Going over boundaries: Fil-Am artist Lordy Rodriguez discovers identities through the visual language of maps

Going over boundaries: Fil-Am artist Lordy Rodriguez discovers identities through the visual language of maps

WE rely on maps for directions, but in reality, they can be inaccurate or flawed.  Geography and topography change over time, new roads may be built or be closed; and with GPS technology, people are more likely to replace their paper guide for a click of a button.

However, what if these maps are used to step over boundaries to discover one’s identity, or better yet be the road to connect one’s self outside reality to get to Point A to Point B?  For Texas-bred, Filipino-American artist Lordy Rodriguez, using cartography (the study and practice of making maps) in his work made him overcome homesickness when he was studying in New York.

“At the start and end of every semester, I would drive back and forth between New York and Houston.  After awhile, the only way I would relate to the land (I drove mostly at night when I was most awake) was by by looking at the map.  Whenever I felt homesick I would look at my maps of Houston,” he explained and then added, “Until one night I drew a map of Houston and New York next to each other.  Not conforming to any realities or recognizable geographies from either place.  It was purely fictional where the only reference to a place was the name that I used.”

He also said that he discovered that there was power in what he made—a power in the map and in turn, the cartographer.  “This relationship between the maker and the tool as a source of consensual truth was just fascinating. Then I started to wonder if the same expectations are made for the artist. Do we look to the artist the same way we would look at a cartographer as a purveyor of an agreed upon truth? These were some of the questions that this work started to address with me.”

Although he relates to discovering this when he was in NY, he feels that he may have subconsciously doing maps at a much younger age.

“In 2nd grade, my class had a sister class in Russia. Both classes we charged with drawing a map of their home country. The Russian students drew the shape of their country very exact, whereas my class were totally wrong,” he said.  “I guess that stuck with me and I’ve been subconsciously trying to prove to the world that I can accurately draw a map of the States. Ironically, all of the map work that I have done of the States have never conformed to what we would recognize as a truthful rendition of the US.  So maybe that is a more apt origin story.”

Born in Quezon City in the Philippines, Rodriguez’s family came to the United States in 1979.   Settling first in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his dad (who is from Guagua, Pampanga) opened a health store in the early 80s, while his aunt and uncle owned a wicker furniture store.  After his parents divorced, he and his six siblings moved to Houston with his dad where they spent the rest of their childhood.

“Like most young boys, I started drawing because of comic books,” Rodriguez said when asked how he started in the arts.   Being an introvert in elementary school, he spent most of his time in the bedroom sketching.  However, it was a teacher who helped him discover his talent.

“It wasn’t until I met an incredible and supportive art teacher in middle school—Ms. Sorensen.  She really helped me develop my drawing skills and for the first time someone suggested to me that I can turn this into a career,” he said and then added, “When I was in eighth grade, Ms. Sorensen convinced me to apply to the local arts magnet school, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.  She helped me apply and gave advice in putting my portfolio together. I got accepted into the school which was 40 miles from my parents house in downtown Houston.”

Over time, Rodriguez developed comic drawings to contemporary art.  This, he shared, is when he became an artist.

“Every decision I made after that was in support of that title. After high school, I went to the School of Visual Arts in NY where in my senior year got picked up by a gallery in Texas.  B y the time I was in my early twenties, I was being represented by a gallery in Texas, a gallery in San Francisco and a gallery in New York. By my thirties, I started grad school at Stanford University where I received my MFA. I can confidently say that I am a full fledge artist now.”

Since then, Rodriguez’s work has been exhibited in California, New York, Texas, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Maryland and Maine to name a few.   His work has also been featured outside the US like Paris, Chile and Istanbul.  He has about 830 drawings to date.

His work as a visual language

He refrains from using the word “style” and instead would like to refer it as a “language.”  Style, he explained, implies the possibility of change, compared to language, which is more permanent.

“The visual language I use is cartography. What this means is that I use all of the elements of cartography, the colors, the symbols, the forms and all of the possible references that go with that language,” he said.  “By looking at this system as a language, I can make linguistics parallels like structure. So even though my work can look like maps, by every definition, they aren’t maps at all.”

His does work in series, he explained, giving him the ability to put his drawings in categories in groups.  One of the most memorable works he has done was the series called the America series.  In it was his recreation of the whole shape of the US based on history and his travels around the country.

“I worked on this series state by state. I started this series in 1996 and completed it in 2006. It took me 10 years and 56 different drawings to put this body of work together. In 2009, all of the states came together for the first time at a solo show I had at the Austin Museum of Art. That was the first time in my life that I had seen that body of work in its entirety.”

On May 21, Rodriguez will at a panel discussion at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco called The State of the State:  Contemporary Filipino/American in the Bay Area.

He is currently in a group show at the San Jose Museum of Art called, City Limits, City Life until the middle of June.  He will also be in another group show at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno this August and will be showing his largest drawing to date.

“I will be showing my largest drawing to date. It’s a monster 8 feet by 12 feet drawing of Lake Tahoe that took me about 4 months of research and 8 months of continuous drawing time,” he shared and added,  “I will also be releasing a time lapse video of that piece from beginning to end. The unedited length of film this drawing took is about 6 days of non-stop footage. “

Aside from the group shows and exhibits, he is also working on multiple public art projects for the United Airlines Terminal at the San Francisco International Airport, and another for a port of entry building in Columbus, New Mexico.

With being a successful artist, Rodriguez shared that he is, however, facing the biggest challenge to his career.

“It was easier to manage the typical challenges of being an artist when I was younger.  I could always find money somewhere.  Jobs were always windows to live another life for me.  I never needed a huge studio (although I love the one that I am in right now) so I can work anywhere.  I had a singular focus in art.  It wasn’t easy, but it was simple,” he shared.

He further explained that he is now balancing being a full time professor at San Jose State, artistic commitments outside of his studio, time with his wife and two kids (Ender, 4 and Petra, 2—whose names came from characters in one of his favorite Sci-Fi books growing up, Enders Game), the rest of his typical large Filipino family and his art work.

“All of these elements that are constantly taking me away from the studio and away from making art only proves to me, and this is something that I think every artist becomes aware of over time, is the fleeting moments that we have to make art are what makes art most precious.”

For more information about Lordy Rodriguez, and/or to view or purchase his work, log on to www.lordyrodriguez.com.

*On cover:  Image courtesy of Artpace San Antonio / photo by Francisco Cortes. 


(SF May 15, 2015 SF Magazine pg.2)

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