Immigration and Artistic Representation: A panel discussion featuring artist Tom Pazderka presented by LUM Art Zine

by Megan Waldrep

“I find artist talks boring,” says artist Tom Pazderka as we gathered in a gallery surrounded by his art. “One of the reasons I had everyone here was to have different ideas and opinions about the things that I’m thinking about in these paintings. It can be very personal to everyone. And is very personal.”

It was an intimate gathering of the minds. Artist Tom Pazderka, First District Supervisor Das Williams, and UCSB Art Professor Marco Peljhan, and Editor and Curator of LUM Art Zine Debra Herrick commanded four sides of a large square table in a gallery at SBCAST. Moderator Ted Mills, host of The Funk Zone podcast, nudged the conversation along with questions that dug deep into the experiences of the panelist ranging from the impacts of immigration, politics, and how it relates to art as a whole.

Tom Pazderka’s latest series called, The End Is The Beginning, is based on Pazderka’s childhood in the (now) Czech Republic, bringing viewers into the dark corners of the immigrant experience. The artist, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1994, used different mediums such as burned and painted wood panels, drawing, and water to construct and deconstruct re-imaginations of family photographs. The images, which he found in a box as he moved his mother back to the Czech Republic, date back to the 1950’s. The End Is The Beginning series is inspired by the emotional impact of that primary moment of discovery – the emotions of a first generation immigrant and the grandson of a Communist soldier. (From 1948-1989 the country, then Czechoslovakia, was under the regime of Stalinist Russia.) As LUM Art Zine so well describes, Pazderka’s work incorporates “strange keys of Czech fatalism and American optimism.” Highlights from moderator Ted Mills’ questions are below.

by Tom Pazderka.

Tom Pazderka, Artist, www.tompazderka.com

On his creative process for The End Is The Beginning:

“It’s burned panel or burned paper with a smearing of ashes and oil paint,” Pazderka describes. “Its oil paint that I mixed with copious amounts of water in the beginning. I reduced the amount of water as I put on layers so the images come out of the ashes.

“The fact that I was working from photographs and the ashes…ashes to me feel like their laden with memory. The remembrance of something that used to be there and now is burned up.

On his personal immigration experience:

“I immigrated in ’94. We had just gone through the revolution and people were streaming out of the borders then. I remember there was no telling if it was going to get shut down again. Basically, people were just getting out and we were apart of that. 

Artist Tom Pazderka

“My stepfather left in the ‘80s. He literally left on a midnight train, probably had to pay someone to smuggle him out of the country. I think by way of Austria, he made his way to New York City.

“I just moved my mother back to the Czech Republic and she’s lived in the States for twenty-five years. When I was in her house moving her out, I remember opening boxes and found family photos going back to the ‘50s, the ‘80s, seeing baby pictures, photos of my grandparents when they first arrived to America. That powerful experience was the impetus for (this series). As soon as I got back from that trip to the East Coast was when I first started kicking around the idea of painting from the photographs.

On his view, if we are doing anything right concerning immigration:

“For me I always have to go from personal experience. That’s how I understand the world around me. I remember when I applied for citizenship, and I’m now a citizen with dual citizenship…I actually got my Czech citizenship two years ago, I got it back. I had it, didn’t have it, and now I have it again. 

“The idea of the dual citizen seems to be logical. You’re from one place, you live in another place…it goes all the way to the taxes, you’re producing this and that….I had applied for citizenship prior to 9/11 but I didn’t get it until 2005. But I also remember the political scene was so much different in those days, too. 

“(In terms of) if we are doing something right…for me, it’s yes and no. As an immigrant, I don’t consider myself an immigrant anymore. Actually, if I went back to the Czech Republic, I would feel like I’m an immigrant over there.

“My mom (who is now in the Czech Republic after twenty-five years in America) is reporting that going back over there is like being an immigrant over here. She’s been playing this weird, double scenario. I think what’s changed here also changed over there. 

“I guess it’s really how people relate to one another and how this all gets wrapped up in the official way of how we relate to one another through paperwork. I find there’s a lot of things that could be done away with or streamlined. I never understood why it takes years and years and years to get your citizenship. 

