women to exchange skills.

“As somebody from Tijuana, we don’t have a vast craft culture because we’re so close to the border, and our city is so new in comparison to the rest of Mexico. When I got my first huge award, I wanted to spend time exploring what Mexican craft was.”

Part of the benefits of residencies is experience working under new conditions, potential pay or prize money, and education in new skills.

The Los Angeles’s “Dwell on Design” exposition was hosted at an expo center directly next to Central City East and Skid Row. Aguiñiga collaborated with homeless aid advocates and organizations to assist people without housing transition into homes.

Through community interviews, the team learned they needed “art, something warm, a tablecloth that doubled as a gameboard, modular stool, and modular table.” She led workshops throughout LA, teaching people how to knit, crochet, and weave, which allowed her to aid the community at a low cost.

Aguiñiga recommends applying for all awards and grants related to one’s field of work for all VPA students. The United States Artist Fellowship grants $50,000 unrestricted and allows Aguiñiga to fund equipment and travel through Mexico. She also mentioned Creative Capital, a long-term success model that invests in your artistic future. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) offers many excellent grants, classes and provides leadership cohorts with other young Latino professionals and artists.

Through all of these channels, AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides) was founded by Aguiñiga in 2016. The project explores “how we go back and forth constantly, and those of us who go back and forth because we’re either U.S. citizens, have green cards or have visas,” Aguiñiga said. “Because of the stigma of crossing the border and being afraid of getting their green card taken away, most people who cross back and forth do not tell anyone they live on the Mexican side.”

Her first installation involved handing migrants a postcard with two strings attached that said, “these two strings represent the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, ourselves on either side of the border, and or our mental state while crossing.” Participants would then tie a knot and answer the question: “What are your thoughts when you cross this border?”

This project took three years to finish and spanned the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Every single port of entry between the U.S. and Mexico interviewed 10,000 people. The finished postcards would be tied together and displayed on a billboard in Tijuana so people could “see their interconnectedness, they could see their relationship to community and understand they were not going through this stigmatizing experience alone.”

Aguiñiga has fond memories of her work at the border.

“What was amazing about the border people was that not only was it this symbolic and collaborative making of work, the writing that came back from the postcards was so incredible because it just taught us about the differences between our different cities and our different regions. It was also a total capture in a moment politically what was going on in the U.S. and Mexico.”

Those interested in viewing more of Aguiñiga’s and reading about her activism can find out more on her website:

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