*Note: Deviating from the usual format of Panthéon en Cour, the interview was conducted in different languages. The English translation is transcribed below.
“The only art is poetry,” Roberto Mendoza Ayala asserts with his sonorous voice, in English. “It is the base for all of the arts.” It is from this ancient lineage of spoken and written word that Roberto took his first artistic breath over forty years ago via the derivations of song writing, musicianship and singing. A native of Mexico by way of Nuevo Laredo, a border city in the state of Tamaulipas separated from its American counterpart (Laredo, Texas) by the Rio Grande and a lifelong citizen of Mexico City, Roberto holds an international regard for art and thrives on the sensibilities of more than one world, a theme that has been his companion on his ever-changing paths.
At 58, his austere humility and frank, elegant manner paints the image of a man free of the conceit that burdens younger, newer artists but does not conceal a shy, energetic purpose that reveals itself when in proximity to art. Yet it is amazing to discern how a scientific, process-driven mind co-exists peacefully with the nebulous id of an artist (a kindred trait shared with the posthumous Mexican icon – both feminist and otherwise – Frida Kahlo) to find success in the professional world of graphic design. His works, created in a variety of formats from silk screen to pencil and ink can be seen for what they are: a validation that poetry is indeed the matriarch of creative expression.
Though art flows freely in Mexico, the government is its single largest patron, making grant procurement the highest endeavor an artist in that country can achieve. This same political climate which gave Roberto opportunities to work (he spent much of his creative energy supporting election campaigns during the 90’s and aughts) also necessitated his pied--terre. The ironic pressures of fluctuating safety for citizens who choose free expression present a challenge. His wife is a journalist. Mexico has the highest mortality rate for that profession than any other country, a place where its social issues are in part backed, or thwarted by, drug cartels behind the scenes. In 2012, he moved to New York City, yet another familiar path, as in his youth he flirted with the possibilities of creating roots in the United States (he had the opportunity to attend Pratt Institute in his teens, but declined in preference to romance in his home country).
Now his creative world has shifted once again to that of helmsman, a revisit to a path he walked in Mexico over twenty years ago; the development of a small independent press (Darklight Publishing) that specializes in publishing bilingual poetry. A student of the late , one of Mexico’s most beloved poets, Roberto forwards the base of all arts by supporting those with a passion to write, just as he was.
Despite his proven experience and successes throughout his journeys – procuring a fledgling career highlight as the international contest winner for the bicentennial poster of the French Revolution and creating De Neza York a Nueva York, an international poetry collaboration that connected two countries and was honored at the Palacio de Bellas Artes with national news coverage (its United States equivalent was held at the Mexican consulate on the Lower East Side, a positive milestone despite the anti-Mexican vitriol supported by the current U.S. administration) – Roberto betrays no disappointment with his comparatively sedate position in the artistic world. He has made peace with his limitations, his choices which have advanced him and altered his course. He asserts that his limitations are his fortune. Fortune, he admits with a sage tilt of his head, is inherently impermanent. He is satisfied and grateful to re-travel his artistic paths again and again with joy, never finished.
What medium of art do you express in?
I am a designer by profession. I studied industrial design and graphic design. I spent many years in graphic design.
When did you decide that this art form was the platform that would help you best express yourself?
I set up an office trying to get industrial design jobs, but everything was taking me to graphic design to the point (where) I had to obtain a master’s degree in graphic design to justify my presence and fine-tune my knowledge in that field.
Who or what set you on this path (aka your inspiration)?
My inspiration, since childhood, were Mexican graphic artists. Every Sunday we went to visit my grandmother’s house and I saw a supplement in the newspaper in Mexico, The Excélsior, where each week they put the work of a different artist – Vicente Red, or many (other) artists of the sixties and seventies. That caught my attention and I cut out the pictures that appeared in that supplement and stuck them on the wall of my room. I made a kind of mural. Since then, I was inspired by the graphic design, by the colors, the abstract painting, the Mexican geometrism. Kasuya Sakai, Vicente Red, Matías Goeritz; I was influenced by all the Mexican artists and (they) later made me think of the idea of studying graphic design.
