A Wolf In Artist's Clothing
By Tina Valin
Mixed media artist Wolf Gomez has the kind of passion and talent that immediately draws you in. We were introduced at a mutual friend’s concert, and she invited me to see her exhibit in Los Angeles. Needless to say, I became enthralled by what I experienced— not only with my eyes, but also by the accompanying thoughts and emotions erupting in my mind. I had to learn more about this woman, and a chance encounter turned into a discovery of a true force of nature.
The very first question that I would like to ask you, is how did you become “Wolf”? It’s a beautiful and empowering name, and I would love to hear the story.
When I was a child in Trinidad, my grandmother, she’s from Venezuela and actually part of the native Indians from the Orinoco Delta, and they’re called the Warao. From a very young age, she would call me her Little Loba. Now, in Spanish, “lobo” is a wolf, so Little Loba was a playful name. Essentially there are only 19,000 native Indians of the Orinoco Delta left – so when she passed, I just felt like, “Wow. When they’re gone, I’m part of that tiny bit of blood,” and I started to embody the name. This was when I was about 17 or 18, and instead of Loba I used Wolf. When I came to the U.S., I really got heavily involved in the Native American culture here and I actually went through a native Lakota ceremony.
What is the rest of your ethnic background for your immediate family?
Warao on one side and African — people who were brought over to the Caribbean from the coast of Africa — and I've got the southern Indian from Chennai, which are on my mom’s side. I've got this interesting mix-up of these three cultures coming together.
You’ve mentioned your grandmother having an important influence in your life – any other influences as you were growing up?
Yes, the Indian part of my family. My grandmother spoke Hindi, and I remember her when I was like 6 years old. She passed very soon after that and was very old at the time. She had dark, dark, dark, skin with big black eyes with that blue ring around the outside, which is indicative of the Chennai. So she was very significant to my visual – I knew that I was part of that, but I looked really different. I had light skin.
When did your actual interest in art begin?
I remember this really clearly — getting in trouble for taking a crayon and making what I thought was a beautiful big drawing on the wall. I got in trouble at 6 years old, and up until 8 years old, I kept getting in trouble for continuing to do it, even though I knew it really wasn’t the best thing for me. They tried to give me paper; they tried to give me all kinds of things to draw on, but the wall had it. Outside of that –
I guess you wanted a really big canvas!
Yes. At 11 I started to be self-taught — and the real hook came in at around 17 when I decided, “Okay. I’m going to learn watercolor,” and then I migrated into oils on canvas very quickly. Basically it was outsider-esque. I can’t say outsider, because that didn’t really exist at the time, but outsider-esque, because it was a very rough oil. I was just sort of learning from a book, learning from wherever I could get it from.
In the school that you were going to, did they have any art classes?
They had art classes, and they weren’t teaching me what I felt I wanted to express. I mean, I did the paint the cup, the way the cup is supposed to look thing, as any good 12-year-old could. I remember this is probably like 40 or 50 something years back in a third-world country. The essence of art as we know it being taught here now, it was a completely different thing.
Was there anybody in your family who was artistic in this way or expressed their art in other ways — ceramics, clothing, jewelry design? Or did you stand alone having this art interest?
My mom did a weaving macramé. I don’t know what it’s called now, but weaving basketry type things together. She did it as a hobby in her spare time, so I considered her artistic. The passion that I had for that, even at a very young age, it was me alone with that.
Now, did they support your artistic side once you got over drawing on the wall?
They did support it in a very nice way up until I reached 17 and I said that I wanted to do this professionally. Then it was like horrific. You could’ve sworn I committed a crime.
No support for you actually doing this as a career?
Did they have something else in mind for you?
Yeah, being a lawyer because I've got the gift of gab. And there was the doctor thing; I could do it, but I had no interest whatsoever.
So you did well in school.
Yes. I had a national scholarship, and they were saying, “Why waste your life with this art stuff? You’ve got so much going for you.”
