Create Space with Gabriel Barrera
Gabriel Barrera: I used to deny myself being an artist. I said, “No, I’m not an artist.” I used to say, “I used to be an artist.” Now I was back filling that role and claiming it again. The same way the land needs… it needed to claim itself back. It was healing.
Chorus: [sings “Remember”]
Yura Sapi: Welcome to season three. Welcome to our liberation. Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. This is Yura Sapi, here to support you on your journey of creation towards our collective liberation. How exciting is it to transform our future and be the future ancestors we’ve dreamed for? May you receive that witch supports you on your journey and release that witch does not. The universe expands as we do. Nature evolves as we do. We remember. We remember. We remember.
Chorus: [sings “Remember”]
Yura Sapi: Let us call upon the four elements that support us: The fire that burns within igniting our imagination, our ability to see into the future. The water that holds us and holds within our memory. The air that lifts us up and carries our stories across to meet each other. The earth, which provides us sustenance, repair. To support us on this journey, let us welcome in all of our ancestors.
We’re learning from visionaries who have built their own tables, receiving gems of wisdom to support us along our journey. In today’s episode, I interview Gabriel Barrera of Scenic G. They’re a visual artist with twenty years of scenic design experience in the theatre who decided to build their own table as an independent artist while providing opportunities for others along the way. Listen in to hear Gabriel’s story, experiences learning with and from nature, a new mentorship program for BIPOC folks based in Oregon, and some visual art practices you can try in nature. Enjoy.
Gabriel: Today I want to speak more on creating space—unlike the spaces that I found hurtful and not in the way that feel natural or accepting or safe. My name is Gabriel Barrera. My pronouns are he, him, they. Well, I actually live in the stolen lands of the Takelma, Shasta, Modoc, and Klamath Tribes. My art practice is embedded with community, mentorship, and then also lending myself as a advocate through different underserved, underrepresented communities, predominantly of color. I’m very intentional of who I lend my resources and networks to. I’m really passionate about empowering young BIPOC youth, adults and to help empower them; give them confidence through art. And through art, I find that it’s a perfect medium to communicate your power. Within a place of healing, I always find that art really helps with healing through different types of trauma. I use it a lot in that way and how I connect it through all the different intersectionalities of oppressions that exist.
One of my big main focuses is to just be there for community I identify with. It’s not easy for a lot of young people today. Think of how growing up in my past—some of the generational trauma that is passed on from assimilation to not passing down language or practices of ancient ancestors. For me, it’s a journey to try to find that path back and then using my art practice as part of that vital and it speaks really well right now to a lot of young people. I held my first event in my art studio out of Talent, Oregon. It was exactly how I imagined it being and it was a Día De Los Muertos event and so I was offering an ofrenda for people to come bring offerings for their loved ones and bring their pictures, sort of create a healing space for that, decorated in a way of celebrating and modernized in a way of what that practice looks like today because I think it’s always evolving.
How we interpret where we are today with the past, it evolves in a way that speaks to our own healing in this current time. And so much has happened with pandemic and being able to be in community again slowly, I think, really helped make that event successful. Another little element I had with that event was a photo stand-in. It’s a little backdrop with the cutout heads and I painted all these alebrijes, all the mythical creatures with the UV paint, and so the UV light when it hit, it lit up really nicely and a lot of the kids really enjoy that. It’s just a fun little thing—interactive and that’s something I’ve been wanting to do more of, is create artwork and expression that’s interactive and utilizing a lot of the theatre practice.
I was a scenic artist for almost twenty plus years and having worked in the theatre industry, that really helped influence how I would like to create on my own. Carrying some of those practices over, not just techniques and methods, but also collaboration with other artists across the spectrum from music to sculpture, finding different elements of how we can share and express different elements with what we do. I found that how harmful that theatre practice was, I was going against the grain, and I was wanting to change that systemic operation of practice. It’s so ingrained in inequality and inequitable modes of operations. It was a lot to take on and, in many ways, I felt like I was the only one doing it just within the theatre I was in, within the production area. At least it felt like I was the only one passionate enough to want to change it within that construct, but there were plenty of other people doing that work In other parts of the country. There’s really no right, perfect way, but it’s helpful when we can help each other.
It’s an interesting journey because in a way, I almost had to kill off the person I was and a lot of the relationships that existed within that construct of getting to where I am. So, in a way, I’ve severed a lot of the theatre connections in order to be the artist that I always was. And for a long time before I got into theatre, I was wanting to be this artist, but I didn’t know how to be that artist. Trying to figure that out within the systemic way of, “Oh, you got to show in galleries,” or, “You have to show your work,” and it never felt right. I never knew how to fit myself in, so I always placed myself more within the commercial way of doing art, but it was always for someone else, which led to theatre, which enabled me to practice more of my own expression somewhat.
