In this interview, Naimar Ramírez discusses how every situation is an opportunity for self-growth.
WHAT STAGE IN YOUR CAREER DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF?
I am in the early (growing) stage of my career. I am always on the lookout for calls for exhibition, for both group and solo shows. I have had some great opportunities in the past couple of years; since finishing graduate school I had an exhibition fellowship with Art Rise Savannah, participated in DeFINE ART in SCAD Atlanta, showed at SCADMOA, and had multiple exhibitions in Puerto Rico: at La Productora, University of Puerto Rico, Área Project Space, and a group show at Walter Otero Contemporary Art.
I was also recently awarded the Lexus Grant for Artists, one of the best opportunities for emerging artists in Puerto Rico, which provides funds and an exhibition in the Puerto Rico Museum of Art. I still don’t have any kind of gallery representation, but I am making my own way for the time being. I expect that all the exposure I’ve worked for in the last couple of years will yield more career growth in the near future.
OK, SO YOU GRADUATED FROM SCAD AND THEN WAS ONE OF THEIR ARTISTS IN DEFINE ART. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN?
I met Aaron Levy Garvey, junior curator at SCAD, while at Non-Fiction Gallery. He had seen some of my work from my thesis exhibition, Impressions, and probably other works at SCAD shows. Shortly after I moved back to Puerto Rico, he emailed me with interest in showing my work in Atlanta. We emailed back and forth for a couple of months, exploring what we could show, what we could do with some of my new work, until he selected some works and I wrote a proposal for them, which I sent in for him to discuss with the exhibitions team. My intention of making site-specific works was a very important part of my proposal and its eventual approval.
Much of my work responds directly to where I am, how a place affects me, and I explore this by creating large paper embossings, made by applying pressure to wet paper with my hands and body.
Aaron and the exhibitions team were excited about having a show that explored different places in such a way, and after being part of deFINE ART on the Atlanta Campus, they invited me to show in the Emerging Artist Annex at the SCAD Museum of Art, where I had worked from the day it was inaugurated until I graduated.
YOU WENT TO UNDERGRAD FOR ARCHITECTURE. CAN YOU GO INTO WHAT MINDSET YOU WERE IN WHEN YOU DECIDED TO PURSUE THAT PATH?
I used to be a great student, and I always loved art. I saw architecture as a way to combine my math and science abilities with my desire to create. The fact that I thought of my art as a personal issue during my adolescence, that I felt no need to share with the world, also helped push me into pursuing a more “traditional” career. Architecture and design made the most sense at the moment, but halfway through my bachelor’s I started understanding myself a lot better, especially my need to create in a certain way that may not be aligned with the client. The urge to make work that responds to specific ideas in a way that doesn’t go against my convictions made it very difficult to always please the client and fulfill my responsibilities.
WHAT DID YOU THINK OF WHERE YOU WENT, BOTH IN RESPECT TO THE SCHOOL AND THE LOCATION?
I remember wanting to go to the University of Puerto Rico since my childhood. It is a great school and as part of the Honors Program, I went almost tuition-free most of the time I was there. The School of Architecture is the most prestigious in the island, and the hardest department to get into in the university. My professors there helped me develop critical thinking, observation, and manual skills that have been crucial to my growth as an artist.
The UPR is also a very controversial place in terms of Puerto Rican society and politics. The students are constantly fighting for their right to go to school (and to be able to afford it) as well as other social causes, which lands some groups in complicated situations in both the government’s and people’s eyes. It was a great place to learn my desired career and feel part of a growing youth movement—so necessary in the difficult times the island is facing.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER UNDERGRAD?
While I still agreed with my decision to study architecture, I was planning on going directly for my master’s after graduating, because there’s really not much to do with an Environmental Design degree. I was planning on applying for graduate school both in Puerto Rico and in the United States, but when I went into the arts, I knew I had to go for my master’s in the US; there are no worthwhile graduate arts programs in Puerto Rico.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO SHIFT TO AN ARTIST CAREER?
I spent my third year of architecture school studying abroad, in Seville, Spain. I have since seen that year as a turning point for a lot in my life. Being away from my family and most of my friends helped me look inward. Meeting new people, seeing lots of different cities, and being in a new school led me to understand that much of what I had been taught was only possible in a perfect world with the best clients, neither of which exist.
Meanwhile, friends who had graduated were having a very difficult time finding jobs in the recession, and those who did spent years without participating in the design process. By the time I came back from Spain, I decided to enroll in art classes as electives, eventually declaring a second major in photography. I thought about the current economic situation, jokingly saying, “If I’m going to be starving, I might as well be an artist.” During my fourth year in architecture school, I had made up my mind: I would finish the classes I had left, but I would pursue a future in the arts. I had to go an additional year for the remaining classes in my second major before going to graduate school.
HOW MUCH TIME LAPSED BETWEEN FINISHING UNDERGRAD AND STARTING GRAD SCHOOL?
Because I was already planning on going directly from undergrad to grad, it didn’t even cross my mind to do something else in between. I graduated in May 2011 and by the end of August I was apartment hunting in Savannah.
