Armando Minjárez
Armando Minjárez works on a wholesale mug order in his home studio, where he produces his Del Norte line of functional ceramics that he sells on his website and at pop-up markets. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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Armando Minjárez was once an undocumented immigrant, a status that put him on a path to both art and activism.

The multidisciplinary artist and organizer moved to Wichita in 2012 to co-found the grassroots organization The Seed House/Casa de la Semilla. But he is best known for directing Horizontes, the public-art and documentary project that aimed to connect majority-Black northeast Wichita neighborhoods with the city’s majority-Latino north end.

In the fall of 2018, the Colombian street artist GLeo painted “El Sueño Original” (“The Original Dream”) on the side of the Beachner Grain elevator near the intersection of Mosley and 21st streets. The largest Horizontes initiative, it has become one of the most well-known images in Wichita.

Post-Horizontes, Minjárez has shifted his focus to his ceramics line Del Norte Studio. He’s also responsible for recent additions to the city of Wichita’s public art collection, including murals at the Evergreen Community Center & Library and ceramic installations at Minisa and Harvest pools.

Minjárez emigrated from Mexico to western Kansas with his mother when he was 15 years old. His English skills were limited, but the art teacher at Ulysses High School allowed him to enroll in advanced classes based on the strength of his work.

Like many high-school students, Minjárez began thinking about college during his junior year in high school. That’s when he realized his immigration status was an obstacle to further education.

A friend invited him to a meeting in Garden City facilitated by the Wichita-based organization Sunflower Community Action. There, Minjárez learned about a proposed bill in the Kansas Legislature that would grant in-state tuition rates to some undocumented immigrants.

“Before I knew it, I was up in Topeka, on the steps of the State Capitol, telling my story to 3,000 people who were rallying from all across the state in favor of this bill,” he said. HB 2145 passed in 2004 and was signed into law by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Minjárez went on to work part time as the southwest Kansas organizer for Sunflower Community Action while he attended community college, then full time for three years before he enrolled at Kansas State.

“With Sunflower, I got to see Black and brown people together, talking about the issues in their everyday life, and I got to identify how similar our situations were,” he said. “Despite our racial differences, we were dealing with a lot of the same things, and the root causes were the same.”

The Wichita Beacon asked Minjárez about his art, activism and ceramics. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about how you got into art. What’s your artist origin story?

Art has been a part of my life since I can remember. My mom is an artist, although she will never call herself one. She can do everything: knit, sew, embroider, sculpt, draw, paint. She can make beautiful cakes and beautiful dinners.

Being a single mom, she always had side hustles, and her creativity was a way for her to make extra money. She saw my interest in using my hands to make things, and she was good at feeding that. She would buy me chalk, watercolors, crayons and colored pencils. Plasticine modeling clay was probably my favorite toy growing up because I could make anything with it.

You studied ceramics in college. Did you always plan to study art?

No, I was dead set on architecture. I enrolled at K-State in the architectural program, but I had to drop out because I couldn’t pay. Till the very last few weeks before school started, I was looking everywhere for loans. We went to every bank, but I couldn’t find anything.

I was at the point where I was looking at going back to Mexico, because all the doors had closed. My high school art teacher Judy Scott knew the director of the art program at Garden City Community College, David Kinder, and she told me he had full-ride scholarships for art students. At that point I just wanted to be in college, and (Kinder) was really generous and saw something in me.

Once I had my green card, school was an option again. I was still hoping to enroll in the architecture program at K-State, but I would have had to do all five years of the program. At the time, it seemed too long, so I stuck with art.

What do you hope to accomplish through your work? Are there recurring common themes or overarching goals?

The closest I’ve come to answering that question is I hope to highlight the humanity in every individual.

Immigrants are dehumanized all the time, starting with the legal terms assigned to us. You have to dehumanize a person to attach a label such as illegal. A lot of my work stems from that definition the state assigned to me.

I had the privilege to be in Eastern Europe in 2015, when there was a big surge in Syrian refugees. I got to go to the detention centers where they had hundreds of refugees incarcerated, and I got to interview and photograph (some of them).