What is your educational background around your art (self-study, professional/personal trainer, school etc)?
I studied industrial design as a first choice. Since I have varied interests, I thought that industrial design combined my artistic, scientific and technical interests all in one place. Although later I specialized in graphic design.
What personal value do you get out of working in your art form?
Personal value is a great inner satisfaction that I feel when finishing a job. It may be something that has occurred to me, such as a poster that I have designed on my own initiative, to a commercial job that someone orders. When processing and finishing it gives me great satisfaction to observe the result and the reactions of the people to whom I give or show. That satisfies me, it fills me up a lot personally.
What value do others receive from your art? (ex: do you teach, do you have a business, is it strictly personal, etc)
For me, it has been rather what I have been able to give to others through the commercial (art), people who have used, and to date still use some of the designs or logos that I have made. It gives me great satisfaction to know or to see suddenly that they are still being used, that they are in the market and I find them. I’m glad that something I did twenty or thirty years ago continues to serve properly for what people wanted, which was the intention. As for teaching, that is something that I do not (do often). I’m very desperate, the students are not…it’s not my thing, it’s not my field. I would very much like sometimes to be able to teach or transmit something, but at the same time I do not consider myself so prominent in my field as to have the impulse to teach others. It is not false modesty, but I simply know that there are people who really have many more accomplishments than I do in the field of graphic design, infinitely, and a much better disposition to teach others.
What is something about your art form that you know, but perhaps people don’t know but should know?
What I do, which is graphic design, and what I have done for many years is always the solution to a problem posed by someone; it can be a political campaign or a totally commercial object. The solution always goes through an analysis of all the factors of the problem, which are integrated into a graphical solution. So in the end, it is very easy for any observer to say, ‘I like’, or, ‘I do not like’, and leave aside all analytical aspects, everything that was done on the way to arrive at a certain graphical conclusion. It is inevitable: not everyone can see it. Everyone has an urgency to get their work and for me, it is understandable and it is part of what needs to be (created). Sometimes one makes beautiful designs, or (designs) that I consider beautiful. Even my colleagues say, ‘It is not possible, this is beautiful. And why did not they accept it?’ Well, that’s the way it is.
What boundaries (physical or mental) do you cross to access your best art-space, or “zone”?
The barriers or physical borders do not really exist. I think that as long as you have the layout and you can express it, you can do it manually or you can do it on computers with a program (or) very advanced design software. Obviously the new generation – the youth – know and manage infinitely better than I do. The programs of design, software and specialized, especially those of animation, which already include movement or three-dimensional things. They are already very complex programs that I do not handle, although I have the idea. I can make a sketch in two or three dimensions in plane, but (animation)? That belongs to the new generations and their dominion over the computers and the programs. That would be my physical barrier. The mental barrier is not really there.
What are some lines that you will not cross with your art (time and energy-wise, people or lifestyle-wise)?
The lines I would not cross are always those of respect for others. I have some awareness of respect for what others may believe. Religion, for example; to certain things or that other people may feel offended by something that I do, express or draw that is very explicit and that attacks them visually. That barrier does not interest me to transgress. I am aware that the artist is a transgressor – that to advance the art, (he/she) has to go throwing (away) what is established, needs to go “transgressing”. However, I think there are ways to turn that around and make an honest art without having to be aggressive. There are people who make their art permanently transgressing against others, and we have people who do it trying to be perhaps more diplomatic – or whatever you call it – but (I) do it pleasantly.
What role does the current state of our world (political, social, environmental) play in influencing your art?
