Inside Out

Vanessa Wallace-Gonzales goes beneath the surface to examine myth, identity, origin and the subconscious.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Michael Moore


rom Assyrian lamassu to BaKongo ritual masks to Greco-Roman sculpture to the ceramics of Mesoamerica, myth and religion as inspiration for art goes back as far as human civilization itself. It is in this primordial realm where origin, consciousness and imagination collide that Vanessa Wallace-Gonzales resides as an artist.

Her portraits of glorious and colorful beings formed from bits of painted paper and elaborately decorated with twigs, flowers, seed pods, insect remains and, occasionally, bone, hint at something deep within the human subconscious. They are at once familiar and alien, somewhat shadowy and mysterious, hinting at the divine and yet, with their vivid hues and organic material, very much grounded in flesh and blood. It is reality, from the inside out.

“I’m exploring myself and my identity and where things originate from,” says the 26-year-old Ventura native, who is currently wrapping up her term as a guest artist at the CAM Studio Gallery in Oxnard. Wallace-Gonzales’ exhibition, Artifacts from a Butterfly’s Meconium, will be on display through Oct. 4.

The title of the exhibition hints at her inspiration and her process. Meconium is the first fecal matter expelled by a human infant after birth, and by a butterfly after emerging from the chrysalis. For the insect, it is made up of metabolic waste from metamorphosis. It is often red — one of the reasons, perhaps, that the hue is so prominent in Wallace-Gonzales’ work.

“I’ve always been attracted to butterflies,” she says. “I admire the physical evidence of their metamorphosis.” She herself raises butterflies and appreciates the energy it takes for the caterpillar to build its chrysalis, the grotesque form it takes during its transformation, the fact that many won’t survive the process at all. And for those that do, materializing in their lovely winged forms is nearly miraculous.

“It’s a beautiful reminder of the work it takes to change,” Wallace-Gonzales says.

In the ephemeral and precarious nature of the butterfly’s existence she also sees an example of light and dark, life and death. That, too, carries over into her art.

“The duality of existence — that always really intrigues me. That’s something I’m constantly exploring in my work.”

Wallace-Gonzales was born in Santa Barbara but moved to Ventura when she was 11 years old with her family: her mother, a surgical nurse; her younger brother, now a psychology student in New York City; and her grandmother, who originally came from Texas. Her childhood was filled with plenty of both art and science.

“I grew up in a hospital,” she recalls, which gave her a solid understanding of the makeup and functions of the human body — and helped banish any squeamishness. At the same time, she says, “My mom would practice crafts with us. She always believed in being creative.”

After graduating from Ventura High School, Wallace-Gonzales studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. While she has mixed feelings about the setting (“It’s a rough city,” she says of Baltimore), she loved MICA.

“It was a great place to come into my own,” she explains. “It was interesting to be in this space where you could have these discussions while . . . living in a city that’s still pretty segregated. What a culture shock that was for me! I really had to solidify what I was doing there, what I believed, what I stood for.”

She returned to Ventura three years ago and has supported herself by teaching at Vita Art Center (she cites Mary Perez as a mentor) and working at Focus on the Masters. She fell in with the fairly new Oxnard Plain Collective art community, which brought her to the attention of the Carnegie Art Museum. She was offered a residency at the CAM Studio Gallery in May, and her work there has come out of her contemplation of her past and her culture.

“I’m from a family of strong, independent women,” Wallace-Gonzales says. “I’ve been able to witness these traditions that have been passed down, things you inherit.”

One of those traditions came from her Southern grandmother, who cooks black-eyed peas and collard greens every New Year’s Eve. Each family member also receives seven dried peas as keepsakes. “Recently I discovered that the greens represented the darker aspects of life, and the bitterness of the past,” Wallace-Gonzales explains, “while the black-eyed peas were sweeter and creamier, symbols of hope for a prosperous future.” The dried peas were intended as “seeds for future prosperity and growth.”

“I carry them in my purse,” she says with a laugh. “I always have loose black-eyed peas in my purse and drawers.”

