Diana Calderón, a Phoenix-based artist raised in the borderlands, uses materials from Mexico and the U.S. to investigate her ancestral roots and immigrant experience while exploring both physical and spiritual borders.
Walking towards the small house Diana Calderón rents in a quiet Phoenix neighborhood, it’s easy to picture the artist working inside. Plants bring life to a small patio, where they share space with a large-scale monarch butterfly sewn by Calderón and suspended near the front door like a monument to the artist’s identity and the borderlands that give her life.
A barefooted Calderón welcomed Southwest Contemporary into her home one afternoon in early September, wearing a pale blue denim jumpsuit that seemed to mirror the cloudless sky. More plants, burning candles atop a tripod, and a wall filled with an eclectic assortment of other artists’ works created a casual, calming backdrop for our conversation about the intersection of life and art.
Lynn Trimble: So, I know hipster décor sometimes incorporates accordion-style room dividers, but you’ve got a similar hand-built piece with clear panels in your living room. Is that part of your latest body of work?
Diana Calderón: That’s for a performance called Invitation to Connect, which I’ve been doing during the pandemic. People can step up to one of the panels if they want to connect and I stand on the other side, using a china marker to slowly draw them. I notice their breathing and other reactions to gauge which way to go with the drawing. It’s like a conversation, but it’s silent. I like to explore ideas around communication, including connections and missed connections.
The idea of breaking down barriers and borders is a common thread in your work. Why is that so important to you?
I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico and I grew up in the borderlands of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez. I traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico all the time, so my work explores my ancestral roots and my own migrant journey. I’ve encountered physical and emotional barriers in my life, and a lot of what I create addresses those interior and exterior landscapes. Art helps me process my own experiences, and what I see happening around me. I know that I have a non-traditional purpose in the world, and art is a tool I can use to make sense of that.
Where other people might hang pictures, you’ve put up small framed artworks you call “constructs.” How do these fit into your larger body of work?
They’re investigations from performance pieces I’ve sewn or printed. They help to document my journey or where I am in a state of being at the time, which is very healing for me. I try to respect the past, in terms of my experience, but also document and archive the present.
Tell me about the materials you’re using, and how you source them.
I like to gather materials like cloth and paper from both Mexico and the U.S. Sometimes I’ll incorporate sewing patterns or straight pins that symbolize all the alterations we try to make during our lifetimes. Other times I’ll make prints, mixing textures and patterns from architecture and archeology or other elements in the landscape.
It looks like you just have one small room for storing supplies and doing table work. How does this space function for you?
I do a lot of my planning and sewing here. It’s a space where I can experiment with materials and play with my mistakes. I do small printing demos sometimes as well. But I’m definitely looking for a larger studio space.
Your practice includes more than making and performing creative works. You’ve also developed a workshop to help others think about their unique identities and life experiences.
I teach people how to make their own constructs, which is a way to reflect on their own biographies. It really seems to help people push out whatever they’re feeling stuck in or investigate their own blockages.
It sounds like instinct is a critical part of your process.
I try to be very intuitive and fight off my own perfectionism. I listen to an inside feeling, and change direction when I need to. It’s like following an interior compass.
Did that interior compass point you towards Arizona?
I came to Phoenix to study art at Arizona State University. I moved here thinking I might as well go figure out what I’m about. I liked how I felt in Phoenix; I felt peaceful. Later I left to attend graduate school in Texas, but I decided to come back to Arizona before I finished.
It sounds like that was a milestone moment for you.
Leaving grad school was a pivotal moment. That’s when I decided to stop caring about what other people think, which was a real breakthrough in my art. I peeled off some layers of myself when I left Dallas. Now I feel like I’m super weird and unique—and that’s okay.