A Conversation with Vanezza Cruz

Vanezza Cruz is an artist and friend from the Bronx, NY. I first met Vanezza when we worked together at a city agency in NYC. We always had great conversations about the challenges and rewards of being a working artist and she graciously agreed to sit down with me for this blog.

©Vanezza Cruz

©Vanezza Cruz

SF: Start from the beginning - tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be an artist.

 VC: When I was in 8th grade and had to select a high school, I had a friend named Uvana. Her mother was an artist and interior designer and I would always see her drawing at school. I had no artistic abilities, but I did a lot of collages- my mother was a seamstress. I also played the cello at that time, but in terms of being a visual artist- nothing. I was actually a math and science geek as a kid. I was set to be a doctor or teacher or engineer. That’s what my dad wanted me to be. But then I had to select a high school and my zone high school was not a great school at all. My brother told me “ I don’t know what you want or what you want to do, but you are not going to that school.”

So Uvana and I made a bet. She bet me that I would get into the High School of Fashion Industries in Manhattan, which I didn’t believe I could do. To get into this school you needed a portfolio, which I didn’t have. She started by giving me assignments of different life drawings, fashion drawings, a bunch of different stuff. Anytime I wanted to not do the work or quit, she pushed me and would force me to do the work. She would sit there and give me feedback. This is in 8th grade! It was all from her mom because she grew up around art. Once I submitted my portfolio, I also had to take a placement exam. I remember the day of the exam was a blizzard, but I still went, and I passed. I was accepted to the school and that’s where my life in art began. My whole life changed.

Once I finished high school I couldn’t imagine not going to college for art. I didn’t want to go to FIT (The Fashion Institute of Technology) because it was right down the street and felt a little like high school, so I ended up going to Purchase College. I learned a lot there – I used to work for the sculpture department and help students install work all around campus. I left after a year and a half and went to SUNY New Paltz. I had been accepted to SVA, but it was $17,000 a semester. There was no way that I could do that. New Paltz was where I first got a taste of printmaking. After New Paltz I took a bit of time off from school. I ended up finishing my degree at FIT, surprisingly, and I got a bachelor’s there in graphic design.

©Vanezza Cruz

©Vanezza Cruz

SF: I didn’t realize you had a degree in graphic design. When you were in school were you constantly thinking about “How am I going to make a living? What am I going to do?”

VC: Yes. Honestly, that’s why I went into graphic design. I used to do a lot of really weird little books and drawings and I liked to do things with my hands. I liked making boxes and packaging, and I think it comes from my mom being a seamstress. I used to take her scraps of clothing and sew them and make Barbie clothes. Going to Purchase and New Paltz was great for doing work with my hands but when I got to FIT it was a completely different animal and I thought, “How am I going to make money and a sustainable career with all of these little weird things that I make?” That’s why I went into graphic design.

SF: What kind of work did you end up doing when you got out of school?

VC: I did a lot of freelance gigs, wedding and party invites for friends, and then I got a job working for M&J Trimming. I was their only graphic designer for about 3 years when they began to realize how important social media and marketing was for their company, so I began art directing for them, product styling for shoots, designing for their website, and stuff like that. But then I left there to go to grad school because I realized graphic design wasn’t for me- working day in and day out on creative projects that fed into consumerism was making me kind of sick and I was wondering what to do next.

SF: Before you went back to grad school, did you have a studio you were working in?

VC: I have always worked out of my house and before I went to grad school, my work was very different. My work was very design focused or was more caricature work, collage work, or bookbinding. When I went into grad school, everything changed. I’m really glad I took that step and it solidified my love of printmaking. I see printmaking and graphic design as very related and I’m grateful that I had that foundation in graphic design. The way I breakdown a design for a screenprint is very similar to the way that I create a design in Photoshop.

SF: Since then I know you’ve done a lot of public art projects such as murals and a piano for Sing for Hope. How did you get involved in those projects?

