Talk the Talk, Walk the Art: Interview with Estrella Payton

By Eduardo Bernal


For Estrella Payton, walking in a new city is like getting to know a lover. “When I became aware of different intentional walking practices from the artist Angela Ellsworth, she shared a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh with me: ‘Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.’ For me, this is a beautiful analogy for becoming immersed in a city with just steps, by walking. If I am kissing the earth for the first time in Guadalajara, why would I want to rush those kisses? I had no particular distractions or reasons to rush, so I chose to get to know the city by foot,” says Payton.

“I often say there’s a difference between being from a place and being of a place.”

Estrella was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and moved to Kansas City, Missouri when she was 3 years-old. She grew up in a low-income household where her conguera (conga player) mother would constantly encourage artistic expression. “My mom and I would cut paper, trace, make clothing for my dolls, and I often learned to have fun with craft materials instead of playing with a ton of store-bought kids’ toys.”

An experienced carpenter and fabricator, her grandfather would show her how to creatively repurpose discarded objects. “He would find uses for matchboxes or the plastic tripod that comes inside pizza boxes… so for me, repurposing and reimagining was part of my play.”

Her ideas are often manifested through mixed media, and she constructs spaces where people can relate their own bodies to her creations, whichever their scale might be. Despite being trained as a printmaker, experimentation is crucial to her practice; she gravitates towards drawing, making objects, and working with construction materials.

Estrella’s interest in architecture and public spaces is influenced by the contrast between Midwestern split-level homes and standard block public housing buildings where she spent most of her life. She is also intrigued by the use of wrought iron in Puerto Rican homes.

Estrella was selected to participate in GDL>>PHX Residencias Artísticas, an artist residency and cultural exchange program between the cities of Phoenix, Arizona and Guadalajara, Jalisco, organized by CALA Alliance, PAOS GDL and ASU Art Museum.

For her residency, Estrella decided she wanted to get to know Guadalajara by walking. However, her walks in the city of over 5 million people were not random.

Every time she went for a stroll, she chose one of six paths, each representing a radius in the area where she resided, the Museo Taller José Clemente Orozco, the former studio and home of the famous Mexican muralist. Sometimes a route had a specific destination or purpose, like fetching materials at a hardware store. Other times, she chose to walk for a fixed amount of time.

During her walks, she documented the diversity of banquetas, or sidewalks, and the material they are made from through photography.

“I decided to focus on sidewalks because they’re all paved differently, or not paved at all. At times they’re just an extension of the street, but other times they are a mixture of tiles, river stones and cement with patterns to create traction. I’m interested in the patterns, the implied and unintentional ones,” she says.

Estrella is also tying her pedestrian experiences in Guadalajara to her research on urban development and gentrification in Phoenix, its impact on neighborhoods around the Light Rail system, the socioeconomic dynamics of housing, and the idea of retaining local identities of place.

“We’re not Tucson or L.A.; Phoenix is distinctive. From the very beginning, this residency has challenged me to consider the ways in which I can contribute to a contemporary art conversation that is relevant to our city, in its current socio-political conditions, while staying true to my personal and aesthetic motivations. The art scenes in both Phoenix and Guadalajara have felt like places where new voices are not only welcome, but become a driving force for creative culture and movement in the city. That is exciting!”

Estrella is unequivocally committed to the process of producing an idea. “My interest is to ask questions through my art or complicate spaces. I’m in learning mode, I observe and try to understand the dynamics between neighborhoods. I’m processing the information I get from my walks and interactions with the place and its people,” she said during an interview while in residence in Guadalajara.

On August 29, Estrella Payton and Gabriel Rico, the Guadalajara artist who participated in the exchange program, will discuss their experiences, investigations and creative work as part of their GDL>>PHX Residencias Artísticas.

The event is free and will take place at the ASU Art Museum Project Space on 821 N. 3rd St. Phoenix, AZ 85004. For more information, click here