In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, the Salt Lake City Public Art Program is highlighting Ruby Chacón -a Chicana and self-proclaimed Utahana artist from our Public Art Collection. Guest writer Bianca Velasquez explores Chacón’s legacy and her contributions to art in Utah.
Brown Faces in Public Art Spaces: Celebrating the work of Ruby Chacón
by Bianca Velasquez
It is easy to have a dream—to bask in what you desire the most alongside the comfort that you do not risk losing what you feel can’t actually be yours. In today’s world, we are taught to covet the riches of famous reality stars and to replicate as a way of seeking our own authentic self. It is encouraged to watch and admire the stories of others in substitution of telling your own. After all, if you can’t ever see yourself living your dream, can you miss what you feel doesn’t belong to you? Artist and educator Ruby Chacón knows that this mindset is dangerous—and knows the role representation plays in building an actual home for POC voices instead of a house of cards.
Chacón ’s work has reached milestones when it comes to POC and Chicanx representation in Utah and beyond. As a painter, educator, muralist and community builder, Chacón knows that if she does not do the work to tell her story and the story of her people, others will take the opportunity to perpetuate the stereotypes that stunt progress for POC communities. “When I decided to be an artist professionally, there were some tragedies in my family … the way that the media talked about my family was very hurtful,” she says. “… it made me want to tell the counter-story [through art] of the stereotype that perpetuated us.”
The passion that drives Chacón’s work corrects wrongs in the presentation of POC folk and helps aspiring artists see themselves actualizing their dreams. It is much more than “brown faces in white spaces” when it comes to the question of who occupies a gallery—it is about supplying the resources and pathways through telling her own story. “I didn’t see people like me in anything. I didn’t have a POC as a teacher,” Chacón says. “When I made the decision to be an artist, I decided I needed to find artists that had similar experiences to me, even if I just found them in books, and I didn’t see them around me.” Chacón found inspiration in Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, specifically in how she spoke bluntly through her work. “I would open up her books and her way of painting reflected the way my mom and I were very straightforward,” says Chacón .
Much like throughout her adolescence, Chacón carried a lot of familial responsibility after accomplishing her BFA at the University of Utah. “I really had to provide right away. I decided I would do temp work while working on my art,” Chacón says, “and in the very beginning I was not accepted in many of the public spaces.” Chacón found herself in a position many POC artists encounter when working in a predominately white landscape. Galleries and critics wanted to put her in the “Mexican” section or “Woman of Color” section. “In interviews they would ask me, ‘What is the difference between American art and Latin-American art?’—Well I AM American!” Chacón says. “People would try to place these labels on me that made sense to them without asking me.”
Chacón identified that there was a need for a space where POC individuals could show their work, and to fill it, Chacón established Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts (MICA) in 2002, what is now a grassroots, cultural non-profit dedicated to art, justice, belonging, and community power. “I noticed that people were craving those underrepresented stories that we don’t see in spaces in Utah,” Chacón says. “Artists of color were leaving Utah to show their work. Utah wasn’t the place for them because no one understood their work as it didn’t reflect the dominant narrative.” For the first time, Chacón found a community in Utah. “That just became my calling to change public spaces by telling that counter-narrative and telling the stories of underrepresented communities that aren’t part of the dominant narrative.”
In 2013, Chacón continued this calling by participating in the project “Art-in-Transit” commissioned by the Salt Lake City Public Art Program in partnership with Utah Transit Authority. The commission consisted of murals that are now displayed at the Jackson/Euclid station on 800 W North Temple in Salt Lake City. “The audience was intended to be the people who use public transportation and the people who live on the West side,” Chacón says. The murals, Comunidades en solidaridad: A Collective Transformative Vision, were based on the results of surveys filled by the community that Chacón sought to represent. After participating artist apprentices analyzed the surveys, Chacón created the visual representation that would illustrate the three themes in the murals: Past, Present, Future in the Arts; Education / Experiential Knowledge; Working Together / Building Utah.
The imagery in these murals is an amalgamation of various characters representing our multifaceted and beautiful community rich with history. Depictions of the city alongside our indigenous, refugee, and immigrant communities meld together in swirls of color. Four poems written by community members, including an 11-year old boy, break up the imagery. “The murals were also intended to represent the five tribes of Utah,” Chacón says. “Additionally, the monarch butterfly illustrated throughout the piece is a representation of immigration, strength, and resilience.”
Public art is more than an effort to make space pretty; it is telling the story of the neighborhood it exists in and giving voice to its community members. “To me it is really important to engage with the community, find out what that community is about and really beautify the neighborhood with those voices and create the spirit of the neighborhood with those images,” Chacón says. Public art is more impactful when it is telling underrepresented stories within underrepresented communities because it puts art where people are. When the walls of a gallery surrounding a work of art are removed, it suddenly belongs to all. “It didn’t matter what language you spoke or what type of education you had, [public art] is inclusive—not exclusive,” Chacón says.
Today, Chacón mentors young artists of color in Sacramento, California. Her most recent mural Las Poderosas Project highlights women that have made an impact in the Sacramento Valley. Through this mural and murals to come, Chacón continues to seek underrepresented artists to collaborate with in order to bring their power to the surface. You can visit her other murals all over Salt Lake City such as her mural at the Catholic Community Services building on 300 S and 800 E, the University of Utah’s Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building and A. Ray Olpin University Union Building, the Horizonte School, and the façade of Quetzal Imports at 500 N and 600 W. Learn more about Chacón and her robust career at her website RubyChacón.com.
About the Author
Bianca Velasquez (she/her) is a Salt Lake City resident that has been involved with the arts and music community for over a decade. Velasquez is currently a freelance writer for several publications including Southwest Contemporary, Hyperallergic, and Visit Salt Lake. Aside from her work as a writer and community builder, Velasquez practices art through many mediums including music and visual art.