Claudia Alvarez: Molding Art from Life

While still in high school, Claudia Alvarez (MFA 2003) began a job at the UC Davis Medical Center that would shape the rest of her professional and artistic life in unexpected ways.

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As a patient escort, she encountered a diverse group of people, many of whom had very rare diseases and long-term illnesses. One of her first assignments, she recalls, was taking a body to the morgue.

But it was working with the living that caused Alvarez to look at life differently. “To make them laugh, for even five minutes, inspired me to think about life in different ways.”

The patients were sometimes children who seemed old as they grappled with extreme infirmity, and sometimes older people who became more like children as they aged. Alvarez’s conception of age expanded; she saw maturity in children and vulnerability in grown adults.

The first time she created a sculpture of a child with an old face, now a hallmark of her practice, “People freaked out. They asked where this eerie figure came from.”

Career Turns

As she worked her way through Sacramento City College, taking pre-med courses, Alvarez enrolled in a ceramics class that made her rethink her existing artistic practice.

“I felt an experience of touch that I hadn’t experienced with drawing or painting -- a physical reality.”

Soon thereafter she switched her major to art and applied to UC Davis, where she worked with Annabeth Rosen, the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair, and the distinguished painter Wayne Thiebaud (whose lessons, she says, took her 10 years to fully absorb).

One day at work, Alvarez was escorting a patient and encountered a ceramic mural that captured her attention. She was drawn to the artist’s application of the elements of painting -- perspective and color -- in the medium of clay.

She discovered that it was created by Arthur Gonzalez, an artist on the Ceramics faculty at CCA.

“I thought to myself, I guess I’m going to go to school there.” She followed through and soon found herself working with Gonzalez as a graduate student. “He became an incredible mentor and a great friend.”

CCA Faculty Made an Impression

For Alvarez, the beauty of the MFA program at CCA was the opportunity to take courses in a variety of disciplines. She has particularly fond memories of working with Deborah Valoma (Textiles), John Toki (Ceramics), and Larry Sultan (Photography).

“Larry in particular was a huge inspiration in how he conducted his class,” Alvarez recalls. She appreciated that Sultan was interested in getting her to step outside of her primary medium, and she always found their conversations engaging.

“The way he spoke about his work was so powerful. He instigated the viewer to question what’s happening.” This was a lesson that influences Alvarez’s work to this day.

Exhibitions & Residencies

After receiving her degree, she applied to the artist-in-residence program at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, in Omaha. “When I left, I had no clear idea of where or what Omaha, Nebraska, was, but I was there three months and never returned to California! It was exhilarating. The Bemis Center allowed me the time to focus on my work.”

Alvarez now lives in New York but still feels like a part of the Omaha art community and often goes back when she is preparing for a new project.

In 2014, Alvarez had a solo exhibition at the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City. Her research for the work in the show was conducted at the National Museum of Anthropology, Museo Tlateloco: The Stavenhagen Collection, and Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli, and was funded by Art Matters Foundation.

Alvarez also spent time in Mexico City at SOMA, which she describes as both a residency and a conceptual art school.

Back in the United States, she is preparing for another residency in October 2014. As a recipient of a grant from the McKnight Foundation, she has been awarded a three-month fellowship at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis.

Early in her career, residencies such as these were necessary. Now she has a studio in New York but says that the residencies are still as important to her as ever.

With her SOMA residency, Alvarez had the chance to visit her birth country -- she’d left when she was still a small child -- and be a part of its culture.

“These residencies are still big, life-changing experiences for me.”

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