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In the Studio: Identity and Personal Growth

Jimmy Castillo, Angel Castelán and Aaron Zhang wrestle history, heritage and tradition.

As we prepare for the 41st M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition on March 29, our “In the Studio” series gives readers the chance to get to know the artists behind the work. See what inspires our School of Art grad students!

Personal history. Heritage. A profound sense of discovery. These ideas thread through the works of Jimmy Castillo, Angel Castelán and Aaron Zhang.

Watching his Northside neighborhood transition from the once-vibrant place of his childhood to a tabula rasa for developers, native Houstonian Castillo has turned to photography to document, capture and preserve his home. His sense of self and his family’s history are intrinsically tied to this neighborhood, and his projects serve as both a healing process and a history lesson. “By going through these personal exercises — walking my neighborhood streets, mapping out lost places — I’m trying to bring out these feelings about how gentrification is affecting me,” he says.

Castelán’s work turns inwards, and focuses on smaller moments of day-to-day life. Paintings of his partner reflect the quiet moments of their relationship — hands clasped together, his boyfriend’s sleeping shoulder, a revealed tattoo. His autobiographical work is both an exploration and a celebration of his identity as a gay, Latinx man.

Zhang’s work explores his sense of self on a more conceptual level. Informed by his cultural identity and the culture shock he experienced moving to the United States, his work challenges Chinese traditions and pushes him outside his comfort zone.

“I’m always trying to make myself a little uncomfortable,” he laughs. “It’s kind of like a new start of myself, of me coming to America, trying to live here and creating new work here.” 

Learn more about Castillo, Castelán and Zhang in our Q&As below!

Jimmy Castillo, Photography/Digital Media  

What are you working on right now?
I’m kind of working on a series of photos and images that are about my neighborhood, Houston’s Northside. I’m also working on a separate series of manipulated photos that use the act of walking to map out spaces in the neighborhood where something used to exist but doesn’t anymore — things that I remember being there, things that my family tells me used to be in the neighborhood. 

Why is it important to document your neighborhood and what do you hope to capture with these photos?
It’s the place I was born, it’s where my family is from — and we have a long history there — and yet all these things that we remember, the environment of the neighborhood, the building, the houses, are getting demolished or abandoned. And it doesn’t look like the vibrant neighborhood we know it as. 

Where do you find inspiration and what kind of things catch your eye?
I really enjoy color. I also really like things that are unrefined, the accidents that drip from paint, peeling paint on a house, trash in a ditch. These things are beautiful to me in a lot of different ways, and I think that comes across through my aesthetic.

Angel Castelán, Painting  

What ideas or themes do you explore in your work?
I’m working on drawings, relief prints and paintings that focus on the everyday life of the artist. It’s about my Mexican heritage but also being gay. So, it’s about putting all of those identities that intersect and seeing how they impact everything in my life from my point of view. My work is not only about exploring but coming to terms with one’s own identity, and showing that through the work. 

A lot of your images are cropped so that your subjects are presented in fragments. How does this framing impact your work?
I enjoy playing with perspective because it reinforces the whole point-of-view theme. My work is all personal, these are images from my own life, and I like putting the viewer into these moments because, in the end, my relationship with my boyfriend is like any other relationship. 

How has the UH program challenged you as an artist?
Shortly after I started the master’s program here, I guess I felt ready to come out to my parents. At that point, my work was already autobiographical, but coming out to my parents escalated my personal narrative because I was able to be more open, not only to them but in my work as well. Before I came out, my work had to be “hush, hush.” I thought, “Oh, I can’t paint that because then they’ll figure this out.” And now it’s just like: Paint. Draw.

Aaron Zhang, Sculpture

Where do you look for inspiration?
My cultural background is a very important part of my identity. I’m also trying to answer questions in my mind. If something confuses me or there’s a conflict, I want to find a way to communicate it. I was also just talking to one of my professors about how I can find a way to make high art that is accessible to most people who may not be interested in art. That’s kind of my inspiration.

Can you talk more about how your cultural background and experience as an international student influences your work?
As an international student, I experienced a lot of culture shock. First, when I went to San Francisco, and again, when I came to Houston. It took me a little while to get used to the whole environment. So I always try to challenge myself and try to make myself a little uncomfortable with my work. 

I’m currently working on a piece called “Break Fortune” where I smashed ceramic Asian god statues, the god of wealth, Buddha and others like that — that was very uncomfortable. These statues are very serious and important to my parent’s generation. I am in the middle generation, so I take it seriously, but not as seriously as my parents. I’m planning to put these sculptures on different pedestals, and, on the highest pedestal, I’m going to set up a shrine. Basically, I deconstructed these statues and built up my own god system. It’s kind of like a new start of myself, of me coming to America, trying to live here and creating new work here.

Another piece is about balance. It’s a cross with pages of calligraphy on one side and fans on the other. The concept is that one side is what you believe is true, and the other side is your life. It’s a conflict all the time; sometimes they agree, but sometimes they fight against each other. I used the calligraphy — in my father’s handwriting — to represent concepts from China. The fans are also very personal to me. When I was a kid, my parents had a very small apartment that was very hot in the summer, so a lot of my memories are of the fans always being on. 

In one piece, I put charcoal on rocks. Then I hit a wood board with a hammer, so the charcoal fell off. I was just playing with texture, like Chinese ink painting — which is normally a very Zen environment with music playing — but I totally changed that with a shock. At the time, I was thinking about Asian art and how I can communicate with people about it in a new way. 

You mentioned how your previous training was very traditional, but your current work is much more conceptual. How has the UH master’s program challenged you to grow as an artist?
Originally, I was a control freak. I wanted to control the audience and would set up the space so I could control where the audience could go, where they could walk and what that would see next. But now I want to challenge myself to lose part of that control. I’m interested in getting the audience to interact with the piece.

The M.F.A. Thesis Exhibition opens at Blaffer Art Museum on Friday, March 29 at 6 p.m. and will be on view through Saturday, April 13.