Local artist and arts educator Ruben Castillo expands on his foundation of drawing into etchings, sculptures and installations examining themes of intimacy through the subject of domestic objects. Quiet scenes of domesticity represent not only the relationships between people, but also between people and the objects inside the spaces they occupy. Enjoy our interview with the artist.
Introduce yourself and describe your work and the media/genre you work in.
My name is Ruben Castillo, I use he/him/his pronouns. I was born in Dallas, TX and moved to Kansas City in 2008 and have lived in the area ever since. I received an MFA in Visual Art from the University of Kansas and a BFA in Printmaking from the Kansas City Art Institute. My work addresses themes and images of intimacy, queerness, place and the body, using a range of media including drawing, printmaking, installation and video.
What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
This is probably cheating because it’s two things, but I have to have pencil and paper of some kind. Drawing is my foundation––when I was a kid, a sketchbook and some kind of pencil or pen were always at my disposal. Everything is an extension from a drawing.
Who do you consider your main artistic influences?
I’m always so amazed when I learn about a project by Felix Gonzalez-Torres that I didn’t know before. It’s not just his artistic projects either, but his entire life is so fascinating to me. His writing in particular is so tender and poignant. His particular sensitivities to the world around him unveil this utopic future where things are so still and quiet. It is very much not the world we live in, especially today. Everything he did was so beautiful while deftly critiquing larger systems.
Beyond that though, I love going through art history and looking at drawings, prints and photographs and seeing methods artists would use to tell their stories. I find myself looking more at the how than the why when I look at art. Things like, “How is this drawn, how is this made, how do you do this particular action, how do you tap into a particular feeling.” Discoveries influence me.
Growing up in the 90s, I was so fascinated by how-tos and instructionals, but being a young student during No Child Left Behind’s problematic roll-out has certainly impacted me. While we were taught material, there was significant attention brought towards how to take these tests and how to narrow down your answers, to even being able to just guess the right one. In a way we all felt like covert agents trying to cheat the system. I see this desire in my students now for an answer and wanting to know “what are you looking for?” I always turn the question back onto them and they don’t know the answer, which can be sad. I feel like there is even more of a demand for methods and just being told “how do I do this,” from social media therapy accounts, to online tutorials, to astrology, all giving us a language to start understanding something. This mindset, as well as its flaws, of needing to know something are deeply influential to me and the type of work I make.
What’s the most challenging thing about your creative process? How does your work start and become your end vision?
I think trusting the unknown and trusting the process are the hardest things. You can start with a reference all you want, but the point of the artwork is to deviate from the model you’re referencing (at least in my opinion). Good art, in my eyes, works like poetic metaphor. Ocean Vuong writes about metaphors showing us something we can logically or sensually connect to but taking us somewhere we don’t expect. It’s the journey of seeing something and then feeling another thing entirely, and that’s a really challenging thing to pull off. That doesn’t mean that we should be scared to fail though. You won’t know where something goes if you don’t engage with it to begin with. Not acting is probably a true failure.
What areas of art are you hoping to grow and develop?
I’ve recently taught myself how to do copper engraving and want to do more. Not many US academic Printmaking programs teach copper engraving but it has been a fun process to become involved in (shoutout to James Ehlers at Emporia State University who runs a prolific engraving program there and first introduced me to the technique). Besides that though, I never feel like I have a “mastery” in any of my areas of art. Someone else can ascribe that title to me, but it doesn’t suit how I feel. Anytime I teach a drawing or printmaking course or any technique, I am always learning something new about the process or trying something different. I want to stay curious about the mediums I use and have an openness to learning anything new. There are too many variables within art––change one small thing and the entire process can unveil something new. I like that a lot.
My JC Library Recommendations:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
This book is incredible. Vuong’s writing is beautiful and hits you at your core. The content can be difficult, but the places it takes you are hopeful and affirming. Vuong’s thoughts on metaphor have been deeply influential to me.
Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
I think this film is so campy and wonderful. I remember seeing this for the first time before I had come out and the queer subtext of the film was immediate to me. It felt so bizarre to come from a mainstream franchise horror film and was a profound moment for me to understand queer subtexts and seeing my own desires and anxieties play out on film. I also think it’s a worth sequel to the first Wes Craven film, which is also one of my favorite movies.
Queer x Design by Andy Campbell
This book is an incredible resource! I teach a class at KCAI called The (Printed) Queer Archive where we look at public collections of LGBTQIA+ materials, and students are encouraged to unearth objects from the past in order to envision a new future. This book was immensely helpful to me in my research, and I was even able to have Campbell lecture to my students last Spring when I first taught the course.
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene A. Carruthers
This is an incredible resource to really open and expand the ideas of what an intersectional future could look like. The summer of 2020 should have opened everyone’s eyes and minds to possibilities beyond what already exist to support and nourish the Black lives, but it can be difficult understanding where to start. This is a great place to begin, from true testimony and practical experience. Remember, but before you even check this out, remember to always check in with your own body and have the ability to be open and receptive to the full thought and alternative.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture by Jonathan Katz
A fantastic catalogue of work exploring LGBT themes. While it is a little dated by this time, there are still themes within it that resonate today. Know your past so you can look towards the future. I also encourage everyone to look up not just this exhibition, but some of the criticism of the exhibition, particularly around the exclusion and removal of artist David Wojnarowicz’s work from the show and similar acts of censorship around art.