Artist Roberto Benavidez Shares His Fascination with Paper Sculpture and the Stories Behind His Fantastical Piñatas
May 26, 2020
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with artist Roberto Benavidez in May 2020 via phone. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Grace: How are you doing, today? How have you been handling this crazy time that we’re in?
Roberto: I work from home, and I have been doing that for the past five years, so I’ve had some time to kind of get used to being at home all the time. My husband actually started a job right when the lockdown happened, so he’s now working physically at his job a couple of days a week. That can be stressful for him, but as far as me, it’s stressful, just the idea of what’s happening in the world right now on more realms than just the pandemic. It’s added an extra layer of stress. But you know, that isn’t necessarily bad in the sense that those kinds of things get you out of your normal routine way of thinking. There’s somewhat of a bright side to it. How have you been?
Grace: I’m doing okay. I’m similar to you in that I worked from home for a while before this so I’m used to it.
Roberto: With that extra layer of anxiety.
Roberto: I would say that’s the main thing for me and the reason why I’m being overly cautious. I just feel like there’s a lot of unknowns right now, so if you can, why not take extra precautions?
Grace: That’s a good mentality to have. It’s maybe not affecting your everyday routine since you’re kind of used to this, but is it affecting your ability to create?
Roberto: Not really because I don’t go to a studio to work—my studio’s in my home. I would think that if I were separated from my workspace that might affect how I do things, but it really hasn’t. I’ve been just as productive and unproductive, at times, but that’s normal. I don’t feel like my cycle is really changed there. Right now, I’m working on some commissions and am feeling energized about that. I’m working pretty hard this week and into the next week to try and get these done. It hasn’t really affected that part, which is nice.
Grace: Yeah, definitely. So you’re working on commissions right now, and do you have other plans in the works or are you putting things on hold?
Roberto: I was having conversations with some institutions that are put on hold, but we’re trying to continue those. In terms of the outlook, the work that I’m potentially going to be doing for those is still in my brain. I am working on it slowly. But right now it’s mainly commissions, and I have my own projects that I’m eager to get started on. I have different avenues that I can go down. I’m lucky that way.
Grace: Are there any tidbits about those future projects that you can share?
Roberto: I learned early on not to really talk about a project until it’s solid, and these are not solid. They’re conversations at this point so who knows. I think that there’s strong potential that I’ll be showing, and I’m very excited to show at these places. I probably wouldn’t want to say anything other than it’s an extension of my past projects with medieval manuscript creatures.
Grace: How do you take those ideas from either a medieval manuscript or a painting or something that’s already been done and adapt that. How does the translation work for you?
Roberto: When it comes to the form, that’s the challenge for me. The sculptor in me wants to not necessarily replicate the reference material but to capture the spirit of it. At times making adjustments that are either self-referential or just a play on the history of the piñata. There’s that side of it, and the piñata-making technique actually is what dictates the aesthetic of the form. It’s a matter of translating that flat image into 3D and also translating those colors, whether I want to do them true to the source or if I want to just play with color. Blending those papers together and creating those textures really adds a lot to the form. It kind of just happens. (Laughs) Is that a boring answer?
Grace: It’s definitely not boring!
Roberto: For me, it’s a translation of a flat image into a 3D image that excites me. It’s become second nature to blend, mix, and cut those papers to get what I want.
There’s something very interesting about the piñata-making technique, the look of it, and the use of paper in such a meticulous way. That appeals to my nature, even though it’s tedious at times.
Grace: I read the interview that you did with WePresent, and you were talking about how you came to pinatas by way of, I think it was someone’s Pinterest feed? Is that correct?
Roberto: Yeah, it was something online. It might have been a Pinterest feed. But it basically was that kind of going through images and literally stumbling upon something, which is how I came across illuminated manuscripts. I was working on a Bosch project—Bosch has been a long love of mine—and when searching those images, looking for other Bosch works, I stumbled upon medieval manuscript images and that took me down that road.
Grace: (The manuscripts and Bosch paintings) are different mediums, and I would imagine that adapting the ideas from both of those would be a little bit different.
Roberto: Mhm. I do approach them differently. Illuminated manuscripts are much more graphic in their depictions. Bosch, obviously, is much more painterly. With Bosch I tend to play more with light and shading through my paper layering. It is much more loose and playful in its application. The manuscript creatures have harder lines and cutting the crepe paper fringe to mimic that is quite different and much more painstakingly tedious. At times with these graphic depictions, it feels like I’m drawing with paper. One additional aspect I’m drawn to with both source materials is their religious undertones and how that plays off the history and evolution of the piñata. There’s something humorous about that for me.