YOU WENT TO THE SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN FOR YOUR MFA IN PHOTOGRAPHY. THAT’S QUITE A SHIFT FROM YOUR UNDERGRAD.
I had actually been thinking about SCAD since high school. I remember going to a college orientation event in the school library, where some representatives talked to me about the school. My father wanted me to go there to study architecture, because of the complications that could arise going to the University of Puerto Rico, with the socially-conscious and often protesting students. I received the SCAD Course Catalog and emails every year [as an] undergrad. I also had friends [who] applied for their Masters in Architecture and received decent scholarship awards. Because of all this, it was a pretty easy decision for me. I thought it was meant to be. I only applied to three schools, and SCAD was the best combination in terms of economics, the program, and the (little) city.
WAS GRAD SCHOOL WORTH THE INVESTMENT, IN TERMS OF FINANCIALS BUT ALSO TIME?
I was very worried about what it would mean, economically, to go to graduate school for an art program, but for what I was envisioning for my life, it was necessary. The only option I had if I stayed in Puerto Rico would be to get another undergraduate degree from an art school, which would have developed my technical abilities, but probably not challenged me in terms of theory and critical thinking.
As an artist, I am more concerned with the thought and process of the work than a specific technique. This is why I wanted to study photography—actually study it, not necessarily do it; I am driven by the idea of the image, and I work with it through means outside photography.
I knew I needed to go to graduate school, even if I was worried about the money, so I narrowed down my options to SCAD (because I had heard from friends about the scholarships offered) and a new program being developed at City College in New York called Digital and Interdisciplinary Art Practice. When I got accepted to both, I was pleased with SCAD’s scholarship offer and suddenly the DIAP program (which was supposed to be launched in 2011) was postponed a year. I wrote to SCAD Admissions to have them reconsider my scholarship and received a little bit more, which made it possible to go with loans and a little help from my parents.
I loved graduate school. Even as I submit payments to my loans every month, I can say it was a great decision for my life and my career. I wouldn’t have been able to go without the financial help offered by the school, my parents’ help, and my current debt, so I am very grateful. In terms of the time spent, it was some of the best. I learned so much in class discussions, working at the SCADMOA and with the people I met every day, as well as working with so many different artists at the gallery we ran.
RIGHT, WHEN YOU LIVED IN SAVANNAH YOU WERE A CO-FOUNDER OF AN ART GALLERY. CAN YOU SPEAK A BIT ON WHAT THAT ENDEAVOR WAS LIKE?
When I talked to my family about it, I would say, “I started with my theory master’s, and I’m spending one year doing my practice master’s.” I was invited to form part of a group that was taking over a gallery that I would often visit—a space I really enjoyed that had great qualities and community ties.
We started out just brainstorming on what it would be like; we were a group of four (three painters and me, the photographer) with almost a twenty-year difference between the oldest and youngest. It was complicated, but exciting. It was also non-paying. It was like doing an internship for ourselves—kind of living in the real art world (of Savannah, whatever that means), but not being able to afford the fancy stuff. We took over Non-Fiction Gallery in the summer of 2013, and spent countless hours turning it into what we wanted it to be. We changed the space, scraped about a hundred layers of white paint off the concrete floor, built moveable walls, designed a website, and started doing events. We inherited the space and name, but redesigned everything about it. We wanted the work. We also wanted the artists planning their shows to feel like they were working with a professional gallery, not just another rental space like so many in Savannah. I think, through our hard work, [it] became the best space to have a student show in town. We had a growing mailing list, our events were always full, we sold work, and we started doing non-student shows, posting open calls, jurying exhibitions, and also doing our own little pop-up events.
DID RUNNING AN ART BUSINESS PROVIDE YOU WITH A PERSPECTIVE THAT YOU DIDN’T HAVE BEFORE?
Because of my role as Operations Manager in Non-Fiction Gallery, I learned how to install and [uninstall] my exhibitions with little or no help, how to properly package work for shipping or storing, how to build moveable walls; I can manage my own website, I have a better outlook on calls for artists, and I have more respect for the people that run professional galleries.
YOU DECIDED TO MOVE BACK TO PUERTO RICO AFTER GRAD SCHOOL. WHAT ASPECT OF THAT ART MARKET DID YOU HAVE TO ADAPT TO? WHAT I MEAN IS, WAS THERE A STRONGER COLLECTING CULTURE THAN YOU WERE USED TO? OR WAS THE FINANCIAL SUPPORT MORE FROM GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS?
Complicated question for a complicated time... I always knew I was coming back to Puerto Rico after graduate school. My partner was here, and I have less financial responsibilities. My mother moved to New York before I finished undergrad, but because of the recession (which has not yet dwindled) she had to keep our house, and I have here all the materials and equipment I have been acquiring since the end of high school. I also have space to work.
