If These Covers Could Talk #5
By Anthony Cody
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. This series is a celebration of collaboration—here, we champion the fruitful conversations taking place both on and behind the cover.
This month, poet Anthony Cody talked to artist Josué Rojas about the cover of Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020).
A Conversation Between Anthony Cody and Josue Rojas
Anthony Cody: Hi Josué, I know you’re running around and hustling, so I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me. Ultimately, while I want to talk about Borderland Apocrypha’s book cover, I am almost more interested in highlighting you, what you’re doing right now, what you’ve been thinking through, the importance of community, and even the abstract and concrete of what’s swirling around for you at this time. Is this too much?
Josué Rojas: This sounds like my comfort zone.
AC: In preparing for our conversation and because of our own twelve-year-old old friendship, I wanted to dig around and think through what people had already said about you. A way to see you in another light. But instead, I read what I knew since we first met in 2010– you’re a good dude and soul. It was great to read other folks recognizing your big heart, your generosity, and your willingness to give back to others. In this sense, where do community and collaboration begin for you?
JR: I think you and I are similar kinds of artists in that we can kind of give a lot to others because we’ve received a lot and feel blessed. I feel very blessed. I think life has given me a lot.
Firstly, with my family. Secondly, with my community, and thirdly, I think you might be able to relate to this—I hit the lottery with my mentors. I had the opportunity to spend time with some of the world’s best mentors, and I take that pretty seriously. You know, I think mentorship is pretty serious. It was kind of sewn into me and I feel like it is its own kind of impromptu education. It’s as valuable—in many cases more valuable—than a degree to have known established artists or people who I admire, creatives, that have really given me some direction in life. My mom always told me growing up, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And so I had to follow people who are where I want to be, and I really followed both those pieces of advice.
Some of the best advice that I’ve received was from one of my mentors, John Walker, an amazing painter who I studied with at Boston University. He said, “If you’re not generous, you’re not going to be a very good artist.” I took that to heart, and it’s true. You know, I think in many ways, we’re giving away stuff away. We’re giving away our thoughts, we are trusting people with our most intimate actions, with our most intimate ways of looking at the world, and there’s a level of courage in kind of giving it all away. And that’s what makes for some of the greatest artists. I think he was right about that.
AC: I love that! I think that’s true. I think that is definitely an area where you and I kind of overlap, our experiences being blessed with a bounty of mentors. And, also, having wonderful moms. Moms that are down, that offer insight, that go to the events, that paint and imagine alongside us. I love the fact that right now during this interview you are in your car and driving with your mom. I think that’s important. Now, in this stage of your career, do you feel like you’re at a place where you’re mentoring others? Or, how do you feel about that process now, about paying it forward to others?
JR: Yeah, I absolutely feel like I’m a mentor, which feels wild to say. The act of passing down or helping people access their creative DNA. I think to be in our spaces, the sacred spaces within a community, spaces where art heals, spaces where we’re intimate enough to really touch on any kind of art making, that’s a very special thing. People are really craving that these days. It doesn’t happen by accident. I think we have to be very intentional about creating. Creating is truly a way of passing on our most intimate values.
I was sharing this idea with a group of kids today. It’s like, you can’t really build with other people until you’ve actually built with yourself. Knowledge itself is really what’s going to help build community. You can’t really have a culturally relevant potluck until you get your own culture’s recipe right. You get that recipe right, then you can share your dish with other people. I feel that it’s important for us to know ourselves and know our stuff, and then be able to share that with other people in a relevant and meaningful way.
AC: That’s such a great moment, sharing that knowledge with youth, with students. Do you feel like there was that kind of moment for you, if we circle all the way back to young Josue? A moment in your development when and/or where you felt like art could be a possibility for you? Because I know for me, that’s something I have always struggled with. I don’t know if I ever had the thought “I’m going to be a writer.” all of a sudden one day. I was doing it, and doing it, until at some point I realized I wasn’t going to stop.
JR: Yeah, I think I think I was always inclined to do it. I was always very hungry for it. And for me, a career as an artist ended up being kind of an easy decision in one way. I’d decided I’d much rather go to college than not go to college, and it ended up being very, very enriching for me. It was not until later that I realized that I was good at other things. I just had a different approach to them.
