I was first introduced to Daniel Camacho’s art through the children’s book he illustrated, Joelito’s Big Decision/La Gran Decisison de Joelito. Ann Berlack, the author, had contacted me with some questions about the book, and I was excited to help out because it was right up my alley. It was a book about workers and immigrants and fighting against inequality, written by someone with a lot of experience talking with children about social justice issues—AND it had amazing art!
Little did I know that just a short year later I would find myself picking up my own six year old from Maestro Daniel’s art class—my son’s favorite after-school program activity offered at his wonderful dual immersion public school in Oakland, California.
Since then I’ve been able to see Mr. Camacho in action, both as an art teacher and as an artist. So it was an easy choice for me to ask him if he would grant me the inaugural interview for this series on the people who put the “picture” in Picture Books.
Original interview conducted in Spanish by Robin Lovell. Many thanks to Nessa Mahmoudi and Andrea Salazar for the translation help!
IN: Tell me about your yourself—your journey to where you are today.
DC: I was born in Mexico City in 1961, the son of modest parents – my father was a worker and my mother a seamstress. As a young man, I lived in the city with my partner, Robin Lovell, and eventually we decided to have a child. As life is full of unexpected events, our son was born with medical issues and in Mexico at the time there were no doctors that could take care of him. Robin is from the California, so we decided to come to Los Angeles because her parents had found a specialist who was known for treating the medical issues that my son had. This was 25 year ago. From there, I will tell you, life has been full of the unexpected. I kept thinking we would move back to Mexico, so I would travel there as often as was possible. But each time I went I felt more out of place. And because of my son’s medical needs I found myself needing to spend more time in the US.
Then we moved to Humboldt County where my daughter was born. Those were three long years, in the middle of the forest, away from city life. Desperate for a more urban place, we moved to San Francisco. But after going broke in just a few months, we then moved again to Oakland where we could find a more affordable apartment. Oakland was where I received my first commissions and that made me think perhaps it was possible that this was a place where I could have a normal life—a life like that which I was living in Mexico.
The Richmond Art Center invited me to participate in a Cinco de Mayo festival where I made colorful masks and ended up working in Richmond schools. This was my first experience working with children. I was a novice but it helped me to refine my work. I was very new to the work so I would get frustrated easily and blow up at the kids because I still didn’t know how to work with them. They probably thought I was a pinche enojon (“f**king angry dude”).
Later I started working for the Museum of Children’s Art (MoChA) in Oakland and the East Bay Alliance for Children, who I still work with. But my main work now is with Community Bridges, teaching at your son’s school, for about 10 years now.
IN: Talk about your evolution as an artist. You’ve said in the past that you were greatly influenced by Diego Rivera and your mother?
DC: According to my childhood memories, I liked looking at my mother’s fashion magazines. Her clients would come to her asking for particular designs. She would look at the models and then trace the designs on large pieces of paper and cut them out. I would watch her and I liked how she would copy them. I also liked copying comic books and tracing them on large pieces of paper. I would compete with my friend Miguel Angel, as his parents would always say he was going to be like Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel. This was my first artistic memory. I didn’t know it was art, I just knew I liked to copy things from one place to another.
I was a great dreamer, and I liked seeing images on the walls and in the sky. I would look at the shapes and the images they formed. I have a memory of looking at shapes and marking them with a pencil on the wall. I always liked drawing on the walls.
One day we had a drawing class and the teacher told us to do a drawing and I decided to recreate a drawing by a friend who had taken art classes. When the teacher announced that it was time to turn in our drawings I remember she allowed me to keep working. One of the other students complained, “Teacher, why are you letting him keep working but not the rest of us?” She said, “it’s because he is doing a good job and we are going to give him the time he needs to finish.” I think that’s what happened. That was in second or third grade.
That’s when I started to like drawing. I drew cartoons. People would ask me for a portrait and they’d give me 10 pesos.
I liked drawing so much that one day my best friend, Javier, told me that I should take classes. I had tried lessons before. A guy passed by offering drawing lessons. You could attend once or twice without paying, so I went. He told me to draw a hand, and then draw it again in another position, and then another. He stood there just constantly talking, and it made me feel like an idiot. That teacher would have destroyed anyone’s desire to ever make art again.
