INDIANAPOLIS — When you walk into the new fine art exhibit at the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, each piece stands out in its own right.
Unlike your average art exhibit, there is no particular theme for "Collecting Indiana: Recent Art Acquisitions." Instead, Indiana State Museum fine art curator Mark Ruschman wanted all 26 newly acquired art pieces to stand on their own, not necessarily needing to be connected to the one it hangs next to.
"They all have their own storyline, whether it be the creative process, the artist's background, the subject matter it addresses. And it's a wide variety of works from paintings, textiles, cut paper, sculpture, photography; and it really gives a wonderful overview of the breadth and depth of our collection," Ruschman told WRTV.
However, there is one piece of artwork in particular that demands your attention as soon as you walk through the entrance. Illuminating the room, Beatriz Vasquez's colorful 7-foot-by-9 papel picado "Mother Nature All Dressed Up" hangs.
Papel picado is a traditional Mexican craft. It is created from sheets of paper with intricately cut-out designs typically done using chisels, nails, mallets, and sometimes a hammer.
The State Museum displaying Vasquez's papel picado in its fine art exhibit crosses an unspoken boundary amongst the art community. Papercutting is widely considered a craft — not fine art.
"Paper is very much disposable," Vasquez, 53, told WRTV. "I saw so much metaphor within the paper itself, in comparison to the community that I come from — the vulnerable community that I come from — in the Latinx community that continues and remains to be vulnerable in this society."
Despite the fine arts community drawing a line in the sand, leaving paper-cut art on the other side, Vasquez persisted in making her contemporary papel picado-inspired art.
Now, one of the largest state-owned collections in the country is hosting Vasquez's art.
"My work is an act of resistance against the Eurocentric idea of fine art," Vasquez said.
"It is a fine art, and I hope that people start to see that paper cut is not just fine art because of the skill sets that you build when you cut paper, but also, all of the forms [of] the papers, the shapes, the characteristics of the paper, the qualities of paper are extremely versatile. And it's something that can be celebrated more within the fine arts industry."
'The cultural reference for me means everything.'
Although her family has had roots in Indiana since the mid-1950s, Vasquez spent her formative years in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. She came to Indianapolis often but more permanently moved to the city for college in her early 20's
Vasquez graduated from the Herron School of Art and Design at IUPUI in 2006. During her time in school, Vasquez says she did not learn about Mexican American artists, art, or, more specifically, papel picado.
"You really felt the LatinX and the Latina diaspora. There was a huge lack of representation in all aspects of life here in Indiana, in Indianapolis. Especially within the arts," Vasquez said.
When the artist graduated from IUPUI, she craved more of her cultural identity. So, Vasquez started her own residency back in Matamoros and Brownsville, where she learned from the Mexican artisans around her, particularly about the craft of papel picado.
"I wanted to connect and bring that culture to the forefront, not by painting, not by using the other traditional mediums," Vasquez said.
When Vasquez returned to Indiana, she dove into papercutting. She was determined to prove that paper-cut art was not only a craft but it could also be fine art. "The cultural reference for me means everything."
Vasquez is an art fellow of many institutions, from the U.S Arts in Embassies in Sierra Leone, Africa, to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Root Division in San Francisco, California. In addition, her art has been placed in galleries across the country.
"It is extremely important for me as a woman of color to be elevated in a space like the Indiana State Museum – a space I never thought I could be part of," Vasquez wrote in a blog post on the state museum's website. "But now it is possible that somebody like me can be part of that establishment and be elevated to that level of visibility."
Vasquez's art pushes against what has traditionally been seen as beautiful in the fine art world, and now that very world is opening up to her art.
Mother Nature All Dressed Up
Vasquez's piece in the Collecting Indiana exhibit is about Mother Nature herself and the invisibility of Mexican Americans and the Latina and Latino communities. However, Vasquez says she more pointedly focused on the Midwest in her art and calls to social justice.
"I wanted to represent or showcase a traditional Mexican dress within the fabric of the work. To acknowledge our existence, our visibility, our creativity, in our stunning culture; the colorful culture," Vasquez told WRTV of her artwork.
She is an admirer of the four seasons the Midwest sees throughout the year, which is seamlessly woven into both the design and context of the dress.
Vasquez says she hopes viewers see "the beauty of mother nature all around us" and that people in the Midwest start recognizing the Mexican American culture and its contribution to the very fabric of this part of the country.
"This work — as you can see by looking at it — it's very labor-intensive. The detail is incredible. The scale of it makes it even that much more incredible. So I think Beatriz just brings up a whole new take on the technique and on the use of the material," Ruschman said of Vasquez's piece.
Although Ruschman thinks Vasquez's piece crosses into fine art territory, he believes papel picado will still be widely considered a craft. Not fine art.
"It really took Beatriz, in this case, to elevate [papel picado] to fine art. And she's really taken off with that idea and created these really magnificent pieces," Ruschman said. "I think it's pretty much still a special case. That's not to say that other artists aren't using the technique, but are using it in probably a wide variety of ways."
Vasquez says she hopes the outlook on teaching art in our state and the Midwest changes. She herself is now a teacher with Arts For Learning, where she travels around Indiana teaching paper art.
"I still feel that the arts are lacking a lot of the Latino arts," Vasquez said. "They're still not teaching the incredible collection of Latino artists that have contributed to the very nature of the fabric of the United States."
You can see Vasquez's work and the rest of the Collecting Indiana exhibit inside the Indiana State Museum, located at 650 W. Washington St., through July 17. The cost of admission is $17.
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.