When local artist Andrea Vargas-Mendoza was tapped by former Warehouse 21 executive director Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt to conduct a workshop for area students at the nonprofit teen arts center, she says she expected maybe 20 participants.

"It turned out I was going to have 60 kids," Vargas-Mendoza explains, "they bussed them in."

At the time, Vargas-Mendoza says she had been working with Billy Schenk, a painter of American Western scenes, who she says passed along a respect for the concept of paint-by-numbers. From there, it was a matter of a projector and images of the kids separated from their parents at the border.

The results are multi-media collaborative pieces with a minimal color palate, written word and myriad emotions drudged up from kids just learning about the immigration crisis. As kids as young as infancy die in US concentration camps (let's just call them what they are, shall we?), young folks in Santa Fe are learning about migrants' stories to create art with purpose. But then, isn't that sort of the responsibility of the artist? To perceive, distill and express the complex and seemingly inexpressible? Vargas-Mendoza thinks so.

"In my mind, I think about what it would feel like to be Wonder Woman," she tells SFR. "If there were a way to literally break the cement walls, for those kids to walk out into the sun again and feel free? The work is there. The call is there."

A custom bag designed by Andrea Vargas-Mendoza.
A custom bag designed by Andrea Vargas-Mendoza. | Courtesy the Artist

Thus, WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE FREE was born. Given the high number of kids involved, however, it was tough to pare down the selections, but with an assist from KEEP Contemporary head Jared Antonio-Justo Trujillo and the Albuquerque-based artist, educator and curator Linda-marie Monier,Vargas-Mendoza says she's excited about what will be on view. It doesn't end with the kids, either, as she plans to show her newest series as well.

Perhaps best-known for figurative work in limited, striking shades,Vargas-Mendoza's own practice has evolved as she tries to answer the question posed by the show's title. In addition to teaching budding artists,Vargas-Mendoza crafted custom bags, each of which carries a message meant to provoke others to consider their own concept of freedom. Each piece begins as a simple paper bag from a grocery store or local boutique, but onceVargas-Mendoza had completed one, it's something more akin to a covert activist's sign. One such bag features the image of Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an 8-year-old from Guatemala who died in ICE custody of the flu last year. Alone. On the bathroom floor. On Christmas Eve.

Vargas-Mendoza cut out bars on the side of a bag from behind which Alonzo's image stares. He appears on another creation as well, a bag from Sprouts, on which Vargas-Mendoza has altered the printed words with paint to form new phrases like "Keep family together" and "Caged like pulled pork." Others in the series include phrases like "No kids in cages," "SOS" and, simply but powerfully, "Help."

They're not easy to look at or consider, but Vargas-Mendoza says she conceived the idea after attending a Plaza art market during the summer with a sign admonishing the border crisis—which resulted in her being asked to leave. Ideally, she says, others would be interested in buying and carrying the bags, proceeds from which go to nonprofit No Kids in Cages. On Friday,Vargas-Mendoza plans to show more than 40.

And whereas visual arts at Warehouse 21 most often take over the teen art center's upstairs gallery space,Vargas-Mendoza and Gallegos y Reinhardt chose to show in the main lobby for the upcoming one-off event, erecting a sort of cage of metal armature around the works. Attendees will, quite literally, be caged themselves, which Vargas-Mendoza says might spur some to question their own perceptions of freedom, the border crisis and incarcerated youths in danger of illness, deportation or death.

"Who are you when you walk into the show?"Vargas-Mendoza asks. "How does it feel to be free? What are you going to do with your free body? Will you have
gratitude for your freedom?"

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE FREE
6 pm Friday Sept. 27. Free.
Warehouse 21,
1614 Paseo de Peralta,
989-4423