Mythology and cycle of life inspires Kill Joy’s work
September 10, 2019
When the morning light broke on Labor Day in downtown Corpus Christi, a new work of art adorning one of the city’s walls was illuminated. It was in an inconspicuous location near the intersection of Schatzell and North Chaparral, resting on the side of one of the many old buildings in the area whose facade clearly bore the traces of time.
In the middle of the piece was a face, but it was unlike any one would encounter on a casual walk down the street. It was like an organic, psychedelic collage, knotted natural elements undulating around each other to outline features: a crown of teeth, two sets of eyes, honeycomb-like orbs on the head reminiscent of Mickey Mouse ears.
On either side of this centerpiece were three other faces representing an animal. For those who may be familiar with the work of the artist known as Kill Joy, they would recognize them as totems from a series she produced based on what she termed “prisoners of domestication” the animals’ humankind has come to exploit and depend upon as a resource.
The piece, a collaboration with local printmaker Ryan O’Malley, was a fitting contribution following Joy’s participation in the Arts Alive festival the preceding weekend where she joined six other printmakers in inviting the community to come watch as they worked around the clock, creating a variety of beautiful and striking pieces.
The trip was a homecoming in some ways, at least in the sense that the Mexico City-based artist has some roots in the state since she grew up in the West Texas oil town of Odessa.
From an early age, Joy developed a love for drawing, a passion that followed her into adulthood. It’s a love, Joy says, that is endemic to all from an early age but can run up against systemic forces that throttle it as the years unfold.
“When people talk about getting a start in art, I think it’s not so much a start in art as it’s a start at life,” Joy said. “Because as children, we’re naturally inclined to create with our hands. We’re naturally very artistic people, and it’s through years that outside things try to take that from us. They tell us, ‘No, you’re not going to make a living off of art. No, you can’t be in a creative living. No, you have to do this.’ It’s actually things outside of us that try and mold us into not being these creative people that we naturally are.”
Such is the perspective Joy took with her when she moved to Mexico City in 2014 and, along with her partner Mazatl, founded Estudio Mitl, the project through which the two collaborate. Since the founding of the studio, the two have also been able to engage in travel projects, such as a trip to Honduras in 2016 as part of the first stage of the Cuma Project.
Planned and guided by the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization that struggles for environmental justice and indigenous rights, the trip saw Joy, Mazatl and their friend Stinkfish join others as they travelled through various villages over the period of a month, erecting several murals along the way. The group trekked to each location by foot, hiking for hours before being welcomed in the next community where they would stay for a few days or a week, sometimes sleeping on the floors of schools and sharing meals of rice and beans with their hosts.
The trip occurred at a time of heightened political tensions in the region. According to a blog post on Justseeds written by Mazatl, environmental activist Berta Cáceres, one of the co-founders of COPINH, was assassinated in her home shortly before their arrival. The assassination came amid an ongoing campaign against the damming of the Gualcarque River, which Joy said gives sustenance and life to all the indigenous communities that live on its path.
“The Cuma Project is an initiative aimed to bring awareness to indigenous struggles within Central America,” Joy said. “And so one way to approach that is by painting conscious murals around indigenous communities to not only bring awareness to an outside world and share it on social media or whatever, but also to show indigenous communities that they do have support. That they’re not in this fight alone.”
An engagement in such struggles, and the intersection that engagement has with art, is something one might glean from Joy’s work. The designation isn’t so much one she feels her identity is tied to, but rather something that stems naturally from her principles.
“As a person, I’m not gonna describe myself as just an artist,” said Joy. “I’m so much more than an artist. As a human being, I enjoy making art, but a person’s responsibility is to themselves. Like, I would never consider myself a political artist or what they call a movement artist, but a lot of my ideology has a political message, so that’s gonna come across in my art.”
While a political dimension may be present in her work, so too are the aspects Joy cites as some of her main influences: mythology, nature and memento mori, an artistic reflection on mortality. These elements feature prominently throughout her work, such as in a series based on Hawaiian folk legends or the Falla Tecnologica series of prints done in collaboration with Mazatl. Like so much of Joy’s work, and that of Estudio Mitl as a whole, the themes intersect and explore the natural dialectic between creation, death and rebirth.
“When you talk about death, you’re also talking about birth,” Joy said. “So anytime you’re talking about death, you’re not talking about the end of something. You’re talking about the beginning of something, and I like to talk about those things in my work. I like to talk about the cycle of death and how they are the same thing. And how there’s this fear, especially in the U.S. culture, of death.
We’re so afraid of death,” continued Joy. “We’re so afraid of aging. We’re so afraid of old people, but it didn’t used to be like that. You revered your elders. You understand that they have wisdom to impart on you. You understand that when you die, and you become part of the earth, you are giving sustenance to the earth to create more life.”
While many of these themes manifest themselves in the printmaking work Joy engages in, her interests extend into a wealth of other mediums: muralism, illustration, sculpture and others. Despite whichever medium she engages with, one aspect that remains principle for Joy is the foregrounding of the process and the piece itself, not so much an explicit centering of the artist. This is, after all, consistent with Joy’s emphasis on the creative process that lays within many modes of life, not simply that of the visual artist.
For Joy, the prevailing tendency to idealize one form of creativity is detrimental to others. In this spirit, the elements of anonymity she and other artists embrace act as a form of levelling through which the process of artistic creation is as natural an occurrence as the cycles defined in the images they carve. In upholding such a perspective, the creativity that resides uncelebrated in the meanderings of daily life reveals itself.
Such is the prospect Joy shares when considering events like the festival and engaging with those who approach those creating artworks: beholden by the process, but perhaps uncertain of the creative capacity they already possess.
“At these kinds of events where there’s so many people,” said Joy, “and I have people come up to me and they’ll be like, ‘I could never do that. I’m not creative. I’m not an artist.’ I think we need to eliminate that kind of thinking and understand that there is so many different ways to be creative. Cooking is a very creative, soulful practice. And if we can see that we can bring creativity in all aspects of our lives, and it doesn’t have to have this final, visual product, that sometimes the creativity is in the process — not in the final outcome — then we can we live more fulfilled, satisfying lives if we see the creativity in ourselves in a daily practice, and not romanticize what an artist does or is.”
Kill Joy’s work can be found on Instagram @kill.joy.mall, and the work of Estudio Mitl can be supported at http://estudiomitl.bigcartel.com.