Before we go any further, Elio Garcia, born and raised in Milwaukee’s South Side, wants you to breathe: “Take a moment to close your eyes, look within, gather up whatever feelings you have that are causing you distress or worry. Gather them up and let them pass through you as you breathe. You have one duty I want to remind you of, a simple one, and that is to do your best to be there for yourself. And by that I mean taking care of oneself in whatever capacity you may forget from time to time. The mind, body, and “spirit” are fragile being that we are mortal beings; they need care and love as a garden does. Tend to your garden.”
Hopefully, you have more of yourself centered now. I’ve found it improves my processing of Garcia’s work, which includes poetry/prose, video, painting/drawing, mixed-media painting, sculpture/installation, and garment up-cycling. With breathing as a (re)centering tool, the physicality of making art can be clearly as important to Garcia as his research into specific inspirations, such as the combination of spirituality and science; and the effects of the prison industrial pipeline.
Todd Wellman: What is “art” to you? Why do you focus on it so much in your life?
Elio Garcia: “Art” is anything that evokes human emotion and thought. Many things we don’t consider, due to gatekeeping by stakeholders or academia, are art. Like the way we speak, the way we dress ourselves, the way we place things in our home or outside, even the way we often multitask to keep up with the world and the demands society places on individuals. We are creatures of habit/pattern, and in those patterns, there are a lot of beautiful intricacies. I have spent so much of my 27 years of life being around and creating art not because I have a knack for it but because it is deeply embedded for every human to do so in some capacity. Art grounds me in my lived experiences and brings people together. I can be very critical of the world we live in, just as the next person, but parallel to that I see the endless opportunities of building together, coming together, and documenting our nature and history through what we call ‘art’. I feel “art”, generally speaking — aka creativity — is a bridge among time, space, culture, and beauty.
TW: Art doesn’t have to be proven to be valuable. Sometimes, though, we have to do things like write grants for the arts. What are some arguments for supporting arts?
EG: Supporting the arts is not just supporting some form of human activities we have contributed to for thousands of years. It is supporting a way we make marks in time that we will be able to look at and learn from as long as we exist as a species. Not only is there community that is grown or upheld through the arts, there is also necessary discourse that happens through the arts. Art is the way you make dreams come into fruition, how you make sense of the world around you, how you decorate the world with a moment of reflection. I feel the more art is embraced, the more we will have a healthy outlet to ground ourselves and to stimulate our ever-changing brains.
Elio Garcia’s It’s Not That Simple presents the interconnections and complexities of two systems of oppression: the Prison Industrial Complex and the War on Drugs. Garcia includes video, sculptural painting, and writing on the ways the United States disproportionately imprisons black and brown bodies; and how incarceration affects individuals, their families, and their communities. While the complexity of the systems are overwhelming, Garcia aims to distill these experiences through his lens of life in the South Side of Milwaukee.
TW: What do you credit for getting you where you are today? What would you tell Elio from a few years ago?
EG: I would be dishonest if I did not credit all the people in life — people who are still here in my life; people who are no longer in my life, who have fallen out of touch; people who have passed away, like my best friend Jorden Ayala or my elders; and even the people who have wronged me or wished failure on me. Everything in my path of life has served its purpose just as I have in many lives of others. I also have to credit being human, being that we are not perfect creatures and some things we do don’t make sense at times. My flaws are to be credited, just as my strengths. Lastly, I credit my family, truly my people I continually learn from in so many ways, not just life skills, but also so much about myself. What makes me inherently me. I lucked out, to be honest.
If I was able to tell my past self something in some sort of sci-fi-esque manner, I would tell myself to unplug from social media more, to care less about what others are doing, and to care more for my well-being first. To take care of my mental health productively, and that what is troubling you now will pass, no matter how hard or closed-in it feels. Lastly, to make sure not to stretch myself thin and make sure to check my vices; there is only so far you can run from what is bothering you. Facing what is causing distress is more helpful in the long run than running through drinking or unhealthy habits. You are trying your best, so make sure to reach out to those you know have your back and love you.
“If I was able to tell my past self something in some sort of sci-fi-esque manner, I would tell myself to unplug from social media more, to care less about what others are doing, and to care more for my well-being first.”– Elio Garcia
TW: What does the future of arts and you look like? What are your hopes?
EG: The future is really hard to see. I mean, we can look at patterns to try to guess the trajectory of the future, but even then what is ahead can only be seen in its time. In regards to the arts, I see the possibility of the unregulated arts market bubble bursting, which is something that will be beneficial to artists themselves, as well as hopefully make some sort of regulations on the market. So much revenue is generated through the arts, yet many artists don’t see half of what is made off their work. Exploitative gatekeepers in the world of arts are making a killing off of art while the artists themselves struggle or get little to no recognition, which I say because these days it’s all about money at the end of it.
I do see the emerging and advancing technologies we have pushing our capabilities in the arts, which is very promising, but again is also a worry of mine. Access and clearly defining what is what gets murky the more technology advances and integrates — but it is so exciting. Quite a loop there.
I hope the arts get embraced more not only by the zeitgeist but especially by the families of individual artists. Support from home is crucial to being an artist: support from your peers, support from your schools, professors, mentors, etc. By support, I am referring to not only support to dreams and goals as an artist, but to social and emotional support as well. This goes for all humans. People often see art as passé or just needing to be cranked out like a machine, but artists are people, and a lot of time, thought, and effort are put into making art, no matter how “easy” it seems. Otherwise, it’s about a lack of understanding or realization of what art is and its importance to us as humans. I am hopeful art is embraced more from an individual’s standpoint as well, that more people are open to trying their hands at art. Not everything is meant to be a masterpiece or make hundreds and thousands of dollars. Sometimes you just need to figure something out or stimulate yourself, to do it because it’s fun and meditative.
As for myself, I am looking to obtain a career in museums to contribute to them and to spark some much-needed change within them. I also am looking to obtain my Master of Fine Arts in the southwest. I am also looking to fully work on and share the documentary-esque series I started in my last year as a student in my undergrad program at The Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. It has to do with documenting individual personal oral history.
For what comes first, time will tell.
This interview has been edited for clarity. Read more about my nonfiction writing here.