At one point in my life, I thought there was only one certain way to be. You know, I was about 15 years old when my dad passed away, and I became the man of the house. I was very angry, very sad. I had a lot of emotion. And that combined with regular teenage angst made for a volatile little cocktail. I was leaning towards what I saw in my community, and what I saw was toxic masculinity. The examples that I had in the community were in many cases violent, or at least just not positive. But when I stepped into a community space that had artists, positive male artists, I found a different vision of masculinity and that really led to a different version of me. It helped me to imagine a different outcome for myself. It truly was a moment where in community with others it clicked: I could be an artist.
It was a real moment of clarity and it was a real moment of being able to give myself to something that I could really dive into, that I could use to push myself.
AC: YES! All of this is so important. Especially in the face of working through or against anger. An anger that is inside and could lead someone in a completely different way. This came up in a separate conversation with me recently. Someone said to me and a group of Fresno poets and artists, “You are so happy and funny.” My response was, “That’s because I’m angry on the inside.” Now that I reflect on that moment, what you said, and your art, I see that very much in your work. There is vibrancy, there is difficulty, there is cause for both celebrating and organizing. This is a very long way of asking, do you feel like there is anger in your art, or within you? And how is that expressed?
JR: I totally apply aggression into my artwork. I think from the early days I used art as a way to channel my competitiveness. I think from the graffiti days it always had that element in there. There was a competitive drive to being a creator and I think that really always afforded me a way to harness that anger.
While I was at Boston University, a well-known woman artist, Ophrah Shemesh, came to me and said something like: You know, you’re here, you’re making art, and this is still very much a man’s man world. There is a way that people have historically perceived male artists, artists like Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso. He is seen as the womanizer, the tough guy that is smoking a cigar while painting. But that’s not aggression. This isn’t that aggression. She told me to tap into my feminine energy when I’m making art because that is the nourishing power, that’s where you give birth. And that is where, in her words, “the true aggression lies.”
I never forgot that and I try to be genuine, assertive, and true when I’m sort of “giving birth.” I try to tap into my tenderness and to my feminine side. As a man, yeah, I am pretty secure in my own way. So for me, a key component of my creative process is trying to tap into that tenderness in a way that expands beyond gender.
AC: I definitely see that tenderness when I see you work. I have witnessed you make murals, like the one I loosely assisted you with in Fresno, California. You invite others, you collaborate with others, and if people show up, you make space for them. So there is definitely that tenderness, but also an openness, right?
JR: Absolutely, absolutely. No lies, life is short. The moment of clarity that I had was great, and I love witnessing that in other people, particularly young people. Though you’d be surprised, I’ve witnessed that moment in older people too who have lived full lives, who have lived creative lives. To be there and to witness that moment with older folks is so great.
AC: I think this is a good place to segue toward what you are working on right now, because I know you’ve been busy.
JR: At the moment, I am running around a lot. I feel like I’m doing three or four million things. This has never happened in my entire career. There’s this one project with 22 other graffiti writers and we’ve got two lifts operating at the same time. That was last week, and we worked on it five days straight. And there’s another that I’m working on that is about ten stories tall. Some days, I’ve been doing both. All of these are in the Mission district of San Francisco. Then one more at a high school that is about 300ft long and two stories tall.
AC: This is a perfect place to keep our conversation going. I say this because I feel the same way. Right now, I am working on 100 things, and those things have an additional 100 small things that need to happen. Every day I wake up, I have to figure out which things I am juggling and which of those things are about to hit the floor.
JR: It’s fun.
AC: Yeah, it’s fun.
JR: But then you realize you haven’t seen your mom in almost two weeks.
AC: That was me yesterday! I went and got coffee with my mom before a virtual event. I think it was almost a month since I’d seen her last. Then when she goes to start her car, it won’t start, because the battery is dead. And there is like a brief moment where we are in the car, waiting for my dad to come give us a jump, where I was just completely stressed out with the idea that I was going to miss the event. Which is to say, being so busy is great, but how do you take care of yourself?
JR: Right now, I’m in a very different space just because I am having to abuse myself a little bit, just to get it all done. But generally, I really do try to treat myself. I try to be good to myself. I try to, you know, make sure I have all the equipment that I need to have and just enjoy that aspect of it. I enjoy having the stuff that’s part of doing the hard work to make art, and smelling the roses as I go. For me, I have no qualms with treating myself, or spending quality time with people that I love.
