“Hello Hello” Interview with Jai Carrillo by Rae Rubio
I first met Jai working together at a frame shop in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco. We kept eyeing each other from across the work place because of each other’s fashionable art wear. I knew then we’d be friends, and I’ve always known he’d have something to share with the world of his talents. Jai is an emerging queer textile artist based in San Francisco. He explores his vision of art through fibers, photography, fashion, and beauty.
Favorite quote: “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.” – Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
Rae: Now let’s begin with this interview. Can you recall a memory of when you first started making art and textiles? How did you start being serious about it?
Jai: My earliest memory of creativity was at 5 years old. When the Disney movie The Little Mermaid came out, I needed to have the Barbie version. What was available to me was a generic Barbie doll and a squeaky rubber shark. With scissors in hand, I cut the shark’s head off and placed Barbie, legs first, inside. This wasn’t the most glamorous mermaid, but I was happy.
What could be more queer than the juxtaposition of a vicious, blood thirsty boy’s toy and tender, petite girl’s doll? Years later, I began hand sewing dresses for my Barbies, which was the beginning of my textile journey.
At 17 years old, I got my first sewing machine. It wasn’t until college that the study of textile arts was something people practiced, not just fashion. Weaving, fiber dyes, basketry, embroidery, and pattern design became outlets for new creative expressions.
Rae: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Jai: The term “queer” has various connotations depending on generation, gender politics, and community. To be vague, I describe queer as a feeling, person, or idea that does not follow traditional thinking in Western culture. The subject is queer because it challenges conventional ideas of gender presentation around masculinity. Breaking down ideas of gender association with textiles opens up new visual and tactile experiences.
Rae: What mediums do you work with?
Jai: Since I went to college to study photography, the idea of portraits appealed to me. Once digital photography was integrated into the practice, I became disassociated with the subject and struggled relying on technology as a tool for expression.
Just like a photograph, embroideries are portraits that capture a moment in time. What’s special about textiles is the hours, days, and months spent recreating that stillness.
Knitting, crocheting, sewing, and embroidery became my favorite practices. I began working with recycled materials like lingerie to make boxing gloves. Knitting with thick yards of wool to create boxing gloves presents a delicate approach to a violent male dominated sport.
After 3 semesters of textiles and a self portrait embroidery assignment, needlework fulfilled many of my queer creative desires. When researching books on embroidery, I found a technique called “Blackwork” which uses counted repeat patterns to create graduation with thread count and filling in extra stitches. Using embroidery fabric that uses counted stitches per inch, stitches create a pixel effect that can make an image. Perfecting this technique has taken years and seems to be what I enjoy most.
Rae: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?
Jai: Photography has been used to document diverse cultures and communities. Queer youths are losing visibility as western cultures come closer to equal rights between same sex relationships. Since same sex marriage is an option in California, homosexuals can be seen following hetero-normative traditions like monogamy and child rearing. San Francisco has become an epicenter for queer youths and people living with HIV.
As unemployment rates and homelessness are increasing, 4 condominiums for single family are being built within a 3 mile radius, leaving queers and people of color to move where? Where can queer people of color gain visibility when so much attention goes to living a traditional lifestyle in an expensive city?
It’s important to bring attention to conflicts that may not be part of our community, and art has always been a medium to share worldwide. In public, my mannerism, my petite figure, and floral print outfits read me as a big ole’ queer. My art looks at ambiguity and anonymity of one’s ethnicity and gender to challenge our prejudices and really look into behaviors.
Rae: Do you intend for your work to challenge the viewer?
Jai: Historically, so much of art subjects the female body to the male gaze. The female body is objectified in all art forms as well as film, television, and advertisement. The female body has become a normative part of western culture and is rarely disputed for being publicly displayed yet often critiqued. When naked male bodies are viewed in the public eye, discomfort and associations with homophobia rise.
Why is there a binary between the sexes? It’s obivious that the imagery is of gay sex and pornography. Beyond gay sex, the experience the viewer has with the art challenges perceptions on sexuality, gender, and race.
When the phallus is delicately embroidered, one is forced to look closely at the details, and see the phallus as something beautiful. Men are challenged to look at the sexual context of the art.
Rae: What are you presently inspired by? Are there particular things you are reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?
Jai: Works by the playwright Tennessee Williams have been influential by romanticizing tragedy and dishonor. Williams often writes about homosexual characters hiding from their true self. Characters that live dual lifestyles often have the most mystery which leads to tragedy. I think the unspoken sexual deviance becomes a curiosity and informal awakening to sexual diversity in current culture.
Rae: What do you love most about being an artist in San Francisco?
Jai: Whenever I walk around the city, there is some imprint of art in the streets. Someone knits yarn around a tree or bike post, coy fish skeletons float on the cement of my neighborhood, spray painted stencils denouncing building condominiums mark my walk to work.
The effort and amount of expression is unlimited in San Francisco. Since I’m working as a Hairstylist at Edo Salon, I’m inspired by everything that can be translated into hair. Color, patterns, compositions all influence my esthetics. There are many street artists as well as gallery artists that are passionate for their craft. Passion is what makes art live and inspires me to create as well.
Rae: Describe your personal style?
Jai: It’s kind of hard to say what my style is like…I guess I’m like a Golden Girl from the 1950’s who bumped into Vivianne Westwood. Yeah, that’s it.
Rae: Any influential artists that you love and admire?
Jai: Kiki Smith, Claude Cahun, Robert Mapplethorpe, Pierre et Gilles, Tom of Finland, Kenneth Anger, James Bidgood, and Nick Cave are artists that I reference during creative brainstorming. Using traditional techniques of portrait photography, Robert Mapplethorpe showed the beauty and sensuality in bondage and discipline sexual practices with soft lighting in black and white photography. James Bidgood created a pink, glitter filled bedroom and story tale forests to depict homoerotic desires. With an 8mm film camera, Bidgood created a full length film in his studio apartment, lots of paper mache, and filmed male sex workers to create Pink Narcissus. I love the parallels between sexual deviance and magical eroticism. Softening our visions of underground sexual practices of pain and submission creates a kitsch value I love exploring.
Rae: Are there any artists you want to collaborate with in the future?
Jai: Nick Cave creates gorgeous sculptures and suits used for performances. Cave uses different mediums and has so much knowledge for constructing these suits. The details are hand crafted and take a crew to build. I’d love to perform and build a suit with him.
Rae: What music inspires you when you are making art? Any bands or genre you are currently listening to?
Jai: Erykah Badu, Kate Bush, and the Delfonics have been creative sidekick when I want to mellow out, sit in my rocking chair, and embroider. Whenever I’m speeding through a sewing project and need some energetic tunes, Kelis, Animal Collective, No Doubt, Santigold, and Nina Hagen are right by my side.
Rae: When are you most creative, time of day?
Jai: Like many artists who like to procrastinate, the late hours tend to be the most productive. Probably because I’m tired and a little delusional from long hours at work. What has been helpful to enhancing that creativity, is organizing craft nights with friends and roommates. The energy in a room filled with artists presents a bounty of influence, support, and fun that can’t be found alone in my room in the middle of the night.
Rae: Lastly, are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and When?
Jai: During San Francisco’s LGBTQ Pride Month, I was part of a collective art show “Queering Mythologies,” sponsored by the Queer Cultural Center. The show gave me inspiration to work on projects I’ve halted for 3 years. I’m currently working on a burlesque performance piece about a boxer who comes out a queer. The outfits will be covered in red sequins and lace.
Rae: Thank you for the interview Jai! I’ll be seeing you around soon!
Chack out Jai’s website: 28bobbypins.blogspot.com/