The Honest Artist

Claudia Dominguez


[SOUTH CAROLINA] Striking shapes and colors, boldly rendered. That’s the hallmark of Claudia Dominguez ’03, a visual artist whose work tells tales of her own story as an immigrant and a feminist. Change and transformation are recurring themes, which is apt; this past summer found her earning her graduate degree before packing up to move to South Carolina to start a teaching job at Coastal Carolina University.

Moving from Apex, N.C., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., may sound like a short hop to most of us, but it was no small matter for Dominguez, given the large quantity of marble and granite she keeps on hand to use when inspiration strikes. But even in the midst of upheaval, she had to have a creative project going. So she started a still-untitled series exploring another side of feminine identity.

“It’s about my relationship with my own mom, and also all women’s relationships with their own mothers. If we could all somehow change together, we could help each other break through the glass ceiling,” she says. “This series focuses on embroidery, which is something I’m trying to get more proficient at. I’m already good at stone. Embroidery is very slow, but it’s something I seem to turn to at times when I’m changing and moving.”

Dominguez came to USD from her native Mexico to study art and she fit right in academically. Socially, however, she found America to be very different from Mexico’s overt patriarchy. David Smith, then chairman of USD’s art department, told her, “There are people who do what they want and they find a way to do that.” It was valuable advice, since being a self-starter was a skill she had to work to learn.

“I thought America was so crazy that way, but now I get it,” she says. “It was a big moment in my life, in this culture so strange with values I had such a hard time understanding. USD was a place where I could figure that out.”

After earning her BA in fine arts from USD in 2003, Dominguez did a stonework apprenticeship in Italy. That’s where she met her husband, an academic who teaches Italian. She came to North Carolina State University’s School of Design when he was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earning a master’s, and then followed him again to Myrtle Beach and a position of her own at Coastal Carolina (where her husband is, Dominguez quips, “the entire Italian department”). Coming to the Carolinas after living in Southern California, Italy and Mexico brought on a much more intense level of culture shock than her previous move from Mexico to San Diego.

“It’s a very different experience to be Mexican in the South than in California, so there was definitely some culture shock,” Dominguez says. “In general, Southerners tend to think of minorities as African-Americans and not much else. Of course, there’s been a lot of work in the South from African-Americans about minority roles in society, which was a rich thing for me to discover. And feeling like I was more on my own here also made me work harder at searching for who I was.”

Eventually, Dominguez found her artistic identity on a series of trips home to Mexico, where she reconnected with her heritage — and felt like an immigrant in two places. Themes of connection and self-discovery dominated her NC State master’s thesis, an ambitious seven-image visual memoir titled, “Transcending Cultural Boundaries,” which used a variety of materials including marble, cotton, tree-bark paper, silk, felt, dried beans, corn husks and even burned pages from a Bible.

“She was very specific in choosing materials that convey meaning along with the imagery,” says North Carolina State Professor Susan Brandeis, one of Dominguez’s thesis advisors. “She made some really unusual choices, but each is embedded in her meaning. It’s very strong work that tells her own story, as well as the story of people with lives in two different cultures, challenging assumptions about the role of women.”

In “Transcending Cultural Boundaries,” Dominguez depicted herself, as well as various figures from Mexico, including Sor Juana Indes de la Cruz (a 17th-century writer and nun, and the first Mexican feminist) and La Malinche (another historical figure, and a term that has come to be a derogatory term for those perceived to place too much value on foreign ideals). The in-progress series about Dominguez’s mother is more personal in its outlook.

“When My Mother Was Everything” represents Dominguez’s mother as an iconic, towering figure — almost like a pyramid, framed by a halo. It’s based on Coatlicue, the “Mother of Gods”; Dominguez herself is represented as a small figure inside her. Another piece, “Hysteria,” looks like the product of a bad fever dream from Dominguez’s stormy adolescence.

“In that one, I’m a monster ripping my mom apart,” she says. “She and I did have kind of a horrible relationship when I was growing up. Your mother is usually the first person to tell you what you can and cannot do, and that was definitely the case with mine.”

So what does Dominguez’s mother think of this?

“Oh, she loves it,” Dominguez says, laughing. “She’s so excited I’m an artist. She grew up in a small town and was a chemist, but she couldn’t find a job, which she figured was because she’s a woman. So she left for Mexico City to find a job. Even though I did not know this while growing up, she had her own struggle. And we’ve been able to mend some things through my art.” — David Menconi

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