Of corn and men: Yvonne Escalante explores themes of social and environmental justice through corn

Corn: it’s a rather pedestrian agricultural product. Chances are, you probably don’t think too much about corn as you go about your daily life. You buy ears of corn for your summer barbecues. You read about corn as a cash crop and its potential as an alternative energy source. You also read about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup and how that product is directly responsible for the poor health of an overwhelming number of Americans.

But do you really think about corn?

Yvonne Escalante didn’t think too much about corn when she was growing up in Southern California; certainly no more than the rest of us, anyway.

Escalante attended San Jose State University, where she received her MFA in spatial arts, and California State University, Long Beach, where she earned a BFA in metal arts. As a visual artist, she works in metal sculpture. Her work explores themes of social and environmental justice, drawing connections between the degradation of the planet and marginalized peoples throughout the world as a symptom of industrialized agriculture. She does this through ubiquitous, easily-recognizable objects that people use on a daily basis without thinking twice about…objects like corn.

“[I] really started [thinking about corn] when visiting my grandfather on his 96th birthday and for first time started listening to stories,” Escalante says. “He was a retired corn farmer from Iowa. I started thinking about how much things have changed for him; how the practice today had changed so much and what ultimately drove him out of being able to stay [in the industry] and sustain in his chosen career as a farmer.”

She started researching what it means to be a farmer today and how that had changed from her grandfather’s time when people were actually able to maintain a sustainable living as farmers. This was the catalyst for a four-year investigation into all things corn.

Over that period of time, Escalante made several pieces that were born out of her investigation of corn and how it has represented both life and death throughout American history – life, in that corn was how early Americans, both natives and settlers, were able to sustain life; and death, in that the industrialization of agriculture has not only meant that corn has evolved from life-giving nourishment to death-dealing poison, but also that the simple dreams of Americans prior to agricultural industrialization are now unsustainable, farmers can’t survive, and corn has become a kind of pestilence on the planet.

“The ancients – pre-Columbian, South American – thought they were born of corn,” says Escalante. “We had lost our reverence for this life-giving thing. It [has become] more of a weapon on attack. It’s causing environmental degradation, health issues…there were more and more layers I found as I deconstructed this object, thinking about how corn has infiltrated every part of our lives.”

Her visual explorations of corn include A Kernel of Truth, featuring “corn bullets.” Escalante described this work in her artist’s statement thusly: “Today corn manifests in an array of artificial varieties: fillers, sweeteners, and fuel. If we look closely, past the kernels of delicious summer BBQs, the true essence may present itself. Once a source of nourishment and life, corn now manifests as an accurate and direct weapon of attack. These bullets retain the memory of corn’s origin while bearing its modern brass armor.”

Jiffy Pop was her first corn-themed work, a hanging sculpture comprised of half-consumed corn on the cob “missiles,” a commentary on how corn has an ambivalent identity in the world, “at once a source of nourishment and a cause of conflict.” Keeping Time was her final thesis piece in her corn studies series, featuring a glass corncob encased in a music box, honoring the ritual of actually enjoying corn and the legacy of her grandfather who has since passed. “It really came full-circle,” she says. “The Keeping Time music box really hearkened back to the original love of corn, this affirmation of eating and enjoying corn, ritualizing the approach people take to eating corn cobs.” The glass cob has “bites” taken out of it, and those bite patterns dictate the tune played by the functioning music box.

Out of her investigation with corn, Escalante opened up a network of connections within the community she never previously imagined. In San Jose, the San Jose Museum of Art hosted a collaborative project called Around the Table with satellite exhibitions held throughout the city all on the theme of food and what we “bring to the table” in the hidden political and social choices we make in what we eat. She was involved in the Lend Me Your Ears exhibition at Art Object Gallery, produced in partnership with the Ecological Farming Association, which focused on the themes of modern and sustainable farming.

Not only did her corn explorations connect her to a greater community of food and environmental activism, but it also helped her re-connect with a part of her heritage she had grown disconnected from. Her mother’s side is German and her father’s side is from El Salvador. Growing up in California, she felt little connection to her El Salvadoran heritage. “Through this project I rediscovered my heritage and roots. It actually allowed me to connect with some really amazing organizations in San Jose, ultimately seeing this series as family portraits for me on a personal level. It was a perfect marriage of two halves.

She was part of a group exhibition called Maize y Mas: From Mother to Monster?, contemporary art exhibition exploring the unique heritage of corn in the Americas, at Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) in San Jose.

“I’m looking at this body of work through two very different lenses, but they still represent all of the things I see in this work,” she says. The story of corn is not only how we, as a culture, have grown disconnected from the land and turned something that once represented life into an agent of destruction, but also of how we – and Escalante as the artist specifically – have become disconnected from our own culture, heritage, and history.

“The story of corn for me is symbolic of the way we have disconnected ourselves from growing from the earth, from creation,” Escalante says. “That’s true culturally as well as our tenuous connection to where our food comes from now and what we’re actually consuming.”

In what is perhaps the natural evolution of her work as an artist concerned with issues of social and environmental justice as well as cultural history, Escalante has now taken on the role of an educator, teaching classes at San Jose State University on jewelry and small metals. “My life’s goal, when I finally chose to do what I wanted to do which was to make visual art, was also to be an educator.” Now she teaches students new to metalsmithing the time-honored tradition of metallurgy and demystifies the techniques. “[Metallurgy is so completely] based on process and really honoring traditional techniques, I feel honored being able to pass that on to the next generation. It sounds corny but it’s true!”

No pun intended.