Salt Lake City artist Nancy Rivera illustrates the immigrant experience in a series of complex and time-consuming embroideries.
SALT LAKE CITY—Nancy Rivera has gained a particular understanding of what it means to “trust in the process” through her work as a multimedia artist, arts administrator, and professional curator. Her journey to where she stands today—she and her parents emigrated from Querétaro, Mexico when Rivera was at the transitional age of twelve—taught her patience as she experienced the exigent demands of receiving citizenship in the United States. Today, that patience, fortitude, and endurance manifest through her work.
Rivera’s most recent exhibition, Family Portraits—part of her recently completed artist residency at the Kimball Arts Center in Park City, Utah—tracked three different chapters of Rivera’s immigration story through cross-stitching. Rivera has also exhibited three collections since receiving her MFA at the University of Utah: Herbarium Obscura: Shadow of Nature in 2016 at the now defunct experimental Salt Lake City art gallery God Hates Robots; Impossible Bouquets, After Jan van Huysum in 2018 at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art; and Facing Home, a two-person exhibition with Denae Shanidiin (Diné, Korean) in 2020 at Granary Arts in Ephraim, Utah.
While the themes and concepts vary for each, the common ground is based in Rivera’s penchant for curation and thoughtfulness. For example, conceptualizing Herbarium Obscura was a slow and ruminative process—Rivera meticulously created cyanotype prints of natural and artificial foliage, revealing an obscure shadow of a seemingly natural plant in the final print.
“At its core, my work aims to reveal the multi-layered structure of the natural world and questions how modern technological advancements reshape our perception of it,” Rivera says.
Rivera’s exploratory nature stretches her concepts and chosen mediums. (Un)documented pushed against the traditional boundaries of cross-stitching by embroidering a two-and-a-half-inch by three-and-three-quarters-inch border of a social security card, leaving the identity of the cardholder blank.
“I’m creating photographs, but they are using thread,” says Rivera about a process that sometimes takes hundreds of hours. One can tell, when viewing the work, that it’s not just a quick sewing job.
The craft also holds a link to Rivera’s own family history. She explains that her grandmother has cross-stitched her entire life and that her grandmother’s methods, featured in the ongoing series Family Portraits, are a beacon of inspiration. “I wanted to show that tradition and reference to my culture in the work,” says Rivera.
The impetus for Rivera’s current work came after she had received her citizenship. Through her pieces, she wanted to talk about what the journey and process looked like for her—and what that experience looks like for her parents as they pursue their own citizenship.
“The initial idea was to have the different chapters of my family’s immigration process from Mexico to the U.S. shown as portraits,” explains Rivera about these visuals that are interpretations of images from their passports, green cards, and driving permits. “I wanted to take that government-issued image and have the viewers see it as who we are as a family.”
The series contained three sets of embroidered portraits: Retrato de Familia, Mexicanos shows passport photos of her mother, father, and Rivera before immigrating to the U.S.; Family Portrait, Resident Aliens depicts passport photos of the family after receiving their green cards; and American Daughter is a singular portrait of Rivera from her passport after she received citizenship in 2016.
The push and tug of Rivera’s identity is on display throughout Family Portraits, an ongoing series since 2019. Through this tedious, arduous, and time-consuming technique (100 to 150 hours per piece), she’s forced to sit with how she perceives herself and her family as filtered through the frustrating process of immigration and U.S. residency.
“Looking at all the documentation [I] either have needed to or felt compelled to keep throughout all these years,” says Rivera, “I realized that it can become a larger series where I can talk about the process and labels you are given by being immigrants.” In time, Rivera plans to create fifteen total portraits, including some of her parents when they eventually receive their citizenship.
As Rivera works on this larger collection, she also focuses her energy on supporting other local artists. As the visual arts coordinator at the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, she creates programming, exhibition opportunities, and grant programs for emerging, local artists. She currently faces the challenges that come with limited exhibition spaces after 2020’s closures.
“We need a diversity of spaces. We need the small DIY spaces, but we also need the big museums and contemporary art galleries to have this range of options,” Rivera says.
However, hope is set in the increased funding for arts programming in Salt Lake. Rivera has been able to take part in developing the Utah Division of Arts and Museums fellowship program, which has awarded $5,000 individual grants to local visual and performing artists such as Jorge Rojas, Carol Sogard, Kalani Tonga, and Anna Evans. Rivera also mentors and shepherds the artists through the program. “What I want to accomplish is for people to understand the language and format they should use to talk about their work,” Rivera says.
Rivera’s work cultivates patience against an urgent need for self-expression. For thinking about citizenship and immigration, the creative friction seems appropriate and representative of the tension thousands experience in U.S. immigration. While Rivera moves forward with her acquired citizenship, her parents wait in a seemingly stagnant line for their own. Unfortunately, this is completely normal. How can our immigrant population patiently endure the process when their lives move at an exponentially faster rate? Rivera’s upcoming work hopes to offer an answer.