Columbia Student Uses Art to Record History, Erase Boundaries
While enrolled in a workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine in 2018, Josué Romero met Columbia College Chicago faculty member Melissa Potter, who encouraged him to apply to Columbia. This fateful meeting would eventually land Josué, who was born in Honduras, but spent most of his life in San Antonio, in Chicago. After completing his undergraduate degree at the Southwest School of Art in 2019, Josué enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in Art and Art History program at Columbia where he currently runs the gallery “Porous.” Josué talks to us about his work with “Porous,” his current projects, and how art is a tool to address both pain and healing.
Can you tell us about your experience working with “Porous”?
“Porous” is a student-oriented exhibition space on the 4th floor of the 623 S Wabash building. When I began in the program, I was tasked with starting this new exhibition space, which entailed converting an old classroom, branding the gallery, and curating the first few shows. My working philosophy has been to cultivate a ground where disciplines can share space, where the boundaries inherent to academia can seep away, hence the gallery's name. To that end, we’ve had five exhibitions up to now, showcasing work from writers, performers, and my peers in Art and Art History, as well as undergraduate students. While the pandemic may make it more difficult to host physical shows with more than one or two artists, this philosophy will still underpin any curation and work that continues into the new school year.
Can you tell us about some of the other projects you are currently working on?
Currently, I have two projects filling my plate: a grant project back in San Antonio, where I was raised, and a facilitating role under the Park District here in Chicago. For the Grant project, I’m making a zine about Mission San Jose, a colonial site with a lot of historical and communal weight for the neighborhood it exists in, and the city at large. The zine will showcase oral histories alongside more traditional historical accounts, rendering a more nuanced and rich history than what you might find in a textbook or on a historic marker. I’m one of 15 artists selected by the Park District to facilitate their Cultural Asset Mapping Project (CAMP). We are tasked with reaching out to community members in nine neighborhoods across the south and west sides and asking for their collaboration in helping build a map of cultural resources and their history in their respective neighborhoods. I’m assigned to Humboldt Park and will be cohosting a few Zoom discussions through September, collecting oral history, and generally trying to activate these maps for use in the community.
Some would say that your art and your work is social justice oriented. Can you tell us about that?
The term social justice is thrown around a bit too loosely for my tastes, but the baseline is that I care—I care about the communities that I’m a part of and my work is an expression of that care. Art is a tool to address the hurting, the transgressions, and pain that I’ve seen and experienced myself, healing that needs to happen, and that I have the capacity to facilitate, however slightly. My thesis plans have this in mind: I’m working to build an archival framework for immigrant families to document their family history, before, during, and after migration. My thought process is centered on the value of those stories, how important they are to placing oneself in a history—in a family legacy, and how valuable they might be to future generations of immigrant children who will look upon their ancestors to know what struggles have led to their presence. I already exercise this for my dad and all the stories he’s got to tell, and I’d like to help others do the same.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking of coming to Columbia?
Columbia will be what you make it out to be, a manifestation of your intentions. Not every class will be your jam. You won’t have the motivation for all the work, but you can always salvage something. You can find the thing that you needed to learn and make it work for you even when it’s a struggle. The resources, the studios, the networks, Columbia has it all, but you will need to demand the things that you need. You might take that as a rule of thumb for life in general.
What advice would you give to students who would like to go into your same area of study?
You get to define what art is—that is, you decide the things that are important and worth talking about. That is both an incredible power and a crippling responsibility. Finding what your work is about will be a journey inward, ultimately finding what you’re about. Art school should help you figure out how to express the things you find out. Once you can articulate it, all you have to worry about is saying it louder and louder.