The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has had considerable economic impact on craft practice. In developed countries, galleries are closed, craft fairs are canceled, and practitioners spend extra hours bringing attention to works available for purchase via e-commerce. According to the editorial in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of American Craft, artists earning their living from what they make reported lost income (94%) and full unemployment (63%).
For Indigenous and ethnic craftspeople in the developing world, the situation is worse. For instance, a supporter of traditional artisanry in India commented: “For months, craftspeople have been without markets, sales, orders, or prospects. They lack the wherewithal to buy food for their families, let alone make payments for wages and raw material.”1
But what about deprivation from making because access to studio space is denied? If a practitioner does not have their own lathe, glass furnace, wheel, loom, forge, or table saw—previously available in a shared work site, art center, school, or college/university studio—how do they satisfy the innate craving to handle familiar materials and tools?
This was the situation in which Guillermo Guardia, a ceramic artist in St. Paul, Minnesota, found himself in the early months of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. He had taken a few bisque-fired sculptures to his apartment to paint, but the urge to handle clay was overwhelming. He says, “I was ready to quit.” Instead, he found a solution that was not far from working with clay. He learned to bake and, at the same time as saving his sanity, discovered new approaches to his practice.
Guardia sought tactility from the time he was a child in Peru. With his brother, sister, and cousins, he watched cartoons and modeled the animated figures in plasticine. As a young man, he enrolled in sculpture at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú2 but switched to industrial design, thinking he was more likely to find employment in that field. However, as his last elective before graduation with a BFA (1999) he took ceramics, not knowing that “the only problem with ceramics is that you get hooked.” And getting hooked on ceramics led Guardia to leave Peru to enroll in the MFA program at the University of North Dakota (UND) in Grand Forks.
In addition to his affinity with clay, Guardia brought knowledge of drawing and anatomy to his graduate studies. He aspired to be like Michelangelo, envying the Renaissance artist’s facility with reproducing the human body. Except for functional cups and plates, Guardia’s ceramic portfolio is figural, and despite the strangeness of some of the humanity he creates, their body language and facial expressions are exceptionally realistic. An early series, created at UND and inspired by the concurrent Iraq war (2003), consisted of Baby Devils carrying ammunition and painted in camouflage colors. They are cheeky, mischievous characters, peeking around corners and showing off their toys. Their anatomical veracity makes them charming in contrast to their noxious intent.
Why babies and why devils? In his early days at UND, Guardia experimented with raku. He noticed that the flames and smoke were reminiscent of the notion of hell he absorbed during his Catholic upbringing. He decided to match process with subject matter and sculpted thin demons with horns and hooved feet. These demons didn’t withstand the shock of raku firing, so he determined that fatter bodies were needed. Babies are usually chubby and, according to Catholic theology, born with original sin. They seemed an apt form to express the wicked and the good as well as withstand intense fire.
Self-Portraits and Belonging
Guardia also believes the Baby Devils are self-portraits. As they evolved, they reflected Guardia’s Japanese and Andean roots: some babies hold Samurai swords; others are underglazed with Mochican3 motifs. They are a personal repudiation of war and its glorification throughout the world, particularly since Guardia’s background includes civil war and terrorism in Peru. Significantly, some babies are casualties, with injuries, amputations, and bandages. When Guardia realized that sculptures like Wari, Bazuka, or Mochica were being purchased for their depictions of weaponry, thereby missing his intended message, his guns began shooting flowers.
Another series arising from self-portraiture is Puzzles. Guardia wanted to explore the body in movement and color, and as a recent immigrant to wintry North Dakota, he was perplexed about who he was and where he fit in. The jigsaw puzzle pattern was initially markings on clay human forms; later the puzzle pieces became three-dimensional, posing the question: is the body breaking apart or coming together? Guardia says, “The idea is still current because it’s about how we become what we are or what we want to be or determine what we are missing in life.”
