In If These Covers Could Talk, poets interview the visual artists whose works grace their book covers. The result is an engaging discussion of process, vision, and projects. If These Covers Could Talk is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.
A Conversation Between Poet Alan Chazaro and Painter Francisco Palomares
AC: I love connecting with other creators and learning about their processes. What are your thoughts about building relationships with artists from different mediums?
FP: It’s always good to diversify mediums. I love watching rappers and hip-hop artists specifically. I watch a lot of interviews and videos from artists like that and it informs my art. The other day, I was watching this old-school video of Outkast just creating music in a basement, working on their stuff, and collab-ing with all sorts of producers and music engineers. It made me realize how hip-hop lends itself so perfectly to collaboration. The visual arts kind of lack that ability to branch out to different genres sometimes. It’s a very solitary thing. But that’s why it’s good to work with writers and expand in new directions with others.
AC: Outkast is a great example of collaborative artistry. Can you tell us about what you do and who you are in one sentence?
FP: I’m an East LA visual artist, a sort of cultural anthropologist and documentarian who uses visual language, primarily through drawing and painting, to communicate myself with others.
AC: That’s the best one-sentence intro I’ve ever heard! I want to ask you about Piñata Theory. When I wrote it, I was thinking about fragility, socioeconomic and racial violences, breakages, regathering, and the brutal tension of it all. But what does Piñata Theory, as a concept, mean to you as a Mexican American?
FP: I feel like it’s exposure to a history and contemporary life of being Mexican American coming from immigrant families. It’s like viewing the life of people like us and those who are around us, what made us. Some things can seem stereotypical about our culture. There are certain trends. The uncles who drink too much, or the aunt who laughs too loud. To me, a piñata theory could be a look into that life, because it’s true. In my case, particularly as a man coming up as Mexican American, it’s about looking at what made us, entering that world, relating to it, and finding words you didn’t have before hidden inside.
AC: Even though we hadn’t met before this book, I intentionally selected you and your artwork with the support of my press (Black Lawrence) because your style personally resonated with me. I’m glad our visions aligned! Are there any other collabs or projects that you have completed recently or are working on at the moment?
FP: My first collabs were live painting events. I would kind of be promoting a brand, especially beer companies at their events. That was cool (laughs). But to be honest, collaborations have kind of escaped me. As a visual artist, it can be very solitary. During the process of painting, for me in particular, I’m in my own mind, my own thoughts. I work alone in my studio.
The book cover had actually been my main collaboration up to that date. After that, I’ve actually done a few more. The biggest one was a grant I received through the city to bring attention to COVID in El Monte. I would make artwork in the area to create conversations about safety and health. I got to collaborate with an entire city and not just a person. It wasn’t always as good as it sounds, though. There was lots of paperwork and logistics to manage (laugh). It’s daunting in a way. But it was a good entry into another world and an opportunity to share my work with a new, public audience.
AC: That’s baller. Often, Latinx authors and artists don’t get a say about how we’re being represented in media and culture, and our identities can be misconstrued, culturally exploited, or turned one-dimensional. How does that inform your art?
FP: There’s a disconnect within who gets to explain the narrative of a culture to an audience. Nowadays, there is more inclusion, but overall it’s overwhelmingly still white people documenting the history of another group. I’m one individual in a room of different creatives and professionals. Even though that isn’t the only solution, our presence matters [in those situations]. Getting a chance to tell our stories, straight from the source, is important.
AC: Speaking of the source, you grew up in East LA, one of the most recognized hubs of Mexican American cultura. What was that like? Who influenced you? How does your upbringing and community get reflected in your visual artwork?
FP: Growing up in East Los Angeles has played a huge part in who I am. My dad passed away when I was four, so it was basically me and my mom for most of my childhood. Being in East LA, it sounds stereotypical, looking for older male figures. I was looking for that and kind of found it through baseball, actually. I lived near a park where my school was. I connected with my community there. Since my immediate family was very small, it gave me something to do and allowed me to learn more about being Mexican American, the culture, and our traditions.