My plan was to come back home and work on my own for as long as I could sustain myself, while taking advantage of what the situation had to offer and fixing a lot of things around the house. The move was more practical than anything. I also felt that, because of the availability of online calls for entry, I could have a home base and travel when needed in order to lower the cost of producing my work. The art market in Puerto Rico was NOT one of the reasons I came back; the young artist movement, though, YES. The recession has affected all aspects of art and collecting, as well as the ability of institutions to acquire work or even fund new exhibitions. Many galleries have closed or downsized, and most of those still standing have their rosters full of established artists.
It has been difficult for me to maneuver myself and my work in the island because there are two main art schools from which the community is fed, and I went to neither. In a way, I am an outsider in my own land.
I have been meeting artists at shows and events, but I have not truly entered the gallery scene yet. For those in prestigious galleries, the art market is fine, they still have good sales, and a lot of work gets shipped off the island to collectors and institutions abroad. Getting there is the most difficult part.
I can say I know more collectors here that I did in Savannah because I know three or four, and there I knew one, I think. But that is not a lot. I know of more, and with the current developments of my career, I hope to meet them and sell them my work. I have sold more work than I expected, but I wasn’t expecting to sell much, so that doesn’t mean anything either. But the future is bright, I guess.
About the institutional support: it is actually in a very difficult place right now, [and] has been for about a year. Because of the government deficit, they have removed funding for museums and teaching institutions all around, limiting activities to those privately-funded or artist-run. This has led to an interesting increase in community activities, because emerging and established artists alike have come together to fight stagnant policies and bring art to the people in different ways, from murals around the capital to classes and workshops at museums and studios. The community is very much alive and growing, which is exciting in spite of everything else that is happening.
PUERTO RICO’S ECONOMIC RECESSION HAS LASTED YEARS LONGER THAN THE U.S.
The island’s economic future is dire. Not only has the recession lasted years longer than in the States, government spending has been reckless, and mostly for show, instead of usefulness. Now we face a Fiscal Control Board, imposed by Congress, that the people have to pay millions to, whom we did not elect, many of whom have conflicts of interests, and they will dictate what we can and cannot spend money on in order to pay off the billions in debt that have accumulated in the past fifty years. They don’t care about art. They are willing to close schools and hospitals and remove necessary officers from their posts, so art and culture are at the end of their concerns. They have only had a couple of meetings so far, and everything is getting tighter already. I have no idea what to expect in the next couple of years.
SAVANNAH ALREADY HAS SUCH A SMALL ARTS COMMUNITY; WAS IT SIGNIFICANT TO ADJUST TO PUERTO RICO?
It has definitely been a challenge. Meeting people in Savannah was the easiest it has been for me in my whole life. I am not the most sociable person. I don’t talk to strangers; I am often bothered by small talk. These were the biggest reasons I applied for a job at the SCAD Museum of Art as soon as I started my MFA. I wanted to challenge myself [and] my communication skills and further develop my ability to discuss art with laypeople. Working as a docent for a little over two years really helped me, and I continued this while at Non-Fiction Gallery.
By the end of my three years in Savannah, I felt like I knew most people in the arts community, and if I didn’t know them personally, I knew of them or I knew someone who knew them. I could walk or bike to most exhibitions, and visit three or four galleries in a night. I was very much part of that community. Coming back home meant coming to the suburbs, to a place where most of my friends had fled from.
I often feel like a stranger or a tourist within the art community. I don’t know people at every single exhibition I visit, and galleries and project spaces are a lot farther away, so it is harder for me to go to as many as I would like. I try to meet new people and make connections everywhere I go, and I have been participating in and teaching workshops to involve myself in the community, but I still feel like a little bit of an outsider.
WE'VE SPOKEN BEFORE ABOUT [YOUR FOCUS BEING ON APPLYING TO EXHIBITIONS RATHER THAN RESIDENCIES] AT THIS POINT IN YOUR CAREER; WILL YOU TOUCH ON THAT?
Because of my current situation, I feel like I have a special chance, a certain freedom, to produce work on my own and look for exhibition opportunities. I am taking on small jobs: graphic and web design, framing, and photography work, which I can work around in order to sustain myself and my artistic endeavors. I am very interested in participating in an artist-in-residence program, but right now I can’t afford to go anywhere, and seeing as paid residencies are harder to find and way more competitive to get accepted to, I would like to apply to them once I am a little better established.
This year I achieved many of the goals I established when moving back to Puerto Rico, the most important one being the Lexus Grant for Artists, which funds an entire project and provides an exhibition at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art. Timing is very important for all this. In my case, this year was the last time I was eligible to receive the Lexus Grant, and in previous years, I wouldn’t have been able to produce the quality project and proposal required to receive such an award. I hope [that] a year from now, after I have my first museum exhibition in Puerto Rico, [I] can start applying for residencies and other programs in the United States or abroad.
Photography and sculpture artist, Naimar Ramírez graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in Environmental Design and Photography and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with an MFA in Photography. In 2014, she was one of the featured artists in SCAD Atlanta's deFINE ART. Last year, Ramírez was awarded the Lexus Grant for Artists, an opportunity which includes an exhibition at the Puerto Rico Museum of Art later this year.