Tell me what happened when you left Trinidad to go to school in the States.
Well, before that happened, I got really involved with a couple of other artists and collaborated with them about what was happening at the time, and this is one of those significant things: Trinidad is an oil-rich country. It supplies 1% of the oil in the world market. It’s 10% of the natural gas in the U.S.. Oil was at crazy prices, and they were destroying the island to get at all this oil. There were no laws to stop it. All the places as a kid that I grew up with were being destroyed. I collaborated with another artist called Tessa Springer, and together we highlighted and documented the island’s changing environment. The tropical coastlines were being destroyed and the rainforest. I spent two years doing that. It was called The Disappearing Island Series.
What format were you doing your art in — as a filmmaker, still photographer, painter?
It was a combination. The photography has been in there for a while. I was taking the photographs and then painting the photographs as a landscape with that outsider-esque style.
Your style really started back then.
It did, in capturing it, and it was oils but heavy heavy texture with not the spatula, but the pallet knife. A lot of these places [I documented] no longer exist. They’re gone. They’re just gone, but as far as the medium was concerned, it was two feet by three feet, and then they grew fairly large, like five by eight feet. They grew into large-scale pieces.
And did you have exhibits there?
Yeah, a lot of exhibits, a lot of private commissioned artwork and that was at an early age, that imprinted, “Oh, look - art could be a career.” Now we were like the hot, new, young things pushing out this type of art that didn’t exist before. It wasn’t the pretty, watercolor, safe-looking things. We were aggressively and angrily saying, “This is beautiful. Don’t destroy it!”
Right. You were doing art and politics and social reform, and actually being a journalist, too by sharing the stories that were going on — a great, potent combination. Let’s step off from that point. You were exposing all the evils in the oil and gas industry, and then where did you get the spark to come to the United States?
At some point, I didn’t want to be angry anymore, and I wanted to deepen my own personal expression. And at 18 or 19, I moved to California to go to college and to explore my own internal state, not just about the outside.
What college did you go to?
The California College of the Arts.
Did you go back and forth to Trinidad during that time that you were in school?
I did because those paintings I did there funded my move and my college. Every summer, Christmas break, every break we had, I’d go back and finish the paintings and then get new commissions and come back again.
Did you self-finance your education?
Not fully, but I would say a good third.
You were a very motivated young woman.
Thank you. I look back on it and think, “Wow!” What happened though, in moving here, is the internal spark happened, and that’s what awakened the cultural bridge and I realized, “Hey, I look different here. I’m treated differently here.” Then I realized . . . there’s a cultural divide and there is a need for a cultural bridge to occur, and art is my language. And then the Home Series began and my art started being a bit more collage-y, a little bit more mixed media-ish. The textures were mixed media found objects. I shifted into that, and now I was using the photographs — not painting from a photograph, but actually sticking photographs on top of the canvas. Then the canvases grew massive because I was living in a big warehouse space. I was sewing up the canvas and sewing photographs onto the canvas and playing around with experimental textures, whatever the word, post-modernism, whatever. I was still trying to keep the unschooled edge while being schooled, if that was even possible, but I was trying.
You kept your mind open and tried not be too heavily influenced.
Exactly. The bridges of culture became important, where my diaspora met this new culture, and the concept of home became important because then I started to realize, “Oh, look. I like it here. This is one home, and what about my other home?” It was this duality of homes that started to become an important element, and then I realized that that actually is what has fed what I’m doing now in terms of the environments.
When you were here during your college years, were you victimized by prejudice because you didn’t look like everybody else?
You know, I could say yes on that. What I did with it wasn’t the angry thing, because I didn’t have that experience in my own country. Coming here, it was like, “Oh, look. Look at what you people are doing. Okay, let me paint about that.” Then I kind of used it to fuel. I could actually speak to it rather than be reactive.
Did you feel that America was different than you had imagined during all your formative years growing up in Trinidad?