The language that the European Union was using was almost verbatim the language of a lot of the anti-immigrant bills being introduced in the U.S. Many of these came from the Kansas secretary of state at the time, Kris Kobach. It was mind-blowing to be literally across oceans and to see people were experiencing the same thing that I experienced in the U.S.

It crystallized my desire to acknowledge everyone’s humanity, even the people actively working to dehumanize me. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to hold them to account, but I’m going to do it in a way that acknowledges (our shared humanity). That was hard for me to work through, because there was so much anger inside of me. But I realized that I could not embody the same kind of forces I was fighting against.

Armando Minjárez works on one of two murals he painted for the Evergreen Community Center & Library, which reopened to the public in February. Minjárez has also contributed ceramic installations to two public pools. (Photo courtesy of Hugo Zelada-Romero)

Horizontes was an enormous project. How do you feel about it now? Are there things that, in hindsight, you wish you had done differently?

I spent a lot of my time and energy thinking about how to (administer the project) in a way that was respectful, empowering, honest and transparent. I feel really good about that part of it, that it wasn’t extractive and objectifying.

To say (Horizontes) is about Black and brown solidarity is reductionist — it’s more complicated than that. Nonetheless, that was the heart of it. Did we accomplish a kind of ultimate solidarity? No, but it did connect a lot of different members of those communities, which resulted in collaborations and growth as artists and entrepreneurs.

On the other side of things, I was trying to do too much. I learned a lot about my weak points as a leader and my desire to control things. That’s where the biggest growth was for me and where I would go back and do things a little bit differently.

I also learned a lot about my own ambitions and my tendency to overwhelm myself with work. There’s been a lot of reflection and unpacking that I’ve been doing in the last couple of years.

Let’s talk about Del Norte Studio, your line of functional ceramics. When did you start the brand and where do you see it going?

I launched it in 2015, when I was transitioning out of The Seed House.

I knew that making things with my hands was key to my own well-being. Everybody knew me for murals, but I wasn’t painting them myself. Instead, I was doing a lot of administrative work and community engagement.

I’ve always been an entrepreneur — I’ve been hustling all my life. Again, growing up with a single mom, you have to do that. I wanted my work to be tangible and useful, so pottery makes sense. It took care of my desire to design and create things, because I never went to architecture school.

A way I can touch people is to make objects that bring a little bit of joy, that give people a moment to center themselves in their day. Maybe it’s a tall order for an object, but I feel like that’s something that I can provide. And I can make money doing it, because we’ve got to make money in this capitalist system.

A lot of the work that you do is collaborative in nature. I’m curious what motivates you to take that approach and what makes a good collaboration.

I’m not fully sure why I do navigate towards collaborative work. I think maybe it has to do with the community organizing I’ve done. I also enjoy working out ideas with people — I find that really rewarding.

For a good collaboration, you need a clear goal, open and transparent communication, and the ability to be flexible and nimble. Those are the things that I always prioritize, and if you’re able to meet me there, then I’ll work with you.

But it’s OK to have ego. I like to work with people that are good at what they do. Ideally, I’m working with somebody who has a skill set that I don’t have — that’s where some really cool things can happen. So having ego or being confident is totally fine, but you also have to be able to listen and adjust.

You’ve lived in Wichita for 10 years. Is it a good place to be an artist?

It’s complicated. Anywhere is a good place to be an artist, but whether or not it’s a sustainable place is a separate question.

You can be in the worst conditions in the worst place and still make art. But can you sustain a practice? Maybe, if you have the right connections, if you are articulate and willing and able to network, then you can be an artist here.

I presume that it’s similar in other places, however we still have a long way to go in Wichita to be truly inclusive. There’s a very close-knit group of artists who have monopolized a lot of the opportunities that can really launch an artist’s career. There’s a lot of nepotism, which is a big problem that we still need to work on.

One solution that I’ve identified is providing professional development opportunities. That means being able to understand how to find grants and calls for proposals for public art and exhibitions, how to submit those applications, how to present your work, how to get insurance and handle money — all these pieces of being a working artist.

The talent is here, there’s no question about that. The question is whether those artists are able to access opportunities.

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Emily Christensen is a journalist based in Wichita who writes about arts and culture, in addition to running a freelance writing and editing business. Follow her on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily.