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Cristina Cordova

Sculptor and Artist

Cristina Cordova is a sculptor based in North Carolina. Originally from Puerto Rico, Cordova studied engineering but after finding little room for creativity in the cold numbers and rigorous courses, she decided to pursue a career in fine arts. She shares how she ended up landing on sculpture as her medium, the early challenges of being a growing artist and the challenges she faces in her work now. Talking with Cristina was incredibly inspiring and her wisdom on continuing creative work when you've fallen out of love is something I feel almost anyone can relate to.

Tell me what your role looks like right now, what’s your main focus at the moment?

My focus right now is trying to get to the bone of what I’ve surveyed through the past fourteen years. I’ve tried a little bit of everything. I’ve tried to make different things, teach in different capacities and essentially experience the medium through different tangents.

I’m now at the point where I’m trying to simplify all of that and get to the core work that I feel is important, and a specific teaching strategy so that I can share some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated.

In a sense, I think I'm trying to distill and concentrate my efforts so that I feel that they're a little more focused.

You started in engineering, so I’d love to hear more about what your path from that to art was like?

My parents were kind of your standard professionals, they were physicians, so in my mind, the notion of entering into a career was kind of in alignment with that. I didn’t know a lot of artists that were making a living in art. My parents and I surveyed different things, and they had a friend who was an engineer and had their own company. I spent some time there and got the sense that I could maybe do that. There’s a pretty great engineering school on the West Coast in Puerto Rico, so I entered that program and began taking courses. I very quickly realized that wasn’t my disposition. The space for creativity was minuscule.

After all these cold numbers and really rigorous courses I was growing a little bit crazy, so I went back to the drawing board and decided to switch to the fine arts department. I started to look around Puerto Rico for artists who were actually committed to a life of art, I found this couple and they were hugely influential for me. It was the first time I had a strong example that making a living in art was really possible. I needed to have that model in my mind. When you just don’t know anyone who has done it, it’s hard to take a leap.

“Of course, I didn’t know anything about sculpting the body, but I knew I loved the material and that I loved the figure and I had to find a way to bridge the two.”

What kind of engineering were you studying?

It was structural engineering, so mostly having to do with buildings and structures. It certainly plays somewhat of a role in what I do now, either throughout the composition of my work or even several times in dealing with museums. There’s been a few times where I’ve had to actually call in an engineer to help me figure out the logistics of the wall as it related to the sheer weight of a piece.

How did you end up landing specifically on sculpture? What was that process like?

The fine arts program I entered into was a very general program, but at one point, in my third year, this artist Jaime Suarez came to my school, and he was trained as an architect. He had a double major when he went to school in the US and studied architecture and ceramics. The way that he taught clay just blew my mind. He was so open and cathartic in his treatment. He was doing these big monuments, but was also doing just very intimate parts, and I think that was my first connection with the material.

Once I knew that was the material I wanted to focus on, the figurative part of my work was an extension of me being a dancer for many years. It came from feeling really comfortable with that code of communicating using body gesture. Of course, I didn’t know anything about sculpting the body, but I knew I loved the material and that I loved the figure and I had to find a way to bridge the two.

“At some point, I had to stop everything and take a good look at the ins and outs of the business. Understanding that it was essentially what allowed me to be an artist.”

What were some of the biggest challenges, or maybe some of the most notable failures that you faced in the process of becoming a full-time artist?

I think it’s that you’re trying to tackle all of these specialties at once. The ceramics part of it, the figurative part of it, and then the logistics of running a studio like inventory, taxes and all of that. I feel like the juice for me was the creative part, and I was really reluctant to engage fully in the business structure of it. It started kicking my butt because eventually all of that got so rambly that I would lose valuable studio time trying to figure it out. I never started with a clear sense of what my business model was.

At some point, I had to stop everything and take a good look at the ins and outs of the business. Understanding that it was essentially what allowed me to be an artist. I backtracked a little and spent time consulting with a few people that had been doing this for awhile, just to bring the business side of things into focus more.

When you’re young, it’s easy to get carried away by what you’re passionate about without really auditing yourself. You just go with the flow and at some point I realized that this was much more multi-layered and if all these things weren’t moving forward at the same time, it just wasn’t going to work.

What do you find to be the most challenging part about the work you do right now?

