Weaving together Hispanic culture and art in a lattice of traditional ideas and modern designs

June 2, 2022

Upper school art teacher Pilar Aguero-Esparza, who identifies as Chicanx, remembers placing leather strips on a table as she contemplated what color to paint them. Once she painted the pieces, traditionally a shade of brown, she would weave them into a lattice that echoes a pattern often affixed to the base of a shoe, called a last. Suddenly, the need to buck the conventional color scheme gripped her.

“I needed to paint a different color,” Aguero-Esparza said. “I saw this bottle of sky blue sitting on my shelf, and I was like, ‘It’s gonna be that color because I really want to do it, and it’s so beautiful.’”

I saw this bottle of sky blue sitting on my shelf, and I was like, ‘It’s gonna be that color because I really want to do it, and it’s so beautiful”

— Upper school art teacher Pilar Aguero-Esparza

Aguero-Esparza’s fascination with fabricating these sandals stems from the traditional footwear donned in Mexico. She learned and practiced fashioning sandals in her parents’ shoe repair shop located in Los Angeles where she grew up. As a result of her parents’ shoemaking profession, she later found herself creating these sandals in her art studio while adding her own artistic spin on them.

“I said that I would bring the materials back to my studio and start making art with them,” Aguero-Esparza said. “My first impulse was ‘Can I design shoes?’ Since some of these were my own designs, I thought, ‘How can you use weaving and leather to make more contemporary stuff?”

Many of her two dimensional art pieces feature woven leather patterns, and much of her artwork incorporates her familiarity with shoemaking, knowledge passed down from her family. Although she experiments with bright colors, the traditional range of brown hues in her art prompted her to explore how these colors connected to themes of skin tones and race.

“Leather comes in all these natural colors like browns and beiges, so I found myself looking at that,” Aguero-Esparza said. “There was a lot of convergence happening not only with the materials I’m using, but also the ideas about skin tone and race.”

There was a lot of convergence happening not only with the materials I’m using, but also the ideas about skin tone and race.”

— Upper school art teacher Pilar Aguero-Esparza

Her mural project displayed at an exhibition a few years ago integrated her ideas about skin tone and race. Using melted crayons, Aguero-Esparza created molds of her then 10-year-old daughter’s feet in the different shades featured in Crayola’s multicultural crayon pack. In her mural, strips of color streaked the wall, each pertaining to a shade represented in the pack, and each pair of feet rested under their respective colors.

Aguero-Esparza hoped that this piece would allow her daughter to explore the concept of skin color. When her daughter turned 18, Aguero-Esparza redid the plasters with her daughter’s feet in different dance positions to reflect the latter’s love of dancing.

“I was kind of curious,” Aguero-Esparza said. “I was thinking about what color she would think her skin is, so then I cast each color in the pairs of her feet so that’s what’s here at the bottom of the skin tone mural. Ten years old is young, so when she was 18, we had a lot of different conversations because she was a lot older. We talked a bit more about ‘Well, what is your identity in terms of your skin color?’”

These art pieces, both the one of her daughter at 10 years old and at 18 years old, will be displayed in the Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas this coming summer. The showcase specifically requested Aguero-Esparza’s project since the theme of the exhibition is parenthood, so the projects will be placed in proximity to each other as the juxtaposition will provide a sense of time passing by.

“When I wanted to cast my daughter, I said that it’s got to be her feet,” Aguero-Esparza said. “My parents were shoemakers, so people might say that’s so obvious, but I didn’t even think about that. I just instinctively did it.”

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