Yes, yes – because I hadn’t imagined any of the prejudice. I hadn’t imagined any of the closed doors. I thought, “Hey, I’m going to go over there and, woo, I’m fabulous here. I’m going to be fabulous there, too.” I was thinking, “Okay, great. I’ll come, get my experience, and I’ll go back and get the funding to start a school.” The experience of having so much fodder to express about — from the intercultural meeting to the prejudice to having two homes, I mean — the subject matter was so full that I didn’t expect that.
You really had multiple identities. In your own country, you had one identity and it was also quite complicated because it wasn’t, “Okay, I’m just this.” None of us are “just this,” but a lot of people think they are.
That’s so true.
You were juggling different identities and dealing with it in a more positive way than when you were younger.
Yeah. Age helped, and also too, it’s significant that you asked about the ethnic heritage even in my own country because I was different in my own family. I was always treated differently because I had a gene that made my skin light. We were always very African heritage people. We were always very Indo-Caribbean people, always mixtures, and no one except myself and my father looked like me.
When you would return to Trinidad, did friends and family feel you were becoming an ugly American?
The potential could’ve been for that. I think some people wanted to make that happen, but because my interest had always been in recording how beautiful this island is, I remained plugged into that part of my culture.
Your art probably saved a lot of your relationships. And then there were other issues about identity you must’ve been dealing with, too. When did you understand that you were gay?
Around age 18 or 17, when I was collaborating with other artists, those artists were mostly gay and not necessarily out in the Caribbean. I had already recognized my own sexuality: “Oh, look. I’m really not into boys; I’m really into girls.” So that was really clear for me then, and when I came over to go to college, the business partner that I was collaborating with was also my girlfriend. We were painters together. Now, the one thing in the Caribbean and in other places, I should say, as well as in certain parts of Europe, the understanding of coming out in the U.S might be, ‘Have you had the coming out conversation?’ or something like this, it doesn’t really exist that way. People either accept you or they don’t, and if you want to have that conversation, you’ll probably end up making a lot of people extremely uncomfortable, and then they’ll look at you and go, “So, have you changed?” It’s not as much of a let’s step to the next level of, “I’m out.”
I understand – no fanfare – you are the person you are. We don’t need to underline it.
I've had this conversation many times between people who feel like, can you be vocal and verbal about this? It’s like, well, what is it worth? So that conversation hadn’t happened then, and it had taken some time before that conversation even became important to have, yet my girlfriend/partner, Antonia, has always come every year with me to the Caribbean, and sort of after a certain age everybody stops asking you about, “When are you going to get married?” Because I would say something like, “Are you sure you want to have that conversation with me? Because I’m really willing to have it.” I’m clearly out and very happy to be out, and I've always said to everyone, “Please feel free to ask me any question. I’m happy to answer it.”
It’s my observation that in seeing how society operates, when you’re gay and also a minority in other ways, racially, ethnically, etc., they really want to put you in a box – force you into one.
And then it often becomes, “Oh, you’re a gay artist. Oh, you’re an African-American filmmaker. Oh, you’re a woman-of-color musician. Oh, you’re a Muslim writer.” Creative freedom is hampered by that thinking.
Yes, yes. I noticed that my reaction or response to that early on in life, where I identified as a woman of color and identified as a gay woman of color, lesbian. And then at some point, way back in art school, we used to have these, what do you call them, critiques, right? Somebody would paint a chair, and they’d just be talking about the quality of how you painted the chair. And I’d paint something that would be so meaningful to me, and they were like, “Well, why are you painting such angry work?”
To me, it wasn’t angry. It was, as a woman of color, I have something to say. As a lesbian, I have something to say. I can’t just paint the chair unless the chair has meaning. For me, my art has meaning. It’s almost as if I was putting myself in a box by responding to the [intimidation].
I think the full gamut of artists have important messages to express across all mediums, but as you mature you understand you don’t have to be doing it 24 hours a day. It’s okay to have a sense of humor, chill out a bit, lighten the burden. When did you have your epiphany or wake up one day and say, “You know, I’m tired of these boxes!”
