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Layers of Meaning with Visual Artist Paola de la Calle

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Paola de la Calle, an interdisciplinary artist explores themes of family migration, memories, and food justice.  (Paola de la Calle)

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many children were detained at the U.S.- Mexico border. There were over 600 children still separated from their families when Paola started the project at the end of 2020. After being separated from their families in detention centers, many were subsequently put in shelters for “unaccompanied minors” or foster care.


Artist Paola de la Calle plays with images that recall her childhood and her family’s homeland in Colombia. Through them she creates symbols that explore themes of citizenship and the politics of food.  Bananas, tv satellites, door knocker hoops, sugar cane, and social security cards, to name a few, repeat in her work. She experiments with these images and themes across mediums. Paola’s linocut prints, embellished flags, collaged posters and ceramics ask viewers to dig deeper into the colorful imagery.

Most recently, Paola was invited by a coalition of San Francisco based organizations to lead the art contingent of a campaign called “Caravan for the Children.” It’s focused on the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration and seeks to raise awareness for the release, reunification, and healing of the 600+ young people who, after being detained by the U.S. government, were still separated from their families at the end of 2020.

It all kicked off in January, with  a car caravan through San Francisco.  Next, Paola helped organize a series of virtual events that highlighted immigrant poets, storytellers, and advocates. On the 90th day of the campaign, Paola traveled with the coalition to San Diego where they hosted music and poetry at the border. They also rallied community support at the iconic Chicano Park.

May 1st will mark the 100th day of the Biden-Harris administration and the culmination of the campaign. To pressure the administration to free the detained migrant children, the coalition will take “Caravan for the Children” to the U.S. capitol and participate in the May Day Immigrant Justice March. There, Paola will unveil a series of quilts. She contributed five quilts covered with collages of butterflies, a Guatemalan worry doll, a quinceañera ring and fences.

A close up of the quilt Paola created for the “Caravan for the Children Campaign” as part of her residency with Galería de la Raza. (Paola de la Calle)

This week, we’re talking her latest project along with symbols, memory, the magic of realness, and sourcing community input for collaborative art.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Paola de la Calle.

Marisol: Your work consists of printmaking, ceramics, textiles, and now this beast of a quilting project. What’s the pull to work in these different mediums?

Paola: For me, I used to call myself a printmaker because it was what I was mostly doing. But I came to a point where I was like, ugh, I’m getting really bored or I’m getting really tired of paper. So I started experimenting with other materials. Textiles for me have a lot of significance because my tía Tata used to work as a seamstress for Coach. I used to sit with her by the sewing machine. She taught me how to sew clothes. She taught me to sew buttons, and to make quinceñera dresses. So it was really something that was embedded in my childhood and in my memories. And it felt really natural for me to start working with fabric.

Paola: Before the pandemic, I was working on this really large textile piece that I had kind of put away for a while, but when the pandemic hit, I hung that fabric between the wall of my bedroom and bathroom. Taking it apart and putting it back together. It has gone through an entire transformation and it became a sort of meditative experience. And I think that has really prepared me for these quilts because it was the largest I had ever worked before. And it. It really changed the scale of what I thought was possible with the work that I was doing.

Paola: It’s been interesting to be able to switch between mediums and see how they all kind of influence each other and how now they’re kind of starting to get pieced together.

Hand painted ceramic piece, “Country Crock Butter (What makes a country?)” (Paola de la Calle)

Marisol: That makes me think of the history of quilting… If you go into a museum in the United States, they usually label textiles “craft or folk art…” and because these arts are usually made by women, especially Black and brown women, craft art or folk art is often deemed like less artistically rigorous and valuable… What do you think of this?

Paola: It’s interesting because I think that there’s a lot of notions of labor also attached to that kind of art. Quilting, sewing, textile work is highly intensive on the body and they are done usually by women.