Das Williams, First District Supervisor, Santa Barbara, California

On immigration in our country today: 

“I think we are having the conversation but we are not looking at the scale on which we have to have that conversation. If we think immigration is an issue and divisive in this country, now we have to look at the scale in which other nations are dealing with it…Germany has taken a million refugees in a country of 80 million. That’a country where they’re having a conversation. We’re having a conversation about something that isn’t even happening. There are fewer people immigrating to the United States now than anytime in recent history. I think immigration with climate change is probably the biggest issue of our age, if you wrap those together. We better get used to having a conversation because we are going to have a lot more…

First District Supervisor Das Williams

“I really appreciate Tom…I don’t know if it’s a uniquely American thing but there’s a lot of professions in America where people try to talk about things in their pure form and divorce it from politics. That strikes me as a sort of an indulgent escapism that only people of great means can afford to do. And I don’t see that as much in people trying to represent the immigrant experience because of how highly charged the issue is.  

“Whether or not you mean it to be political, if you depict an immigrant in this age it is a political act just by the fact that you are choosing to represent it. I think that’s super important because for most of American history it doesn’t seem like immigrants, even though we are a nation of immigrants, weren’t really depicted even by immigrant artists. Now, we depict immigrants. Maybe a little bit in a stereotypical light but at least it’s a heroic, gritty, attempt at realism. I think it’s good we’re having the conversation. I think it’s good that the depictions of immigrants in art has changed over time. And that is part of our country coming to grips with the fact that we will need to understand migration and at some level, deal with migration if we are to uphold fundamental American values.

On what the country is doing right:

“I do think there are things in the American system has historically done right because otherwise, like many other places that have sectarian or ethnic conflict, we would have Italian militias in some neighborhoods and Irish militias and Puerto Rican militias and our primary identification would be to our ethnic or ethno-religious group and not to a national identity. So, something about the American system has worked well. 

“I think though that the primary feeling of people on the right side of this debate is the lack of realization of how desperately the country needs immigration, basically, to function demographically. Because of relatively low birthrates, which I think is good environmentally, we are on the same demographic path that Japan is. We’re twenty-years behind them. We aren’t going to have enough young people to function as a society or provide services or pay enough taxes unless we have the immigrant experience. 

“Anamnesis” 36×36 by Tom Pazderka

“I think, primarily on the left, there is a lack of realization of how important the concept of citizenship is to the broader country. The concept of citizenship is so ingrained in the American experience…

“In the Greek world, citizenship defined everything…your status in society defined what side of the war you would be on. And you pretty much weren’t a citizen unless your parents own property and you were a man. Things like democracy was really easy when you had maybe a couple thousand property (owning) white men who’s parents were also born in Athens…Citizenship has become devalued throughout our society…because of the level of entitlement in our society…If the Right understood the lesson of Rome that an inclusive concept of citizenship inherently makes a country strong. There’s a reason why Rome…would win war after war because it had enough citizens to enroll in the military. And every other nation did not. 

“Not that I think we should exclusively be governed by what works in war but that’s the lesson the Right should understand. The lesson on the Left is that we have to value this concept and we have to recognize that more conservative people think that we don’t value it. And that’s why they’re so pissed about it. That’s why they think we don’t deserve it because they don’t think we value it the way they do. 

“I think it’s about coming back to art. It’s about how we, in the political act of illustrating who we are and what we are. I am a child of immigrants, I’m the first generation of my family born in America on my mother’s side. 

“It’s how we depict immigrants. The strength of the changes in depictions of American art basically came out of the New Deal. It’s interesting that the positive depiction of immigrants comes out of an era that all working people we being depicted in a way that valued their human-ness and their work.

On the effects of immigration in Santa Barbara: 

“I think we (in Santa Barbara) value immigrants a lot more than the country as a whole. But because we are waging economic warfare, basically on all our young through our housing policy in Santa Barbara, the result is the same which is exclusion. Our community will never have generational continuity unless we have young people. And a disproportionate number of our young people come out of the immigrant experience.

Marco Peljhan, Art Professor, University of California Santa Barbara. 