The challenge for me is getting perspective on what the most important things are. I feel that I have all these ways to express my creativity, but it’s hard to discern what should really hold most of my energy. It’s easy for me to get excited and swayed by all these little things, and if I don’t catch myself I can get carried away and unfocused. So, it’s about understanding what that big thing is, not exclusively in relation to me, but the community at large. Where can I share the most, in the strongest way about what I do and what I care about?

That can sometimes be hard to grasp. I’m trying to stop more and take a survey and recalibrate as opposed to diving in and going too deep into something, and then looking back and saying, “Oh, maybe I missed the mark a little bit there.”

“If you’re going to make it, it’s all about the people around you and minimizing that ego to the service of the connections you make with the people that support you.”

What is a major aspect of your work that you think people might be surprised at, or that people outside of the industry might not understand?

That's a good question. I think when you see my work, or any figurative work, it's really easy to get caught up in the fact that it's figurative. There's an involuntary thing that kicks in where you assume things, and you are eager to impart some sort of narrative on it. A lot of my work uses the figure, but I think that the treatment of the material is just as important. The content is less in the imagery of the figure, and maybe more in the treatment of the material, or at least equally considered in my mind. So, as I'm making it, the markings on the surface which have nothing to do with the figure are saying something just as strongly as how an eye is rendered, as an example. The awareness that it doesn’t all start and end with the representational part is something that I don’t think people always understand.

Being a practicing artist, what do you think would come as a surprise to people in terms of what the actual work includes?

There’s this myth that’s a little reinforced in grad school that you are your own artist and your own person and you’re trying to establish your own identity and style. It’s very much about you as a separate creator. I think that it’s actually the opposite. If you’re going to make it, it’s all about the people around you and minimizing that ego to the service of the connections you make with the people that support you.

That became very clear to me, but it took me awhile to figure out. It’s really not about me. It’s about how I take this skill and put it into the surface of something bigger than me, and mediate that through all these relationships. The relationships that keep enriching me are like partnerships, where it’s not about the individual agendas, it’s about the shared mission and collaboration.

“I treat this, for the most part, as a 9 to 5. There are things that break the studio time, in terms of business related work, like emailing, but as much as I can, I try to be here, ready to go at 9am.”

What are the main tools that make up your current workflow?

I have a couple of mechanical tools that have to do with turning big sculptures around, so I have a large turntable and then my modeling tools.

In the past couple years, the computer and that whole digital realm has started to grow in my practice, and so most of my rendering starts with a set of photographs that takes views of the model in the round, and then I will pick from that. I will print out the front and the sides of the model in sections and then tape them together at scale. So if I’m working on something that’s six feet tall, I’ll have the six-foot print outs on the wall next to me, and then the rest of the views I just survey on my computer. So I keep turning them and turning the sculpture as I work.

Then, there’s video. I’ve been exploring video a little bit lately. I have a little camcorder that’s always around. It’s been really interesting to have these videos to share, and to get insights into how I work, how much I repeat or don’t repeat, or where I nurture the sculpture. It’s been a nice addition to my practice.

Have you developed routines or a structure for yourself that's helped you be the most efficient, or is it more of going with the flow?

It’s definitely not "go with the flow" [laughs]. I have children, so that adds a predetermined structure. But, it’s good. It helps me get going faster, and it helps build continuity. We wake up, I have my coffee and supplements, and if I can get a little workout in there, I will. I like to do short 20-30 minute workouts, like yoga or a quick jog-those are part of my everyday. I feel like they help my stamina and my mood.

I treat this, for the most part, as a 9 to 5. There are things that break the studio time, in terms of business related work, like emailing, but as much as I can, I try to be here, ready to go at 9am. Then the day starts to unwind around 4. I might have to leave earlier to pick up my kids, but I trade with my husband. On the weekends, if I have time, I’ll come in here for a couple of hours too.

“When you start working as an artist, you're so taken with the material, it's like being in love. You can't stop thinking about it, and every little thing about it excites you, and year after year, all those things start to become water under the bridge. The excitement becomes more elusive, and it takes you twice as long to get to that moment of impressing yourself.”

Do you have phases where you become disconnected from your work, or burnt out on what you’re doing? How do you deal with that and continue to create during those times?

That's another really good question, because that's another unexpected thing. When you start working as an artist, you're so taken with the material, it's like being in love. You can't stop thinking about it, and every little thing about it excites you, and year after year, all those things start to become water under the bridge. The excitement becomes more elusive, and it takes you twice as long to get to that moment of impressing yourself.

