“There are always different avenues … everyone has different ways to contribute, art is just my own,” Jodie Herrera said as we sat at a table near the back of Zendo, where the walls were lined with some of her most recent work—a series of portraits that apply woodcut design to some of her photorealistic, narrative-driven portraits of local women. This summer, Herrera will be employing the refined eye and technique she's used in works such as these to a whole new painting series with global ambitions.
Herrera engineered the Women Across Borders project as an extension of her role as the Harwood Art Center's Social Justice Project lead artist for 2017. Her upcoming, international project grew out of an exhibition she will hold at Harwood in September, in which she will use her craft to tell the stories of women who have suffered trauma, working closely with nonprofits such as Young Women United and the Refugee Well-being Project to discover individuals who would like to share their stories through Herrera's work. Women Across Borders takes those same guiding principles and applies them on a larger scale; this summer, along with Project Manager Colin Troy, Herrera will travel to Mexico, Germany, Uganda and Kenya to connect with communities, nonprofit organizations and individual women with the end goal of transforming their stories into art that will shine light on their experience. The work exists for the women as individuals—often providing a source of empowerment and healing—as well as providing a point of education and illumination for communities like Albuquerque, where the paintings that result will be on display.
“I love New Mexico,” Herrera explained about the inception of Women Across Borders, “this is my home. I really want to focus my work here, but I also want to understand the issues that people are facing in the world, not just locally. How sometimes they are the same issues, but they change when they happen elsewhere.” In that way, the exhibition—which will also be shown at Harwood Art Center some six months after her return—fosters a deeper sense of connection to issues that seem faraway from many of our lives. In this series, Herrera is focusing on telling the stories of refugee and immigrant women. She chose Germany because it currently has the largest population of Syrian refugees, and Kenya and Uganda because of each country's open door policy when it comes to hosting refugees. Sharing a contentious border with the United States, Mexico also appeared to Herrera as an important site from which to explore the multitude of stories of immigrant women.
“Given the current political climate in the US, it's even more important to bring a broader awareness and a human face to the experiences of these people,” Herrera said. Over the course of our conversation, she recalled watching a documentary about Doctors Without Borders that moved her, an inspiration that is apparent in the name she has chosen for her project. Moreover, it compelled her to action, to take her own talents and use them as a force of good. “I can't just stand still,” she underscored.
She also emphasized that each portrait will represent a deeply personal story and experience. “I don't want to separate the story from the art, but it's a very personal process. … I work with [each subject] one-on-one and I get to hear and explore their voices. The painting is a just a platform for that dialogue. It's the catalyst.” Particularly for women who have experienced trauma, the experience of being rendered, often differently, on canvas, can be healing. Too often, histories of trauma are suppressed—put out of mind as too embarrassing or too painful to recall. In Herrera's work she honors these stories, illuminates them and ultimately allows the subject to be transformed in their telling, elevating each woman's unique narrative. “It's often really powerful for these women to see themselves transformed,” Herrera detailed, “to see themselves in a different light, where they can see their worth. They can see their strength and feel proud. It's very powerful to have that different way of seeing themselves. To see themselves the way I see them.”
In anticipation of her global trek which will kick off in mid-July, Herrera has a Kickstarter running until May 5 to help fund the journey. However, if you miss the Kickstarter deadline, there will be plenty of opportunities to support her latest endeavor before she sets sail; all events and news will be updated via Herrera's Facebook artist page.
As she prepares for the journey—she mentioned vaccinations and the woes that come with planning every international trip—she was quick to note that she “doesn't have any romantic ideas” about the challenge of visiting these diverse locations. “It's going to be really hard to acclimate to the different cultures, but I'm looking forward to understanding what that looks like,” she said. All in the hopes of, in the end, helping women to feel empowered by sharing their stories, and allowing audiences a world away to connect to the humanity of women whose experiences may seem far from their own. “For my subjects, the process of healing is the release of emotion that once had power over them,” Herrera explained. “In turn [these paintings are] a celebration of overcoming and acknowledging their resilience.” And that’s a celebration we all should aim to be a part of.