Paola: In so many ways the art institutions kind of mirror where we are as a society… in devaluing the labor that black and brown women do or working class people do. And I think it’s important to try to disrupt those spaces and figure out the ways that we can push the narrative of what craft art is or what folk art is and why we call it that and why we create those distinctions.

Another notable project of Paolas was around the 2020 Census. She created a series of images that responded to the ways locals in San Francisco Mission district did not feel seen by the census.

Paola: That project, which is “El Futuro Es De Todos” or “The Future Is For Everyone,” was really about interrogating what we want the future to look like, sound like, smell like, feel like for folks who are often miscounted, not counted or not represented in the census. The census is pretty limiting. It’s only nine questions. So, I really wanted to hear from other people and from the community: What do you wish it asked instead?

Marisol: Can you list some of the questions that community members wanted to be asked on the census but weren’t?

Paola: I wish it asked what resources we believed are lacking in our communities… More information about rent, stabilization, stabilization… What are what are the goals of the community… College, Trade school, et cetera, and what resources do we need to get to these places?… Consent-education in our school system, sexual violence needs to be desperately addressed…

Paola: From those statements and questions that folks asked. I pulled a bunch of different images kind of related to what they were saying. And it started off with collaging. And then I created some digital files and I created a series of 8 posters that we ended up wheat pasting on the corner of 18th and Mission

Paola: There were BART cards, because people wanted access to transportation. There were homes because people wanted support with housing. There were paletas on there because people are thinking about a future where folks have access to like nutritious foods, but also things that bring them joy.

Paola: It was beautiful because it was created for and by community. All of the statements came from people who were living in the Bay Area or had some relationship to the Bay Area and the Mission specifically. It brought a lot of joy for me during the pandemic to be able to work outside and bring art to folks, especially because museums were closed, galleries were closed. And what we saw was people coming and looking and staying for a while.

Marisol: There’s a lot of other symbols that repeat in your work, especially your collage work. I would love to just have you talk about some of your favorite symbols you work with and what it means for you.

Paola: The calling cards… are kind of symbolic of exchange. The idea of papers, not just like people being documented or undocumented, but the calling card itself as a paper that kind of defines a piece of someone’s identity and for me is a way of exchange or transfer across borders. Wherever there were calling cards. We would stop, we would buy the five dollar ones, the ten other ones, the twenty dollar ones, so that we could communicate with our family in Colombia.

Collage on archival National Geographic map of the Americas, “Imports, Exports, and Legacies.” (Paola de la Calle)

Paola: The coffee bean appears in my work but I’ve also used coffee itself as like a dye for some of the textiles that I’ve used. And that really is about home. And these feelings of being in community with people. When you go to Colombia, the first thing that someone is going to ask you if you go into their home is: si quieres un cafecito? Do you want a little bit of coffee? And it’s also a Colombian export and I think sometimes it shows up in my work in that way as well.

Marisol: Also, I noticed the Pine-Sol… I would love to know what it means for you.

Paola: Yeah, so my parents cleaned houses for a living and for me, Pine Sol was just like a scent that I associated with going to work with my parents, which we did often. Like vacations for us were not vacation from school. It was like always we’re going home, we’re going to work with my parents. So pine-sol in the scent that I think is brings up a lot of feelings of nostalgia. But also honoring the labor they did when they were cleaning houses

“Aqui/Alla.” Collage printed on a flag made of black satin, embroidered beads, and fringe. (Paola de la Calle)

Marisol: What did they think about you making meaning of very mundane things for them?

Paola: I think in the beginning, they were like, why are you? But now are like sending me pictures of things. And my mom recently sent me a picture of my father holding a broom. And she was like, your dad wanted to pose next to it just in case you want to use it. So I think I think now they’re like super into it. And we’ve had a lot of conversations about why this is important for me, why I’m making this work, and now they’re a part of it. So sometimes I’ll be like, mami, send me a picture of this or like I’ll take screenshots of our WhatsApp conversations and include them in artwork.

Marisol: I love that.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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