But I went to see about some drawing and painting workshops, and immediately signed up. The teacher had me draw blocks, make shapes, see perspective, the light… it was all very intricate. The class taught me to have a lot of patience, and it taught me technique.
I stuck with the workshops for 4 years. This was my technical formation process. It was through the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social. I was a blood donor, so It was free for me. The teacher was a very nice person.
From there, I went on to the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (National School of Plastic Arts) where I received more academic formation. I learnt about the trends, muralism, and concepts.
We had exercises where we were to develop an image from an idea. For example Corn—which is something you eat, but also has deep meanings to indigenous cultures. You had to think in terms of the whole idea. That helped me understand that painting had to have a message, not only art to be art. It is also an idea with content and form, and there is a relationship between them.
IN: You were an art student at UNAM during very exciting times in Mexico. How did that influence you?
DC: In 1985, there was there was a growing movement against the External Debt, that was when I started to participate with workers and farmers in a popular movement. Then that year the earthquake happened, we all got involved with the recovery effort, trying to make sense of our role as students in the aftermath of a tragedy. Rather than sell artwork and give money to some effort, as many artists were doing, my friends and I decided to create images and deliver them directly to the people who were in the streets, organizing for their dignity and the rescue of loved ones. In particular, we joined efforts with a Garment Workers’ union that was born from the rubble of the earthquake, and started a group called Ojos de Lucha, Eyes of the Struggle. Our objective was to support their movement with images that represented and reflected everyday people involved in struggle, giving them public images to identify with and bringing their issues to public light.
IN: Do you consider yourself a “political artist”?
DC: To talk about political art is relative. For example, the avant-garde born in the 20th century in the US were financed and supported to counter the influence of Mexican muralism because Mexican muralism spoke to social issues, and the other spoke to art for art’s sake. But that can also be political. Any art can be political, depending on how it is used.
My art is political art, but not all I do is political. I also do things that I like. Like the Niña con Sandia. But even though that one can be viewed as political. Those are the colors of the Mexican flag.
In a bigger sense, all I do is political—my work has to do with social issues like the environment, or gun violence, or how indigenous people don’t have same rights as rich people. Those are all topics I work with.
IN: You have works that have a strong focus on labor and human rights. And you also teach art classes with children (including at my kid’s school!). Is there a relationship between these worlds for you?
DC: The only relationship is that I share what I know. Not based on a political agenda, but to let them learn in a more fun way.
I have done exercises for the kids where we focus on social issues. But I want them to start free in their way of playing with forms and colors to build images. This is the time when the kids can make their own images in relation to what they feel.
As the children grow, they will have the technical tools and they can make their posters and other things for social justice. They realize that they can shape an image any way they want. The images help them get out what they’re living or thinking.
And of course It depends on the kids’ age. At the beginning is like a game, but as they grow, the images will have to do with life.
In school, the images they create in a communal way help them break their isolation, and allow them represent something that is important to them. They come to realize, through drawings, of different conditions and of inequalities. It is not explicitly political, but through art projects, they realize how everyone’s experience is different. That’s an important basis for understanding social justice.
I have a house but he doesn’t… I go to Mexico, and he has never left Oakland…
These are social justice issues. Through images, the kids talk about their realities, but in a fun way. If there is a drawing of a cat, maybe someone will say “Well, I don’t even have a cat, because we don’t have money to buy food for it…” and from there, a rich and important conversation can happen. There is always something where there is going to be a different interpretation.
Later I can bring in ideas like “Save the World” or “Save the Forest” through conversation. For example, if they have drawn little birds, maybe I’d ask, “And what happens when the birds don’t have trees to come to?” and they start to make connections.
IN: One place where your work with children and your work on labor and immigrant rights clearly comes together, is in the children’s book you illustrated, Joelito’s Big Decision/ La Gran Decisión de Joelito (written by Ann Berlak with Spanish translation by José Antonio Galloso , Hardball Press, 2016). Tell me about that book.
DC: It was teachers from the Oakland Educators Association (the teachers union) that knew my artwork and connected me with Ann Berlak.
Ann and I went into classrooms and told the students what the book was going to be about. We wanted to hear their feedback.
We did lots of meetings with schoolchildren, and they gave us ideas for the drawings. The students made sketches of what they thought the drawings should look like… I learned so much from the students!