It was still always for someone else’s vision. What emerged at the end of that theatre journey was to find not only my voice but my confidence to find my inner strength, my own empowerment as an artist. That started to develop, I felt the need to break away from the thing that wasn’t helping me grow. It was actually starting to become somebody I didn’t want to be and that’s when I knew I needed to remove myself. Community was speaking much more, but so much of that time period I felt like I didn’t belong or trying to fit in somewhere I didn’t belong and then lending myself to be vulnerable in times and nobody understanding that vulnerability or understanding that’s what I’m putting out there. In order to be genuine and to be authentic. Something I’ve been willing to be more vulnerable, to be open, and accepting of where people are coming from—even if it’s not from a good place. To be able to harness anything that comes my way or to be honest with oneself.
It’s not easy. Being able to hold space for other people, it takes that level of understanding and vulnerability to allow other people to be vulnerable or to feel like they can be authentic and genuine. Part of my role as a mentor is allow for people to come into my space and also make sure people are keeping to guidelines to keep others safe or respected. It can be damaging to have someone that might be aggressive or not understanding of others in the room. I try to be mindful of language, but I think it’s more about being mindful of how people are feeling and that’s something I observe by body language behaviors. Someone else is speaking too much or I try to be mindful if I’m speaking too much or who’s not speaking, allowing for that space to be equalized and not dominated.
And sometimes it doesn’t need to be occupied by noise or by language. Sometimes it’s just action. Sometimes the art holds the space itself allowing whatever art practice, if it’s just having paper and some kind of project on the table that people can participate with, that’s something I’ve been harnessing more of lately. I was at an event, we called it El Mercadito. It was a little market that we created with a lot of local vendors, and it was put together fairly quick. It was really successful. I created a sign for it, but I left it blank because I meant for it to be written on so everyone could just be expressive and create their own little message on there and it that’s what happens. Everyone started putting stuff on there. It was very interesting to see how that piece itself was holding space—the art space—the possibilities of how art, it can hold people however they need to be held through that expression.
I want to explore more of what that can look like, and I’ll be able to do that because I’m ready to launch my mentorship program I’m developing for local BIPOC individuals eighteen and up. I’m excited about it. Located at my art studio here, offering a lot of resources. We’ll come with a stipend and guest artists. I recently got a grant through the Oregon Community Foundation. It’s called the Creative Heights Grant, and I’ll be able to provide quality, enriching experience, putting it in the hands of the mentees; really good intentional guidance of what they’ll need in order to develop their creative space and their creative practice involving elements and topics of social justice along with it and how their identities help inform their creative process and so just exploring that. I think the program is an exploration of what that can be for each individual. In a way, I’m learning just as much from every new individual I come across that wants that artistic guidance. Really excited to see what I can really put forward and provide as a mentor in a full capacity of having my own space and resources and my own networks and utilizing that to the fullest.
Success can be measured in your happiness. To live life in a constant happiness… I don’t know if that’s realistic. If I’m feeling sad or depressed, for me it helps to actually move into it but also learn how to flow out of it, back to a balanced place of an emotional balance. It’s fluid; emotions are fluid. To get stuck in one way, it’s not healthy. Be like water. Also, don’t get stuck in that submerged part either where you’re underwater.
When I think of how other people might not be balanced too, to be accepting of where they’re at in their emotions or their ways of being—which is hard because when someone has a toxic way of being, sometimes it’s just easier to just remove myself from the situation or the environment that’s not very accepting, not always having to feel like I need to put up a fight or a prove what is. As long as standing in one’s own truth is held, I think it’s healthy.
Yura Sapi: Time is not linear. You are not alone. You were never alone. We’ve been through the cycle before. We’re working from the power of our past fighters from before and time isn’t linear. Connections happen for a reason. There’s a reason I am here where I am. So bask, indulge, refuge in the happenings of now, the happenings of past which will guide to the future, which is also really the past.
The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced in partnership with Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts. We create liberated spaces like this one that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world. Check out advancingartsforward.org to see our gatherings, courses, coaching, and artist residency program. You can also donate to support this podcast in other spaces.
