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Wisconsin Native Rafael Salas on Art and Identity

Wisconsin-born artist Rafael Salas grew up on a farm. And those rural landscapes still find their way into his paintings and installations. But so does a lot more, as he explores many genres of art with his students at Ripon College and in his own studio.

Salas describes his current projects as depicting “natural occurrences as well as man-made events and architectur,e which complement and conflict.” It’s work that is currently on view through late February at Latino Arts in an exhibit called Pastoral Testimony.

Salas' own art practice is admittingly "schizophrenic," moving from three dimensional to paintings, from installations to abstract art. This change in his work is often influenced by his experience teaching other artists and helping them find their best interests. “I will help them find artists and outlets that work for them, but then along the way I get interested,” Salas explains.

“Artists, I think in general, often are kind of in their own minds, and so being in the studio by myself with a challenge at hand is really one of the most interesting things that I do,” he adds.

"Longing" 2016, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 14” x 36”
Credit Courtesy of Rafael Salas

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For Salas, connecting with his Mexican-American heritage is "kind of a can of worms." In the past, he never approached his artwork through the lens of cultural identity because of his background growing up in a small town populated mostly by white people. Salas was considered Mexican, but he did not speak Spanish and often felt displaced in both the white and Mexican-American communities.

Now, however, Salas is more comfortable and able to use his identity to establish a better reflection of himself and his work's motivation.

“I’m very proud and very happy to bring my artwork to these communities, but honestly I often feel like maybe I’m an outlier in both so I’m never quite sure how I can best communicate,” he says. “I hope I can communicate to those kids, or I hope I can communicate my ideas to Latino communities as well as the white community. But I’m not sure if I do it well or if I’m doing it correctly, I think I’ve been battling that for my entire life.”

Salas notes that whether his art is shown in a Latino community, in a college gallery or in the Third Ward, the artwork itself should always take precedence along with each individual's interpretation of it.

“It’s enough of a struggle to an artwork off of the ground and to get it built and to communicate what I want," he explains. "So if I put it in a framework and say I’m going to fit it into cultural identity or into a certain sort of political viewpoint, it seems like it adds a complication I don’t even know if I could take on.”

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.