The Full Interview with Artist Eddie Aparicio

Salvadoran brick ovens, pandemic studio practice, and more!

What was the genesis of this project?

This project was originally supposed to be at the Bowtie and it could not have been more different. Well, there are some similarities but I'll just, for the sake of argument, say it couldn't have been more different, what I originally proposed. I was going to do a glass and amber sculpture, which is another project that I'm working on separately, and then when the pandemic happened they shifted to doing programming at the LA State Historic Park. As I was doing site visits there, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was in residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida and I was doing ceramics for the first time in a long time there. That residency got cut short because we all basically got sent home in the middle of it, and so I ended up in LA and I wasn't going to my downtown studio anymore because it was just so hectic downtown for COVID reasons. So I turned my back house into a ceramics studio. I figured I wasn't having any guests coming anytime soon, so I might as well utilize the space. I ordered a big kiln, then put it in my garage, and you know, we can't really run the AC or the heat at the same time as the kiln because of the electrical power. [Laughs.

We shifted to doing something at the park and then I wanted to do a sculpture. I was doing ceramics and looking at the history of the Zanja Madre, which is very close to where the sculpture is now and the history and utilization of ceramic in that, in the creation of an aqueduct, basically to fuel the growth of the Pueblo, and the enslavement of the Tongva communities here. There was so much ceramic under the ground, a section of which had been left above the ground when they were building the Gold Line, kind of left there, just thrown on the side of the rails. So, I wanted to basically turn the Zanja Madre vertically and make it into a brick column, that was then going to be covered in these ceramic thorns, which are a reference to the Ceiba tree—the center of Mayan spirituality that was seen as a direct connection to the different realms of the universe. And also this idea of these protective thorns on the surface of it for me felt relevant to talking about Central American communities and immigrant communities here in LA and this idea of protection and self-protection.

So, that was my original conceptualization and then turning the ceramic aqueduct—which was basically meant to steal water from indigenous communities and lands and to irrigate colonial settlements and their crops—I wanted to turn that vertically to then divert the now absent rainwater back into the ground, this gesture of turning it vertically as a way of capturing and funneling water from the sky into the ground and thinking about the difference between that and the horizontal element of it. I was in the middle of trying to figure this out, but the state park has this requirement where you can't actually dig or penetrate the dirt at all, because there's so many historical objects and it’s such interesting, rich ground in terms of the history of the rail line, of the Tongva people, of the colonial settlement, of all of these different lives that that land has had. The scale of that piece wasn't really going to work and so I started thinking of it as like, a capped version of it. So I had a rendering of this vertical column of brick that had a rounded top and then I was thinking about how, oh, now it just looks exactly like the brick ovens that my father had been making, that are traditional. So I was getting really excited about this connection to making it an oven. There were so many different versions I presented to the park, but once I brought the fact that I thought that I could make an oven inside of the sculpture, everyone was like, so excited about it, they were like, yes, let's do that. 

They wanted to put it in the Roundhouse, which is where it is now, for fire safety, but I thought that was an interesting idea, because it's kind of the center of the park, so like a community hub. And thinking about the ways in which this oven could be used and the history of the connection to the food sales and looking at my own history of archiving Central American Resource Centers. The history of food sales—it’s immigrant communities from Central America coming and bringing their food and their culture through their food and then using that to sell in public parks, and then using that money to then send back for medication and for the purchase of anything that the struggle needed. That's something that still happens now. But I have all of these handwritten notes, basically tallying up how many tamales they needed to make to be able to make this amount of money. And then the graph that leads to how much of this specific antibiotic could be sent to this town through that sale. And so charting the history of so much organizing and solidarity through the history of food and culture that was traveling with people, and then sending the money back. I was just really inspired by that in the way that so many other artists and groups are reinterpreting public space during the pandemic to help people during this time. It's kind of a memorial—not a memorial, that sounds so dead—but it's an homage to the history of that practice and wanting to make something during the pandemic that could be used to also feed people and could be used to talk about systemic inequality, but also elevate the history of food and the understanding of these communities and the things that they bring with them. 

Tell me a little bit about the kinds of ovens that your dad built in El Salvador and how that practice relates to Pansa del Publico.

