Natalia Arbelaez – Art as Language

“Creating artwork has been important to me from a young age. I came back to the US at the age of four not speaking English and communication was hard for me. I learned English and forgot Spanish at a young age but relearned it later in life. I haven’t ever really felt completely comfortable with either language, art has always been the most natural form of communication for me. There are never any wrong answers in making art. I clung on to art from a young age because art was whatever I thought it to be.

I found clay in high school and kept taking classes in college. I was always interested in using figures and clay made the process so effortless. The body was an extension of communication for me and I used it as a storyteller. While in undergrad I took refuge in the sculpture department, tucked away from the main campus and run by sculptor Ralph Buckley, a “grumpy old man” who valued hard work. Buckley was tough, and I remember him almost making me cry one of the first classes. But he was the figure sculpture instructor and I was determined to work through it. I was a hard worker and it didn’t take Buckley long to recognize it. Once I was trusted, he gave me my own space and the freedom to experiment however I wanted. I casted multiple dead animals, set fire to a cohort of life sized paper figures, and created larger than life clay figures to melt away with the Florida rain. I stayed in the program well after I doubled the amount of college credits needed to graduate, knowing that I had to get my portfolio just right to make sure I could go to graduate school on a full ride. It payed off and I was awarded an enrichment fellowship at the Ohio State University. I moved away, and sadly Buckley unexpectedly passed away a couple years after. I never got to see him again or the chance to truly thank him.

When I moved to Columbus, OH from Miami I experienced a big culture shock. While feeling personal loss in graduate school, I started making work about culture and heritage and how they are lost and gained. I also started researching pre-Columbian work and religious aesthetics from Latin America. These influences are still very prevalent in my work and I continue to reference them. Learning to research and use my research to make has been an important asset to my work. It’s been hard researching Latin American histories as a lot of this information isn’t easily accessible and has been left out or portrayed in a negative light. I find it important to continue to educate myself of the histories that I have missed out on and I feel incredibly privileged that I will have the opportunity to continue my research as a resident artist at Harvard University’s ceramic program, Office of the Arts. There, I will have access to Harvard’s many libraries and collections of pre-Columbian artifacts. I hope through my work I can share my information and bring attention to the need for accessibility of these historical resources to people of colonized histories.”