As I got older, the park became a hub for social movements. I found mentors that were active in the Chicano Movement. For me it was like going to college or something like that. I got to know the history, politics and media of being Chicano. That’s how I discovered – how I keep discovering – what it means to be Chicano from East LA. It’s been organic but I’ve also had to research at times, even though the resources were always there in different aspects of the community. In high school, for example, I heard about this retreat for Chicano students and I wasn’t even invited to it, but I went and spoke to the teacher organizing it and they brought me along. It was called CYLC, Chicano Youth Leadership Conference. We had public speakers, artists, and other professionals connect with us. It was an early example of the possibilities and pride about coming from where we do. Sal Castro was there, too, and he led some walkouts in the 70s. I got to personally chat with him. To me, this is East LA. Being able to discover. My narrative about this neighborhood is not traditional. People think of it as low income, impoverished, gang-infested, or the wild west. I didn’t grow up seeing that. Mine is a community of acceptance. It was positive for me. I like to show that and how it built my identity. My artwork is a way of showing that. That’s why I say I’m a part-time cultural anthropologist and documentarian.
East LA can become so common and traditional to those of us from here and we can forget how unique it actually is for people from all over the world. I try to capture that. It comes out in the colors and the palettes I use. It’s vibrant and eccentric. The buildings are all related to what I saw, what I grew up around. Liquor stores, night clubs, restaurants. They just remind me of the area. It all might be gone some day. But if that happens, hopefully the artwork I made will become an image of that history.
AC: That’s deep. I know you do a lot for the community and are constantly engaging with others. Tell us about your fruit cart. I remember seeing it mentioned in the LA Times, by the way, congrats! For those who’ve never seen it, can you explain what it is and how that idea became a reality for you?
FP: My fruit cart is a mobile vending art gallery, installation, performance piece. I live paint, and that’s the performance aspect, being in front of a street audience. The idea is that I’m just like a street vendor slicing up fresh fruit; I’m doing the same, but with oil painting. In half an hour or less, I’ll paint you something to take home on the spot. That’s the idea behind it.
But before that, it happened because I was just struggling to make a profit from art and needed to create revenue and methods of survival for myself as an artist in California. It came from just going to work every day at MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and getting off [Highway] 101. I would see people selling oranges off the exit of that freeway. It was such a unique hustle. Like, who just thought “I’ll grab produce and sell it on the street?” You might not see that everywhere, but in LA, that’s common. It then occurred to me that it would be kind of wild for me to stand on one of those corners and make fresh paintings of oranges and sell them for like $20. I could make the same amount of money from doing that all day as I would working at the museum. It was also near downtown, so it felt like a performance and commentary. It felt natural to me because I was always used to seeing street hustlers in my community, but for others, it must have not seemed normal. You never know how people will react to you in public. I had to think about presentation and how it fits into my artist portfolio, too. Was it just me trying to make a buck, something long-term, a day job, or more of an expression of my art in a new form?
It all happened at a time when I wanted to make a change, and I left the country for a month. When I got back, a friend helped me find a cart. At first, the fruit carts were quoted at $500 to $1,000. It was expensive, but I saw it as an investment in my art career, so I went looking for one and ended up finding a much cheaper one and just touched it up. It was actually very inexpensive. I just started building it up and taking it out. When I first told my mom about it she was very supportive. She told me to turn it into my own art gallery. It was my own space to share my work with the public. Now people love it, and I’m the guy that people recognize as someone who was willing to do that. I’m currently taking a pause on it and working on other things. Maybe I’ll take it back out in the summer, who knows? It’s very laborious. That’s the performance aspect. It’s an insight into immigrant labor. Doing it day in and day out, no breaks. No regular access to restrooms. Things like that.
At some point, I’ll outgrow it and it will just be an installation about an East LA kid who wanted to make it.
AC: You paint images of queer folks, LA’s street scene, Mexico, and other social landscapes. You definitely represent many identities in your work and that’s dope. But you also have the piñata series, which appealed to me for obvious reasons. Describe one of your piñata paintings for us. What’s the process like to create one and why did you start painting them?
