Artist Spotlight: Verónica Enns
Originally published at: https://anabaptistworld.org/artist-spotlight-veronica-enns/
Anabaptist World: How did you become an artist?
Verónica Enns: I was born an artist, and today I have the privilege to practice art as an adult.
Growing up in a private Mennonite school, I received enough compliments from my doodles to dream of becoming an artist one day. In Mexican public school, my talent was challenged by competing in painting contests to represent my school, and I usually brought home a first or second place. I loved competing as I got to meet other painters; the contests also gave me an exemption to write math and chemistry exams. My teachers at the Mexican public schools were the first to acknowledge my talent and a possible future career in the visual arts. That planted a seed in me that could not be killed, although other careers, such as a basic accounting assistant or domestic chores staying at home, were encouraged in my days. Thanks to Canada, I was able to study art in a more formal way.
AW: You grew up among traditional colony Mennonites in Mexico. How does this impact your art?
VE: I loved growing up in a Mennonite colony, which I learned to appreciate even more after I moved to Canada, and then a decade later when I moved back to Mexico. There is a special kind of sheltered lifestyle in Mexico. Living off the land was peaceful and slow. Take away the cars, the tractors, and the cellphones, and one could easily live in another time where folks intentionally cherish their heritage of living from the land. I admire that my grandmothers did all sorts of work, from managing the farm and barn, to vegetable gardening, to sewing their own dresses and embroidering beautiful kerchiefs, and tending to their families by encouraging fresh and locally grown foods.
My inspiration for functional ceramics is where the modern term “slow living” is celebrated. Art making is a slow process, as is growing a corn cob. Making functional ceramics is a great way to get attention from my local Mennonite community, as it is unusual for us to create such non-functional vanities.
My community supports me during Christmas and summer markets and lately with pottery that focuses on Mennonite heritage, like mugs and ceramic kerchiefs. In my sculptural ceramics, I express personal and shared views as privileged Mennonite colonizers living on a Mexican landscape.
AW: What role does landscape or physical geography play in your work?
VE: Mexican Mennonites have become leaders in global agriculture, such as by growing corn with genetically modified seeds, but also by using water with little focus on realistic resources. With this development, our contemporary values of living a slower life on the land play an important role in our Mennonite identity, especially in relation to our surrounding Mexican and native cultures. This search of a visual language is what you will find in my art pieces, both celebrating my heritage and also questioning its current loss of identity.
In my paintings, I often use ochres and yellows from the desert landscape and the blue from our sunny skies. These are very beautiful, and I also like to include them on ceramics with glazes. My first art exhibit here in Mexico was called “Viviendo de la Tierra,” translated as “Living of the Land,” where I used cobalt to create a deep blue on a series of bowls with a landscape of birds collecting seeds.
More recently, in “Rituales y el Artista,” an art collaboration with Alfred Cota, a known Chihuahuan sculptor, we depicted individual rituals by expressing Chihuahua and the Sonoran Desert life. Alfred used animals as a mythological conversation, and I threw clay cylinders with an electrical turning wheel and altered the surface with textures and dry crater glazes. Some ceramic glazes I used are very dry to emphasize the thirsty soil. The textural ridges reflect the mechanical plows of our farms, and the cylinder itself as a mechanical intervention with the clay, as is our modern impact on the land.
These expressions are part of the conversation I am having with the Mennonite culture here in north Mexico. There is such a cultural contrast between living right here and the Mennonites’ focus on progress. It is easy to forget the sacred landscape we stand on. I experience deep questions while making these forms, and in an exhibit like “Rituales,” these pieces needed to have this context to be understood better; otherwise, they could easily be appreciated as a functional flowerpot only. These pieces work well with my two audiences: Mennonites who tend to more practical, and the Mexicans who find nostalgia and poetry in every creation.
AW: You also studied art in Vancouver, Canada. How did this influence you artistically?
VE: Canada impacted me greatly and foremost during my formal art formation. At a local university, I was accepted to their fast-track Art Diploma program towards a BA in visual arts. Here for the first time my talent was accepted, and I needed to learn so much about art. I found that art education was much about referencing art history by analyzing and searching for my own visual language. Art history was the highlight for me, even as studying art from the Renaissance to modern contemporary masters was overwhelming.