There are things that help artistic expression. Of course, every momentous event, especially the great things that are happening in the world, the struggle between the East and the West, or Islamism-Christianity, which is a renewed version, all this is something that drives many people to do the current art. Immigration, for example, the problem of Syria, the current problem of Mexicans – I am Mexican – is encouraging many people to do works of art to express their discontent or simply to point out to others the moment we are living. Both on the Muslim-Christianity side, the Middle East-Europe as well as the Mexico-United States immigration issue, with all this there is a great movement in art and many artists are working around these two major issues. In my case, I am not a “pure” artist, I am a designer – I do works on my own initiative or by commission, but I am not someone who is constantly setting up something to influence politically, as some artists do. Those are the things that I think at this moment make art flow. There are social events that have influenced my last works, which are posters of a social type referring to work, housing, and education which I have sent to contests, and such situations, at a world level, influence us a lot. On the other hand, there are the most recent political events, in which I have not had direct participation on my own initiative but I participated as a designer for political campaigns in my country, Mexico, for some political parties.
What are some tools (technology or material) that help you best express your art?
The artist has to use the tools of his time. And for me, these tools are the design programs. Everything still starts from the manual stroke, an idea that you have to sit (down) first to sketch. Although there are already devices with which to create directly on the screen, the paper still serves to relax and (allow one to) think freely. From there, you go to the stage of using the design programs: Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, that I know how to handle, but with my limitations, because there are already extremely advanced versions that the younger generations dominate to perfection.
What are some personal habits that you employ to successfully support your artistic expression?
Habits, if you can call it habits, are (for example) certain constancy. I like to write down what I want to do and set goals on a calendar. I know by that date I have to present a poster for a contest, or in the case of a political campaign – that is inevitable – they say, ‘we need for the following week a brochure with these characteristics.’ Then you must have discipline. I know many people who have great talent as artists or designers, but who unfortunately have no discipline. So what’s up? Although their talent can be immense, it is lost because they do not arrive on time, do not deliver on time, or (simply) let the moment pass. It is a way of doing things. Finally, one is free to do what he wants. In my case, as I am not so talented, I must resort to discipline to do in my life something that can be moderately successful.
What event in your life, personal or artistic, that has caused you to question what you were doing (failure, or low point)? Do those moments come, or still come, into play at this stage in your career?
Are you asking me about an occasion when I felt frustrated, about something that did not go well? Yes, it is painful that many times I have participated in competitions – I made a poster, a proposal, presented it with great enthusiasm because in my opinion it was an honest proposal, graphically well-resolved – and yet received no award, not even a mention, a comment, nothing. When that has happened, which has happened many times, it frustrated me momentarily for two or three days. But after that I react, I return to my level of awareness of what I am doing, my abilities and limitations, and I go again.
What project, past completed are you most proud of? Tell us a little about that.
There are many. I have won some contests and those have given me a lot of satisfaction. One was my poster of the bicentennial of the French Revolution. It gave me great satisfaction. I was very young, it was a good inspiration, it was very pleasing for me to have won that award among so many young and old designers. I won other logo contests. Political campaigns in which I have made logos, design of fences, flyers; even a well-made flyer that has a positive effect on people, is satisfactory. Obviously, the jobs in which many people congratulate you or admire you for that are very grateful for.
It’s been said that a fanatic redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goals; what are some telltale signs that a project is past its prime? At what point do you get the hint that it may be time to switch gears and go another way?
It is true that a project must have a definite conclusion time, and it can happen what you have mentioned – that you obsess about doing something that you do not reach because you do not have the capacity, the means or a good idea, and time passes and then comes the moment when you have to finish it. You honestly have to say, ‘I will present this. I know it is not the best I was looking for, but it is an honest proposal, something that will serve someone, that will work graphically for someone and there I will leave it. I know it could have been better but I can not find a way to do it better.’ And at that moment you leave it, and you conclude it.
What project are you working on this moment that you would like people to know about?
The project I am currently working on is a publishing house called Darklight Publishing, in which we are doing bilingual English-Spanish poetry books, and I am serving as a link between Mexico and the United States – between the poets of both countries – at the same time. I actively participate in the design of the books: graphic design, covers, illustrations, whether as creative or supervising and editing, seeing that the composition of the pages is pleasant, the fonts, the sizes. That is the project that is now linking my graphic interest with my literary interest.