That’s really it: spending quality time with my wife, you know, time with my family. Really, really. You know, it’s important to soak up that time with the ones you love, because you have to be full in order to give with your art. Sometimes, you forget that you can’t be spent to make art. And, it helps to know what zaps you of your energy and what gives you energy. There are two kinds of work: work that gives you energy and toxic work that takes from you.
AC: I think that’s true. I think about Borderland Apocrypha and how that book was filled with heaviness. Yet, when I was trying to exit the book, I wanted to make sure to save something for myself and the reader, because tomorrow there is going to be something else to grapple with and address. And you have to know there is energy within so you’re not burnt out, so you can imagine and make your work.
On the subject of my book, it feels like it has been so long since you and I talked about the book and the book cover. I tell people a story about the book cover because it’s very meaningful for me, not only because it’s made by you, but because there is so much to unpack. You intuitively made a piece that still moves and haunts me. What was that process like? Me sending you a bunch of my new poems, and then you went through them with your gut response and process?
JR: Something very special happens with me and my relationship to poetry. I had a kind of visceral response to your work. We’ve collaborated before so luckily, we are able to easily collaborate, and we don’t have any issues or disconnect with each other. We know each other. I mean, my whole graduate thesis was really inspired by your piece “llegando al toldería.” Your voice and mine are kin in that way, and we are doing parallel work. I think it also comes from the fact that I really appreciate hanging out with and speaking with writers in very different ways than I do with visual artists. I’d say you’re one of my chief collaborators as a poet. Also, another writer, who probably doesn’t consider himself a poet, Russell Morse.
But you, your work spoke to me in a moment of solitude and a moment of separation from my community when I was away for graduate school on the East Coast. Your work was able to take me out of that space into a different space. When you sent me the poems from your book, all our prior conversations led to that moment, led to seeing what you were doing in the book. How you’re experimenting with the way that you write and sequence information, that reading isn’t always left to right. How can you remix that? You took some very bold and creative steps. I think you truly changed the way people read. And those poems brought it back to something very modern, but also concrete and sort of ancient and intuitive.
I was just playing with these concepts for the book cover. I looked at the words, but also looked at their placement on the page, their layout and their design, which is one of the first things that I noticed. Graphic design is about the hierarchy of information, and usually, you have important things on top in a bigger size and bigger font. But you broke it up into a wave and completely upended things, you changed that whole concept. I was actually just trying to keep up with you. The work was your own.
Your work had me thinking of my own most intimate moments, particularly within my sketchbook. I took some of the imagery and paint textures from some of my favorite pages of my personal journal, and then I juxtaposed that with the way that you’d laid the words out on the page, your layout. And then I added the third element, with symmetrical takes, like, clouds and sky. And then creating the mixture of all that digitally. I think I sent you I sent you at least four options.
AC: It was more like eight or nine.
JR: Yeah. And then you and Omnidawn made the selection and I was at peace with that because I really want the artists that I collaborate with to have agency in the process. Then you get to express yourself by deciding which of them was going to be the final cover.
AC: I will say that one of the things for me, just about that image that ended up speaking to you and being utilized for the cover, is that you didn’t know what was underneath the box that I had blacked out. And when you opened that black box and placed the sky there instead, I remember being in this sublime space between awe and sadness. The reality is that underneath was a photo of children in an ICE detention facility. In some ways, it feels like the tone of the poem, the visceral elements of the page, and our friendship helped you intuit that you had to put the clouds there. That you had to open up the space for what was being held back.
I remember sitting and looking at my screen, feeling as if we had been swimming around in one another’s subconscious. And, ultimately I was feeling grateful that you had applied a tenderness to people who were being detained. And that’s an act that I am forever thankful to you for having done. And really, this entire interview is me wanting to answer your gift in creating such beautiful art and being such a caring and open human in this world.
We’ve talked so much, and covered so much ground, I do want to close this time together, as I know you have places to go and meals to eat. So I want to ask you two small questions.
The first one is what do you want to make next?