Gabriel: It does seem strange for me to think of, like, to label teachers as only a place of an institution. But they exist all around us through our parents’, siblings, and friends, and colleagues. Again, it’s a fluid existence of teachings all around us. It’s in nature, it’s in living. Wisdom is within a breath. It’s within a whisk of air that’s just gone. You know what I mean? It exists in subtle and obvious ways sometimes, but I think it’s a part of life.
Yura Sapi: And plants as our eldest ancestor. For a longer time there were other animals and trees and plants, trees especially because it’s some tree trees are really old, so there’s a lot of wisdom in there.
Gabriel: I don’t know if trees have a consciousness or not, but to imagine the wisdom contained within. If they could communicate clearly with us in the way we understand, this is how many winters I’ve survived and the statistical data I guess, of what a tree’s existence has gone through. That blows my mind to think and then there’s logging in this area. So when I see those trees that are going down the highway and you see those giant trunks, the logs, I just imagine all the years behind those trees. Had a friend pointed out something like that about a structure. There was a structure we were in all made of the local wood, huge trees. I think it was made in the fifties. Pointing out the ancestral history of those trees lived in this structure—the significance of what that really means, how unaware people can be about what that is. Yeah, it’s really interesting.
Yura Sapi: Especially I think with my name, my Quechua name, Yura Sapi of the tree. I’ve definitely gone more into the honoring and communication with trees as well. I definitely have and can communicate with trees more and more, getting better, and with plants and animals as well. And ultimately it’s really like when you acknowledge someone, [they] acknowledge you back. When you acknowledge a tree, a bird, a dog—their ancestors did communicate in different ways and had more access based on survival and needs the way of life, that relationship. Trees have this interconnected system in their roots where they’re able to share nutrients and bring awareness when there’s a plague or something coming up and, in that way, the whole forest is together, independently growing and also connected. A lot of people I’ve talked to and know, too, that can and have experienced this, of connection to trees, receiving healing energy from hugging a tree.
So yeah, I think really, we’ve been told that it’s not possible and the only thing that’s stopping us from regaining that knowledge, that access, is once again believing that it is possible. So much of what we need to be doing—we’re looking to be able to manifest these realities, these visions of liberated futures—is being able to believe that it’s possible. Because if we keep this vision of disaster of “it’s not possible,” everything’s going to be terrible. We’re really putting energy in that focusing on what it is that we have to lose versus what we have to gain.
Gabriel: That makes me think of… there’s a restoration project I’ve been connected with. The first year of the pandemic, I had just left theatre. It was almost a year to the day and I got this opportunity to be in this art residency. It was on this meadow that a little higher up in the hills that’s being restored. it’s called the Vesper Meadow. The meadow was destroyed and taken over by invasive cattle grass and it used to be cattle grazing, but since it’s been purchased to be restored, bringing the meadow back to its natural state and it takes a lot of work. It’s not like, “Oh, let’s figure it out, get it done really quick.” It’s year after year taking one patch of area and burning the grasses down and then turning the soil and planting seeds of native species of plants and flowers and building dams—like natural beaver dam. Because there’s no beavers there, but the intention is to bring them back. Building natural dams out of the natural materials is how the beavers used to do it.
Because what the cattle did, they channeled all that water from marshland into just channeled streams. So going back and creating these dams that’ll help spread the fingers of the water out back into the meadow as a marsh and allowing a lot of the native species of plants to take root again and revitalize how it used to be. And being a part of that project has been... it’s healing it and the birds are singing and each year, you start seeing more of an ecosystem thriving. You see birds. It just feels like more life is happening. It’s amazing. It feels alive. It makes me feel alive.
Again, it’s a fluid existence of teachings all around us. It’s in nature, it’s in living. Wisdom is within a breath. It’s within a whisk of air that’s just gone. You know what I mean? It exists in subtle and obvious ways sometimes, but I think it’s a part of life.
Yura Sapi: I love what you said about each year. You can see the progress because it has this affirmation that time is on our side. When we’re doing things that are aligned with nature, with being in right relation with earth, we get that response from Earth, too, saying, “Yeah, we’re here with you. You’re doing the right thing. Here’s more resources. Here’s additional helpers.” Whether that’s different animals and plants that start to appear or, for example, here in the river, the sand, and gravel that can be used to create pathways appeared here as we’re building. Nature is aligned with us and will provide us the resources we need if we’re moving along with it and what it needs to.
Gabriel: Yeah, it’s interesting. You see the natural world responding to these actions. This project that I’m talking about, the Vesper Meadow, the intention of making connections with the tribes, the people and bringing them, inviting the native inhabitants of the land back and providing access to what’s happening there and creating what they’re calling the Native Gardens Project, which is providing more of the natural foods that were grown and cultivated at one point because that whole area, the meadow, used to be a native garden where a lot of tribes would come to harvest and trade.