So, that’s when the real work starts. There has to be this broader perspective that allows you to access some of that thrill again, maybe not in terms of this little thing you’re doing, but in a larger sense. It becomes important to look at what you’ve done, try and understand it at a deeper, more conceptual level and what it’s allowing you to relay. Also, teaching has been wonderful for this, because you feel empowered and excited through the eyes of those you’re teaching. They see it from those fresh perspectives that you no longer have access to.

Understanding how I can refresh myself, especially when I get stuck and I can’t do it for myself has been important. It’s about looking at the community at large, and then at students. I also look back at what I’ve done, and try to remember what that connection was and how I can restructure that in my current situation.

When that first happened it was super disconcerting. I remember thinking, “Oh god, I’m going to have to go back to school…” It flowed so easily when I started, then all of the sudden it doesn’t and you freak out because your life has been based on this ability to have this flow on cue. When it doesn’t happen you think, “I’m broken.”

But, then you work through it, and it flows again. Once you go through it a couple of times, you realize that it’s just a part of the game that nobody told you about. It’s just something you have to live with, and know it’s not permanent, and it does require this big moment of reckoning where you look around and try to find your wind again, but it’s not the end.

“It’s not the thrill in sharing this awesome thing, it’s more like, “I’ve emptied myself through a certain amount of time into this, and I’ve made these collective sets of cumulative judgements, and they have drawn something out of me that has enough power that I’m compelled to share this.””

Why do you do what you do? What do you love most about it and find so meaningful about the work?

These are all theories in hindsight, of course, but I think I fell into this very intuitively. I grew up in a place where figurative representations were a place where you emptied yourself. It was part of a spiritual practice in the context of catholicism. My mom and my grandparents, we lived with these objects that were often really primitive wood renderings, but you would draw certain ideals or even power from them.

So, this notion of using sculpture in that way was always a part of my view of spirituality. As I grew older and travelled and I could go and see the residue of the figurative elements from different cultures, it still carried over. That sense of imagining somebody emptying themselves into this rendering. Some may be more stylish than others, but the imprint of that person’s psyche was relayed through that distortion.

All of those things started to build up, and then, as a dancer, my concentration was in classical ballet and the way the body is used there. You have this overarching theme that anchors this story, but the story is very open and it’s really more about these subtle things that the body is relaying. That whole excitement of using the body and all of its nuances to relay something combined with this whole other practice of imbuing something with presence is what locked me into the figure.

Once I was locked into that, it was a matter of how I could have these things perform. As I started to put them out there, I would see what they brought up in people. That started to feed my aesthetic, or my angles on a figure. When I put things out there, I’m not thinking, “this is the most awesome.” The thrill doesn’t come from thinking that. It’s not the thrill in sharing this awesome thing, it’s more like, “I’ve emptied myself through a certain amount of time into this, and I’ve made these collective sets of cumulative judgements, and they have drawn something out of me that has enough power that I’m compelled to share this.”

Then, you put it out there, and you have this moment of curiosity to see if it does carry over, beyond you. I think that, for me, is a thrill. It's not like, "Okay, this is a perfectly packaged thing that I’m excited about." It’s more of a performance. I’m eager to see if it can relay that set of qualities that moved me.

“It’s an exercise of every time you hear feedback, to take it, but keep your distance from it. If you’re open to all of it, it can really muddle your vision.”

It must surprise you when someone feels or has a reaction that’s entirely different than what you expected.

Oh, my gosh, I have so many funny anecdotes about that, because you put it out there, and sometimes it's not what you expect, and sometimes it's so much more. People see so much more, and you're like, "Oh, crap, I didn't even account for that." You feel you should've. For a while there, I thought my work had gotten very heavy and almost borderline scary, and I was finding a lot of thrill in that. There is this delicate balance between something being scary and something being beautiful. But, some people couldn't really deal with it, it was totally off-putting, so it was really interesting to see some of those comments, and realize, "Oh, yeah, it's so interesting that my meters are so different from this whole other side of viewers."

It’s an exercise of every time you hear feedback, to take it, but keep your distance from it. If you’re open to all of it, it can really muddle your vision. Sometimes, that’s hard. Especially if it’s a negative comment. You always want to feel appreciated, not yourself, but what you’re doing. But, I think it’s important to take it all in stride.

Who would you want to see interviewed on Ways We Work?

There’s a Puerto Rican artist, Angel Otero, whose work I've been really enjoying. I'd also love to see Norwood Viviano, Ollanski, Annie Lemanski and Jesus Gómez.