As a response to President Trump’s anti-minority views, Guardia then did a series of portrait masks that represented himself and two friends, all of whom could be viewed as marginal. Rather than depicting dread of discrimination, the masks are fearless, powerful gods with multiple colorful characteristics. Guardia’s mask captures his facial structure while its surface is a panoply of shapes, tones, and lines.
After living in North Dakota for 15 years and possessing a Permanent Resident Card (Green Card), Guardia decided to relocate, largely to expand his market. He lived long enough in Grand Forks to be able to call it home; the same does not yet apply to St. Paul, where he moved in 2017. His emotional connection to Peru has diminished too, although he misses family and friends. His unsettlement in his new surroundings prompted a series called Memories of Home, based on recollections of childhood.
Some of the cartoons he enjoyed as a youngster were Japanese, an affinity that probably came through nature and nurture: his maternal grandfather immigrated to Peru from Japan at the age of five. The figures in Memories of Home are inspired by anime and the characters appearing therein. There is Mazinger GG, a ninja-type creature who has a fighter jet in his helmet; Meteorito, who drives like a mad fiend; and Red Huaco Sankuokai with his orange goggles and plumed headdress. Each is individual, sculpted by hand, and painted with ancient Pre-Columbian motifs particular to Peru; Mochican is Guardia’s favorite. He recalls, “When we go to school in Peru—middle school, high school, college—part of the curriculum is to study the cultures that developed in Peru before the Spaniards came. There were many at different times in history. It’s part of our identity, our cultural heritage.”
Bread of Life
Guardia’s well-laid plans for advancement in St. Paul were halted abruptly in March 2020. “Everybody had it tough, but not having access to a studio, not being able to show my work, having very little exposure [was hard]. It’s tough to show sculpture with a photo, you have to see it.” Although he was fortunate to have grant monies—including a McKnight Artist Fellowship—that alleviated financial concerns, he experienced an existential crisis: “I define myself by what I do and I make art. If I can’t make art, whatever I am is definitely finished.” This despair was gradually relieved by baking.
Prior to COVID-19-related restrictions and closures, Guardia had made bread in a bread maker. When the machine broke in mid-process, the dough had to be transferred to a pan and baked in the oven. Guardia was rapt watching the dough rise and declares, “Baking my first loaf in the oven was like falling in love with a new art medium.” Several weeks into his forced isolation, he revisited what has since become “a true love.” Guardia read books and studied YouTube videos; he learned how to make sourdough and plain baguettes and mastered the difficult art of croissants. Layering butter into croissant dough, he says, is like rolling out a clay slab. And just as ceramics is a science as much as an art, bread making is too, with its necessity for attention to ingredients, leavening agents, ambient temperature, time to make, and time to rest. He recently added karamanduka, a small Peruvian sweet bread with sesame and anise seeds, to his repertoire. Every weekend, he looks forward to baking, not only for the end products—he now has a cottage permit to sell from his apartment—but also because baguettes are a memory of home: they were part of his father’s Sunday rituals in Lima.
Baking has taught lessons that serve Guardia’s practice as well. Whereas he previously eschewed molds for his figures, the relatively short time between making and eating artisan bread convinced him to work smart. He has taken up mold making and envisages creating an army of clay creatures. The diversification to another art form eases the constant rumination about glazes, firing, and exhibitions. And whereas his Baby Devils formerly had bullets in their ammunition belts, they now have croissants and wear pandemic masks! Guillermo Guardia says he is at peace when he is making sculpture and making bread. His contentment is rooted in the staff of life.
the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury 2021).
1 Laila Tyabji, “The Coronavirus Cloud Has a Potential Silver Lining for the Indian Crafts Sector,” The Wire, June 6, 2020, https://thewire.in/labour/coronavirus-silver-lining-indian-crafts-sector
2 Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima.
3 The Mochica culture existed in northern Peru from about 100 to 700 AD.