RF Alvarez

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I’m from San Antonio, Texas and I reside in Austin, Texas.
What’s your favorite part of living in Austin?
The summers. It’s hot in Texas in July, August, even into October, but Austin is a city of rivers, lakes, and springs. We spend all summer dipping in and out of cold water and sitting under big oak trees. It’s a great town all year round – kind of the perfect small town with the trappings of a bigger city (good food, good music, etc) – but it comes alive in those slow summer days.
Describe a typical day in the studio for you.
A typical day… I wake up and immediately go get coffee, god help me. My studio is at home and if I don’t leave for at least an hour I go stir-crazy. I’ll sit in the cafe and write, load up on caffeine, maybe look through some research, sketch – and then I’ll be in the studio all day. Maybe I’ll make a peanut butter sandwich and paint through lunch. Sometimes my husband comes home and I’ll make us something. I’m a huge fan of working from home for that very reason: my kitchen is right there. Also my dog. My studio has the best light in the afternoons so I’ll work till sundown, switching between paintings, collages, sketches. I’ll work on something until I’m sick of it, then switch to something else so I can come back with fresh eyes.

Photo by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Photo by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work took a more archeological turn in recent years, heavily influenced by motifs and imagery I was drawn to in Antiquity and Pre-Columbian art. I started introducing color in a real way: flattening out forms into a sort of abstraction and using broad fields of color to create composition. I also started incorporating body forms, which is a subject matter I plan to keep expanding on. And lately I’ve worked on some pieces that are experimenting with volume and shading – bringing depth to the flattened color. As far as process, I’m moving more and more into canvas works and a larger scale.
How did your interest in Antiquity begin? How did your interest in Pre-Columbian art begin?
I’ve always been taken by the way the Greeks depicted bodies: nude, confident, powerful. It’s absurd that Pre-Columbian art isn’t treated with the same importance, but the bodies have their own power, albeit it from this completely different perspective. My relationship with Antiquity started as a kid. Maybe it was seeing these gods and geeking out about the stories surrounding them. They embody such basic human things: desire, safety, strength, confidence. And my relationship with Pre-Columbian art was really a part of a reconnection I did with my father’s family in adulthood.
How has your upbringing influenced the direction of your artistic process?
I grew up in south central Texas. My father’s family is Mexican and my mother’s family are white cattle ranchers. There was always a lot of tension there, a tension that permeates still. And growing up not really fitting in… art was this way of processing. So I really started making art to understand where I fit in with everything. My work, say, five years ago, was really concerned with defining that memory. And as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve settled more into myself, I’ve started turning my lens on the broader narrative. The works I’m making now feel more like dreams: a different reality where heritages are embraced, mutually respected, in dialogue.

