In the Studio with Humberto Maldonado

In the studio with Humberto Maldonado, whose nude figures highlight their vulnerability and express their identity and truth. We met with Humberto to tell us more about growing up in San Joaquin Valley of California, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I first saw myself as an actual artist in only 2019. I have been painting regularly since middle school but 2019 was a transformational year for me when I painted a piece that was the first work I finished that actually told a story that reflected me who I am and how I felt in a particular moment in time, not simply a painting I wanted to paint. This painting made me feel seen and truly solidified my ideology as an artist. 

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I come from a family of Mexican Bracero migrant workers who settled in the San Joaquin Valley of California for work, and I was raised splitting time between both countries. Growing up, my parents were absent and left me the responsibility of caring for my younger brother and sister. I was also a child in this situation and was not only affected by a lack of money and the neglect of my parents, but also by physical and emotional abuse that came from my parents, extended family and strangers. I was being abused on all sides and the one thing I could do to escape was create art. When I placed color on paper I was not only coloring, I was creating an escape from my reality. 

Today, my work continues to help me escape from the traumatic residue left by my family in my childhood, but it also helps me to cope and process new challenges and feelings I face everyday as a queer person of color. Trauma is not unique to the queer POC experience, so I try and use my paintings as a way to confront these uncomfortable situations I know other individuals encounter on a daily basis. To this day, I paint because it has been the longest healthy relationship I have had in my life. 

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

As a child I was exposed to art through Catholicism and religious imagery. From idolizing the Virgin of Guadlupe to other religious icons, I became obsessed with the way these figures were depicted, especially in the “Last Supper” by DaVinci. The interactions between these figures put into words what I was incapable of saying out loud. As a child I would escape the world on a sheet of paper with the help of crayons. I  believed in creating to survive because that was my life. I knew I was on the right track pursuing an art career because it is the only thing in my life that ever felt right and that I did well. Today I am as much of a painter as I am a storyteller.

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

The main message in my work is that colonization really made a mess of things and has affected minorities the most,  however there is always hope in our future. Most of the narratives come from little moments of racism, homophobia, and a spark of joy from surviving. My aesthetic continues to evolve into simple forms, lines, and brush impressions.    

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

Most of my creative influences come from my family, childhood memories, & experiences tainted by Catholicism, racism, and homophobia. I take my lived experiences, good and bad, and translate them into art. My artwork draws from Mexican American history with the figurative forms based on primitivism, cubism, and Mexican muralism and most importantly Frida Kahlo. I am also influenced by dramatic Mexican soap operas such as “Teresa”,” La reina del sur” and “Fuego en La Sangre”, I think that may be where some theatricality comes from in my paintings.  

An unexpected source of inspiration?

When I began to understand that my sexual orientation and gender identity is not exactly heteronormative, my life became a game of survival in my traditional Mexican-American household. From keeping my sexual preferences hidden, to only taking a role that is socially accepted. I laughed at any gay joke and I always remembered to blend in. I was the player in this game called “Surviving Homophobia” because I was scared to get caught. Scared my true identity would be discovered. While I have played the game in the past, my art has helped me to quit the game and start to accept myself. Now I paint about identity, gender, trauma and sexuality, something I tried avoiding before 2021. Before this, I was painting family portraits.

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

My hope is that my art can help others heal from their traumas by starting conversations around difficult subjects that are sometimes swept under the rug. I want the viewer to be able to reflect their life and their experiences in my work. I want their narrative to take over and to allow themselves to jump into my world. While I want my art to relate to others, I do not have a particular audience in mind when creating. I don’t even feel like I am present when the work is getting done – it just comes out of me. I know my work can be categorized but my intention is never to exclude anyone from enjoying my work. 

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

I think the pandemic just like many others affected me, it really encouraged me to make a leap of faith. As a queer child growing up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, I always thought of San Francisco as a safe haven and I officially moved to SF at the end of 2020 during the height of the pandemic. My work has been influenced by the landscapes and artistic freedom that the city allows and it has gotten more colorful and less westernized.  

I currently am working on 3 different bodies of work that are very different from each other, but all heavy in passion, diversity and queer forms. If I am being honest, most of my paintings are experimental. None of my paintings are planned; they are done in the moment when inspiration hits.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I usually paint from a survival perspective. There is often an adrenaline rush when the ideas come together and I start to apply paint to canvas. There are times when I try to paint simply for the sake of making art, however, unfortunately for me I don’t have that privilege because my brain doesn’t work that way! It’s like there is someone else inside me who decides how to paint, and I let them take control. I am also a very impatient painter. I’m always rushing the mediums and creating messes. This is why I work with acrylic, because it is fast and I can manipulate the paint easier than with oil paint. At times it feels like I’m taking my anger or passion out on my tool and medium. My work is always affected by my mood. Sometimes I work on one piece and don’t stop until I’m completely done with it, and other times I work on up to five pieces at once. It’s never really a choice and I just let it happen. The only thing I have control over is the concept and amount of pieces I aim to create.

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

One painting included, “And they were Roommates”, was inspired by my relationship with my partner Alex and our dynamic moving in together during the pandemic. In the painting, Alex is depicted working at his home-office with me encroaching on his personal space through a window. This has been our life from the beginning of the pandemic – our spaces becoming intertwined. We became closer when the world became more chaotic. Not only am I invading his space, but so are my woes and traumas. When I moved in with him I brought my issues, my traumas, my fears and my target as a person of color dating a white person. This painting was inspired by my own insecurities with moving in with a white person and I think I am constantly inspired by my insecurities, fascinations, and traumas. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I love performance art and  that is something I would love to explore a little deeper. There is something so intimate about being part of the art and being able to put yourself in a vulnerable position.