What are your thoughts on collaboration? Do you feel it necessary to your art form?
It is definitely needed. At this moment for this editorial project the participation of others is necessary. There is no other way to do it. Making a graphic design, a poster or a logo can be a personal matter in principle, but making books is definitely a team effort. There are even things that no longer depend on you: the printing, certain marketing issues, how the books you sell are sold – that is beyond your control. There are certain things that you should know and control, but there is a big part that is totally outside of that. It must definitely be a team work.
Do you consider imitation to be a form of flattery?
Imitation is something I have never liked. Let’s see what imitation is: you can do a work based on the idea of others, or the way others did, even the old ones, Dürer, whatever you want. But frankly in my opinion, at this time, we are already falling a lot in(to) plagiarism, where many people are taking what others do and are using it as a sampling and integrating it into their work briefly, almost like opening and closing quotation marks around the job. The truth does not seem so honest. It is difficult not to have influences from others. We all have literary influences, graphs, etcetera. But an influence to open plagiarism is very different. Unfortunately, there are many examples of plagiarism in any artistic, graphic or literary field.
What’s the biggest competitive aspect of your art form?
I think the most competitive aspect in my case, I think I have two or three, is honesty. Every job I do is about being original; I never seek, as many people do, for it to resemble something, or to imitate the work of other countries or places. I always seek that what I do is absolutely original, has something of its own, does not resemble other things. It is very difficult, but I have succeeded. That is a value. And another is related to discipline and that is to fulfill what one is asked. In this case, if it was a graphic work, if it has a delivery date, meet that date. If it is a book – (to date), fortunately we (Darklight) have a little more than a year operating – I have fulfilled my artists, my writers, handing over their books on time, reviewing them. I think that is very valuable: to comply and be disciplined.
Top 3 Distractions – Go!
My three distractions – whoever has theirs – are that apart from doing this artistic work of editing and graphic design, I have a parallel life as an entrepreneur in which I am subject, day by day, to business situations that I must attend if I want to preserve my independence to continue doing the artistic work that I want. So that’s a great distraction. Obviously, I would prefer not to do any business and dedicate myself to creating freely, but that at the moment is impossible. I know there are people who do. To the artists of “red bone” as we call them (in Mexico), they do not care if they have to pay the rent, the light, the water, the telephone – they do not care about that – and they dedicate themselves to their art, which is one way of doing things. However, (this) causes many discomforts, and I do not like discomforts. I prefer to do a job that (provides a living) and in parallel to have a life as an artista. The things that rob me of energy … there are situations (I could not say something that really “robs” me of energy because everywhere I find something positive) which catches my attention or leaves a teaching. The family – my children – even when sometimes you leave some things to go with them always the balance is positive because you see or find things or situations that you can later apply in what you are doing. Although at first they can be distracting, in the end they prove not to be.
Dream project (if money, personnel, equipment, location were no object)?
If money or equipment were not the problem, I would love to be a great publisher with many artists, making books for poets, illustrators for books, making online or printed editions of beautiful books. Maybe someday I’ll get to that. At the moment I can not do that. It costs money. Everything has an economic value, that’s the world. If there were no limitation, I would immediately found a publishing house and disseminate artistic projects. I think it is also a way to help the world, because if people have beauty nearby, somehow that removes the evil people, or diminishes it.
What advice do you recommend to someone who is just getting started?
I can give advice because I am 58 years old, not because I am successful as an artist. But the advice I would give to any young person is that he is always disciplined, respectful of others and above all, responsible for his life, his clients, his employees and – if any – (his) family. I believe that if you are fortunate enough to combine discipline and responsibility you can – if not what we call “success”, which many people equate to money – live reasonably well and be satisfied with what you do honestly, and others will recognize (you for it).