Photo by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?
I would say my work has a very clear set of motifs and repeat throughout. Branches and greenery, ceramic forms, fleshy bodies. I don’t know that it’s intentional, but the works tend to evoke some other place – an Eden, if you will. Somewhere safe, beautiful, natural.
What intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
There’s a meditative quality to making the works and I think that has something to do with what I’m trying to focus on. I like depicting confident bodies, but I want them to be in the act of contemplation. I think there’s always a juxtaposition to be made between the world I’m depicting and the one we live in. But in addition to a world where bodies are safe and powerful, it’s a world where quiet moments of solitude are relished.
What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
I’m really interested in creating artworks that feel like artifacts. A lot of my work involves a sort of world-building: I’ve described it as coming from some alternate civilization. The paradox there is these are new works and to try to make them feel aged or timeless could really easily rob them of some sort of authenticity. So I tend to invest more energy in my materials for that reason – letting the choice in paper or paint bring that aspect to the works. I’ve been sourcing handmade paper from southern India, for example, and I’ve been experimenting with raw earth pigments.
You work in a few different media, using both found materials, paper, paint, and canvas. What decision making goes into which materials to use and when?
Materials have a heritage of their own, and I love exploring that. Take paper cutouts – you have papel picado, a tradition dating back to the Aztec. You also have Chinese, Japanese, Nordic traditions. You have Matisse, obviously. It’s this artwork that toes the line between craft and art like ceramics or tapestry and the imagery depicted has always felt like it grows naturally out of the material for me. In a way I sometimes feel like I’m creating my own set of artifacts, and a lot of my material decisions come out of that. I want my “artifacts” to feel like they’re part of a heritage that spans multiple cultures and histories.
How do you choose your materials?
I’ve been letting the materials speak to me more and more. Sometimes it’s a color or a texture that I want to celebrate. Sometimes it’s the history of a material. I see materials as a huge part of building narrative. I’ve been stretching raw canvas for my larger works and I love the idea that if I’m going to make a painting, I want it to be “undressed.” I’m trying, in my subject matter, to get at the thing beneath the surface. Whatever makes us human. A lot of my figures are nudes - exposed, vulnerable even, but empowered. And having a painting with the raw canvas exposed in big swaths helps tell that story.
I’m really interested in creating artworks that feel like artifacts. A lot of my work involves a sort of world-building: I’ve described it as coming from some alternate civilization. — RF Alvarez
How do you incorporate chance in your creative process?
More and more, yes. The latest series I’ve worked on, Jazz, is all about chance. Embracing the things I can’t control – in fact, celebrating them – has been such a crucial part of my growth as an artist. And I wanted to create a series where I let the materials and the act of making lead me. I can’t surf for shit (I’m a Texan after all) but I’ve always really respect the headspace you have to be in. You’re up against this force that is so much bigger than you and so much of it is out of your control and this wave comes and all you can do is either dive right into it or let it take you somewhere.
How has your work as a designer influenced your practice?
I could not have had a successful art practice without first running a business as an independent graphic designer. It taught me how to keep organized and driven, how to communicate clearly and run the business side of my practice. And then as far as the work itself is concerned, the influence of graphic design on my composition and color choice is pretty obvious, I think. My earlier series especially, where text and image work together to deliver a narrative.
Do you see any of the themes from those series continuing in your practice today?
I treat text as a medium, like paint or paper collage. I think there’s definitely room to return to it. For me, those works are about memory – I wanted to capture specific, passing moments and hold onto them. I thought the intersection between word and image (like an advertisement, or an editorial) was the perfect way to do so.
Have you ever collaborated?
I just collaborated with Peter Sheldon, a ceramicist in Los Angeles. We’ve been good friends for many years and he’s always been my go-to for advice on a work I’m struggling with. Getting to work on pottery just felt so exciting and right. A lot of the process was this push and pull of our two different styles and visions and I think the results were so much stronger for it.
Is there any artwork on display in your home? Whose is it?
I have a print by an artist and friend, Cora Lautze, in my living room. It’s large and beautiful – a process-piece where she ran layers and layers of ink through a screen until the buildup documented the warping of the screen and created this three-dimensional form that sort of shimmers. I like the idea of making the falling apart the focus of the work.
Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist?
Right now I’m reading Cleanness by Garth Greenwell and it’s definitely finding its way into my work. Highly recommend. Also really excited by Chris Wolston’s furniture design work.
What’s one of your favorite objects you own? What’s the story?
I visited a friend in Beirut many years ago and took home a set of playing cards from a bar – El Falamanki – where we spent many nights drinking and laughing. They’re fraying at the edges and they sit on the kitchen shelf ready for the next dinner party. I think they just remind me of good times with people I love.
Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
Yes! I’ve been obsessed with Diedrick Brackens’ woven works lately. They’re stunning.
What’s next for you?
You know, I’ve always been the kind of person with a plan. I think if you had asked me a year ago I would’ve had this list of goals and a clear idea of what the next step is. But lately, I’ve been – to use that earlier reference – just seeing how the waves are coming in. I want the work to decide the next step. I have so many things I want to make, so many things I want to say or process, so many conversations I want to have. For now, I’m just painting and cutting and discovering what comes out of it.

Photo by Mackenzie Smith Kelley

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