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Tessie Barrera-Scharaga is an artist who makes connections: connections between language and culture, art and communities, the past and the present, and, most importantly, between people. Walking into her studio space, curious viewers quickly realize that this is one artist who is not limited to the canvas. Her work tables hold glass plates, ink, clay, brushes, and an assortment of paper, while books line the shelves and carefully placed pieces hang from the walls.
Tessie is primarily an installation artist, incorporating poetry, found objects, clay, prints, and rescued clothing into a cohesive statement. Her home, she mentions, is going through a long awaited expansion. “I have never had the luxury of living with my art, like other artists do,” she muses “because my work is very large and it is always in storage” – a common sacrifice of the largescale installation artist. With the expansion of her Willow Glen home almost complete, Tessie is eager to realize her dream after more than fifteen years of boxes and storage spaces.
Walking through Tessie’s space, it is easy to forget you are in a home at all. The crisp lighting hits her piece titled “Lifeline,” casting shadows of the socks and dresses of a young girl encased in raw clay. Further into the room, her installation, “Coffee: The Malady of the Third World Dreaming” looms – a metal framed bed with a pierced sack of coffee beans for a mattress, the beans spilling over the hard wood floors.
For a large portion of her career, Tessie worked as a graphic designer, and returned to school to complete her BFA in Spatial Arts locally at San Jose State. She then continued on, receiving her MFA from Mills College. It was during and after this time that she not only honed her skills in ceramics and installation, but also discovered a passion for teaching. After working with children at the San Jose Museum of Art, Tessie was dismayed to discover that her daughter was not receiving any art instruction in kindergarten. “Teaching was just a matter of a necessity for me” she observes “Your children force you to do things, you want them to have art and music, and that was a motivator for me. And, through that, I affected other children and other families. To me, it is important to take care of the community that your children grow up in.”
Inspired to get involved, Tessie began volunteering in her daughter’s classroom. “During that time all the parents started noticing that this little classroom was getting art, but not the whole school, so they got together and talked to the principal – and the principal offered me a job as the art instructor,” she laughs. What began as one mother volunteering soon grew into a teaching role she enjoyed for the next fifteen years. “It started with a couple of grades and through the years we added more. To the point that when I left there, we had art throughout the entire school.”
Beyond her experience in her daughter’s school, Tessie has also created community art projects with several San Jose area schools and volunteered with underprivileged children in her family’s home in El Salvador. Some of this work has focused on helping to foster the children’s connections with their home language and their culture. “A lot of the students go to a school and they learn a second language, but they don’t really know very much about the culture or the background.” Tessie’s work often incorporates and introduces literary figures from the Spanishspeaking world that children may have no other opportunities to experience – figures like Gabriel García Márquez, José Martínez Ruiz, and, her personal favorite, Pablo Neruda.
Tessie has also spent time in El Salvador volunteering alongside her mother in a local Catholic orphanage. “At first, when you give a class and you show them how to use the materials they are very curious and can’t wait to try them. They want to smell it, touch it, they want to feel it – what is this thing? They get it in their fingers and want to put it on their face,” she says. These children have never seen a crayon or an oil pastel. “For the children in El Salvador in the orphanage, they have absolutely nothing else except what volunteers come and do with them. When I go, I bring all the materials, but…” Tessie adds, “You don’t have to go far to find children with nothing.”
Similarities and meanings present themselves to Tessie in the children’s art, both here and abroad. “Art provides a space where you can dig into yourself, to bring out or to let go of your fear and to try different things. I see that happening with children here and in El Salvador. Art is also a place of joy, because children really enjoy being given attention and doing something with an adult. That’s really what’s most important and enjoyable for them. It validates their experience.”
Working with these children and helping them to discover and develop these skills, Tessie is also able to bring in much of her own perspective as an artist. Her work explores sometimes difficult social and cultural issues and the important role of art in life. “At River Glen, we used to do a project with the fifth graders that was a peace mural, and it started right after 911. It involved designing an image that symbolized peace for them.” The children were invited to explore symbols of peace from the past such as the olive branch and the peace sign, and come up with their own. “It was about creating peace in your classroom, in the playground, and thinking intently about it because it starts there. I tell my students – countries who don’t get along go to war and if you can be the person that can create harmony, later on you don’t know who you can become. You can be the President of the United States, and it all starts here in the classroom.”
It’s not all war and peace though, Tessie explains children here and abroad are very much the same and often ask her to teach them to draw a variety of things. “I have found that elementary and middle school students are very interested in nature. Animals and plants provide points of departure for many of our projects. Students learn to draw them, paint them, sculpt them in clay, transform them into mythological creatures, and even use visual language to show their concern regarding endangered species.” As the children grow, they also express interest in drawing figures – especially people in their families and communities.
So what is next for this local artist? “I have been teaching at The Community School for Music and Art for the last year. Through them, I am still teaching children from underrepresented communities,” Tessie explains. She also currently has a piece titled “TwentyFive: Chronicle of a Journey” featured in the Honoring Women’s Rights: Echoing Visual Voices Together show at The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Many San Jose residents will recognize the piece, which was previously shown in an empty storefront on 4th Street by Phantom Galleries in downton San Jose.