By Anya Shukla
Specializing in intricate line work, gorgeous oil-on-canvas pieces, and eye-catching murals, Esmeralda Vasquez is a multidisciplinary artist who often incorporates symbolism and minimalism into her work. Vasquez grew up in Yakima, Washington, and now lives in Seattle, where she has recently begun breaking into the art scene: she had her first art show in February and works as a teaching artist for Urban ArtWorks, a local nonprofit that helps youth create public art.
Q: How did you first get into art, and why do you create?
A: I've been making art for as long as I can remember. I was encouraged by my family as well—which is nice because I know a lot of artists can't really say that. But it wasn't until 2019 or 2020 that I realized I can really use my voice through my artwork, especially when it comes to activism.
Art’s more than just making a pretty picture for me: I think it's important to make artwork for a cause or to raise awareness. Sometimes it's hard to use my words and speak on certain social justice topics, but I can express myself visually.
That being said, I try not to emphasize the monetization of my artwork and designs because it’s more about sharing my work. I know that may not be the best mindset when you’re trying to make it an artist but that definitely influences how and why I create.
Q: Is there a specific piece of yours that exemplifies your art-as-activism approach?
A: I would say my equality design (see middle photo at top of article). I sketched this design back in 2017 when I was living in Eugene, Oregon. I wanted to create something that represented LGBTQ+ people and people of color. It sat in my sketchbook for two years until I got an opportunity to turn it into a mural for an LGBTQ-owned business in Yakima, Washington.
The mural got a lot of attention—and a lot of people resonated with it—because of its topic. Even now, people come up to me to say that they love this design and that it means so much to them. And the fact that it’s in Yakima is so beautiful to me, especially because that’s where I was born, and where my family and culture is.
Q: On that note, what does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
A: From eight to 18, I actually lived in Oregon. Moving from Yakima, where there's a lot more Mexican culture, to Eastern Oregon, where it was heavily white… it felt a little bit uncomfortable. I used to hate being tan in the summer; that's such an ugly thing to hold as a kid. I had to really work to understand my identity and be a part of my culture.
My time in Oregon showed me how important it is for me to find BIPOC community and be part of events and spaces that are for us. It means a lot to not only be an artist but also be a woman of color, a person of color. I feel like I’m a presence in the arts—even though I’m still building my presence—and that I’m representing my community.
Q: On your Instagram, you’ve mentioned that moving to Seattle was a process. What was difficult about making that jump?
A: There are some days where living in this city is a hustle, but there are a lot of days when I’m just grateful to be here.
This is my second time moving to Seattle—the first time, I was way too young and naïve. I didn’t know what I was doing. I came here to go to the Art Institute of Seattle, which is no longer in existence. But I just had a weird gut feeling that I wasn’t meant to be there. My education just wasn’t really fulfilling me, and I didn’t feel like I was learning much either. I also had a lot going on in my personal life. So I made the decision to withdraw.
I spent two years in Eugene, Oregon, then two years in Yakima. I did a lot of growing up. Then, I got a job in Seattle, and it just felt right to come back. I felt like this was my second chance to really pursue what I wanted and prove to myself that I could do it. Once I got up here, it made all the difference for my art: Yakima does have opportunities, but the Seattle art scene and community are everything to me.
Q: As you said, life in Seattle can be a hustle. Do you ever feel burnt out by creating, and how do you deal with that?
A: Definitely: I used to just get so discouraged if I felt like I wasn’t coming up with any ideas or making anything. I’ve learned that I just need to find different creative outlets. That’s one reason why I’m multidisciplinary. I like to work on my laptop sometimes just to get away from staring at a painting. I try to hop around between different areas of creative work.
I used to think that I had to be really, really good at just one thing—or that it was bad to be multidisciplinary because people would be confused about what I create. But I’ve learned it’s not an issue to have different areas of skills. That just makes you a better artist in the long run.
Q: Finally, do you have any advice for teen artists of color?
A: Keep learning. I’m still learning. I’m learning to be more confident in my experience and the knowledge that I carry. It’s a good thing to always be in a learning stage, because you can never really be stuck or stagnant.
I don’t mean to make myself sound like an amateur, because I don’t think I am. I believe that if people don’t see themselves as real artists, they just don’t yet see what they carry within. There’s a lot inside you that you have to share, and it’s so important for you to share it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.