FP: Originally, I went to the piñata district and started searching for that one that stuck out. I wanted a burro or a caballo. One that stuck out to me with its colors and patterns. That was an interesting process. Going to the piñata district, searching through the piñata, and asking someone there to help me search. They were like, “a piñata is a piñata, what are you looking for?” Explaining what I was doing was very new to them (laughs). The piñata can all look identical in some ways. The French painter Marcel Duchamp actually used to say that any product was art once the artist touched it and declared it as a piece of artwork. He got a urinal once and put one in a museum installation as something he chose in order to make art. He went to a convention of ceramic toilets for that. There were hundreds and hundreds and he just picked that one. Then it became art. He had the vision and whatnot. It felt similar finding a piñata. Going to a warehouse of piñata and choosing the one that fits right, that says what I want it to say.
My paintings are like a flash, a vision. I just had the image of the piñata in different forms. The understanding happens after I’ve done the painting. It’s just an eagerness to produce that image in my mind. I’ve painted a few piñata as pastel drawings, early on, and also in natural landscapes. I first tried using pages from an encyclopedia about Chicano history and painting on those but it just didn’t work. My studio was in Boyle Heights at the time, and I grew up around there, and there are just tons of murals around there. I was thinking about all of that, of negative space and floating air. That’s when I did the floating piñata. In reality, it’s just tissue paper, cardboard, glue. But when put together, it holds a lot of culture, significance to a whole community of people. Putting it on canvas, floating above me, it’s supposed to be a tribute to that.
AC: You also have the pinatas painted in rural, European landscapes. What’s that about?
FP: The landscapes are countrysides from Germany and Holland, and I just painted pinatas in that setting. I was thinking of paintings from the 1800s. They felt like something that could come alive, those traditional and classical oil paintings. I had received this education throughout my schooling— about European traditions—and here I was painting in Boyle Heights. I was curious if I could paint like a classical landscape painter would. So I envisioned the piñata in that space. It took about two years until it all made sense for me, just having conversations with other artists and letting it happen organically. It became a hybrid of my upbringing as a Mexican and my studies—it was always about European-based history. In college, at Long Beach, I always felt out of place, like one Latino amongst white people. The paintings were sort of a presentation of all those feelings.
Also, there was lots of gentrification around that time. Some of them were brand new galleries, but other locals were very territorial about it. They would graffiti the new places. But I felt conflicted because I wanted to also be a part of the art scene and it felt closer. So painting piñatas in unusual settings kind of became how everything around me was changing. It suddenly becomes an elephant in the room. There was a Latino population already here. I became more proud of being a Chicano artist. At first, that felt negative in some ways, like cornering yourself into the Latino market which supposedly won’t pay artists. But when you think about Chicano politics, the messaging, it has changed. My generation actually got to go out of the neighborhood and access college. Chicano pride looks different now, and I think we can use humor and irony now to address it. I also tried to show that in some of my pinata paintings [by giving them cartoon character eyes]. There’s a lot to explore.
AC: There is. We could talk all day. Do you have any advice for other young, Latinx, POC, queer, or otherwise underrepresented folks out there who are curious about making a career as a visual artist?
FP: Get your education, go to college, and get involved with things outside of your medium. Things outside of your interests. Explore various aspects that call to you. That’s key for me, as a Latino. All of us should go to college, not as the exception. Even if you feel like you don’t need it, it’s a transformative experience. Then after that, it’s just about doing the work. It involves sacrifices, focusing on the craft, and sometimes it gets lonely as an artist—just being in front of the easel and making art, not worrying what others think. I have to continuously restate my goals and trust my gut when it comes to this. If I don’t do that, things don’t go as I had planned. Think about what specific things you need to do to accomplish all that. Then make it happen.
AC: What’s your next project?
FP: I’m going to Mexico to do open-air painting. I’m gonna check out the butterfly migration in rural areas. I like that slower pace. I’ll do some fun work, but no pressure to make sales or do anything specific with the artwork. It’ll be for ten days, just for myself. I found a spot and did some research since you need to hike into the mountains. I’m gonna go on my own and figure it out on the edge of Michoacán. There are a few spots, actually. I’m going to one that’s more distant from the main place, about a week before the tourist season really starts. It was just a coincidence of extra time I had and the timing of the migration season.
Francisco Javier Palomares is an emerging contemporary artist based in East Los Angeles. Palomares draws upon his lived experiences combining elements of historical narratives and present-day social challenges. He is currently an associate artist educator at LA Commons where he directs a team of youth artists in the collection of community stories to create and prepare designs for printed banners.