Cabeza de Barro: Conversation with Nicole Marroquin


“Clay is slow,

you can’t rush it,

you can’t tell it what to do,

it has its own clock, and you have to wait for it to choose you.” – Artist Nicole Marroquin

The first time I met Artist Nicole Marroquin was last year when she was patiently teaching volunteers how to make clay bowls for the Pros Arts Studio’s Pozolada. A year later she is part of an exhibit called Cabeza de Barro at the National Museum of Mexican Art. From across the room on opening night I see Nicole surrounded by her red clay torsos, friends and colleagues. I am intrigued by Nicole’s artwork so I decide to reach out and find out a little more about her work and what moves her to create.

When I arrive to her house for the interview I am delighted to see the front gate is full of pastel ribbons.  An artist definitely lives here, I think. The door opens and her daughter and their beautiful tiger striped greyhound Boss greet me. Nicole has been working in her art studio in back and has just made her way into the house and gives me a warm welcome.

“Our ancestors are in the clay,” she says and that’s when I notice her strong hands holding the purple teapot. “There are some days I’m covered in red clay”, she says blissfully. I ask her why she enjoys working with this material so much and she points out that, “Clay feels and looks alive when it’s wet and you can hold it in your hand. It’s also completely quiet and it smells like a rainy day or the woods and can be medicinal and suck infections out of wounds.

I ask Nicole about her first encounter with clay and she says, “ I had access to clay when I was a child and was using the wheel at an early age but after that I wasn’t around it for a long time. Later she began teaching clay at an elementary school in the Humbolt Park neighborhood and began working with it again.  Her students and “their joy of clay” were so infectious she ended up taking a clay class herself and that’s when the hard-core love affair began. “I became a cheerleader for clay,” she says.

Prior to working with clay Nicole spent many years focused on figure drawing and printmaking.  She began taking anatomy, weight and dimensions much more seriously however she says, “I never want to go back to figure drawing now that I work with clay but figure drawing does inform the work I do today.”

When I saw her work displayed at the National Museum of Mexican Art one of the things that struck me about these life size torsos was how she was able to skillfully capture facial expressions of each one of her subjects. Each mirada seems to follow you across the room. You almost expect one of the torsos to come to life and begin to move about. “When I undertake sculpture and make things to scale it takes a lot of momentum and energy and takes a few weeks of working with the clay because it demands constant physical contact or it will dry up before the work is finished”, says Nicole.

After creating a series of work Nicole is completely exhausted, “it’s like I just gave birth and don’t want to participate in any baby making activities for a while ”.  For Nicole the creativity comes in waves and she likes to give herself some space between projects to recharge.

Nicole enjoys working in schools and with people and it helps her generate ideas for her own artwork. In her most recent exhibit Cabeza de Barro her contribution was to focus on people who live in the Pilsen neighborhood. “It’s like creating an effigy of that person and bringing that person into the space where I like to show how we are relative to each another.” She views the Pilsen neighborhood as an extension of the border on a local level. When you look at her work on display you will see arms, hands, heads and torsos all floating on display, “it comes down to body in flesh and state policies and how they effect bodies,” says Nicole.

I asked Nicole about the social justice component that she incorporates into her artwork she says, “Art making is an outlet for my social justice desires. Working with my hands I meditate on problems and consider solutions. It’s important to be local in your efforts and bite off what you can chew.” Nicole, originally from Texas, is also obsessed with third space and homeland. She likes to explore ideas of borders, non-spaces and places in between and the impact it has on the people living there and passing through those places.

If you are an artist in Chicago you know what a luxury it is to have a space to create your work. Nicole is excited to show me her 10×20 studio filled with clay, molds and paintbrushes.  She picks up a piece of clay she has been working on and says, “being able to pick up a piece of this earth that let’s us reside on it is a powerful experience.”  Her studio has no heat but I’m sure it’s something café con piquete can cure.

You can view Nicole Marroquin’s work at the National Museum of Mexican Art now through May 15, 2011 or She is also an assistant professor of arts education at the Art Institute.

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