On his position as a UCSB professor and how immigration on the university level: 

“UCSB is a pretty homogeneous place. It’s very diverse now as far as undergraduate relations. In that sense, you have what I would call education migration, especially from China. The next population would be Korean, which is ten times smaller than China. UCSB, as with other large universities, they deal with it as they deal with it. It’s kind of a political issue, there’s a focus on diversity all the time, which makes a lot of sense. 

“I grew up on the border. I’m a border person. I grew up on the Cold War border, two-hundred meters from it. We had a soft Iron Curtain. It was not iron, it was more like mesh, between Slovenia, Italy, and what was then Yugoslavia. Which was kind of a federal republic not unlike the United States with federal entities…this was states with their own government, local rule and so on. So, on that level, I am completely cultural. I speak Italian as well as my mother tongue. 

“I had a strong connection to the United States because my sister married a Bronx, Jewish American young mathematician in 1973. She moved when I was four years old, so I had a sister in the States and I visited for the first time in 1976. I also visited in the ‘80s when they were living in Highland Park, Chicago. So I kind of spent my summers in the States. So I had a third culture, which was the States. 

“I came here by complete coincidence, to tell you the truth. I never planned to come to the United States. It was an invitation. At the time, I was in Japan out of all places and then I came here. 

UCSB Art Professor Marco Peljhan and Artist Tom Pazderka discussing art and immigration at SBCAST. A piece from Tom’s series, The End Is The Beginning in the background.

On his view of the current debate/talk of immigration in America: 

“It’s not only in America. When there was a huge migration wave in 2015, in the fall of 2016 I actually organized a symposium in my home country about this and published a publication. Because for me, it was a big surprise. I actually wrote, to our president there, a personal letter in a sense of, “What are you guys thinking?”. 

“Of course, it was complete chaos. (People) were coming. Hundreds of thousands of people. It was known that is would happen. It was very political. There was a lot of…racism that suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. In that part of the world, there was a memory of this because of the…history (World War I and World War II). 

“It’s kind of blatantly present and it’s a big problem because Western democracy…we don’t know much about what’s going on in other places in terms of immigration, where the debate is maybe most developed. We aren’t very equipped to deal and reflect on these two very complex and dynamic systems, which is migration on one side…and all the dynamic changes that are happening in the natural environment. 

“That’s why I really appreciate Tom’s work. I feel very close to it, though he is a dark man, because he really operates in a really reflective way. And that’s the role of art today. It has to be reflective. That’s why I completely agree with you (Das Williams) that any kind of public statement is political. Even when it’s not. That’s not a very smart statement there, but it is. If you go out into society, even if you scream ‘This is not political,’ well, there you go. It’s a political idea. 

“On this level, artist have this strange roll in society. We are not unified at all, right, because there are so many works of art (as there are) so many Western democracies. But in terms of this country now, I feel I am part of the population that is taxation without representation because I am just a permanent resident and I pay my taxes. I’m trying to not go through this process. Interestingly enough, they’ve started to slow down the whole citizenship situation. I noticed it right now. Because before when you asked for…entry and exit from the country you got it in two weeks because it’s a computer operation. Now, I’m waiting four months. 

“It’s a known fact, if you look at it historically, that immigration in political debates in the United States from the ‘90s on, there was this wish to do reform that never happened. It’s still there and it’s a pretty sad state of affairs because it’s not supposed to happen in this country, supposedly, they way it is branded. 

CATCH THE NEXT LUM ART ZINE SHOW 

POV: Tosh Clements, Arturo Heredia, Madeleine Eve Ignon and Tom Pazderka 

A LUM Art Zine Show:  January 18 – February 8 @ SBCAST 513 Garden St, Santa Barbara

LUM Art Zine is a magazine featuring the latest arts & culture in Santa Barbara and Ventura, and provides curatorial, editorial and art handling services. The current show presents the clear points of view of four featured artists from the pages of LUM Art Zine. The show examines distinct artistic practices and motifs, and the counterpoint among them, as conceived by emerging artists in the area’s increasingly compelling art scene.  For more information, contact editor@lumartzine.com or visit www.lumartzine.com.

Megan Waldrep

Megan Waldrep is a columnist and freelance writer living on a 34-foot sailboat currently off the coast of Mexico. For more interviews, relationship, and adventure stories, visit www.meganwaldrep.com