As an art and Spanish double major at Mount Saint Mary’s, Sofia Gutiérrez Calderón ‘92 became very familiar with the José Drudis-Biada Art Gallery. Some of her favorite time in the space was spent curating exhibits by other students and visiting artists. She soon came to realize how much she enjoyed collaborating with artists to create the most engaging presentation of their work.
Nearly three decades later, Gutiérrez finds herself back on campus and in the gallery she knows so well — this time as the curator of a new public exhibit, “Exposing Migration: The Spirit of the American Dream.” The show features the photography of Tish Lampert, who documents what it’s like to travel along the U.S.-Mexico border — highlighting the humanity of the migrants who risk their lives to cross the border, as well as the volunteers who try to help. The exhibit is on display from February 8 to March 5.
As Gutiérrez set up the exhibit, she aimed to create a sacred space that would invite reflection. She was guided by her belief that everyone should be able to engage with Lampert’s work. “It’s not just a Mexican experience or a Catholic experience being documented. It’s a human experience. We’re all migrants passing through this world,” Gutiérrez says. “Sometimes it can be difficult to wrap our heads around what’s going on, and we turn away from certain realities. But the arts can heal. They’re a gateway to understanding and open communication.”
Gutiérrez also believes her alma mater is the perfect venue for this show.
“The Mount is a place where it’s OK to have difficult conversations and to share stories in a safe, supportive environment,” she says. “People here care about social justice and about the human element in any type of struggle. It’s part of our culture at Mount Saint Mary’s.”
A special homecoming
After graduating from the Mount, Gutiérrez earned a master’s degree in Leadership in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Since then, she’s worked abroad in Madrid and Mexico City, and served as an art educator at museums across Los Angeles, including The Getty, LACMA, MOCA, and the Watts Towers Arts Center. Today, Gutiérrez is associate director of education and community engagement at the UCI Institute and Museum of California Art.
“My time at Mount Saint Mary’s influenced every step of my career,” she says. “As a student, I had the freedom to explore my interests. I took classes on the humanities, philosophy, global cultures. It all informed my artwork and who I was becoming as a person. And I got to do all that in this nurturing environment that allowed me so much freedom of expression.
“I always think of this place as a creative playground, with people from different backgrounds. That’s the beauty of Mount Saint Mary’s. It’s multigenerational. It’s multicultural. You have so many mentors and allies who want you to succeed, and who want to help you find your voice.”
All these years removed from her time installing exhibits in the Mount’s gallery, Gutiérrez says she still prefers to collaborate with other artists — especially when their art can spur civic engagement.
“That’s what’s exciting for me,” she says. “Engaging the public not just in art, but in the creative process and in what art has the power to do socially. I’m resistant to the idea that there’s one particular definition of what art is. I never want to hear my students say, ‘I’m not artistic.’ Art is about communication and self-expression. It’s a chance for you to start a dialogue with your community and with the public about what matters to you.”
Broadening the conversation
To that end, Gutiérrez has organized a concurrent exhibit in the gallery that will respond to Lampert’s work, offering additional entry points to the migration story. “Artists, Advocates, Dreamers” features 27 artists who each have their own history of social justice advocacy that inspires and informs their art. The show includes artists who were once Lebanese soldiers, Mexican cowboys and Central American refugees — but are now art gallery directors, farmworkers and educators in the United States. Perhaps the most arresting series of pieces on display are six vibrant portraits of migrant children who have died in U.S. custody, painted by Ann Higgins.
The exhibit also features another Mount alumna, Brenda M. Zozaya ’91. A daughter of migrants, Zozaya has a mixed-media piece in the show. Titled “Neither Here Nor There,” she describes it as a tribute to her parents’ sacrifices — and to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who mentored her at the Mount.
“It’s about being stuck in two cultures and never quite feeling whole in either,” Zozaya says. “But it’s also about the images and customs I grew up with and finally embraced. It’s about rage, anger at the cruelty that migrants can suffer. But it’s also about hope. Hope that we break free from the generational burdens we carry.”
Encouraging that type of freedom of expression is exactly what inspired Gutiérrez during her time at the Mount — and what continues to drive her artistic philosophy today.
“These are amazing individuals who have found a way to tell their stories and to advocate for others through their art,” Gutiérrez says. “As a curator, I always think about how you can add the educational experience to an exhibit. But I don’t have to do that with this show. This art does the teaching all on its own.”