Grace: That was something I wanted to talk a little bit about, too, was sin, and how so many ideas that surround it seem to permeate a lot of your work. I’m wondering if you have a definition of sin, even if it’s a working definition, and how you see that in your work.
Roberto: I don’t think it’s a very personal thing for me. Well, can I say that? I grew up Catholic. I think of just a generic kind of sin. Nothing very specific. It’s more represented in my work because it’s part of the history of the piñata and the seven deadly sins represented by the traditional star piñata.
When I layer that on to myself it’s, of course, sexuality. My sexuality and the church do not mix, so there’s always a reference to that if I’m inspired to do so, but I can’t say that I necessarily try to have a defined narrative or on-the-nose punctuation. That’s just an aspect. An aspect of me is that I’m gay. An aspect of the piñata’s history is that it’s a representation of sin.
My goal is to keep things as simple as possible. I just like my work to stand on its own. I seldom talk about those things or really push those things, even though I do think that they are interesting.
Roberto: One thing I like about the piñata iconography when it comes to sin is that there’s that very specific number: seven. With the star piñata and the seven deadly sins. Maybe this is just a fixation of mine, but whenever I’m working on any piece, any time I can incorporate seven of something into the pinata, I do. Just to have that simple reference whether people get it or not.
Also, when it comes to my bird series, at times I’ll do seven feathers for each wing, so it’s in simple things like that, with things you really wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. As much as I can, I like to do that.
Grace: I did want to ask a little about how you think identity shapes your work, but maybe you’ve already answered that. Is there anything you would like to add?
Roberto: Just to go further into that, I do think, whether an artist realizes it or not, identity does come into their work. I really like incorporating different aspects of myself into my work, whatever that may be. I composed my simple artist statement to give enough biographical information for the viewer to connect the dots if they choose to. But again, I also don’t think it ever has to be explained or even be apparent to the audience necessarily. Something about that adds a layer of richness in the creation of it or what the artist imbues in their work.
Grace: It’s there because it’s from your brain. Less than it’s there intentionally.
Roberto: Yeah. I also feel that art has an unspoken language to it and sometimes those things tie to one another without the viewer or the artist even realizing it.
Grace: Could you expand on that a little bit?
Roberto: I started a new bird series recently. My sexuality is going to be a hard slant in that, but it’s not going to necessarily be apparent. In my mind, that adds a layer of richness. It is a throughline, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be something that is tangible or even understood by the audience. The intent of putting those things there creates an unspoken language. When I say unspoken, I think things that are visual that are taken in aren’t necessarily taken in in a literal or conscious way.
Grace: Right. I do want to circle back to ask about how you see your relationship to the artist, either the writer who wrote the text that you’re working out of, or Bosch, or anyone who you’re recreating the work of, even though we’re maybe not using the word recreate.
Roberto: I would say that these are artists I highly respect for their imagery and their imagination. I’m working off of intuition of what draws me. I don’t necessarily go out with an idea and look for things to fit it. I kind of float around until something grabs me, and then I go down those roads. But in terms of a relationship, hmm. I’m trying to think about how to articulate this. Do you maybe want to ask the question in a different way?
Grace: Yeah, I guess my question is about whether you see them as an inspiration, like someone to emulate, or if it’s more about a conversation between the two of you. Even though that person, like Bosch, is maybe not responding.
Roberto: I’m having a hard time trying to think about it actually. I can say I’m drawn to their aesthetic, and it is about making their creation come to life. It is sculpting it through a technique that I’ve developed over the years. That’s the excitement for me. If I’m going to sculpt, what am I going to sculpt? The possibilities are absolutely endless. I really appreciate their aesthetic and creatures. There’s an oddness to them. Part of my approach in choosing subjects is to stay true to the contemporary piñata approach of looking to popular culture for its character depictions. There is something humorous to me about going back to these depictions of characters from a time long past and bringing them into today’s world.
Part of me believes that an art practice is doing things over and over, exploring, and I guess it would be emulation, right? What you expose yourself to is what you develop yourself to be. But within that, there is the daily practice and the development. I have been working on branching off into other things apart from just paper.
Grace: What made paper stick with you? I know that accessibility was something that made it appealing, but I’m wondering why for so long now it’s been paper.
