Recent Chinati artist Marianna Olague talks protection, fear and life near the border

EL PASO — Marianna Olague always knew she wanted to be an artist. As a child, the 30-year-old Chicana painter spent her days in her makeshift studio — a basement in the apartment complex she lived in — surrounded by the smell of paint. Her father was (and still is), an art teacher at Bowie High School in El Paso, and growing up, he was her biggest inspiration.

“I never had a moment of, ‘Ooh I want to be an artist.’ To me, it was just understood. Of course I wanna do that when I’m older. He’s my idol. I wanna be just like him.”

Despite having four siblings who never ended up pursuing the arts, it came as second nature to her. As an adult, that insatiable hunger for creating is still present.

“I’ll never stop making artwork, and right now I’m doing paintings,” she says. “But I know that I have so much that I want to do.”

Olague was the most recent resident artist at the Chinati arts residency. She arrived on May 2, and left for home on June 27. Although her vivid artwork — blazing, richly-colored oil portraits of day-to-day life in El Paso — continues to depict her hometown and the people in it, her two-month stay at the foundation served as something of an inspiration for her paintings, which began to fixate on different themes during her time in Marfa. The minimalist installation art of Donald Judd and its dramatic shadows and natural lighting especially served as a revelation.

“The art there is kind of blended into the landscape,” she said. “His outside work that is in concrete — they kind of mimic the buildings. I was super inspired by that because I think I would like to focus more on architecture and how that can communicate history or a culture.”

She then began to see dual messages in every facet of people’s furnishings. The wrought iron bars that obstruct the doorways in people’s homes in both Marfa and El Paso serve as symbols of “protection, but also confinement.” Religious iconography especially feels like a “bad omen” to see behind bars, she says.

Each piece Olague prepared for her open studio show ended up having that bar motif, which changed in purpose from illustration to illustration. The two paintings depict religious iconography — a statue of the Virgin Guadalupe and another of Jesus found on the trail to Mount Cristo Rey — behind bars. The structures shown in two additional drawings — bichromatic illustrations of a sunlit balcony in front of an old house, and a “Beware of Dog” sign behind an iron gate — belonged to her mother and an old neighbor from El Paso, respectively. The reference images for these scenes were photographs Olague took of locations that felt personal to her.

“Those four works of art were like me attempting to illustrate my border life or border culture by just focusing on the environment rather than the figures,” she explained. “I guess that’s right now where my focus is: the outside facade of people’s homes and the way they decorate them, the way they use protective measures to protect their house.”

The aggressively colored yet meditative illustrations allude to conflict — the good and the bad to come from religion and posturing in Latino culture — and a proud display of identity despite literally and figuratively remaining in cages.

“Almost anything an artist makes is political,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be that way, but especially when you’re an artist of color, what you make is political. And I would say that that’s not the main focus of my artwork, but it just goes with the territory.”

Still, this sense of hiding is something of which Olague says she almost finds herself guilty. When asked about her biggest contemporary inspirations, she cited LA-based artist Rafa Esparza, whose exhibition Tierra. Sangre. Oro. showed at Ballroom Marfa in 2018, as someone whose “fearlessness” inspires her.

“He makes the kind of artwork that I would be so afraid to make, and that’s why I admire him,” she said. “He’s just very open about his sexuality, political issues, political activism.”

When asked what she’d be afraid to show in her own artwork, she replied, “I think, being queer, basically. Where I’m from, not a lot of people feel comfortable coming out. I don’t know why El Paso is like that, but it’s pretty far behind, so I would love to start incorporating that into my work.”

Like many young artists in this current wave of contemporary Chicano art, however, Olague’s artwork continues to distinguish itself as a strong social and political force, and she only sees herself branching out more from here on out.

“If I’m creating work about the people who live on the border, who grew up in poor neighborhoods, there’s gonna be that political undertone,” she says. “There’s just so many great Latino and Latina artists in the world right now that are up and coming, emerging artists, and I would just love to grow my connections with all of them. Because we share so much. We have so much in common.”