I was actually trying not to ask him too many questions when I was making it [laughs], because he talks for a long time and I love my dad, he's an amazing artist and maker, but I was getting little bits and going more on my own research. But from things I was able to get from him, he was making ovens from a really young age, like five years old. His mom would ask him to make these ovens—they’re one of the things that she grew up in the little village that she lived in outside of San Miguel, where they use this as their main cooking source. And so he would use pieces of brick that he found laying around and adobe clay, and all of these other things, like broken glass bottles, which are a really good insulator. He was using that underneath the floor of the oven. Traditionally the ovens in El Salvador have a front and a back door, whereas the oven that I made only has one door. That was for me mostly based on aesthetic reasons, in that I wanted the piece to have a large amount of its viewpoint not be directly referencing the functionality aspect of it. I wanted to make a sculpture that had an oven inside of it, I didn't want to make an oven that had an ornament. I was more interested from an artistic perspective in making something that I felt was visually compelling that also had this element of functionality inside of it. There’s a chimney on it, which is the number one tell of what it is and that was a decision I was going back and forth on in terms of whether I was going to let that be so distinguished on the surface or integrated into a larger mass. People see the chimney and then they get to “oven” very quickly, but you can see the back side of it and not see any of the door or the chimney and I like that you have those multiple viewpoints and the ambiguity that that creates in terms of people questioning what it is that they're looking at.

I have this theory around materials, as to not exoticize them and not to feel like I have to be so strict about where everything comes from. I wasn't going to go to San Miguel and get all of the clay and make the oven—like, we have clay here, and I think a big part of me understanding my identity as the second generation, or actually maybe the first, but I’ll say second generation, part of the Salvadoran diaspora, as the child of someone who migrated here, is that this is where I grew up, this is my home, and I have a connection to other places. I’ve also talked to a lot of food people, a lot of chefs who have this relationship to the material that they use in their food, which is like, they're going to use whatever they have access to here. They don't really feel the need to go and get this really specific kind of grain from a specific type of place. I mean, I know there are a lot of chefs that are really particular, but the people that I'm collaborating with on this project, for the most part, have some relationship to this idea of materiality. Part of my understanding of my family is that they use the best things that they have access to. They lived—and some still live—in poverty. So this idea of finding what they can and making something—the techniques and the intentionality of making this [oven] and the food that goes in it is more important than being so specific about every little detail of where the material comes from. So I ended up modeling [the oven] more off of like a European model, a European oven, because those were the most efficient materials and methods of construction that I could find, and I felt like that for me was more akin to the ways that my distant ancestors or even my very close relatives would have wanted to make it.

That seems like a really important point about the notion of authenticity and what it means to be part of a diaspora and using what you have, which might not be what your ancestors would have used, but you don't live where your ancestors did. 

It’s the history of food. It’s the history of migration and re-adapting of techniques and food styles and ingredients within different communities. It's that blending of spaces within a particular kind of tradition, like the history of al pastor in Mexico coming from Middle Eastern cooking techniques. For me it’s always so interesting and so much more a part of the reality of what it is to be bodies in motion on a planet that's in motion than something that's so fixed in time and space.

Can you lay out step by step how you fabricated the work?

This work would have been probably three times easier to make if I had just made it at the site and in a permanent way. But basically I had to figure out how to engineer this now 5,500-pound-plus oven to be able to be moved, both on the site and then later, without being destroyed, and most of these ovens, definitely the adobe ovens, and most of the brick ovens, are made to never move. They’re made on site or pieces are brought together and they’re assembled and then they're never moved. And so I had this internal metal frame that has wheels on it fabricated to put the floor of the oven on, the actual oven, and the site the piece is located in has this foot-tall concrete barrier around it, and so, that little one-foot concrete barrier was the biggest nightmare to solve because the work had to go up and over it. So that proved to be a very complicated installation process with a last-minute larger forklift needing to be delivered as the entire crew of a few dozen people are there too for the install. Somehow I scrambled and got this guy to come and drop off a forklift on his day off, and [I was] YouTube-ing videos on how to operate it. Luckily, I ended up finding one of the park staff was there on his day off also. And he was just so inspired by the effort and the piece and the cultural connection that he worked an entire day for free to help us install it. And he had these massive pieces that helped us push it through, all of us rolling it like some ancient Egyptian pyramid building style of getting this thing to sit in the center. 

And then all of the fabrication—I had an assistant but most of the fabrication on site I did myself. I spent probably four or five months during COVID in my studio making the ceramic thorns and firing them in my garage, because I wasn't comfortable going to my studio downtown. That was the origin of the ceramic portion of it, and going back and forth between making bread and making food in my kitchen, and then going to my back house, which is where my temporary studio is. I never worked from home before this, but the gestures in the studio and then the gestures out of the studio became so blurred for me that this project started to make more and more sense, and then that was kind of how I started thinking—the thorns weren’t originally going to be on an oven, they were going to be on a sculpture. I had a clay roller and then I was rolling out dough, and then I would go and put all the ceramics in the kiln, and then I would go like, put the bread in the oven, or things had to be left out to air-dry. I just kept finding all the connections between ceramics and bread-making specifically, but also other types of materials and I started really thinking a lot about the political origins of this removal of high art and craft and all of these things that only serve to perpetuate inequalities in the art world and also in the food world. 

