From self-publishing to filmmaking, three local artists checked in with SFR to offer a glimpse into their lifestyles and creative ingenuity, plus the scoop on what they’re up to this summer.
Filmmaker, actor and photographer Robert I. Mesa tells SFR he’s often called to coastal cities or overseas for his roles in film and onstage, but still considers Santa Fe to be his steady home base. This summer, he plans on creating his latest short film here.
“It’s been my home since I was 18. I was adopted by my mentors, and their friends and family became my family. This place is very special to me,” says Mesa. “What I can say right now, is that [the film] is about a Native American AI in 2050. I’ve got my crew together, and I’ll be acting and directing it. I’ve learned a lot from my other films, from rookie mistakes, and I feel ready to take this on.”
Mesa studied filmmaking at the Institute of American Indian Arts and has showcased his work at various film festivals, including the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. In 2020, he was one of 20 recipients of the Sen. John Pinto Native Filmmakers Memorial Fund, which he’ll use in producing the new project. Beyond acting, which often takes the spotlight when it comes to Mesa’s varied career, he is, at heart, a visual artist.
“I started out...with photography. I shoot photographs of traditional dancers,” he says. “Originally, I’d take black and white images and hand-color them after, either by hand or digitally, to show different vibrant patterns that I liked. As I started doing more, I started treating them with gold leaf.”
He’s shown in multiple cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and at Ningbo Museum of Art in Ningbo, China, where he was an artist in residence in 2016. There, he made a documentary that followed a creative exchange between Native American and Chinese customs; Mesa’s photographic work often acts both as an expressive document of his own culture as an Indigenous artist, and as a tool that bridges experiences across cultures in a way that can enlighten others in a celebratory way. Arguably, his place on the screen and on the stage as an actor accomplishes similar things.
“I think representation is very important, and I think it’s important for any race, any gender, any type of person. Once you see yourself represented properly on screen, that’s a win for everyone. It’s great to see,” Mesa says, emphasizing what proper means. “Wes [Studi] in the film Heat—he wasn’t only defined by being Native, he was a cool-ass detective.”
Mesa’s acting career has ranged from the stage to television, with multiple lead roles for the renowned Mary Kathryn Nagle—one of America’s most prominent Native playwrights and a lawyer advocating for tribal sovereignty.
“She’s my Scorsese and I’m her Leonardo,” Mesa says jokingly.
On film, Mesa’s earliest credits include playing a vampire in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series—a long way from his latest, most visible role as Dr. James Chee on the beloved, long-running ABC medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. He garnered national attention for his role in Grey’s, standing as the first Indigenous doctor in the show’s then 16-year run on air.
“I started during the COVID season, season 17, and am now in season 18,” he notes. “This is great to see more diversity on television and in movies now. It just sucks that it’s taken this amount of time, through so much racism and a history of genocide, to finally have more diversity in media. I’m excited for the youth that sees it, and look forward to seeing what they create from it.”
Still, Mesa’s path toward television hasn’t been an easy one.
“I always wanted to be an actor, since I was a little boy,” he says, “but I was put down by people in my life. I’d hear things like, ‘you’re never going to be that talented,’ or, ‘they don’t let little brown boys on television,’ and other really hurtful things that bruised my confidence. It’s hard because you can carry those things into adulthood.”
Those obstacles ultimately fueled his creativity.
“I grew up in and out of foster care where I faced a mix of different types of abuse,” he recalls, adding that art and acting became and continue to be a release. “As an adult, it’s nice to have the freedom to create what you want. There have been times in my past, in different homes, where I couldn’t create because I was worried about where I was going to live the next day, or if I was going to get beat up. I was always worried. But with acting, I can pull from those experiences.”
On the comics front, visual artist Will Schreitz has been working with a few recurring series lately—though he’s focused on his psychedelic, abstract adventure serial, Casper and Fauntleroy. While Schreitz has worked in other mediums, including music, his interest in comics became a full-time practice in 2019.
“I started drawing comics right before the pandemic and I fell in love with the process,” Schreitz says. “It allows you to have a very individual expression, and it allows one to explore different sides of themselves in a more simple, immediate way than, say, writing a novel.”
Immediacy is a key element in how Schreitz creates, as comics may offer brief yet insightful windows into the more complex underpinnings of our daily lives.
“The daily comic strip format is something that I am very drawn to, which is kind of a dying medium,” he explains. “It’s that immediacy. You get a lot without having to invest very much. With one minute, you can get a lot out of a comic.”
When COVID-19 struck and New Mexico went into lockdown mode, Schreitz found himself with more time to create and taking inspiration from artists in a similar boat.
“I was following other people’s lead,” he tells SFR. “There were cartoonists doing pandemic comics online, like Simon Hanselmann or Alex Graham. Both of these artists were talking about real issues that were going down in 2020 and were poignant in how they depicted human relationships during COVID.”
As the elements of Casper and Fauntleroy emerged, Schreitz began to share his work through Instagram.
