September 20, 2017
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A public art installation in San Francisco pushes a community to dream

Inspired by her own journey from Mexico to the U.S., internationally renowned artist Ana Teresa Fernández issues a 10-foot-tall call to action

Artist Ana Teresa Fernández dreamed up her latest art installation in the San Francisco neighborhood where it will stand tall. Photo by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

For visual artist Ana Teresa Fernández, the ability to express herself in her work is a great privilege. You could call it a dream come true.

Fernández was 11 when she migrated to the United States from Mexico with her family. The move opened her up to a range of opportunities.

“If I were to have stayed in Mexico, I would have never been able to become an artist,” she said. “There’s just no way, shape, or form that that would have been an option for me.”

Her latest work is a tribute to the power of dreams, in the form of a public art installation in San Francisco that challenges residents to embrace their own “freedom to dream.”

Fernández took a community-first approach, involving residents every step of the way, from students at nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School to the fabrication shop where she worked on the 10-foot-high shining blocks that spell out the word “DREAM.” It’s a strategy that informs her work.

“I go into different communities and try to enhance what’s beautiful within that community—especially when they have lost faith in themselves or have lost faith in what’s possible,” she said.

On Friday, Fernández will unveil “DREAM” with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which commissioned the work, and San Francisco Public Works, a co-sponsor.

I spoke to Fernández about her art, her dreams, and how her latest installation will inspire its largely immigrant community. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

What is the focus of your work?

I’ve been invited to work all over the world, and every time I get invited someplace, there’s always a cry for what’s needed, and that’s where I step in. I just listen to community members and I try to incorporate what their needs are.

Ten-foot-tall letters spell the word DREAM, a shiny take on the Hollywood sign and a reminder of the importance of dreaming. Photo by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I did a public intervention at the U.S.-Mexico border, the one I crossed, called “Erasing the Border.” I went there in 2011 and painted a portion of the border sky blue, so from far away, it looks like a portion of it is missing. Since then, I’ve been invited to different locations of the border to do similar work. I’ve done it in three different states over the years. For me, art is a platform to encourage a discussion about ideas: who we are, and what we want out of our community.

What inspired your DREAM installation?

When I was still a graduate student, there was so much street art happening. I met this incredible old-school artist named CUBA, and we became really good friends. He’s a much older, African-American street artist. We drove around the city, and he literally took me to all the special spots that he thought were mecca for street artists and graffiti artists.

Once, he took me to this place in Bayshore, which is this industrial, blue collar area (in San Francisco). In Bayshore, there’s this one area underneath the freeway, and there’s this really large building and it’s completely wrapped with the word “dream,” over and over and over again. There’s thirty-some different styles in which the word dream is depicted.

Many years later, I would drive by this building, and every time I saw it I would light up. It just made me think, “what are my dreams?” And I remember thinking, I wish this was more visible, I wish people could see it more.

So I told Rebeka Rodriguez, who now works as the Civic Engagement Manager at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, I have this idea.

Everything is about the community. It's being made by the community, and it's for the community.

I drove her out and I said, “what would you think of this big letter piece that just spells out dream on top of this building?” She said, “well if you could dream big, do you really think it should be on top of the building?” I said, ‘I think it should be on the hillside, a little bit above it, and I think it should be like the Hollywood sign.”

How does your installation impact the community?

That hillside on which it will be installed is visible from four different freeways coming into the city. It’s the entryway into the city. But it’s also a forgotten area of the city. It’s a part of the community that needs to be invigorated with public art. There’s so much there that we can tap into.

Little by little, we’ve already started engaging the community. We’ve started working with Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, and bringing in music teachers, having the kids write songs about “Dream.” Next, we want to bring in an architecture teacher into the classroom to talk to the kids about what their dream community would look like.

We’re literally involving the community in the art. The fabrication shop we’re working in is in the community. Everything is about the community. It’s being made by the community, and it’s for the community.

What are your dreams?

I’m incredibly privileged. My parents were allowed to bring my family to the United States from a really small town in Mexico. That just widened and broadened our possibilities of who we could become. If I were to have stayed in Mexico, I would have never been able to become an artist. There’s just no way, shape, or form that that would have been an option for me. Being allowed to actually think that I could be an artist, that was a whole trip in itself. I thought I was going to be a language teacher, study linguistics—something much more structured.

I am living my dream as a Mexican, woman artist, being able to do work all over the world and across borders.

How can I pass on that enormous sense of opportunity? I am living my dream as a Mexican, woman artist, being able to do work all over the world and across borders. I never thought I could dream of being what I’ve become. And slowly, as I keep pushing the boundaries, I’m constantly made more aware of what I can do.

My installation is kind of like the Hollywood sign. When you think of Hollywood, you think of the stars, and actors and actresses. Here, we’re asking “Who is allowed to dream these days? Who has the possibility to really fulfill their desires? How are we being limited by what we have access to?” It’s a huge call to action. Let’s expand our freedom to dream, and really push that.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.