What happened is I took a break from painting because I didn’t want to be so angry. I was having a lot of shows in San Francisco, and I didn’t want to be just having that angry feeling in my body anymore.
It was not angry like anything about the racism, any of that, but just being so determined constantly to be putting out this strong imagery all the time, and I moved to digital art. I found that the digital art was so much more non-committal. I started doing my Master’s [degree], and I was doing digital art technology and art education. What started happening is with doing the digital art, you can just hit delete. It was really cool. That delete made such a difference. I could take a brush and have, with one brush, paint 1,000 colors. It allowed me to do that, like have all these different bits of myself and bits of imagination be swiped with one swipe, put out there, and then in one swipe be deleted; whereas with a brush and the actual physical paint on the canvas, I found I was emotionally connected to every line that I made with each of those brushes. The digital medium allowed me to be less emotional.
That’s really interesting. I’m thinking about it in terms of being a writer and using a computer to write on as opposed to actually hand writing scripts and books. I always ask my few friends who still write in longhand, “Why are you doing that?” and they say, “I have this experience. It’s just so much more creatively intense and it’s emotionally fulfilling to me to do it this way.” I say, “But you can’t edit it as much – in the end it probably limits your creativity.”
I absolutely 1,000 times agree with you in one way, and I totally agree with them in the other way. When I lived in London from ’06 to ’09, I didn’t do any painting then and I didn’t do any digital art. What I did do was write. I wrote a teen novel and a children’s book. Neither one of them is published — I’m still pitching them — but it’s a full novel I wrote, and my process was that I had to write it longhand first because I would see it as a movie and I would experience the emotionality of the characters. Then after, I would type it out because I needed to be able to quickly remove and add back in and edit it, right? So I have one foot in either side of the pie.
I do think a lot of people do that hybrid thing. Unfortunately, if I did that – I couldn’t decipher my own handwriting, and all would be lost. I did notice and enjoyed the text that you had combined with your artwork on your smaller pieces. Did that come out of the London experience, or were you doing that before?
Actually, it did come out of the London experience with the smaller pieces. My other paintings have text embedded in the layering.
I love how you bring together all of these artistic forms of expression into your work. Do you still try to learn new ways of doing your art? Take any classes?
As far as the media is concerned, I update myself on Photoshop every time they release a new version because I use Photoshop in a strong . . . big way. I also took marketing, branding, and business classes.
The business of art, this is a harsh reality, and it’s a bigger reality today because you have to connect in a lot of different ways to get attention. I’m glad to hear you are doing that. What are your creative and tech processes like?
Let me start with the tech process. It begins my creative process, at least in the newest body of work, The Living Ritual. With my digital background, I started to see color, like the digitized version, and then color became like FFCC3366, and each yellow was that and brown was this, and I started to reach for the color because that’s how you did it with those things. And it just started to drive me crazy. I thought, “My god. As a painter, I am becoming the bored, right?” I tried to let it go for a while, but in reclaiming it, softening the digital technology, it became exciting to use for my current process, which is erasing and subtracting. I’m erasing and subtracting on a pixel-by-pixel level.
How do you begin that part of the process?
Without giving away too much of my graphic secrets, I take a digital photo, and then I am using Photoshop and zooming so far in that it is maniacally pixilated. Then the concept is to remove the background, subtracting and erasing and doing that on a minute scale until the background goes away and its initial environment is now a blank white canvas and it’s free. The individuals are free, and they’re kind of like, it’s where they were closed in before, now it’s an expansive environment that they’re in, and I begin to be able to push the boundaries of that environment. I’m not changing the individual. I really want to maintain who they are, but now they’re in the starkness of this white environment.
What goes into the planning of your project?
