Artist J. Leigh Garcia wrestles with the personal and the political

The printmaker’s work is on display at Roy G Biv in Franklinton through Saturday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Where Loyalty Lies" by J. Leigh Garcia

Prior to the pandemic, much of J. Leigh Garcia’s work was more outwardly political in nature, focused heavily on the subject of undocumented Latinx immigrants in Texas, the state where the artist was born and raised.

In more recent months, however, Garcia’s work has taken an inward turn, increasingly focused on her biracial identity (the artist is a seventh-generation Texan of European descent on her mom’s side and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants on her dad’s) and her own familial history with immigration.

“During the pandemic, my sister came to live with my husband and I, and she’s been living with us on and off for about a year and a half,” said Garcia by phone from her home in Kent, Ohio, where she works at Kent State University as an assistant professor of print media and photography. “We’re both biracial in the same way, and having her around, a lot of our conversations have centered on our biracial development. Having her in Ohio with me has been sort of changing my mindset, along with the pandemic and not being as engaged in activism as I was [prior].”

Both of these sides of the artist are currently on display in an exhibit at Roy G Biv in Franklinton, with earlier, more politically charged works resting beside more personal, introspective turns. In a series of three stark, black and white prints, for example, Garcia wrestles with aspects of cultural appropriation and racism, presenting images of white men dressed in “build the wall” T-shirts eating from a taco truck and clueless college-aged Cinco de Mayo partiers bellied up to the bar while dressed in traditional Mexican clothing.

"Cabrones" by J. Leigh Garcia

These sit aside the split image of “Where Loyalties Lie,” a self portrait of the artist in which she’s flanked on one side by figures representing her Mexican heritage and on the other by those representing her European roots.

“I feel very connected to that [immigrant] community, because my grandparents were undocumented immigrants. But I’m also trying to be up front in my work, because I am privileged, I am a citizen of this country and I’m half-white, and because of that I’ve been afforded opportunities that my 100 percent Latinx, Mexican family members have not,” said Garcia, whose work is on display at Roy G Biv alongside pieces by Mona Gazala, Shanna Merola, Rachel Linnemann and Josie Love Roeb in an exhibit scheduled to end on Saturday, July 3. “I think a lot of biracial individuals, we go through this pendulum of development. There was a time in my life where I really identified with my white Texan family, and was really into country music and wearing cowboy boots. Then as I moved out of Texas and into college, I became more closely identified with my Mexican side. Now I’m at an age where I’m finding a middle ground, which is good for my mental health, I think.”

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Garcia, who grew up in a music-filled Dallas home (both of her parents were longtime band directors), first became enamored with printmaking while attending an arts-magnet high school, drawn in by the form's sculptural nature and the way it was often used to address larger societal issues. “The political nature of printmaking was really exciting to me,” said Garcia, detailing high school-era assignments in which she created works meant to address subjects such as the “Free Tibet” movement, among others. “Most of our assignments looked at printmaking through that social justice lens.”

More recently, Garcia has become enamored with screen printing, a form that allows her to introduce myriad colors, a development that mirrors the increasing complexity of the subject matters these identity-centered works have explored. The artist described these ongoing developments as a part of a process of finding her own voice as an artist, which involved early study and mimicry of Latinx masters (Jose Posada, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo) and has since branched off into more personal, inventive explorations.

“I was integrating those [influences] at the beginning, but through time I’ve found my own style as an artist,” Garcia said. “I made a lot of realist prints in high school and in those early stages of printmaking, but when I was introduced to screen printing, my imagery changed a lot, and it went from being really bold and line-heavy to being more about color and building up layers of transparent ink.”

Transparencies that, over time, have gradually revealed more about the artist.