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Andrew Rivera's pots explore Mexican ideas about death
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Andrew Rivera's pots explore Mexican ideas about death

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Family, food, traditional and contemporary forms, and contrasting views of death in Mexican culture and the United States all play their part in the work of Andrew Rivera.

A resident artist wrapping up a two-year residency at the Clay Studio of Missoula, Rivera addresses all of those items in the vessels that make up his exit show, "Shaking Hands with Death."

The pots, cups, plates and more are decorated with serape textile patterns and skull drawings, sometimes humorous, inspired by 19th century Mexican printmakers like Jose Posada.

The drawings are "a little bit of a commentary on how American culture looks at death versus Mexican culture, and using that to deal with my own preoccupations with death, and trying to overcome that through the imagery of the work," he said.

He said American culture addresses death more awkwardly than in Mexico, and so the subject has become a source of anxiety for him.

"In Mexican culture, it's just a fact. It's celebrated. People are still upset and sad, but it's just perceived differently. And that's kind of my goal, is to get there eventually," he said.

Rivera came to Missoula two years ago from Minneapolis, where he was working at the Northern Clay Center. His wife was enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Montana School of Art, and he was accepted for a 24-month residency at the Clay Studio. 

He came up around functional Minnesota ceramics, and for a long while focused on trying to make good pots, but "eventually I wanted some context, and myself, in the work." Mentors and former professors told him that he was really putting himself in the work.

He started exploring it while he was at the Minnesota New Institute for Ceramic Education at the clay center, and then dove in more here.

He learned art from his father, from whom he also gets his Mexican heritage. Before he got into clay, he would draw with fine-tipped Pilot pens that allow for a crisp, scratchy line quality he likes. "It's very much like intaglio printmaking," he said. Now he "draws" with a needle tool that mimics that feel, with rough edges and burrs that he later sands down. 

The designs complement functional pottery made with Mexican food in mind: small zigzag trays that can hold tortillas upright while you load them up with taco fillings. He made much larger ones that are "burrito holders," but really are sculptures. Elsewhere you'll see a large tortilla warmer. A vase with a distinct shape mimics a molinillo, a wooden whisk for making Mexican hot chocolate. A set of wide, shallow vessels that are his "mise en place bowls," to keep ingredients ready and orderly when preparing to cook — he loves to cook, has worked in restaurants, and they're also a nod to the number of Latinos who work in the food industry in the United States.

Much of his work has a specific use in mind, but really, he said, he likes the idea that people can use it for whatever they like. "At the end of the day, they are pots and they can be used for a lot of things," he said. 

Rivera is taking not just imagery that people are used to seeing but also "the forms themselves, and introducing yet another layer of culture and history" that make them more complex, said Shalene Valenzuela, the executive director of the Clay Studio. 

The residency programs are designed in part to give artists, often not far removed from college, the time and space to "experience growth and change" outside of the deadlines and assignments of school. In his case, she said he developed further into those themes and also scale. 

One piece, "Madre," has a wall to itself. A drawing of the Virgin Mary and an allusion to his mother's love and support, it comprises 15 square plates. He's careful to note that they are plates, not tiles, to draw a connection not only to Catholicism but food. He previously made a similar arranged wall piece with serape plates, thinking of it as a "blanket of plates" and food as a source of comfort.

Humor sometimes comes in verbal form. On one cone-shaped vessel, he repeatedly crosshatched "CALLATE," or "shut up" into a kind of pattern. It's not a form of aggression, he said, but a form of self-directed reminder to quiet your mind on occasion. He frequently scratches Spanish words onto surfaces in a kind of practice, since he's not a fluent speaker.

The common color scheme is a red stoneware with white underglaze and black inlay that is "really specific to the polychrome work from pre-Colombian eras," he said. "A lot of their work is just red, black and white, so I'm trying to color palette and use it in a contemporary setting." One of his flourishes is a muted green, that, with the red and white, nods to the Mexican flag.

In one corner, he's arranged a "cup wall" — five shelves with six cups, each with the same shape but different skulls, one on each side. One right side-up, the other upside down. The whimsically drawn skulls, with large, vertically elongated eye sockets, refer to extended family and "how everybody's a little bit different but there's a lot of similarities." A saintly do-gooder, a know-it-all, a pair of "kissing" skulls who keep to themselves. 

As a whole, the work represents a vein he wants to continue with — honing the context and making things more interesting. "And better. Because at heart I'm still a potter, and I still like to throw good forms, too, so that's a part of it," he said.

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