I've always been about cultural connectivity and having this cultural connectivity through the festivals [cultural], so it’s the theme of festivals. I’m trying to find individuals that look like they’re in the true meaning of the festival, which is like a period of time, an occasion, set aside for celebrating some significant event. That’s when I take the photograph.
After you have done your photography, you’ve done your Photoshop work, are you then using your imagination and figuring out the proper environment to put your subjects into?
Yes. Initially it was going to be this purely commercial venture in my mind, say five years ago, but it didn’t work. And then it became about pushing the boundaries of this new perspective of reality and have it speak to what it is, where they were leaving to.
Your work is very poetic — a combination of surrealism and magical reality and the undefinable – NO BOX! How long does it take you to complete a painting on average?
If I can get 15 paintings a year done, I’ll be happy.
That’s not a lot of paintings.
No, it’s not. I really need to change the process and do it slightly differently so at least I can get two paintings a month.
It’s a long laborious process — a labor of love.
Yes, it is, it is.
And now let’s segue more into your creative process.
I’m a full-time painter. It is my day job and it’s my night job. On a good day, it would be great where I could do six hours a day. That’d be really, really nice, but it doesn’t happen that way. How it does happen is three months of the year I’m doing the marketing and the pushing and getting it out there. Then the last five months from May to September, that’s when I’m just in a full-push mode of creating. That looks like every single day: eight to 10 hours a day.
Wow. I know when I’m really writing, I think the house could fall down on me and I’m just so intensely involved in what I’m doing, I could care less. I've just got to finish what I’m doing, I’m so into it.
Please share what it’s like for you, even what kind of food keeps you in this sort of workaholic, obsessive state. Do you have a favorite food that keeps you going?
I tend to eat healthy in the beginning parts of that five-month push, but once the actual digital part comes into play or the painterly part comes into play... it’s a bad habit. Sometimes I don’t eat.
You don’t EAT?
Really, I don’t eat. I have to put a timer on to remind myself to drink some water. The one thing I do though, it’s more like a function of necessity rather than, “Oh, look how well I’m taking care of myself” is I get body work on my arm because it totally stiffens up.
Has this problem developed more over the years?
Oh, yeah. I work with a sports therapist — I've been working with him for years. I have the timer set, and I do these exercises so I can keep my body a bit limber for the digital part of the process because it is brutal!
This is something that nobody thinks about, that painters and other artists have injuries from repetitive motions, weight-bearing stress, and eye strain.
As far as the foods are concerned, when I finish a piece and I’m like, “Woo-hoo”, when I’m really happy: sushi — bring the sushi on! Sushi is just my happy meal.
When you finish an exhibit like what you just did, is there any celebration over being able to do it?
Yes, there is a big celebration. A large part of this is also very spiritual for me. I’m the conduit that brings the people to the paintings. I see the paintings as transmissions, and so at the end of an exhibit, I show my gratitude that the transmissions reached who they’re supposed to reach, and I will put the money on my altar or give gratitude in different ways, give thanks. When I make money, I give to organizations that help women and children cancer survivors, things like this. That becomes the celebration for me, the outflow of that. In addition to that, there is champagne. One must have champagne!
Good, good. The finer things in life need to be appreciated along with art and the suffering.
Not everybody is spiritual, but you obviously are. Do you practice any organized religion, or is this just what you grew up with or you’ve picked for yourself, or a combination of things?
I practice Buddhism; understanding that energy transmits and flows through us all. Whether it sounds esoteric or not esoteric, everything is energy.
We happen to believe in the same general concept of energy. I was wondering what role dreaming has in your creativity and life?
Dreams are super important for me. I use the state of feeling that I’m in a dream, when I’m in that dream. What I mean by that is while working on a piece and . . . I get stuck on it, before going to bed I will say, “Tonight I’m going to dream about this.”
I tell myself this, and whenever I wake up in the night, I say to myself, “You will go back in, and you will dream about this,” and then first thing in the morning hopefully before another thought slams in, I’ll go, “What do you remember from what you went and dreamt about?”