And so, bringing those practices back is slowly becoming a thing, but it takes a lot of intention, with the people running that project or doing that. Because I always felt in environmentalism there’s always been this racial construct of, it’s mostly white people doing this environmentalism. But they never include the native peoples of the land who had been doing that and had been practicing. And how can you claim to be doing this environmental work when you can’t even include the people or to empower the people that were doing that work? And I think that injustice, that’s something that’s important that I wish more white people in that environmental field would start seeing.
Yura Sapi: I think we’re realizing that there is a gap in Western understanding. There’s just what seemed mysteries from that perspective of the Gregorian calendar, for example, of our understanding of Western medicine. There’s gaps and the gaps are filled completely. It’s not a mystery, it’s not as gaps when you look at it from specific cultural knowledge and spirituality, which is also connected to just way of life in a way that various different cultures indigenous to all parts of the world. And so specifically when we talk about, like, this part of the world where you’re based as you’re talking, there is that knowledge, that wisdom that there’s no other place where you can get it other than people who have been here for longer, for thousands...
Or, connecting to these specific plant beings and other animals and just the energies, spirits of the mountain, the river, the specific ones that are there for a long time. And so, there’s this wisdom, there’s this understanding, there’s this connection, there are these creation stories which provide answers and, in that way, too, it’s super connected to the arts and what we understand as the arts. Because I think that the arts are just a baseline part of humanity when it comes to looking at Indigenous life and peoples. It’s there and everything, a creation story, a story in general holds, holds so much when it’s talking about nature, it’s talking about the way that people interact. It’s talking about lessons learned.
Gabriel: Art is a basic communication skill, and it varies by culture, by location, and environment, but it very much is a communication skill to create. Create what you need through means of survival, so I think it’s underestimated in society. It’s been reconstructed as this privilege or this higher form or to attain that you have to have privilege or it’s a privilege to do it, but it’s a basic life skill we’ve deconstructed into being something that’s not important. It just makes me realize when people say, “I’m not an artist,” and I’ve said that myself in the past: “I’m not an artist anymore.” It’s an injustice to ourselves and our ancestry. To tell anyone that, “Oh, you’re terrible at that. Don’t ever be an artist,” or, “Don’t be a musician.” Don’t, don’t, don’t. For a child to hear that they’re not good at that basic means of survival or to communicate through creation, that’s the first thing to squash ourselves. The mentorship is, I hope, to really help people understand that, breakout of that.
Yura Sapi: I wanted to hear more about the story you were sharing when you painted the mural, that same restoration space. The journey, experience that you had. You talked about it as a healing experience both for you and for feeling that in the nature. There’s almost this what you’re saying exactly about how art is this way of communicating, of connecting, of honoring nature, and I just am envisioning this process of every day, too, more and more creating that pathway in which nature and you are the history of what has happened. It is healing and connecting and there’s this beautiful honoring and creating an altar in that way, representing it and putting all this intention into what you’re painting and using colors as well, knowing that these colors come from the same nature.
Gabriel: Having that opportunity to create that art piece really did help for me to reconnect as an artist, reconnect to myself in that belief that I am an artist and that I can create. Because I started it in early March, and it was still snowy up there. And so, it was cold and there was snow on the ground. It was a layer of snow and ice at the base of that barn, and so I started sketching out the mural, but there would be times where I would just sit out there, and I’d have some lunch and just listen at how quiet it is. There’s some interruption from the highway that runs right through the meadow. A lot of the time it’s quiet and I would just listen and even just listen to the wind when it would pick up out of nowhere and then be still all of a sudden.
It’s almost like the trees are speaking. A lot of life started coming as spring started coming through and all these little plants started popping up. And I would take walks and hikes from time to time to see what was growing and what was coming up, different species of flowers and plants, and so I would paint those into the mural as well as some of the birds I would see. And then as it started getting more green and more color started coming in as the spring came in into May, it just started coming really bright and colorful and the nature starts seeing you. It identifies you as being part of the land for some reason, and there was a crow, I always saw this crow that would be cawing like, “Caw, caw,” all the way through the meadow and it felt like a friend. And it was this little bird called a blackhead junco.
