Milwaukee artist Celeste Contreras explores themes of family, ancestry, community and social justice in her richly colored drawings and multimedia works.
Contreras graduated from Alverno College in May 2018 with a degree in studio arts and will begin a master’s program in Print and Narrative Form at UW-Milwaukee this fall. She was also named the 2019 Mitchell Street Library Artist in Residence.
Milwaukee Magazine recently caught up with Contreras to ask her a few questions.
Full Name: Jessicanne Celeste Skierski
Hometown: Born in Dallas, Texas; grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Occupation/Other Titles: Multimedia artist and social justice activist
Family is a major theme in your work. Do you come from a family of artists? How does your family continue to inspire you?
I was raised by a single parent — my mom, Anna Contreras. She has two degrees, one in printing and publishing and one in photography. While I was growing up in Milwaukee in the 1980s, my mom never took me to church; she took me to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) every single Sunday. Art became my church, my religion and my altar at a very young age.
Family Sundays were amazing. My most vivid memory is standing in the old main MAM entrance, located on the east side of the building and facing Lake Michigan. I was standing there with pipe cleaners and glue in my hands as I stared in awe at Julian Schnabel’s Broken Plates painting, which inspires me to this day.
My father’s side, the Skierskis, have never been part of my life, but I do know that my father was a published author, playwright and musician. He passed away in 2006. Most importantly, my ancestors play a huge role in my art, especially at this time in my career.
From 2003 to 2004, during my spiritual journey, I hitchhiked through Mexico. I took this pilgrimage to find the roots of my Mexican heritage. The time there impacted me so profoundly. I am still inspired by having met my family in Mexico and having survived a year of roaming while searching for myself in the mountains of central Mexico all the way to Chiapas in southern Mexico.
You work with a variety of media and employ a variety of styles in your work, including pen and ink and collage. Do you have a favorite medium or style you like to work with?
Drawing is my absolute grounding point. It’s where I find myself when I am lost, probably because it’s the medium I began working with. Drawing is my strongest art form, but I also love working with multiple media at once.
I love drawing and adding a collage to it, or building a space such as a wooden box, where I can then place my drawings. I always incorporate drawings in some way into other media I work with. I even draw the faces of the dolls I create with fabric crayons or ink. Drawing is at the core of my work but is not the only media I use.
You have traveled overseas quite a bit. What impact have your journeys had on your work?
I began traveling and living abroad when I was 16, starting with an art program in southern Italy, where some of my work still lives. After graduating from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, I bypassed college and headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I lived there for one year, from 2001 to 2002. This changed my life forever. I learned about life, death, culture and how similar we all are — I am still moved and inspired by what Thailand taught me. Identity has always been something that has not always been clear to me, growing up half-Mexican and half-white. Thailand inspired me to find my roots.
Are you planning any future trips?
I have yet to plan my spiritual journey to Poland, and I’d also like to learn more about my Blackfeet Cherokee background (both bloodlines on my father’s side of the family). I have been planning a trip back to Thailand with my mom, and I have been invited to show my work in Guanajuato, Mexico.
How does your work examine themes of social justice and human emotions?
My advocacy art pieces are really just reflections of myself and history. History and the world’s recent and current political climate have inspired me to tell a story of the untold.
I have added text to some of my pieces that I created for immigrant reform and human rights. For example, I reference Mary Turner, an African-American woman who was tortured and brutalized — legally — in the U.S. I placed her name there for many reasons, the main one being so that we never forget her name. It’s important that people know her name and the true history of this country.
I founded the Día De Los Muertos Parade project a few years after returning home from Mexico. I have experienced so many (too many) deaths, but I learned how to grieve in a way that was creative and expressive, such as with the creation of the home ofrenda and the altar/shrine full of offerings to the dead. Experiencing this ancient death ceremony in the land of my ancestors helped transcend my grief and helped me let go.
I knew I was not alone of this feeling of not knowing how to deal with death, so I thought Milwaukee needed the Day of the Dead holiday, at least to begin talking, thinking and working with death. Milwaukee is so segregated. I thought if we could unite in ONE thing, it would be death, the great equalizer.
I watched communities unite. I saw people from multiple backgrounds, many of whom were not Mexican, embrace this holiday, because they had experienced death and were still carrying unsettled emotions. It was beautiful to witness people and communities begin to talk about death and the healing process. Death can and will change us, but it does not always have to be negative.
What are some goals you have for your year of residency at the Mitchell Street Library?
Being chosen as the artist in residency at the library is a dream come true! My mother instilled a love of reading in me. Today I love researching all topics. It is a passion of mine that inspires and often creates context for my art.
I have some major goals for the year residency, including bringing Día de los Muertos to the Makerspace, printing, bookmaking and publishing, but also, I am excited to be part of an experimental space that encourages creativity.