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Astrid Terrazas Creates Surreal, Mexican Folklore-Inspired Worlds Out of Her Basement in Ridgewood, Queens. She Invited Us Inside

Born in Juarez, Mexico, where she spent her earliest years crossing into El Paso, Texas to shop for groceries, then forced to relocate to Dallas with her parents at the age of seven, Astrid Terrazas often fixates on ideas of borders and passage in her art.

Informed by the works of Surrealist artist Remedios Varo and folk artist Minnie Evans, the 26-year-old has described painting as “a process of finding and burying” as well as incanting. Through her mixed-media canvases (adorned with charms, talismans, threadwork) and her illustrated ceramics, she creates surreal worlds that transmute histories into narratives of healing, populated by transient and zoomorphic figures (braids, fountains, snakes, stairs, windows) plucked from Mexican folklore and her own dreams.

So, the artist said, “A lot of people were surprised when they found out I painted an entire show out of my basement.” That would be her first solo exhibition in New York, recently staged at PPOW’s new gallery in Tribeca; it came to fruition over the course of two years below her home in Ridgewood, Queens. Terrazas shares the live/work space with her sound-engineer partner Alex and their dog Billie, blurring boundaries in a decidedly more mundane way. Here, her daily passage entails, she said, “hobbling paintings back and forth from the ‘studio’ area (corner by the window) to my ‘storage area’ (the space underneath the stairs).”

Terrazas currently has work on view in “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” at the Aldrich Contemporary Museum of Art in Connecticut (through January 8, 2023), and is showing at Art Basel Miami Beach with PPOW and in the traveling exhibition “Boil, Toil & Trouble” (through December 11, 2022) from the new nonprofit Art in Common.

Meanwhile, just back from a residency at the Macedonia Institute upstate in the Hudson Valley, she welcomed Artnet News inside her home studio for a tour.

What is the first thing you do when you walk into your studio (after turning on the lights)?

I work on multiple paintings at once, so there’s always one waiting for me in the morning. I like to start with an organized setup—I tidy anything I left messy the night before and then start a new round of chaos.

What is a studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?

I really have to fix a wheel on my paint-palette table. One of the legs is currently resting on a can of varnish—a messy accident waiting to happen.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on my longest painting to date—it’s 100” long x 84” high. I’ve been researching Mexican vampires and other blood-sucking/parasitic beings, and I’m currently linking that to the life-sucking violence perpetrated by capitalism and colonization.

The foreground features Ana la Pytoness, a curandera [or female, Latin-American folk healer] who helps her clients find lost objects using hissing sounds she emanates from her stomach. Behind her flies Teyollohcuani, a creature that Edgar Martín del Campo links to the vampire in his text The Global Making of a Mexican Vampire: Mesoamerican, European, African, and Twentieth-Century Media Influences on the Teyollohcuani. She’s fanged, with woven mats for wings and a thirst for human blood.

What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why?

I’ve been making my own metal charms to affix onto my oil paintings, using copper and aluminum sheets. I emboss/deboss on the soft metal using a variety of wooden and plastic tools. After working on taller-than-me paintings for two years straight, it’s really lovely to have a small portable medium to work on—I was even able to make some during a recent trip to Mérida.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to or look at while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture?

I start my day with coffee and Democracy Now! It’s not always the most uplifting to listen to, but it’s become a grounding habit.

I don’t listen to anything during the sketching phase—I mostly surround myself with my reference materials and whatever my partner is working on—but I MUST be listening or half-watching something once I enter the painting stage. I’m not as particular about my atmosphere when I’m just putting color down—I’ve been rewatching the Vampire Diaries (part research, part embarrassing pleasure?). Once I’m making decisions, though, I listen to podcasts or watch Folkstreams; both are soothing enough to herd my thinking along.

How do you know when an artwork you are working on is clicking? How do you know when an artwork you are working on is a dud?

It’s a stomach feel. I either feel excited about where I’m taking the narrative or I decide I have to U-turn and find a different way.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?

I don’t really get stuck, but I have a lot of ways to get re-inspired. A go-to is to take a nap, drink water, or eat a meal—basic necessities. I forget how poorly my brain functions when it’s just running on cold brew and stress.

I also have a “reference folder” on my desktop where I drag research images or anything interesting I find online—a chaotic Pinterest board of sorts.

And I’ve been really into taking care of my garden, so I go out there if I’m frustrated. I have a flowerbed scattered with local flowers for the pollinators, Mexican sunflowers, bluets, zinnias, coneflowers, and cosmos. I didn’t plan my edible garden early enough this season, so we only grew kale, sochan, tomatoes, basil, and parsley.

What images or objects do you look at while you work? Please share your view from behind the canvas or your desktop—wherever you spend the most time.

I’m surrounded by my books and my collected objects. They often make cameos in my paintings—rocks from road trips, wooden folk masks, sentimental toys, and even my own ceramic pieces—transferring a little bit of my home onto my canvas.

Describe the space in three adjectives.

Adorned, snug, cobbled.

Do you have any other artist’s work in your studio?

I wish I could afford more art! But I’m lucky to be friends with some amazing artists, and have been blessed with beautiful gifts and the opportunities to trade. My two favorites are a print by Mosie Romney featuring a bedazzled butterfly and a print by Kat Lyons depicting a closeup of a poodle. It might be the first thing I see when I wake up.

What is the fanciest thing in your studio?

Maybe my six-drawer flat file? I desperately needed one during college, but they were all beyond my 20-year-old budget. I was living in a Clinton Hill basement and as I emerged, my upstairs neighbor was setting his flat file on the curb, drawer by drawer. I shuffled it back into my basement. It has followed me through three apartments and three neighborhoods, and is now overflowing with years’ worth of illustrations and paper scraps that I’ll “use later.”

Is there anything in your studio that a visitor might find surprising?

Hmm, maybe that my bed is the first thing you see after I lead you downstairs? Or maybe my seashell full of used contact lenses. Due to some scratched corneas and naturally dry eyes, my optometrist suggested I use dailies. I hated the wasteful nature of them, so in order to trick myself I’ve been collecting them in one of the large white seashells that cover the beach at Jacob Riis park in Queens. There’s something so precious about my furled aquamarine lenses sitting like minuscule waves. I might have to use this in a painting.

What do you like to do right after you leave?

Peel off my oil paint-coated clothes like a garden snake and take a really warm shower. After that, I actually go back and stand in front of my painting and say something positive about it, especially if it’s been a frustrating day. It’s become a goodnight ritual, like giving her (my painting) a forehead kiss before tucking her in for the night.

Peel off my oil paint-coated clothes like a garden snake and take a really warm shower. After that, I actually go back and stand in front of my painting and say something positive about it, especially if it’s been a frustrating day. It’s become a goodnight ritual, like giving her (my painting) a forehead kiss before tucking her in for the night.