It’s got a black head and it started coming around right in front of the mural, and so I decided to paint that little bird in there too. And I created—it was really a cutout that I magnetized so I could stick it off and on to the mural. In another part of the mural, it’s a huge closeup of a vesper sparrow and the vesper sparrows migrate every year annually and they’re one of the only birds to nest on the ground, which is interesting because it seems easily to be for predators to get them, but I guess they’re very strategic or very good at hiding. That’s where the name of the project comes from. It comes from the vesper sparrow. And that population is small. The whole process of painting that mural felt healing in so many ways.
When I talk about that way of connecting back to that basic form of communication through art, it was almost like communicating a history of what I felt through the nature, through the creatures, and even through the people—which, I put a friend of mine whose Native lineages from this land. So having her portrait on there is very significant in paying tribute to the Native peoples of this land. I think that was one of the biggest parts of that mural was to boom. And it’s not portraying her as if she’s from the past in traditional dress. It’s just like, “No, this is the modern—she’s living today. She exists. She’s real.” and projecting almost, this is what needs to happen, projecting that land back scenario.
Yura Sapi: I’ve been reflecting on that land back understanding. Part of me is like the land needs to return to itself. In that way, Indigenous stewardship is important. It’s never been about owning land, being the gatekeeper of land. It’s really that return back to itself, return back to a reciprocity living where we give and receive and we share and we have what we need. We share what we can. Energy around colonization of owning land and this idea of needing to give it up, give it back in a way that is the same as how it was taken, and that’s not what it is.
Gabriel: It’s a visual sovereignty and living sovereignty, bringing justice back to people that thrive off of a land. Allow people to thrive again. I totally agree.
Yura Sapi: It’s not a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing. It’s not just like, “Oh, we can just do that,” and that’s it. No, it’s about going on and the day-to-day. Finding the success in the present moment. How is each moment an opportunity to live the liberated future that we envision for all? Each moment, each decision we make with the different challenges that may come up is an opportunity to already be living that. In small ways, we are many earths systems within. Every day is like a lifetime, thinking about the way in which the sun rises and then sets and offering that cycle.
Gabriel: Yeah. Painting outside, what they call the plain air painting, a lot of the European masters used to do a lot of that. But I think it just throughout every culture and every existence from basket weaving to what we call crafts, I think it’s art really. Sitting in nature and using what nature has to provide those needs for survival, like garments and clay vessel. To be able to sit in nature and listen, it’s a form of meditation, I think. Whatever scene you’re drawing, listen to what the wind’s saying. I say listen with your eyes as much as see with your ears.
When you start hearing the wind, look at what it’s doing, look at how its flowing, its similar to water, how it moves fluidly throughout everything. Rustling through the leaves and the leaves are speaking and you can see them talking when they’re shimmering in the winds. What is that saying? There’s a lot of conversation happening in nature that we tend to take for granted or we just see it as white noise, but it’s beautiful when you actually tune in and listen, watch. And then if you can replicate creating something from that experience of listening and observing and even feeling, when you could connect all those things at once, something beautiful can happen and that’s the experience of witnessing life, I think. It’s just a matter of paying attention with our senses.
Gabriel: The barn had this way station, so a lot of the cattle from the local area were filtered there to be collected, and then sent off the slaughter from there. Coming onto this land restoration project, it was more about me doing art at this location, and so they say, “Do whatever you want,” and I decided to paint on the barn. It was beautiful. It was during the winter. I was looking at pictures and then re-imagining what it would look like if it was bountiful and restored. Even people. As I started painting that mural, it slowly began transitioning into spring and a lot of those days were just me out there with the nature, and I started almost feeling it, living it, and breathing it and painting it all at the same time.
So expressing what it was telling me. Even the wind, even little bits of droplets when it would rain. And even though it was cold, I don’t know, I didn’t feel cold. There’s something to it. It just felt healing for me because I was coming back to the art practice I left behind. Coming back to the artist I threw away that I always denied. Because when I was in theatre, I used to deny myself being an artist. I said, “No, I’m not an artist.” I used to say, “I used to be an artist.” Now I was back filling that role and claiming it again. The same way the land needs… it needed to claim itself back. It was healing.
Yura Sapi: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.
There’s a reason our art is of the heart. We transform and transcend, share love and share truths. Creation is the cure for destruction. Storytelling is liberation. Communing is power. Evil wins when we learn how to dehumanize. Instead, we must decolonize upon us as an undoing of great feats. So let people in, be stronger together, because there is a weakness in solitude. This is Yura Sapi. You can find out more about me at yurasapi.com or follow me on Instagram or LinkedIn at Yura Sapi. Thanks for joining us.