Pilar Agüero-Esparza is an artist, teacher, and mother who explores themes of labor and domesticity
It is natural for artists to continuously return back to recurring themes in their work throughout their career, and Pilar Agüero-Esparza is no exception.
Agüero-Esparza is a visual artist based in San Jose who uses familiar, everyday objects to explore themes of labor and domesticity, resulting in a body of work that is self-referential in the way it is all ultimately connected.
She grew up in Los Angeles and fell in love with art and with being an artist while still in high school. “I had a great art teacher in high school who encouraged me,” she says, so when she decided to attended University of California, Santa Cruz to continue her art education she knew, “I’ve got to do it and I’ve got to do it one-hundred-and-fifty percent.”
While at UC Santa Cruz she studied painting, drawing, and printmaking, finishing a four-year undergraduate degree then taking the one-year graduate program that was available at the time. Afterward graduating she knew she wanted to be somewhere with greater diversity and bigger opportunities, so she moved to San Jose and began a career in arts education.
Agüero-Esparza worked at the San Jose Museum of Art as an arts teacher then as an arts administrator, then at MACLA as a curator and Director of Education. After having her daughter, her priorities changed, and she decided to go back to teaching art. She has now been teaching at The Harker School for the past 13 years, starting in the elementary grades and now teaching high school art classes.
As the student who has become the teacher, she enjoys seeing the progress of her own students as they go on to become professional artists in their own right, in a sense completing the cycle. “I’m a teacher for sure,” she says. “I feel like in many ways my role is to provide access to students – access to the creative process. I believe everyone can and should do art whether it’s singing, dancing, [anything]. Everyone should engage in the arts. I can give access to the visual arts to my students, and that’s what also compels me to teach. Maybe you won’t become a professional artist but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to draw.”
The head of the school’s art department believes that teachers hired in the department should be working artists and showing work in their field, which appeals to Agüero-Esparza, who tries to spend as much time in her home studio working on different projects as she can. “I want to be part of that ‘making’ [process] for my students, too. I need to be that model.”
The work she creates tends to be very personal in nature. “For me, for my own artwork, I have to some kind of connection to it,” Agüero-Esparza says. “It becomes very personal. I tie in things that are happening with me or materials around me, which might be mixed media, paper, cloth…in the work I’ve been doing the last 10 years I’m using familiar and commonplace objects. I really like to mine something because of what it signifies and because of what it represents.”
One of these commonplace objects that inspired Agüero-Esparza was her daughter’s homework. “My daughter was in elementary school and getting so much homework, so I started collecting the papers. I [thought], ‘Is this right, having these little kids do all this rote work? Are we doing them a disservice?’ These are the kinds of things that are going through my head that may be more personal. I knew, ‘I have to do something with this.'”
She sewed the papers together like a quilt and hung them in the shape of a house, which became her installation work “Homework House.”
“Home” is something that recurs in her work both physically and thematically. Another project titled “No Children Left,” a reaction to the contentious No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, featured an interlocking structure of small houses made from a child’s lined writing paper sewn together, surrounded by beeswax casts of rats. “The idea of home is very basic. It’s where you’re safe,” she says. “[The idea here is that] there are rats in the house, something bad is in the house, and there are no children left.”
Home, children, domesticity, family, personal history – all of these thematic elements are present throughout Agüero-Esparza’s work. She often draws inspiration (both indirectly and directly, as documentary subjects and sculpture models) from her own family. As a teacher and an artist, a mother and a daughter, Agüero-Esparza’s work intersects in ways that explore issues not just of labor and domesticity but also ethnic identity as a Mexican-American.
In another project called “Multicultural Crayons,” Agüero-Esparza bought hundreds of boxes of Crayola’s Multicultural Crayons – a set of eight skin tone colors – that represent the “colors” of racial identity. She then took molds of her daughter’s feet and made castings with each of the colors of the set. She worked with her daughter on this project not only because it made the work more personal for her (rather than using another person’s feet), but also because her daughter “will be navigating the world and experiencing it as a person of color.” For Agüero-Esparza, she has mixed feelings about the representation of “color” in a children’s crayon set and it was those feelings she was exploring: “Who is the white or tan or black crayon, and what does that mean?”
An ongoing collaboration with artist H. Dio Mendoza, “El Shop,” dives into Agüero-Esparza’s own childhood growing up with parents who were shoemakers. “I had always wanted to do something with leather but it hadn’t come to me yet,” she says. When the idea came, she proposed it to ZERO1, the San Jose-based arts organization that focuses on the convergence of art and technology. The organization commissioned her idea for their 2010 biennial “Out of the Garage, Into the World” and she got a mini grant to go back to Los Angeles and work with her parents in their shop.
“I grew up in that environment. I used to work with them in the summer gluing soles of shoes and dye making. I wanted to document that process and them,” she says.
The shoes her parents made were the traditional Mexican sandals called huaraches. Agüero-Esparza wanted to take that traditional aesthetic and do something modern. At the ZERO1 biennial, Agüero-Esparza and Mendoza created their own workshop, El Shop, where they taught maker classes and created their own modern huarache designs, culminating in a fashion show of their designs.
They also filmed Agüero-Esparza’s parents in their shop for a documentary project. She remembers a small earthquake happening in L.A. on the afternoon she sat down with them to film their interviews. [“I remember thinking,] ‘I’m in my forties and I just started documenting them and now the earth is opening up.’”
The timing was none too soon; one year after filming, Agüero-Esparza’s mother passed away. “I feel like I’m not done completely [with this],” she says. “The El Shop project isn’t done. It isn’t finished.”
She has done more 2D work in the last few years using tools and materials gathered at her parents’ shop. In the last year she has been focused on drawings, which she says are more individual and personal but continue the “El Shop” series. She also has a variety of metal foot molds in different sizes. “I’m not sure what to do with them yet; they’re just sitting in my studio.” Speaking of such commonplace objects that most people wouldn’t consider twice, she says, “I feel like that’s what informs my work. Sometimes it fails; sometimes it takes me years [to figure it out].”
Agüero-Esparza is not concerned about making work that lasts forever. “Some of the things can be super ephemeral. It’s not archival. It’s more about symbols and materials; I really want to look at the meaning behind [the] material.”
On her recurring themes of labor and domesticity, Agüero-Esparza says, “The domestic realm tends to be really personal but also really female. The house is what the feminine energy creates and protects. I’m a professional. I have only one child but I chose to be a mother, but at the same time my career is also important, so I’m sort of straddled between wanting to have that and balance the domestic realm but also wanting to work and have a career. What are the issues for me to navigate? Having one child, everything is precious about that one child – [so you end up] keeping all of their homework. But I’m also not comfortable in being just a homemaker. There is a lot of pressure on women; if you choose one or the other, [career vs. family], is that bad? [My work] is about me trying to navigate those waters and illuminate [those issues].”