VC: I just asked. At first, it was scary and I was really apprehensive.  For Sing for Hope I remember seeing the pianos a few years ago around Columbus Circle. Then in 2015 I think I first saw the post on Facebook, so I applied.

The first mural I did on my own was at a camp. I did a mural with some high school and middle school kids. One of first murals on my own was at a Ricky’s store. There was a pop-up store and I walked in and asked if I could do a mural on the walls. Then I did one with my partner, Allison, in Bushwick. After that, I found an open call for another opportunity in First Street Park on the Lower East Side.  I try to see every mural as a learning experience - working with different materials, increasing my stamina and how to work efficiently on such a large space.

Photo by Lois Stavsky. Courtesy of streetartnyc.org

Photo by Lois Stavsky. Courtesy of streetartnyc.org

SF: Do you see these murals influencing the work you have in your studio practice or do you see them as two totally separate things?

VC: I think I’m still trying to figure out how to marry the two. They are so different. I’m much more confident in my studio practice and I have much more control in the studio.

SF: But murals are so public!

VC: And it’s scary! People pass by and have opinions and want to ask questions. But it has also helped open up new opportunities. I want to keep doing more murals to continue learning. I feel like I still have a ways to go to feel confident in what I’m doing compared to my studio practice.

SF: With regards to balancing work and art, I feel like you and I are kind of in a similar place right now. I did the stable 9-5 thing for many years and stability is really important to me. But 9-5 is hard because of time and wanting to have the flexibility to make things and be in the studio.

 VC: I feel the same. Stability is really important to me. Working as a graphic designer for so long, was burning me out creatively. That’s why I went to grad school.  

I like having a job right now where I don’t have to be creative all of the time because I don’t want my job to take away my energy from my studio but I also feel like the 9-5 is tough because I don’t always want to work in my studio on that schedule. Sometimes I want to make things in the middle of the day. I don’t know what the balance is- I don’t know how to mitigate that. When I was in grad school I had three different part time jobs, but I don’t want to do that anymore. And it’s hard to find something stable that I can do from home. If it were up to me, I would work 40 hours in three days. The older I get and I think about a “career” I worry about “is it my identity?” I don’t want that because it’s taking me away from being an artist.

I know that I want to foster artistic growth in other artists. I don’t know what the trajectory is to get there. I do feel like my current job is a stepping stone to that, but I also want to keep making work and keep up my practice as an artist.

SF: What advice/words of encouragement would you give to a young high school or college student in the arts that is entering the working world?

VC: Maintain a level of constant practice in your craft in whatever realm of art you choose for you. Do not compare yourself from other artists - this is easier said than done of course - and I personally struggle with this challenge even after 25 years of creating.

We all have our own journey, we all see and experience the world divergently different from every person we encounter, so practice on shaping your world view in your chosen aesthetic. Learn and cultivate the notion of healthy competition when looking at other artist’s work. There are times when I need a pep me up because I do suffer from artist blocks from time to time, so I make sure I surround myself with art - whether current, contemporary, modern, renaissance etc,- and other creative elements that I enjoy: fashion, graphic design, animation, book arts. This gets my creative juices following but more importantly, keeps me connected to what others are up to. Being able to look at someone's work and admire it to the point where you say " Damn, that's dope!I Gotta get on my grind," is a good thing. 

Also NETWORK! But with the purpose of having and maintaining real honest relationship with fellow artists (especially those who create different than you), go to artists talks, go to galleries, use your smart phones to look at art, watch ART 21, learn about art history and not only Western Art History,- develop your cultural palette and learn art from other peoples in this world.

We as human have an innate need to express our selves and tell our stories. As artists I feel that we are part of this "cosmology" of story tellers of what the world looks like to us, telling socio-political, cultural, economic stories to enliven our current era- in this current time and its our duty to be the purveyors as well as the executors of this current world view. 

Follow Vanzza's work on Instagram @dubius_contessa and on her website at www.dubiouscontessa.com