Carlos Fresquez on Los Phantazmas and Chicano art

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The English translation of Los Phantazmas is "The Ghosts," says artist Carlos Fresquez, explaining his art collective's name, which evokes the invisible work that many Latinos, Mexicans and Chicanos perform in the United States. The four-person collective emerged in the mid-'90s, disbanded around the turn of the century and has recently reformed for the Sangre de Cristo Art and Conference Center's exhibit, Declarations: An Examination of Chicano Identity, Culture and History. Westword recently spoke with Fresquez about the history of the collective, his work and the current exhibit.

See also: Queer undocumented artist Julio Salgado speaks out

Westword: Talk about Los Phantazmas? What is it?

Carlos Fresquez: Well, we formed as a group of artists. We all were sharing a large studio space in west Denver. There were four, five, six of us, maybe, in one space. There were four of us who stuck together. We were creating works separately, and we started doing some collaborative work. I'm talking mid-to-late '90s.

We started to think that we might want to work together and team up and put an art collective together. We really weren't quite sure what it should be, but we were thinking about how a lot of recent Mexican immigrants would come into this country and get these jobs, and they'd have to hide because they're illegal. So they're under the radar. They work at night. They work cleaning offices or in the fields or as domestic workers. They are always hidden. So, we really don't see this group of people. Not to stereotype, now, but it's like we just don't see this group of people.

There's a lot of Latinos, even legals, who are still invisible. And so we thought the word "ghosts," Los Phantazmas, would be a good name for the collective. So we started under that label. We started creating works about how we as artists sometimes are unknown, and how do you get any kind of recognition?

All of us are either involved as educators or are being educated. I'm close to sixty years old, and I'm still being educated in life in general and in some facets of what life brings. We just thought, well that's what we should be. We should be silent, quiet, invisible educators who go out in a visual way and comment on whatever is in our minds. That's how we started, and we had our first shows back in 1998-1999. Then our studio rent kept going up, so we let that go and stopped renting. We disbanded at that point.

Then here comes early 2014, which is fifteen years later. I heard about this potential exhibit at the Hoag, in Pueblo. I contacted these guys and said that maybe we should do something. We haven't reconnected as a group for sometime, so this is our first outing in fifteen years. It's refreshing. Some of the same issues we had are still important today and some of our concerns have changed or even our interests and styles and directions.

We all believe in education and we want to use art as social commentary. We like to jab or elicit questions or anger or something humorous. We try to sometimes make our work ugly on purpose or maybe elegant or sometimes pop. We just try to be all over the place and not try to limit ourselves to one direction.

Read on for more from Carlos Fresquez.

How does this collaborative project relate to your other work?

It's nice because you learn to let go. You have to realize what's important to you may not be important to somebody else in creating or especially working on someone else's work.

About collaborating, you learn to just trust. You learn to trust your fellow artists and take that risk that they will add something that you probably wouldn't have even thought of. The element of surprise is very dadaesque. You create something and something is added, and you have this ready-made, with this added component that you wouldn't expect. It's nice to get it back.

It's a really valuable lesson, again, with education. It's all constant learning and challenging ourselves. We are in this day and age with so many gangs and gang issues. We technically are a gang. We're about doing something positive as a group. It's not negative by any means. Some people may see it that way about the image that comes down or the political message. Of course, we're not here to please anybody or try to win anybody over.

We are trying to at least do something instead of just complaining. We aren't just complaining and sitting back and doing nothing. It's better to at least do something, to take action, take charge. Whether it works or not, at least you took the effort and tried to do something to create change and make a better community, city, country or even world. We just try to make things better through dialogue.

Can you talk about the focus of the show at the Hoag and how you relate to the Chicano movement in art?

I got involved in the Chicano movement during the walkouts. I remember being in middle school and high school and walking out. There would be a bus waiting for us. We'd just walk out of class. The teacher was like, "What are you doing?" I'm like, "It's a walkout, you know." "You're gonna be counted absent." "Well, I have to go out and demonstrate." I would just walk out and leave and hop on a bus and be taken downtown.

