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Artists face the ups and downs of Silicon Valley

By Polina Runova

Staff Editor

Mung Lar Lam is an artist in residence at the Museum of Quilts and Textiles. PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Kepka ©

Although she lives in San Francisco, Mung Lar Lam commutes to San Jose three times a week to make her art. She is currently an artist in residence at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, where she is developing a new medium of fabric art.

Mung Lar Lam works with fabrics to create art. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

“It’s kind of a cross between drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture,” Ms. Lam said. She works with materials and processes commonly associated with women. Her artwork consists of fabrics that were folded, ironed, and shaped into three dimensional sculptures. “I’m basically trying to create a lexicon that is outside of the standard art disciplines,” Ms. Lam said. 

Downtown San Jose is brimming with the arts, from galleries to museums. The area is packed with hidden gems, much like the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. The demand for artistic work is also present.

Marielle Mervau works at ICA. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

Silicon Valley provides a lot of opportunities for artists, according to Marielle Mervau. Ms. Mervau works as a curatorial associate and visitor engagement manager at ICA, the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art. Her job includes researching artists, deciding who to represent, and organizing the art on display in the gallery. 

Ms. Mervau explained that there are many options available to artists seeking work in Silicon Valley. “Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, these big corporate tech spaces, can invite artists to participate in residency and they’ll pay a ton of money for you just to paint a mural on a wall in Facebook that might not even be permanent.” She adds that San Jose is proud to be welcoming to the arts, because this draws people to the city.

However, this type of work might lack true artistic innovation. Lee Oscar Gomez is a curatorial intern at MACLA, Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, as well as an artist. His job includes assisting with installations, artist information, and administrative work. He explained that the demand for art in San Jose isn’t “for the right reasons.” There are many different reasons for making art. Mr. Gomez describes two possibilities: art as a representation of thought, and art as decoration.

“There’s art that’s bringing into discussion topics that aren’t regularly discussed,” Mr. Gomez said. “I think those are the most important types of body of work.” However, the demand for thoughtful and meaningful art is somewhat lacking in San Jose, he added. 

“For example, a brand new hotel opens up they want art just to put on the walls,” Mr. Gomez said.”It’s not necessarily conceptual, or too deep into a conversation. It’s mostly just visual art.” This type of art is high in demand, but it’s not work that artists strive to do, Mr. Gomez argued. It seems art is being treated as a background, rather than something to express thoughts and spark conversation, he explained.  

There is another issue with having an art-based career. Silicon Valley has plenty of corporate tech organizations that are constantly growing. This increases the price of living significantly. “At the same time that there’s a demand, artists are also unable to afford living here,” Ms. Mervau said.

The area can be advertised as a “thriving arts community” in order to attract people and business, Ms. Mervau explained. However, as more people and businesses move in, “artists who were living there, making work there, can’t even afford to pay rent to live there.” 

Ruben Escalante is a mixed media artist. PHOTO CREDIT: Ruben Escalante

Ruben Escalante, a program coordinator for youth education at MACLA, as well as a mixed media artist, has similar views on the issue. “Everybody would probably say the overall struggle is just the cost of living here.” He adds that this applies especially to artists. “A big thing is the pay gap between how much an artist makes compared to how much an engineer or somebody who works in finances probably makes.”

“If I continue to just put shows on without any kind of, like, money coming back, then I don’t know how long I will be able to keep doing it,” Mr. Escalante said, supporting the idea that oftentimes art itself is not enough to make a living. Despite this, artists continue to create, even when they need a separate source of income. For many artists, Mr. Escalante included, art isn’t necessarily about making money. 

Mung Lar Lam named this piece “Ironing: Untitled – Steps, 2020” and made it from reclaimed cotton fabric, starch, and pins. PHOTO CREDIT: Mung Lar Lam ©

“A lot of artists like myself, we’re not so focused on the price tag. We’re more focused on the process,” Ms. Lam said. She adds that most artists have a job in addition to their art, in order to support themselves. Despite this double life, Ms. Lam doesn’t see her artwork as a burden. “It’s just very enriching for us to express ourselves through the medium.”

Ms. Lam also believes arts are necessary in the community. “I think the community definitely needs it,” Ms. Lam said, referring to the humanity that the arts provide. However, this need often goes unaddressed. “How do you know you’re missing something if you don’t know it’s available?”

Chris Eckert, an engineer turned artist, named this piece “Art and Life.” PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

The determination and persistance of artists is making people more aware of the arts. The growing tech organizations are interacting with local artist communities, leading to unforseen outcomes. “A lot of engineers are becoming artists,” Ms. Mervau said. Engineers are using their knowledge of mechanics and programming to become artists. “That adds, like, a whole new medium to the art,” Ms. Mervau said.

Sonya Kleshik is proud to call herself an artist. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

The way art is viewed by the public, and by the artists themselves is also changing. Sonya Kleshik is an abstract artist, and has transformed her love for art into a business. Before this, Ms. Kleshik spent much of her life denying that she was an artist. “I only saw a very narrow idea of what it would be like to be an artist,” she said, adding that she didn’t see any careers in art that she would consider “meaningful.”