What role did functionality play in your thinking and making process? 

The history of functionality is complicated in the art world. I employ this idea or thinking about the conceptualization of appropriation through the history of modernism, through, like, white male European artists taking the aesthetics of Latin America, aesthetics of Africa, aesthetics of Asia, and somehow saying that they're elevating it by removing their cultural context and the removing of their functionality, like on vessels, on baskets, on other things that were the aesthetics of the piece, innately tied to the function of it, both of those artistic and cultural kind of connections. And so for me, I wanted to make it as functional as I possibly could, but also it's just sort of a complicated thing growing up with the canon of all of these works. And I'm used to having to kind of re-educate myself through an alternate lens. I was lucky—quote, unquote, “lucky”—that the pandemic lasted as long as it did because the project got pushed pretty far from when it was originally supposed to open, which allowed me to have a lot more time to research all of the details on every little aspect of how things connect, the different types of materials, sourcing all of the things, and kind of mostly just hoping. 

In art-making, failing has always been an integral part of the process. And I was kind of joking with a friend the other day, I was talking about this idea of failing well, and I told them that I have a bunch of friends that are somewhat professional skateboarders now that I grew up with, and the reason that I feel like they're so good is because they're innately good, but they also know how to fall really well. And so they can do some crazy jumps, some crazy things, and they'll just fall, but their body rolls and their body moves in a way that they don't get really injured, so they can get up and do it again. And I was equating that to how I think about the role of an artist which is just like failing but failing well, so that you can get up and so that the entire project doesn’t fail, but you can learn something from it. And then you can try again a slightly different way or whatever you end up with, you reinterpret that through another lens. And so functionality is always a risk and I'm super happy with how it's turned out but I was almost more conceptual in my intention, thinking about the origins of art-making. For me it's so much about the intentionality of it more than even what it is you're making, or the finished product of it. It's just an interesting conceptual in-between point—that's why the door of the oven is high, because aesthetically I wanted to be there even though I knew it was going to be difficult for people to reach it. Michelle, for example, had a hard time accessing the door. I felt like an asshole because I’m taller than maybe other people. (Laughs.

How did the work being sited in public space factor into your considerations around how to build the oven and make sure both that it would work and also not pose some kind of liability? 

A lot of that was just basically taking recommendations from other people and through research. And then basically tripling that in terms of insulation. So I've been having this issue where the oven gets so hot so quickly because there's so much insulation, and then it's hot for a very long time. And so, during that [first] event, I was very privately struggling that the oven was way too hot and I couldn't get it down. I didn't think that I could insulate it too well, but I’m learning every time that I do one of these events or that someone else collaborates with me, I've learned a little bit more about it and so at first, I was just firing it as high as I could, thinking that it would take so much to get it up to temperature. But it just holds heat so well. 

The amount of layering of material on the surface—of concrete and ceramic—acts as another buffer. So I don't have very much to say about that other than that it was kind of triple the amount of things that I thought was necessary just to make sure that heat wasn’t escaping, in terms of allowing the oven to be functional, like to actually be functional and not just gesturing towards it. I could have made something really, really simple, that would’ve been easier and more cost-effective to make, but it wouldn't have performed as well—not for me, it was not going to be in line with what I was wanting the project to be, the actual ability to cook amazing food inside of it or at least that someone else could do that, was really important, as much if not more so than the aesthetics of the work, that culture. It’s definitely this back and forth for me in terms of making decisions based off of functional reasons and based off of the piece as a sculpture, and I'm trying to find that balance. 

At what point did you start to think about the kinds of public programs you wanted to do? And are the programs by your design, or are they collaborations with Clockshop and Oxy Arts?

It was collaborative for sure. I mean, the actual making of it was so labor-intensive that I kind of became overwhelmed with the actual production and I was really fortunate to have such an awesome team at Oxy Arts and at Clockshop that had a lot of suggestions and some people that I was interested in working with, a lot of people that they're bringing and asking me about. I really wanted it to be collaborative in the sense that I wanted it to be not just about my family's history and the kind of things that were inspiring me to make the work. But also, just spending so much time in the park, like 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for two to three months, I really got to know the people that use that space and that live in the area and the kind of huge diversity in terms of age, cultural background, and economic background, and some days when the park was really packed, I talked to probably over 60 people a day as I had my hands covered in concrete. It became this performative piece of making and a lot of people would come back week after week or sometimes day after day to see the piece evolve. I made part of the work in the back maintenance yard of the park. They had a built-in structure for me and then spent a lot of time assembling it and putting it together on site. And so part of that was in public space, and I wanted that to happen because I felt like I wanted the piece to be seen as evolving and not just a finished piece that would be dropped in overnight. That kind of connection to people being allowed to be a part of the process was important for me. 