Roberto: Two answers: There’s always the question “why piñatas?” There’s the answer of why I first started making it, and it was accessibility, both in terms of an audience member not being intimated by it, but also that there’s no limitation. It’s not expensive, and I can do it anywhere. That was the initial reason, but the reason I stayed with it is that there’s just something about paper that I really like. It’s a medium that I’ve learned how to work with over time. There are different types of paper in terms of structure. There are times I’m working with printer paper and paste, and it’s all kind of wet. Then there are other times I’m working with paperboard, like Bristol board, where I’m just creating the structure based on the existing structure of the paper and how I manipulate it.
I’ve worked with clay and wax and bronze and plaster, all of that, but there’s something about the structure of paper that my brain is just able to figure out pretty quickly. I can’t say that I have developed a technique where I can just whip something out confidently every time I start a structure or form. There is a little bit of fear in me if I’m going to be able to achieve this. It’s probably not until layer five or six that I feel confident that it’s going to work.
Even yesterday, when I was working on forms, I thought “I’m going to have to start over on these three,” but there’s something very forgiving about paper. You can wet it, slightly, to manually manipulate the form and once it’s dry, it’s rigid paper mache again. You can wet it to reform it. You can do that with clay but with clay, there’s no structure. You have to create it all, and at times, I have trouble with the weight of clay. I work on a lot of forms, so keeping things symmetrical is hard for me with clay for some reason. But with paper, it’s so easy. It’s material that I naturally work well with.
That doesn’t mean it’s all I want to work with. Hearkening back to the old form of the piñata, which was a clay pot that was adorned, I like the idea of extending into ceramics at some point and doing ceramic piñatas. There are a lot of avenues I could probably go down, but I’ll probably always continue my practice with piñata as the center. I just really appreciate the form. Its history is very rich, and there’s so much to play with.
Grace: It seems like it’s constraint that you’re drawn to, with paper having some sort of form already on its own, and piñatas have a tradition that you’re working within.
Roberto: Yeah. When I started, one of the things I really liked was the use of clearly defined traditional materials or like the “rules” of it. It had to be only wheat paste and only newspaper and only recycled materials and party streamers. All materials were traditional. As I started pushing it further and extending the piñata form more into my body of work, there was the concern of durability, which I can go back and forth on. I do think that art should be appreciated in its time, and I’m fine with work changing and not looking like it did when it was first created.
But I slowly changed those “rules.” I slowly shifted and moved away from party streamers because they are so acidic, even though I love how translucent they are and you can mix colors very easily. I did find another high-quality non-acidic paper, and I was okay with making that switch in my “rules” mainly because it was a paper coming from Italy. That tied back to the history of the piñata that, at least as far as we understand, came from China to Italy to the New World.
I do like structure. I think it helps me to create these structured rules for myself, but I’m pretty flexible within those rules, too.
Grace: There’s a balance.
Roberto: Yeah. It’s fine to make changes later and adjust as your practice grows or changes.
Grace: I want to ask about your painting piñatas. When I look at them and then I look at your creatures, they’re certainly not as fantastical. How do you see them in relation to your other work?
Roberto: Initially, I explored the painting piñata through my Piñathko series, which was a take on Rothko’s color field paintings. Makes sense if I wanted to play with color. I eventually shifted to landscapes. I’ve always loved landscapes as a kid, that’s what I was drawn to when it came to paintings. When I think about my painting piñata series, they’re more of an exploration of color and a play with graphic and painterly techniques. I see them as more practice for my sculpture.
It’s more just a sweeping landscape aesthetic that I’m drawn to. My husband takes a lot of photos like that, and I’ve used quite a few of his photos as a reference.
Grace: I was just going to ask if they were based on photos or an original document that you were working off of.
Roberto: Yeah. I would say every time I create a sculpture, I always have many references. Meaning like with my husband, I usually just use his photographs, but there are times I make other piñata paintings where I take photos online and mix things up. Took a sunset here, something here, and kind of pasted them together in Photoshop and created a composite that way.
Even with the birds, I create a composition sheet of that particular bird in all different positions, as far as I can find anyway. I do think that as a sculptor, it’s very important to have a reference. No matter how many times you look at something, when you look again, you’ll see something different, something new. I’m always working from a reference that’s sitting in front of me, whether it’s something from a manuscript or a photograph.
Grace: That’s another throughline.
Roberto: It’s true, yeah.
Grace: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Roberto: I don’t want to forget to mention a group show I’m fortunate enough to have been invited to participate in. I guess this circles back to how people are coping in this pandemic. Something new for institutions is exhibiting online. The exhibition is a look at contemporary artists working with paper, how appropriate. The group exhibition, Cut, Fold and Handmade: The Art of Paper is viewable online only through July 12 on Peninsula Fine Arts Center’s website.