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Journal: Meet: Ruben Castillo: Thumb

Ruben Castillo's work explores the relationship between intimacy and identity, and how it manifests within everyday phenomena.

Where are you from and where do you reside?

I was born in Dallas, Texas and am currently living and working in Kansas City, Missouri.

What necessities do you require when making your art (radio, specific paintbrushes)?

First and foremost, there has to be music when I am working. In general though, my tools are incredibly important to me. I rely on specific brushes, pencils, intaglio printmaking tools, specific inks, and papers. My materials are very special to me, and my work is a collaboration with them. Like all good collaboration, there needs to be a good relationship. Furthermore, I need to have access to reference materials; I produce in response to something else as a way to help ground the work in reality.

Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?

I work from references and a specific set of skills that I have trust in. I have to have a small sense of certainty when I start. However, once I’ve started, where the work goes is entirely dependent on the flow I am in. The marks in my prints become new reference points to build off of and expand. Part of my love for the printmaking process is the built-in chance that is part of any craft. The reveal of the print after being run through the press is always thrilling. That moment before is always so tense and exciting for me.

My recent work has become even more rooted in chance procedures. Colors and gestural marks coexist together in a way that I can’t predict. I keep myself open to discovery, remaining curious about new stimuli, new references, and new feelings.

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How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

My work has always been representational. My research focuses on queerness, archives, and intimate social connections. In the past, my work was very figurative and would look at spontaneous moments of contact. The work was very ethereal and ghostly, suggesting a temporary connection frozen in time. Eventually, my focus shifted to domestic objects acting as stand-ins for the individual. I became interested in the ways narrative conclusions could be drawn from liminal moments.

All of this imagery was done under an autobiographical framework. Lately, my work has begun to look at existing images and sources from archives. I’m curious to see what types of connections can be generated across objects sourced from public spaces to build a cross-generational conversation on queer intimacy and relationships.

When did you begin your current practice?

I began to take my studio practice seriously in 2010 while I was an undergraduate student at the Kansas City Art Institute. I had just completed a studio assistant internship with the North Texas artist Ted Kincaid and began working in series with figurative etchings. That body of work and the framework that produced are part of my foundation to this day.

My current body of work was started in the summer of 2021. For five years I had been working exclusively with pillows and beds as a stand-in for a couple. After the COVID-19 global pandemic and Shelter-In-Place orders, I began to think more about how we could all connect again. While my work has always been about the ability to connect with others, my current work is looking at broader systems and metaphors around emergence, ecology, and chance happenings.

With my work, the ephemeral or fleeting moments of ordinary life and people become etched into a matrix and carry the potential to live on forever.

Ruben Castillo

What drew you to printmaking?

My first artistic love has always been drawing. When I was in high school, we had a drypoint project. It started as a simple project where I was tracing a collage, making the marks by scratching lines into a sheet of clear plastic. What surprised me though, was the processing afterward; the drawing was done but the artistic process continued. Seeing my plate beveled, inked, and run through a press felt like magic. To this day, the “reveal” of the print from the press bed is tense, exciting, and magical. The longer I have worked in printmaking, the more aware I become its place within the craft community and the shared feelings across printmakers globally.

What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?

The first objects I remember being so drawn to were family photo albums. I have been interested in domestic objects that provide clues and segments to intimacy. While I’ve taken an ethnographic approach to my own home shared with my partner, my research has shifted to public archives. I think about what Heather Love calls the “emotional rescue” provided by history and archives (thanks to my friend Amy Cousins for sharing Love’s work with me). When we dig through archives, we are inevitably searching for answers about ourselves. For me, I am looking for beauty, connection, quiet, and comfort. As we gather information about the past, we imagine new futures with the materials we find.

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How does your choice of material and/or process inform the final piece?

My choice of techniques in printmaking comes from a long love of works on paper and printed material. What first struck me about prints, particularly etchings, was the way that the ink and paper became fused together. The image seemingly emerges from paper, changing its initial blank qualities. The paper becomes a record of physical, mental, emotional, and even social labor. Particularly with my work, the ephemeral, or fleeting moments of ordinary life and people become etched into a matrix and carry the potential to live on forever.

Are you formally trained? Did you go to art school? Who did you train with / Did you have a mentor?

I was a first-generation art school student. Not only was I the first person to pursue a degree at a four-year college, I was the first in my family to pursue art as a career. I’m thankful to my family for always making it possible for me to keep going, and for the art educators in my life who were passionate and encouraging. I distinctly remember the art classes I had with North Texas artist Ted Kincaid, who I eventually worked with as a studio assistant. I learned so many practical lessons on not just the business of art, but also the spirit of art from him. The importance of building close relationships in art early in my life has extended to building a wider network of artists that continues to inspire me.

Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now? Have you ever collaborated, or would you? How solitary is your art-making process?

I have so much love for my printmaking community! I am constantly inspired by what my peers are doing. I’ve collaborated twice with Philadelphia artist Amy Cousins for the Mid-America Print Council’s annual conference to organize queer printmakers whose work intersects with archives. First working with a panel of four artists, we then brought together 16 artists nationally to contribute both personal objects and new print-based works together into a portfolio.

In general, my process is very solitary, but my work is always made with a public consciousness in mind. My work has been considering the cross-generational connections we have through objects, looking at the way histories are preserved in archives and what possibilities for connection can occur with audiences of my work.

Published November 22, 2022.