Culture Shock: Places Of Worship

Sean Paul Gallegos Works In Transformation And Self-Definition

Maggie Grimason
6 min read
Crows Feet
"Crows Feet," by Sean Paul Gallegos. Discarded sneaker scraps, thread, felt and laces, 2017. (Sean Paul Gallegos)
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“Sometimes, I feel like the shoes call me,” Sean Paul Gallegos said, elaborating on a nearly 20 year career that has evolved out of working with objects both ubiquitous and charged—shoes. “I’m not out hunting—they find me,” he remarked, going on to describe finding a pair of toddler’s Jordan high-tops on South Broadway that were full of snails. Or how, on a whim, he got off the bus on Central and instead of transferring to the San Mateo bus, walked home and discovered a single Jordan on the way. Just the other day he walked to the gym and found a pair (“It’s so rare to find a pair here!”), which he quickly wrapped in a plastic bag and stashed in his gym bag. “I was so grateful and excited,” he said.

Gallegos takes these objects—markers of so much: social status, industry, consumption, exploitation, fashion—and reinterprets them as sacred objects. They become vessels, talismans, masks or wearable sculptures packed with symbols. In his upcoming feature show at Ghostwolf Gallery (2043 S. Plaza St. NW) titled
Trajectory, meanings are stratified. Look closely and you discover incredible craftsmanship, materials laden with significance and provocative symbols that speak to complex identities, as well as personal examination of process and individuality.

Gallegos grew up in Peñasco to parents with northern New Mexico roots, each half-Native and half-Anglo. He was a cantor who sang Latin mass at the local Catholic church, where he discovered an interest in opera and performance. From the age of 11 on, he developed a relationship with sewing that has persisted throughout his career. “My mother sort of removed us from the Native part of our history and our culture, but she explored it in the arts and crafts, and growing our own food, producing our own textiles.” He went on to study opera and theater with an emphasis on costume craft, later doing considerable costume design and creating fashion pieces, and working at The Juliard School, to boot.

Nearly 20 years ago while living in the Bronx (where he has spent much of his life), a neighbor brought him a pair of knock-off Air Jordans salvaged from a Chinatown dumpster. “He said, ‘I’ll put you in an art show in our gallery if you make something with these.’ ” It was at that point that Gallegos’ work took a different turn, and he began to build what he defines as sculpture from these reclaimed objects, aiming for something weightier than just a wearable piece of fashion. “I had never thought of myself as an artist before,” he remembered.

In the years since, his work (all made entirely by hand) has become increasingly recognized and refined—both in execution and in concept. Gallegos as an individual is many things—a person of color who is often seen as white-passing, he is a gay man, an HIV positive individual, a survivor of abuse—his work examines hefty questions from within these frameworks, but is by no means tethered to them. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed into anything,” he explained. “I strive to get away from the gay artist, the HIV positive artist, the artist of color. I just want to be an artist making my work. … I try not to have too much attachment to what I specifically need the work to be, because its still going to be those things for me regardless of what someone else says.”

Paramount to understanding Gallegos’ work is examining the cycles of production, consumption and waste that dominate contemporary society—who these pervasive systems exploit, and who they support. “My excitement about working with discarded sneakers is … the fact they are marketed to low-income communities, then the moment they lose their status, they’re discarded, so they’re not worth anything anymore,” he began. “Why are we choosing to spend our money and our focus on that? Why are we choosing to worship these objects?” He pointed to communities in developing nations where whole families are mired by reliance on big corporations like Nike for employment—every generation working long hours with little return. Then, where does the product end up—who buys them? Who throws them away? “It brings me back to this—that you’re either the slave making the product or a slave to the product,” he said.

“To just say that my work is very humorous and iconic is very safe,” he said. “I don’t want to be controversial; I just want to change peoples’ minds. With that, things can become charged, it’s inevitable—how do we ask these questions?”

Gallegos also exemplifies a path for people—especially young people of color, he pointed out—that there are ways to be a working artist that don’t make you a landscape painter. That doesn’t mean buying expensive camera equipment for photography or a $20 sable hair paint brush. “I think people that share my reality don’t see this as an option, as a lifestyle or a career,” he said. Instead, he has forged his own path toward self-definition as an artist—pulling raw material from the trash and putting in the time and effort to do justice to his vision for it.

“I refer to my work personally as meditation,” he said. “I spend so many hours hand sewing—sometimes watching a movie, sometimes listening to music, sometimes in silence. … There is a piece to my work that doesn’t ever get shown, a calmness and tranquility. All the hours stitching and my thought processes. I guess that is true for any artist—there’s so much backstory to the process, the mechanics, the physicality that can’t be translated. … There’s so much of your soul that you don’t get to convey, and no one will ever understand the hours and thought and preparation that goes into it.”

The best we can do is to try to understand a sliver of the thought and energy that goes into the work, and a bit of its complexity, too. Get your own view on Gallegos’ work through
Trajectory, opening at Ghost Wolf Gallery on Friday, July 6. A formal reception will be held from 5 to 8pm; normal gallery hours are 11am to 6pm daily.

Two-horned One

"Two-horned One," by Sean Paul Gallegos. Discarded sneakers, thread and laces, 2015

Sean Paul Gallegos

Apkallu Mitre, El Lobo Solitario and Canis Major Lid

"Apkallu Mitre, El Lobo Solitario and Canis Major Lid," discarded sneakers, thread,leather and laces, 2018. New work by Sean Paul Gallegos

Sean Paul Gallegos

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