Art school in Canada was a unique place for a Mexican Mennonite woman to be, but I struggled with culture shock. At the same time, my skills in painting, sculpture, photography and ceramics thrived. Ceramics was the only studio where I felt at home and safe; after all, we were throwing functional pots, and it made me feel useful, like a good Mennonite. However, the analytical skills I learned during art school and the need to acknowledge art history with proper research was the most useful skill to develop my own style and language. It was a good tool to address this gap.
My current art is leaning towards a search in Mennonite arts. In collaboration with my partner and spouse Raul Kigra, we received several grants to travel and do research for a project about contemporary Mennonites. Some special art questions were added upon my request to the interviews, such as, “What is Mennonite art?”
While in Lancaster, Pa., Dayton and Harrisburg, Va., Winnipeg, Steinbach and southern Manitoba, Canada, and, of course, here in Mexico, I asked these questions to several Mennonite artists–musicians, painters, ceramicists, Fraktur artists, art professors, quilt makers and folkloric furniture artists–about Mennonite art and its visual language. I was pleased to learn we had many things in common, but I also learned how migration to Mexico affected the loss of these art practices. I believe formal art training brings to the surface the need to learn about our heritage and to create new practices.
AW: How long have you worked in ceramics? What do you create?
VE: Thanks to my family, I have managed my own private and small ceramic studio here in Mexico since 2015. I have used this special freedom to do some testing of local clays and materials.
In my own work, I have drawn local landscapes on plates and bowls, floral details on mugs and the traditional Mennonite kerchief with an enamel floral decal fired on top of a glazed triangle. These became a bestseller at the Heritage Market held last year during the 100th anniversary of Mennonites here in Mexico. These items are for my Mennonite and Mexican clients. My sculptural ceramics are more of an artistic expression of activism. I create them to grow my formal art curriculum and to develop art exhibits for a wider audience than my local community. I am hoping for international reach one day.
AW: What other artistic media do you work in?
VE: I have painted more than fifteen murals by request here in the Mennonite colonies.
I have not shared these paintings on my social media platforms or website because they are so special. I am still trying to find a way to share with the public. It is here where I find myself in split time periods. One example of a painting request in a traditional Mennonite home was to cover an air conditioner on the ceiling and to decorate it with a tropical scene. The family gave a photograph they took of a recent trip to Mazatlán. This scene included palm trees, clouds and seagulls. Painting in an embellished and stylized form is not a challenge for me, and therefore I started painting the clouds to fade the air conditioner. The best part of this experience wasn’t the painting; it was the process, and I had an audience: four Mennonite kids so very well behaved, they didn’t even make a sound. If I hadn’t checked, I wouldn’t have known they were there.
The only noise was my fast-moving brush and a ticking clock that sang a Beatles song on the hour like a music box. I felt like I was part of Silent Light, the film of Carlos Reygadas. This traditional Mennonite home embraced me with open arms and admired my skills.
The father agreed to pay me a fair fee for this mural. The children were possibly instructed to observe quietly to learn from me, and as it turned out, one of their daughters is very talented. Thanks to WhatsApp, we are connected, and she has shared several times in her status the paintings she has painted in other Mennonite homes. She has painted an identical composition of mine, including the palm trees and clouds. I learned something here that I cannot find in typical art history or academic art books.
For years, I have struggled to call these paintings art, but the experience is surely a form of art. A practical way to cover a visually annoying mechanical device on a ceiling, a decorative and almost baroque-style friendly and colorful painting, a free art lesson for all four kids and a unique conversation piece for future visitors, are all rare to find in a traditional Mennonite home. This is something new. By appreciating a painting, a talent, and a skill, we are starting to grow more culturally.
AW: What do you hope people will learn or appreciate from your work?
VE: Art is relevant to its geographical communities. Art in Vancouver is of a first world perspective with an international scene and background. Traditional Mennonite communities in Mexico see art through a more primitive perspective where function and practicality are often more appreciated. Skill and talent are appreciated more than concept.
I find my current position as an artist challenging and intriguing. I am a practical, functional Mennonite woman trying to make a living from art and also trying to dwell deeper into a meaningful practice where I can aid in the development of Mennonite arts here in Mexico.