Tucked away in the basement of the New Haven Free Public Library are frames filled with colors and calaveras. The works brighten the Ives Gallery walls, rising amidst endless rows of bookshelves. On my first visit to the exhibition, Raíces Sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders transported me into a world of Miguel Angel Mendoza Melchor’s making. Watercolor skeletons resting beneath palm trees braid each other’s hair and sing along to a guitar plucked by someone “acostando en la hamaca,” lying down in a hammock. Set against a pale green background, a girl beams as she holds a pineapple to her cheek. Two young boys strolled around the gallery space with guitars decorated by Mendoza Melchor, their father. Cosijopii, eight, and Cosobi, fourteen, welcomed reception attendees with the sound of music.
“Mi obra refleja las experiencias y gente de mi país, México,” the artist’s statement reads. “My work reflects the experiences and people of my country, Mexico.” Mendoza Melchor’s Oaxacan culture and technical versatility shine through in Raíces Sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders. The exhibit dances between what the artist describes as his emotions translated into different forms of expression.
Mendoza Melchor, a long-time Connecticut resident, moved to New Haven just last year to support his youngest sons in their musical and artistic endeavors. His own practice began during a childhood spent between Oaxaca and Mexico City, where he went to school to pursue mathematics and teaching. Ongoing financial struggles complicated his ability to continue to study, so at age nineteen, he came to the U.S. to find work and support his family. Splitting his role as a teacher between Ohio, Connecticut, and Mexico, he made sure to carve out time for working on his art, a daily routine he still follows.
He was inspired to approach his art in a new way upon a visit back home, when his father pointed him to Luis Valencia’s workshop. Valencia, who studied under several prominent Mexican painters, creates work rooted in traditional forms and has taught artists for over three decades. When a young Mendoza Melchor approached Valencia in one of the classes he hosted at a local church, Valencia agreed to evaluate his art. He detected Mendoza Melchor’s potential, but urged him to push himself beyond copying works that inspired him or attempting to photo-realistically represent the world around him. The decades-long mentorship that would follow began with a piece of advice from Valencia that Mendoza Melchor now weaves into all of his creative expression: Magical realism, he said, allows the artist to trust their own imagination. Valencia challenged him to turn his eye inwards; a magical realist mindset, Mendoza Melchor said, means that “you can do whatever you want to do.”
His magical realism appears rife in Raíces Sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders, reflecting the artist’s love of utilizing a range of media, subjects, and moods. In Pintor, a work on paper, bright gouache paint illuminates a scene in the purple mountains of Oaxaca. Characters, each engaged in their own pursuits, gather near a village tree. A perched bird, a musician with a saxophone, a grazing ram, and a young girl carrying a jug generate a sense of movement around a pintor, who uses the tail of a nearby donkey to add finishing touches to his painting. Mendoza Melchor smiled when I asked if the embedded artist was him. He instead identified the figure as Valencia.
In a deliberate transcendence of artistic and linguistic boundaries, he connects his voice to a genealogy of Mexican painters, along with the song-writing and musical skills he cultivates when he’s feeling stuck. “If I can paint it, I write it,” he observed. “For me, it’s the same connection.” A constant process of shifting between the pencil, the guitar, and the brush allows him to channel expression through continual movement—he never lingers too long on a single piece.
Noticing the refreshing range of characters portrayed in the library exhibit, I asked Mendoza Melchor about his target audience. “I want to help everybody,” he replied, but noted that he’s especially interested in changing narratives about who is deemed worthy of portrayal in the first place. He hopes to center his community, “people who have been put on the side . . . people who belong to that land.” He recalls straining moments throughout his life—health problems, financial pressure, difficult relationships. These experiences, he told me, made him realize the centrality of kindness in everything he creates. “Whatever you give to the people, they give you back,” he said. “I put them in my art . . . so I can show them they are beautiful, too.”
Though I was a stranger to most of the exhibition opening attendees, the abundance of reciprocity and support I witnessed reflected Mendoza Melchor’s investment in the New Haven community and spaces like the New Haven Free Public Library. A few weeks later, I walked with him and his wife, María Luisa, to MakeHaven, another art space hiding in plain sight. In the downstairs workspace, a twenty-four-hour-access hub, Mendoza Melchor cheerfully introduced me to one of the new communities whose support has changed his life for the better. He pointed out a printing press, woodshop, laser-cutter—all the tools that allow him to translate creative expression into various media and forms.
María Luisa, who is both his manager and muse, settled in for a workshop on how to make cups out of glass bottles. We sat down at the main table, where artists worked on their projects together. He emphasized how gratifying it felt to discover, finally, a supportive community of artists, especially in contrast with the prejudice and racism he’s experienced elsewhere in Connecticut. New Haven’s arts community has shown him a generosity that fosters collaboration, positivity, and learning from the people that surround him.
Mendoza Melchor’s artistic practice, rooted in movement and growth, hinges on passing artistic traditions down to his four children. Drawing on his grandfather’s musical legacy, he introduced Bryan, twenty-one, and Miguel Angel, twenty-four, to their passions for music and art. Both live and work in Mexico. In Connecticut, Cosobi and Cosijopii practice guitar, clarinet, and saxophone with the New Haven Band and often play live music with their father around the state.
“Maybe God knows why I’m here,” he told me as we got up to leave the MakeHaven studio. “I hope I can find a place where I can help people, teach my art . . . because I don’t wanna bring it with me. So I gotta leave it over here.”
Raíces Sin Fronteras / Roots Without Borders, free and open to the public, is on view in the New Haven Free Public Library’s Ives Gallery through Mar. 20, 2020.