So to answer the question around programming, I would say the majority of the credit goes to the organizations that I’ve partnered with, having their own relationships and doing the research and setting everything up. And basically, they just sent me some information about some of the people they were thinking about and I gave them thumbs up, and then I honestly didn't hear about it too much until a lot of the details had been worked through. And that was fine with me because for me, I wanted people to use the oven in a way that felt good for things in the work that they're doing, and for me to be more hands off in the sense that I'll show up and I can fire it if they need me to, or I can also not show up if they'd rather me not be there. I wanted it to be something that could be used in public space by people from different backgrounds. That's important to me. That’s been the trajectory of these events. 

Have you actually gotten to make food in the oven yourself? 

I have. Luckily I have a great connection with the park and so they have allowed me to go there when I need to use it. It was a little touchy when we started proposing the idea, and the piece is locked for safety reasons, but to get this oven to be fireable to temperatures that we've been using it at recently, it needs to go through a curing process where every day you fire it 100 degrees hotter for like, six or seven days. So I was there very often, firing it, and in that process, you have to keep it [at that temperature] for five hours, but you can also make stuff in it. And so I was taking advantage of those times and inviting people to come and bring things to put in there.

What sort of things have you made? 

Um, what have I made... I made some really terrible breads and it's not the oven’s fault. (Laughs.) It's not even really my fault, it was more just trying to do too much. We did an event where, because I was basically working the maintenance yard, where they have this amazing, pretty large staff of people that work every single day maintaining the park, I was in their space and they cleared this massive shed area of all their tractors and all their pallets of hand sanitizer so that I would have a space to work and I wouldn’t have to be in the sun. Every day they’d come and a lot of the workers would tell me that their families had these ovens in Mexico and rural villages, and it had so much connection and meaning for them. At first they didn't know what the heck I was doing, they were like, who is this person and why is he mixing concrete? And then as the oven started to evolve—all of a sudden the floor is there, and then all of a sudden the next day the dome was cast, and then the insulation, and it started kind of taking shape—I felt like I saw them start to realize what it was. At the time it was a recognizable thing that didn't have a base, it was just all on the floor. So that for me was really interesting. I had this vision in my head of what it was going to be but even the person that I hired as my assistant, who's a good friend of mine, had no idea that the piece was even going to be sculptural until literally the end. I showed him a rendering one time and he started laughing out loud because it just didn’t occur to him that that’s what the piece was going to be. So I told [the park staff], look, the first time that the oven is ever going to get used is going to be for you guys. And I'm gonna cook you guys food, and I asked them what they wanted. I was thinking I would make empanadas or something interesting, but a lot of the people who work in the maintenance yard are young guys and so, they're all like, oh, we want pizza, we want pizza and beer. I was like, are you sure? They're like, yeah. I’m like alright, I don't want to make pizza in it because that's not the reference that I want the work to go in, but for you guys I’ll make pizza. So we had an event the first time that I formally cooked in it. We did an event in the park and invited a lot of their upper staff and the office people and all the maintenance crew. I think there's probably over thirty people and they set up this long, banquet table with shade and music and drinks. And I cooked for about four and a half hours. I must've made 30 or 40 pizzas. And so that was the first time that I really used it, and it was the first time I actually got it up to 900 degrees or something. The dome didn't crack and it stayed hot for three days. It was nice and the food was amazing. 

So now I’m dying to know: what will happen to the oven when the exhibition closes?

We're still figuring it out. There's a lot of private people who are interested, but I kind of want it to be in public space, or at least in public use in some way. So, it's still undefined. And there's a lot of support, and a lot of people involved in this project, so I’m not too worried about it. I would prefer not to move it twice. (Laughs.) And so that's more or less my thinking about it, but it's still unknown. And it evolved into this much bigger project than any of us were really aware of, both Clockshop and Oxy Arts, which came in at a time when the piece had more or less taken shape. But this was definitely not supposed to be as intense in terms of scale, in terms of ambition, in terms of programming. And so I just really want to acknowledge Clockshop specifically for taking on more than I think they were expecting to, and really believing in the project enough to be giving as much resources and time and attention as they have been. I know that wasn’t the original proposal for the project and I think they believed in it and so they just kept going. It's a fair warning for anyone who works with me in the future, that, uh, pieces evolve quickly. (Laughs.)