Those peas were seeds for her imagination as well. Wallace-Gonzales did some research on peas and greens and their symbolic origin, which she couldn’t pinpoint exactly, but she knows they are very much associated with black culture. This led to musings on her own African American and Latina origins.

“Something that’s different with black culture is that there’s a lot of lost tradition,” she explains. “It kind of leaves you on your own. . . . I started exploring my own mythology and identity as a multiracial black/Mexican woman in this world, being brown in this world today.”

One question she would ask herself was, “What would it be like if our external selves looked like our internal selves? We feel like we have to hide a lot. What would it be like to live in a world where we were truly exposed? It’s really frightening . . . and really inspiring, too.”

In this mythical world where all was exposed, her humanlike “creatures” took shape. She imagines beings that have lost a part of themselves (like aspects of her own culture that can’t be fully deciphered) and replaced them with found objects — hence the plants, animal bits and other embellishments. Some are shown with their mirror images, or with multiple profiles, faces and heads. In one piece, the figure appears to be trying on different masks — a literal manifestation of the many “faces” a person may display to the world.

In her imagined mythology, these beings all have “abalone eyes,” built from shards of shell she collected as a child (she rediscovered them in a box recently) and which represent “a wisdom and a depth,” she says. “The shell is like acquired wisdom that comes over time.”

“These beings are to me metaphorically representing humanity and life itself. And these creatures are collecting as they go: armor, kindness, beauty.”

In vibrant colors, all of her works feel very much alive, pulsing with life and vitality. There’s a lot of red: “It’s a very loaded color,” she explains. “I like loaded things.” But there’s a darkness there, too, elements that feel violent or disjointed or oppressive. At times, one gets a sense of skin being literally stripped away. (It’s not shocking to learn that Wallace-Gonzales was very taken with the Body Worlds exhibits.)

Wallace-Gonzales acknowledges these facets of her work without apology.

“There is a harshness about my work and that’s OK with me,” she says. “My life is not always jolly and happy. I’m trying to make work that encompasses all of it. . . . I want people to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

And like myth itself, each piece is wrapped up with a certain amount of mystery. Her figures are intentionally androgynous, and she chooses to leave each piece untitled.

“I want to strip away as much distraction as possible,” Wallace-Gonzales explains. “I don’t mind leaving clues, but I want the audience to come to their own conclusions. . . . I don’t want to get in the way of the imagination of the viewer.”

The imaginative journey that Wallace-Gonzales takes her viewers on is a heady one, full of color and texture, teeming with elements that astound with their beauty, occasionally disturb, but always intrigue and confound. Through her work we delve with her into her subconscious, and thus explore our own. What parts of ourselves are we hiding? What elements of the divine and grotesque beckon to be revealed? What myths and meanings do we collect, as individuals and as a species?

There’s something for all of us to learn through this process. Ultimately, however, it is a very personal exploration of the self. Wallace-Gonzales merely gives us the privilege of joining her.

“It really comes down to exploring identity and the many layers of self — all the layers that are me, and that are parts of everything,” she says. “What could you make if you allowed yourself to be more vulnerable?”

She admits that the process of becoming vulnerable and relinquishing control was not an easy one. But as she finished the works she made for her current exhibit, she found a renewed strength and sense of self.

“I was feeling good. I’m going to take up space. I’m here.”

Vanessa Wallace-Gonzales’ work will be on exhibit at CAM Studio Gallery through Oct. 4, with a closing reception taking place 5-9 p.m. Follow her on Instagram at @livingrelic and at her website,

CELESTIAL BODIES: Wallace-Gonzales intentionally creates her figures to be androgynous, and her backgrounds are deliberately otherworldly. Whether her “creatures” are set against a galaxy of stars, a supernova-like cloud, or a watery realm, she wants viewers to wonder “What planet do these things come from?”

FACIAL EXPRESSION: All of her works are untitled, so as not to “get in the way of the imagination of the viewer,” but faces, profiles and masks recur frequently. By combining them in manifold ways, Wallace-Gonzales hints at the multidimensional nature of humanity, and the numerous personalities that lurk within a single individual.




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