At first I just thought I’d draw pictures for a story, but getting in the classrooms and reading the stories (as Ann developed the storyline) I realized that the students could offer a lot more, and that’s where my ideas grew from. I was actually combining my own ideas with those of the students. They really gave me good ideas for the pictures.
IN: What did you find to be the most challenging part of creating art for a children’s book?
DC: It has to be entertaining. It has to have a sparkle, to get the attention of children. It is a book for children, so the image has to be strong, connect with their reality. But it also has to connect with the narrative of the author.
IN: What are ways that you incorporated social justice values into your work for Joelito’s Big Decision—beyond the storyline Ann created?
DC: The pictures of the children are the most prominent. They appear in the demonstrations, and are the central characters amidst the crowd. They are right in the middle of what’s going on. This reflects the importance of talking with children and keeping them informed about what’s happening in the world. They will understand it from their own perspective, but they can see what’s going on in the world around them.
Many working people who live off a working salary, aren’t able to engage in activities, and don’t have the luxury of going to their kids’ soccer game, getting out to see the world, buying a new backpack or keeping their cherished home. They often have to work and not much more. Their opportunities are limited. A worker isn’t able to go to the beach, to the mountains… her/his world can be so closed that all they know is work, and when they go home, relax in front of the TV, or maybe go out to eat at the places they can afford.
By placing the children in the middle of the action, I have them learning about their world. Joelito is hungry, and all he knows at first is that he wants his hamburger. But he can’t help but see his friend’s parents in the crowd and he realizes that his friend is with his dad. Joelito’s friend gets angry because at first, Joelito doesn’t understand. The idea is that there is a critical relationship here–children question the values of others without knowing it. All Joelito wants is to eat, but by being there, his eyes open to the reality of why he can’t buy a hamburger. Joelito needed to be there, in the midst of the protesting crowd, in order to understand the injustices.
With the drawings of moving day, a similar thing happens. The idea is for children to realize what is happening to the family through the picture, and then they come to realize that the family has to move and leave their home behind.
And finally, through the images of the towering plastic Sam, who looms like a monster above everyone in the story.
I try to reflect our problems in relationship to wealth and injustice through drawings and images in a way that children can see and make their own sense of.
IN: From an illustrator’s perspective, what are your favorite social justice themed children’s books besides your own?
DC: The first book that comes to mind is the Little Prince. But there is also a children’s books I remember seeing called Diego, that tells the story of Diego Rivera’s life. He begins by drawing on the walls, and when he grows up, he draws and paints all that he witnesses. He begins to paint injustices between soldiers and people, between the rich and the poor. He discovers much inequality in the world, and represents it majestically. He is able to teach history and what is happening around the world and in his own country through paintings, and by asking what is going on around him. All of this is represented in the children’s book about Diego.
IN: What’s next for you?
DC: I like working with children, I am fascinated by the way they understand painting. It is almost magical how they do it, without fear, without shame of making a mistake or drawing outside a line. I would like to continue working with children, and continue to contribute to their ability to create images.
I would also love to illustrate more children’s books, and welcome any opportunities.
I also have some personal projects pending. I am currently installing a show that includes nearly two decades of my work that I have been creating and storing in my studio. I am ready to share my process with the public. There are three (at least) different styles in my show–mobile mural paintings on banners, work with recycled materials (mostly plywood), and the more serious work that I have done on an easel.
I will always be a public artist at heart, and plan to continue that work, but am also now exploring the human condition through my painting and representing my interpretations with people, color, nature…
Ten-year-old Joelito learns about the struggle for economic justice as he heads toward the door of MacMann’s Burger Restaurant for his regular Friday-night family dinner. There he finds his best friend standing outside MacMann’s with his parents protesting for higher wages. Joelito has to choose between a juicy burger and standing with his friend.
Age Range: 4 – 10 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten – 4
Publisher: Hard Ball Press (May 10, 2017)
To see more of Daniel Camacho’s work, visit: http://danielcamachoelpintor.com/
Daniel Camacho – Walking on the Edge exhibit runs September 28, 2017 – November 10, 2017 in Oakland, CA.
To purchase Joelito’s Big Decision, contact your local independent bookstore!