“I wanted to create a strip kind of similar to Calvin and Hobbes,” he says, “with really easy characters to draw and just talking heads. The idea is that the characters were going to be different, yet friends. When you look at them, you can see that one guy is round and one guy is pointy—one guy is blue, and one guy is red. I wanted them to be different, and friends—I tried to make a comic where anything could happen.”
Psychedelic in nature, Casper and Fauntleroy is also deceptively simple, distilling the elements of shared experiences—whether it be fear, joy, etc.—to their purest essence where they can be observed, contemplated and felt. Earlier this spring and summer, Schreitz premiered Casper and Fauntleroy as a printed book, along with an earlier collection of strips, Weak Magic, at local comics and illustration DIY pop-up shop and exhibition, Mutant Lines, which opened at Fasciation Space in April and runs through the start of June. You might have also caught his work at the Santa Fe Zine Festival in May. While both public showings highlighted the printed form, Schreitz finds inherent value in both print and digital spaces.
“I take advantage of both,” he says of the print/digital divide. “I like the materiality of comics. In print, you can see that I drew this whole thing with a Crayola colored pencil, you can see that the material’s been worked over and that it existed in a real space. There’s an element of interactivity that print provides to the audience. At in-person events like Mutant Lines or a zine festival, people gather and interact with each other, taking time to flip through a book to see what kind of experience it will provide.”
Conversely, Schreitz sees social media as an equally valuable platform, noting how, “Sharing online is very immediate with low cost and less effort.”
As for this summer, you can expect to see more of Schreitz’s work online as he plans to share a weekly comic strip.
“I’m making comic strips until I have about 50 pieces so I can post them consistently,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of material I want to assemble into books. So, this summer, I’ll be making comics, hanging out with friends, and seeing what’s next.”
Santa Fe-based multidisciplinary artist and curator Yvette Serrano works heavily in printmaking, sculpture and community engagement. You’ll often find Serrano at regional zine festivals, like May’s Santa Fe Zine Festival or the Tucson Zine Festival last April, where her stunning attention to the intersections between land, power discrepancies and culture can be experienced in an independently printed, accessible format.
“Zines are important to me,” says Serrano. “They’re more than just publications: Zines are part of a subculture, they’re a means to community. I’ve met so many amazing people by way of zines, whether it’s been through a zine I picked up at a bookstore, zine fests, or through another zine maker.”
Like many artists working within this format, Serrano finds value in the in-person exchanges where the art can have more sustained relevance in a hyper-digital world.
“Zines also require a bit more effort in being sought out, and that makes them a bit more valuable in a way,” she tells SFR. “It’s much harder to let go of a printed zine than a digital file.”
Zines—self-published or self-made booklets—are boundless in their possibilities and subjects, but are often recognized for political overlap and activist-oriented perspectives.
“For me,” Serrano says of the arts/activism overlap, “they go hand in hand. I don’t think that art is apolitical and necessarily separate from activism. In my practice, my art draws from a need to advocate for things I care about, and to reimagine and actively work towards the world I want to live in. I have agency in my art and I see it as a tool.”
She brings up an astute quote from famed abolitionist Mariame Kaba, who said, “Oppressed people don’t have the luxury of not tying art to being in the service of movement-building and social justice.”
Serrano has worked in this fashion in a wide array of mediums, including new media, illustration, sculpture and, most recently, neon. She has also served as a curator and organizer for a handful of shows, most recently an exhibition-as-love-letter to Santa Fe’s now-defunct teen center, Warehouse 21 dubbed shout out to nostalgia. Serrano was one of countless local youths who benefitted from the space’s supportive sense of freedom and opportunity, and she highlighted the invaluable foundation-building spaces like Warehouse 21 can serve in a community.
“Warehouse 21 was a space where you could just be yourself and I got to be amongst so many other young people who were unapologetically themselves which was so important for me to witness,” she recalls. “It also felt like there was a lot of room to grow as a person, as an artist, in so many ways, and I am thankful it allowed many of us to do that.”
Serrano featured materials from the Warehouse 21 archive, including VHS tapes, photos, print ephemera and other elements that defined its legacy. She feels its absence.
“There’s definitely a need for more spaces like that, where you don’t necessarily have to have all the answers, but have the ability to initiate something and more importantly, people that will support you.”
In the now, Serrano has an incredibly active summer lined up.
“I will be spending time with my family in Guatemala very soon,” she says, noting her grandfather has always supported her creative endeavors. “I plan to spend as much time as possible experimenting with materials, being in my studio, spending time with family, riding my bike and resting just as much.”
She also plans on expanding the nature of a collaborative project, Querencia, made alongside local artist Hernan Gomez Chavez. Querencia is a movable artwork designed to look like a mobile home, and recalls the homes in which the artists grew up. “The word is defined as the place where one was raised, a place where one feels bonds of affection and belonging—a sense of home,” Serrano notes.
Querencia was the recipient of a 516 Arts’ Fulcrum Fund Award in 2019 and has remained active since.
“We will be collaborating with Barrios Unidos, an organization from Chimayó that serves people struggling with addiction and families that are being impacted,” Serrano says. “We will release more details on that event soon. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to learn more about their work and support them.”