We'd go to 15th Street and march all the way up to the State Capitol and hear local activists making wonderful speeches about what a great people we are as Mexican Americans, what we've contributed to the U.S. and how this was part of the U.S. and how we're undereducated and being taken advantage of in some ways. This went on and on, good and bad, about what was going on. It was this really great political education there.

After the second walkout, I realized, I'd better stay in class and become much more educated. Even though I probably learned more in the streets at these protests and being part of that activity, I thought, I really need to become as educated as possible and stay in school. So I stopped going to those demonstrations.

I really tried not to miss school. I did the best I could and continued on with my education. I got a BA and an MFA. I realized the importance of education by walking out.

By the time I got to high school, instead of trying to do it all, I focused on art. It's what I love to do. I can make social comments. I can paint in a manner like social realism or expressive social realism or whatever it is in creating a form of Chicano art that says something and speaks to others and can do more.

Starting with those protests and getting involved, it stopped there for me in a way. I'll still go to demonstrations that are important to me, but I really try not to miss out on anything else, miss class to go to something like that or my family either. I don't leave my father's birthday party to go demonstrate. I have set rules and parameters for myself to know what's first and foremost is that you've got to keep yourself in place. You've got to keep yourself grounded. You've got to keep yourself in a place to have the strength to take care of yourself so you can take care of others and affect others.

Read on for more from Carlos Fresquez.

Can you talk about how you strike a balance between teaching, creating art and your job?

Man, it's tough. You can't do all three at a feverish level.

In 1989, I used to spray paint industrial-automotive. I used to do airbrush on low-rider cars and bikes and that kind of thing. I made some decent money. Never a ton, but enough. I was able to start selling my artwork in 1989. From that point, in 1989 till I got this full-time job in 2005, I was a fulltime artist. I would teach a class as an adjunct or an affiliate, maybe one class a semester. I would just go and teach my class and then leave and come back and do my own work.

My wife and I, we raised two children and were making a house payment and doing anything else that we all do. I was able to be very prolific. In 1992, I was in 33 exhibitions in one year. That's almost one a week. That's how much I was creating doing this full time, full force.

When I started teaching full-time, in 2005 at Metro State, and got this tenure track position, I was trying to keep the same pace, and it was just impossible. I really started saying no to exhibits and just focused on my career teaching.

There is no way I can be as prolific as I once was, because of this job. I'm glad I have it. Believe me. I love my students. Teaching is a wonderful profession, and I do enjoy it, but I can't create at the pace that I did before. I do plan to retire soon. Once I do, I do want to get back to the heavier pace and get back to maybe getting 33 exhibits in 2018.

I've had a great past, and this is kind of a pause. I've had a great incubation period letting it rest, putting some notes aside and ideas. I have tons of those. They're ready once I have the time to go full force and bust loose.

There is such a tension between teaching and creation. The need to be an expert that comes with being a teacher is often not as messy as the creative process. How does that impact your creativity and production?

I've been painting since I was maybe fourteen. My uncle is a trash-man for the City of Denver. He found a bunch of used tubes of oil paint in a dumpster and some old brushes. I had no idea what to do with it or even what to paint on. I was thirteen or fourteen, you know. I started teaching myself what to do with the oil paints.

This is a profession where you never stop learning. Students always come up with something so challenging. They expect me to be a Mr. Know-It-All. I let them know, I'm not Mr. Know-It-All. There's a lot that you're going to learn yourself for the rest of your life. That's the beauty and joy. It's never the same. It's not a factory line making tires. Yeah, they might be different sizes or weights or snow tires or tires with studs, but it's still a tire. And you'll be in a factory making it over and over and over for a whole life and career. This is not like that at all. It transforms daily. It changes in front of your eyes.

The exhibition Declarations: An Examination of Chicano Identity, Culture and History will be up at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center until May 31. For more information, go to sdc-arts.org. Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris

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