Immigration Attorney by Day, Artist by Night, María Blanco Paints a Landscape Divided

María Blanco at the opening of 'Borders and Walls' at George Lawson Gallery. (Photo: Carla Hernandez Ramirez )

Last week, Sean Hannity’s correspondent Lawrence Jones tweeted out a photo of himself at the U.S./Mexico border sporting what appeared to be a protective vest. According to Jones, he wore the tactical vest at the request of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The tweet sparked outrage on social media, especially among journalists who cover stories along the border. For many, the image simply spread misplaced hysteria around immigration issues, which the President calls “a national emergency.”

For María Blanco, this exchange proved her first solo show at Emeryville's George Lawson Gallery, Borders and Walls—on view through April 27—could not be more timely. In oil paintings, Blanco repeatedly represents the physical barrier of the border—her 20 years of experience as a civil rights litigator and advocate give her a far broader and more meaningful understanding of the region than any single photograph can provide.

Borders and Walls shows the boundary as she remembers it from growing up in San Diego. The Mexican side is rendered in the vivid colors of the Tijuana landscape. Inspired by the repetition of Jasper Johns' flag paintings and the simplified elements in Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, she seeks to capture the "extended life" of the border.

KQED Arts chatted with Blanco about her work as an artist and her day job as executive director of the Immigrant Student Legal Services Center, which provides immigration-related legal services for undocumented students at nine University of California campuses.

María Blanco, 'Borders and Walls #2,' 2018.
María Blanco, 'Borders and Walls #2,' 2018. (Courtesy of George Lawson Gallery)

The most fascinating aspect of your work is your background as an activist; immigration is part of your daily job. Now, you decided to paint. What made you want to get into painting, and specifically tackle this subject?

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I started painting at a time that was really difficult for me. The painting was a way that I could be with myself, and take those thoughts and work through pain through paint, believe it or not. The ritual of paint is a meditative process. Because of my work on immigration, I’m very familiar with this area where Imperial Beach meets Playas de Tijuana. My thought really was, how can men be so arrogant that they can wall off the ocean?

Looking at the paintings, and thinking of the FOX correspondent who was at the border wearing a protective vest, and how he said that CBP made him wear it because of how dangerous the border is: Is it really that dangerous if you are at the edge of the ocean?

It is not like that, it’s total show. They make it more difficult to get to the U.S. side as now they have what seems like a double border. The Border Patrol will only let you get so many feet close to the wall. On the Mexican side, people can walk right up to it. For years, surfers have surfed that beach, Imperial Beach. With my paintings it was my attempt to say, “OK, what do you see? How does Mexico experience the fact that the beach is divided?” The U.S. side is mostly uninhabited, but the Mexican side, you go to Playas de Tijuana on a Sunday, people are out there with their beach towels and their beach umbrellas. It is very lived-in on the Mexican side. It’s not scary.

María Blanco, 'Borders and Walls #8,' 2019.
María Blanco, 'Borders and Walls #8,' 2019. (Courtesy George Lawson Gallery)

Walk me through your vision of how you choose colors for the paintings, and your thought process of each piece with the knowledge you have of the border?

The wall is really the main thing. What I was thinking with all of these paintings was how to portray the natural beauty which is the ocean, the sand and the colors of Mexico that I love. But then, every time I would get too carried away with the colors and the beauty, I would remind myself that what I was really trying to portray is this abomination that is destroying both the beauty of nature, and the man-made beauty of the buildings.

The point of these paintings is to really show how this wall has defaced nature. I spent all this time painting the ocean, thinking about waves and how the ocean gets thinner when it gets to the beach. And then, I have to put a wall on top of it. Every time I do this, and I have to paint the wall, I get so upset. Imagine if the wall wasn’t there, this would be one beautiful extended beach.

How did your day job affect you while you were working on these paintings?

In a way, these all got started after Trump got elected. On a daily basis, with the clients we serve who are undocumented, you sit there and listen to their stories of the border. One of the questions on our intake form that we have to always ask—because it matters for what can they do to adjust their [immigration] status—is, “How did you enter?” I don’t know if I could’ve painted these if I hadn’t been exposed to these stories.

'Borders and Walls' is on view at George Lawson Gallery in Emeryville (1401 Park Avenue, #108) through April 27, 2019. Details here.

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