“I also just thought the art world was so, like, snobbish,” Ms. Kleshik admitted. Later, she found her way back to art, but she still found it hard to get rid of her childhood impressions. “I was, like, flat out denying that I was an artist, even though inside – absolutely I was.” Now, Ms. Kleshik is very open about her inclination to art, but she hasn’t forgotten her years of hesitation.

“I think identification with oneself as a creative person is highly fraught with a lot of judgment,” Ms. Kleshik said. She explains that this judgement can take different forms. “It can be like ‘oh, I’m not I’m not worthy of being an artist’ or like ‘oh artists are not productive members of society or not stable.”

Sonya Kleshik displays her art at a market Local Color held. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

Ms. Kleshik has gotten past these stereotypes and is now proud to call herself an artist. She was part of an artist community called the Citadel for about four and a half years, before joining Local Color, another artist community.

The arts are also becoming more accessible for everyday people, thanks to organizations such as Local Color. Amanda Rawson works as a board member at Local Color. This means she works on various projects that help promote and spread the works of local artists. Local Color is basically a “coalition of artists that have come together to be able to be in a space where there’s affordable rent,” Ms. Rawson said, adding that “if they can’t afford it, we will figure out a way to support them to make sure that they can have a space to create their work.”

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Amanda Rawson is a board member of Local Color. PHOTO CREDIT: Amanda Rawson

Local Color also works to provide opportunities for local artists. Ms. Rawson described Local Color as the connection “between the artists and the building owner, so that the artists didn’t have to just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I want to paint on your wall. Will you pay me?’” Instead, Local Color forms relationships with various organizations and helps find commissions for local artists. 

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Erin Salazar is the executive director of Local Color. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

“I started the nonprofit because I really believe in the artists in our community here,” Erin Salazar, executive director of Local Color, said. Ms. Salazar is an artist herself, but recently decided that “I could be more impactful working for other people than I could be just working for myself.”

The organization started in 2015, under a different title. In the past few years Local Color has helped provide people with space to create and has grown into a welcoming community of artists.

Aliks Hernandez started a print shop business. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

Aliks Hernandez is working on turning his art into his career. He creates and prints designs for shirts. “I’ll print my own designs and then print a lot of designs for local businesses, local schools, artists, bands, etc.” Mr. Hernandez added that “right now, my main source of income is the screen print shop.”

Although Mr. Hernandez was screen printing before he joined Local Color, it was with the organization’s help that he turned it into an actual business. “Local Color does a lot, trying to support these artists making a living of their art,” Mr. Hernandez said. The screen printing business, I definitely feel would not have taken off the same way if I wasn’t at Local Color.”

Aliks Hernandez displays shirts made by his print shop at a market put on by Local Color. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

“It’s really great for young and emerging artists who really want to do that work but they don’t know how to make that first step,” Ms. Rawson said. She described Local Color as a “stepping stone” for aspiring artists. She added that Local Color helped some artists to move on to creating their own festivals and participating in bigger projects.

Sarah Gendler has a studio space with Local Color. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova

They’re doing wonderful things.” Sarah Gendler, an artist with Local Color, said. She works mainly with acrylics, and has been interested in art for as long as she can remember. “They write a lot of grants and get funds from people who do support the arts that have the money to support it.”

Ms. Gendler adds that, apart from helping out individual artists, Local Color also forms a community. “Art brings people together, because art is for everyone,” Ms. Gendler said. She explains that the organization connects all sorts of people through their art.

Mr. Escalante explained that spreading and promoting art is very important. “It’s just understanding the need for a sense of humanity behind the arts.” He explained that without arts, the city would be “almost like a prison. You know, it’s all just cement,” adding that the area was full of “blank walls.” The knowledge that he is helping his community, and doing work that he loves is enough to motivate Mr. Escalante. 

Even when there is little financial reward, Mr. Escalante strives to make art accesible to all people. “The people that can’t afford to buy a painting, or, like, photos, they could afford to buy a bag or, like, a T-shirt or something that still connects them to what we’re trying to do in general,” Mr. Escalante said. By designing and making affordable creations, he is spreading awareness and love for the arts, as well as getting a bit of reimbursement for his work.

Although life as a working artist isn’t always simple, it is definitely worth the trouble. Both artists and their audiences feel that art is important to the local culture. “You definitely need the arts in order to hold community and have community,” Mr. Escalante said.

“It’s culture; it’s everything,” Ms. Lam said. She added that without art, “There wouldn’t be culture, there wouldn’t be expression, there wouldn’t be this tapestry, you know, of different things in the community. Everything would be just very bland.”

See below for a slideshow featuring a market put on by Local Color:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Click here for an interactive graphic that provides links to each artist’s work:


Featured Image (at the top of this post): An exhibit in ICA displays “Art and Life,” a piece made by Chris Eckert. PHOTO CREDIT: Polina Runova




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