JR: Oh, that’s a very easy one. Yeah. I actually have a list of what I want to make happen. I have been thinking about this book by Robert Greene called Mastery. In it, he talks about how the final stage of being that you enter is this moment called the creative act. And entering that is the only way you can make your mark and leave your legacy. So, if look at all of this ‘overworking’ that I am doing in the next few weeks, that is what I am doing: I am feeding my creative activity.
I’m putting some goalposts on my journey of where I wanted to go. I’m really happy to be doing things that I’ve never done. And that’s what I always want to do when I’m making bigger things or more ambitious things. I think it’s my moment to do that right now. And I have to say this, I’ve never really been in this place before where I’ve lived off of my art, entirely as an artist.
I remember living as a teacher and an artist, a journalist and an artist, an administrator and an artist, and a cameraman and an artist. On and on and on. But right now, I love being able to just make art. I like having the ability to teach myself to do these things, but really, just being an artist is a dream come true.
At first, I told myself that I’m going to do this for a year and see if I make a living off of it, and now I am midway through my second year, and I’m making a solid living. I’m a happy person. And I’m really feeding and nurturing myself again, this moment of this creative activity, so I just want to be here and do that.
AC: I feel close to that same place. Because in reality, I am doing 100 things, and they are all tied to the primary reality of poetry and writing. And it’s frightening. It is completely frightening and I’ve never, not once, thought to myself, “Oh, I’m doing this!” It’s more akin to an out-of-body experience watching myself do it. And that can be a bit of a shock. It’s a shock, but also at the same time, it’s definitely a privilege and a blessing that is the result of the grind and belligerence of diving into things and helping create more space and more opportunities for others.
JR: It’s huge.
AC: My final question, because we will definitely do this all night if I don’t say it’s the final question: Where does the beginning of an idea come from for you, what inspires your creative ideas? What’s the genesis of it for you?
JR: More and more these days it’s journaling. I like to write down what I want and what I’m thinking through. To think about what I’m doing right now, to have a feeling and communicate it on the page.
Also, have you seen the show The Queen’s Gambit?
JR: There is a moment in there where the main character is staring at her ceiling and playing chess, like a full-blown visual and mental chess game. It’s very visual for her throughout that show. I really identified with that scene in the show, because in my mind, I see painting in a very similar way. I was really taken aback because that’s kind of how I make my art. I’ll stare off into space and really start to compose a piece in my mind. So before it becomes a drawing or a painting or composition, I see it in my mind first and I kind of compose that way. A feeling transfers to that vision, and then that vision drives the realization of the piece. And this is also where you have to be a good communicator, where you have to try and explain that the thing you thought of makes sense, and this is how we can make this cool idea come to life.
AC: To be honest, that’s kind of how my brain works on poems. Sometimes I see a shape and I sketch it out and hold it for a line or poem to enter into that shape. The entire time, I am thinking through that and assembling things in my mind. Your process and that scene in The Queen’s Gambit are hyper-relatable to me.
JR: This has me thinking about something Albert Einstein once said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Our imagination is a political space. It is a spiritual space for you to create.
I always tell my students, “If you show up to class without your imagination, what are you doing?” If you show up to any project, even if it’s just working on your yard or baking a cake, or driving somewhere, if you show up to anything with a little bit of imagination, the world will be better for it.
Imagination is to showing up what love is to a relationship. Imagination is to showing up what faith is to religion. It is the mover and shaker within me. Showing up with some imagination means that what you are doing has your intention. How many people have said to me that painting is dead? How many people have told you everything has been said and written already, or that poetry is dead? Where would our paths lead if we accepted what we were told?
When you apply some imagination and think about things in a different way, with a new perspective, it will take you somewhere entirely new. Your imagination says painting isn’t dead, that poetry isn’t dead. And that’s exciting. I love painting, I love words. And when you love something in that way, you’re going to want to see it push forward and toward the next generation. I think it’s courageous. It is courageous.
Artist Josué Rojas is a practicing visual creator and an educator who relishes in learning and teaching the articulation of a potent human language – by using art as a response and celebration, not simply to life’s inequities but to its bounty as well. He is a Salvadoran-born American Citizen, a Californian, and a teacher. His work is informed by his bicultural and bilingual experience. Part of a continuum, his work and personal creative vision contribute to a visual heritage of creative critical consciousness. You can find more of his creative work on Instagram @josue.rojas.art or visit his website http://www.josuerojasart.com/.