Do you write it down?
Do you ever leap out of bed in the middle of the night because you just got this amazing idea and you have to get it down on paper, or start drawing, or working on your computer, or painting?
I don’t tend to get up and do it on the computer because I know that sleep is important, so I try to do the five hours of sleep — not drive myself insane. I always have the paper and pen by my bed to write it down. Then the other way that I use a dream is I put myself in a sleep state even though I know I’m not sleeping and I go, “Now if you are sleeping, go ahead and dream.” Then it’s sort of like waking dreams.
Waking dreams, like vivid dreams?
Okay, very interesting – I see this in your work. Now I’d like to get into a more political-type question, but I think it’s something that all artists except perhaps the absolute highest echelon have to steadily deal with. I’m referring to the politics involved with galleries, the gallerists, the art reviewers, judges, panels that vote thumbs up or thumbs down and have an elitist structure that blocks, especially emerging artists, from getting their feet in the door. Do you allow this to get to you, or have you found ways to get around all the brick walls that are put up to stop artists from being artists?
In the past, I used to really, really, really care, up to say 10 years ago. I was like, “Ah, this world, this world, this world.” Now, I have a completely different attitude about it because of a few things. One, Humpty Dumpty fell, and that’s real. What I mean by that is the digital age has made art and imagery and everything so accessible that now people are spreading the word so quickly. You don’t need the mailing lists and the postcards. Some of the people are actually wanting new stuff. They’re wanting to see it and be exposed to it. Money is also in the hands of a much younger group of people, at least in northern California, where you’ve got a lot of techies with a lot of liquid cash, and they’re going to spend money.
So that’s now changing the structure of who spends money on art and how art is accessible and, I believe, will continue to change. There are art fairs now, the ones in Miami and New York, that are being attended by massive galleries, and these high-end galleries are seeing, “Ooh, that’s where the people are coming out because they want to have direct exposure to the artist. Let’s go and infiltrate that whole model.” The gallerists are now coming to the art fairs with this whole other way of being.
It’s great to hear that you have a hopeful viewpoint on the democratization of art. And now for what may be perceived as a hard question... Is there such a thing as good art or bad art?
Wow, that is a hard question.
This good vs. bad art topic has caused a lot of shouting matches at dinner parties.
Yeah, I think there’s bad art, I do. Art that is made shoddily — and if you’re going to just mass-produce something, at least don’t make it be mass-produced without a care in the world. Put some attention to the quality that comes out.
Don’t throw a plate at me but I still believe art is always in the eyes of the beholder – people love their velvet paintings of Elvis. To them – it’s art! Okay, another question coming your way in that general ballpark - this one is also about art, politics and religion. I have often wondered about this - can an extreme fundamentalist, or say a fascist, I’m referring to someone who torments and murders fellow artists because they disagree with their beliefs or art, can they be an artist? Or should they just be put into the category of a skilled craftsperson? Does a person’s humanity have anything to do with the definition of artist?
That’s a good question. Against my better judgment, unfortunately, I will have to say that they still can be an artist. I might not like the art that they do or why they do what they do, but they have a freedom to make it. And art doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful or something I agree with. It just has to be the creative expression of someone
.I’m still grappling with the definition of an artist and appreciate your answer. Ahhh, another question comes to mind – have you ever destroyed a painting – your own painting?
Oh, yes I have. I have. I have so destroyed some. I have attacked paintings with knives before, literally. Like big ones — I run at it with a knife . . . just slash the shit out of them! I have broken paintings. I have literally taken them, and slammed them against the wall to break them. I have done that, yes I have.
I see that vision of you. That’s the wolf! The wolf has come out!
Wolf: It really has, and then I sit there going, “Shit, what have I done?”
I think artists are their best critics, in a way. Like a wolf – your instincts were probably correct – best to clean up the mess and begin again. Thank you, Wolf, for such an inspirational, provocative, and informative interview.
Visit Wolf's website here.