Thursday, October 15, 2015

Chicanonautica: A Calaca in a Spacesuit: Confessions of a Sci-Fi Chicano Artist

(Originally published in News from Sector 2337, No. 2, Summer & Fall 2015, and featured along with some of my drawings as part of Josh Rios & Anthony Romero's installation, Please Don't Bury Me Alive! Part Two)

You used to see the image a lot in science fiction illustration: a skeleton in a spacesuit. It was a promise of action, violence, and death in thrill-packed, out-of-this world adventure. Then the world got older, speculative fiction got sophisticated, and such images were considered to be in bad taste.

Yet I use such an image, my “Calacanaut” as my icon/alter ego in my Chicanonautica column for La Bloga. Granted, the Calacanaut is more like a living calavera in the manner of José Guadalupe Posada, and his space helmet is tricked out in hot rod/lowrider style. It does give a better job of conveying what I do as a writer and artist than a photograph would.

It's also an artifact from my career as an artist, which has paralleled my writing career, intersected with it, and at times has come close to crashing and burning.

Since my days as a toddler in East L.A., I've been an artist. I always like fooling around with pencils and crayons. Before I started writing stories, I drew them. Art was something I understood. Even as a kid, I got modern art: surrealism, abstract expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, all made sense to me.

I was never a realist, tended toward exaggeration and cartooning. Which meant I wasn't popular in a world where art is supposed to be pretty and make educated people feel civilized. In college I found that I just couldn't be abstract enough. My scribbles all wanted to say something – like the abstract painting that became the inspiration for my novel Cortez on Jupiter. It's a Chicano tradition, going back through the preColumbian hieroglyphics to petroglyphs I see as I hike through Aztlán.

The world of fine art was a mystery to a working-class vato like me who grew up buying culture at a liquor store. But, though I designed my first ad that appeared in a local newspaper while I was in high school, I had to practically mug the teacher who hired me to get paid, which more or less predicted how my commercial art career would go. In the fringes of the science fiction world, I have done cartoons, illustrations, and even magazine covers, but once again, my stuff was considered too weird for the mainstream markets.

And back in the twentieth century, the Chicano movement also found me too weird. Why wasn't I respectfully illustrating their political agenda? They thought technology was the tool of the oppressors, and they weren't amused at my bizarre, Aztecoid visions.

It was a good thing I had the writing going.

Still, I found myself always having a sketchbook. I had to be creative, even if it wasn't my profession. Another Chicano tradition. There's a lot of art and artists out there in the barrios, undiscovered, like los Américas before Columbus.

In the early days I carried the sketchbooks around, showing them to everyone, hoping to make some kind of deal. I mostly scared people. Later I became more humble, though I still take them along while traveling, taking notes, making sketches.

The Internet and scanners were a big change for me. I could illustrate my blogging, and when I needed to self-publish my novels I could do the art. Now and then ancient illustrations I did resurfaced online.

There were always the people who told me I'd have to choose between art and writing, but now I'm seeing them as part of the same creative process. Rasquache. Another Chicano tradition.

The problem is, America doesn't trust creativity and the imagination. You have to be careful, sneaky. It's like living in a science fiction story.

And like I've said, Chicano is a science fiction state of being, like a calaca in a spacesuit.

Ernest Hogan's "Chicanonautica Manifesto," and more artwork, are in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, Volume 40, Number 2, Fall 2015.