Recycle, repurpose, rethink

Cristina Velázquez deconstructs detritus, knits something new

Cristina Velázquez likes to stay busy. The Mexican-born artist and educator talks fast and moves even faster, gesticulating with her hands, her arched brows dancing as she describes her creative process.

"I'm really impatient," she declares, widening her eyes and flashing a broad smile as she fiddles with her fingers. "I need results faster -- now."

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the Palo Alto Art Center will open "Repurposed Black-Endless," an installation of Velázquez's recent work. Over the past month, the artist has held a creative residency at the Art Center, where she has taken up an unlikely hobby for such an energetic person: knitting. The product of her efforts isn't what you might expect; there's not a spool of yarn in sight. Instead, Velázquez has found a way to turn unrecyclable material into art. Her medium: the tape from inside old VHS video cassettes.

"We think we're great environmentalists, but we're not doing enough," Velázquez claimed during a recent gallery visit, busily working a pair of jumbo knitting needles as she slid loop after loop of tape into place. From her hands tumbled a black plastic scarf, 15 feet long and growing by the minute.

"We are responsible for the things we make, and we need to reuse the things we use," she added. Then, dropping her needles and grabbing the knitted material in both hands, she wrapped her crinkling creation over her head and peered out from beneath it, batting her lashes.

Born and raised in Michoacan, Mexico, Velázquez often examines issues of feminine identity in her work. A self-described "conflicted Catholic," she makes art that addresses female sexuality, challenges gender stereotypes and questions the perception of women in both Mexican and U.S. cultures.

More recently, Velázquez has turned her attention to environmental issues, bringing the same probing questions and broad curiosity to the way we use and discard consumer products. At the same time, issues of femininity remain embedded in her approach to "Repurposed Black-Endless," from the act of knitting itself to the product of her labors: a long, black garment reminiscent of the rebozos often worn by older Mexican women.

At the start of Velázquez's project, the Art Center called for donations of unwanted VHS tapes. Within days, hundreds of cassettes had been dropped off.

In keeping with the Art Center's mission to involve community members in the process as well as the product of art, Velázquez has encouraged public participation in every stage of the project, from donating materials to disassembling cassettes, helping her knit the shimmering black tape into bolts of "fabric," or simply chatting with her as she works.

"I'm pushing to repurpose, transform, deal with things that are aimed for the landfill," Velázquez said, adding that her hope has been "to engage the community by having them think through how we dispose of things."

To that end, Velázquez has invited the public to join her for "knitting circles" where they can add their own work to the larger project. Look closely at the final result once it's installed, and you'll see evidence of different knitters: Some sections are tighter and more regular, some looser and more chaotic. Velázquez sees these patterns as similar to line drawings.

"There's a graphic quality to the tape," she noted. "It's almost like working with a thick charcoal line."

At an Art Center party on Friday, Sept. 26, Velázquez stood knitting in the middle of the small gallery dedicated to her residency. Wearing an orange silk dress and sparkling gold heels, she kept up a steady stream of animated conversation as curious onlookers surrounded her. To see Velázquez in action, one would never guess she taught herself to knit only recently.

Nearby sat Nadya Chuprina, who works for the City of Palo Alto's Public Art Program, and who learned to knit in her native Russia.

"My mom is obsessed with knitting," Chuprina explained as she worked the slippery black tape with her fingers, coaxing it into rows. "Now that I'm in the USA and she's there, she knits and sends clothes to me. Knitting is our connection."

At the opposite side of the room stood a table where a couple used screwdrivers to take apart VHS videos, then sorted the parts into various containers.

Art Center members Charles Coates and Megan Mohaupt chatted as they deconstructed the cassettes.

"This is kind of bittersweet for me," joked Coates, explaining that he worked at a Blockbuster video store during high school and sometimes had to deal with tapes that had come unspooled.

"There's nothing good about VHS," Coates concluded with a laugh. "No one's going to miss it."

Yet part of the public appeal of the project, acknowledged Velázquez, is precisely the nostalgia surrounding the technology of VHS, and the mystery of what kind of footage might be woven into her creations.

Among the tapes slated for disassembly, a few labels surfaced: "Nova: Spy Machines," "Harold and Maude" and, most cryptically: "Silicon Valley." None seemed likely to contain precious family footage.

The Art Center, however, has been sensitive to that possibility. On Sunday, Nov. 15, at 2 p.m., board member of the Palo Alto Historical Association Brian George will give a talk on the importance of preserving family and community documents, such as those that might be recorded on VHS. "Cristina is taking an obsolete format and using it for another purpose," he noted, "but it raised the question, 'Why are people giving these tapes away?' We wanted to remind them to back things up, so they don't lose their only copies of valuable historical documents."

Although recording and archiving stories interests Velázquez, she says that hasn't been the focus of the current residency.

"That's a different project," she said, adding that she might incorporate video footage in a future phase of this exhibition.

For now, Velázquez is focused on moving fast, so that she'll have enough knitted material to fill the small gallery come the opening on Oct. 7. She plans to hang the work from the ceiling and walls, so viewers can interact with its tactile qualities as well as enjoy its visual effect.

Velázquez is one of five artists-in-residence the Art Center will host over the course of a year. The first of these was ceramicist Ehren Tool, who during his summer residency created hundreds of cups inspired by regional war veterans. Following Velázquez, the center will host textile artists May Wilson and Lauren DiCioccio this winter, and San Francisco-based artist Joel Daniel Phillips next spring. In each case, the artists will hold a residency followed by an exhibition, with opportunities for the public to engage in the creative process as well as with the resulting work.

Phillips, who will be working on a series of life-size charcoal portraits of people he meets on the streets of Palo Alto, described his upcoming residency as "an opportunity for social interaction.

"I hope I'll have a space where people can come in and out," he said. "It's about a conversation more than about a finished piece."

Velázquez expressed a similar sentiment. "I want people to touch this work, interact with it," she said.

"I want them to remember that the things we use don't just disappear."

What: Cristina Velázquez: "Repurposed Black-Endless"

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

When: Exhibition runs Oct. 7 - Dec. 23, Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., and Sunday 1 - 5 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter or call 650-329-2366.

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