Julia Sherman: Tell me about where you grew up and how you came to this country?
Raul De Nieves: I grew up in Michoacan, Mexico with my mother and two brothers. I came to the U.S. when I was nine, and it took nine years for me to become a citizen. My mom married a Colombian man who was already a citizen and who lived in San Diego. He owned a restaurant there.
JS: What was it like to move to a new place so suddenly?
RDN: I did not even speak English. I was in school with my two brothers, one was 6, the other 11, and I was 9. My aunt flew to Mexico and picked us up, we flew to Tijuana, where we met this lady at the border. She had binders full of green cards. This was in 1993, when crossing the border was chill. It was like waiting in line to go to a club. You would only showed an ID, no scanners, nothing. I told them I was going to McDonald’s (there was a one just beyond the border). I crossed all by myself, and they let me go!
JS: They let a 9 year old boy cross the border all by himself?
RDN: Maybe the lady who helped us had an agreement with the border patrol, and the code was McDonald’s or something? After nine years, my mom’s husband, who was a citizen, applied for citizenship for us.
JS: Did you miss Mexico when you left?
RDN: Yes, I think that is why I make the work that I make. It is a way to remember where I am from, what I saw. It was a shock to come to America and live in a suburban town that was completely white. My mom had to go back and forth between three jobs. She started to work at daycare centers and then opened her own in our house. When friends come back home with me and they see how I grew up, with all these kids running around in our living room, they are shocked. To me, it’s normal.
JS: How did you end up being an artist?
RDN: I moved away as soon as high school ended. I went to community college, and I started taking art classes, but all my teachers were telling that I was wasting my time, and that my paintings were awful. Why are teachers such bitches? [laughs]
JS: Because sometimes they piss you off enough that it motivates you to break the mold.
RDN: Well, I wasn’t learning how to be a brain surgeon, I was making art, and that’s a completely personal thing. I can’t paint like Michelangelo, but I don’t want to. I want to create experiences. There is no right or wrong way to do that. I think that was the good part about learning and feeling this idea of rejection from the system.
JS: After community college, what did you do?
RDN: I went to San Francisco but could not afford the art school there, so I decided to make friends who were enrolled in the school, and crashed their classes. I would get their course materials and make my own projects based on what they learned in school. I found this image from the fable about St George and his dragon, and I painted it over and over again. Each time I painted it in a different style, each time adopting the technique of another artist. Through this process I taught myself how to evolve a single idea, using this idea of religious painting and Christian work ethic. After that, I was ready to work in my own visual language and style, which eventually led to sculpture and installations.
JS: Did you grow up religious?
RDN: My mom is Catholic but nothing too crazy. We did go to church, but it was very chill. I still go to church all the time. Every time I see a church door open, I go inside.
JS: I love the shoe sculptures. You said some of the shoes were wearable?
R: Yes, I just started collecting shoes and building off of them. I work with cheap materials, plastic beads, paper, found objects and hot glue. Some are just these wild crystal-like sculptures, and then others, are kind of wearable [pointing at a pair].
JS: Can somebody actually walk in those?
RDN: I can! The last ones that I made for the Whitney Biennial took me three years to make. It’s ridiculous. I had never made something like that before.
JS: And where do all these beads come from?
RDN: Now I get these for free. People just give me beads.
JS: Where are you off to next?
RDN: I have a residency on an island in Greece, and then in Italy. I am doing a show in this big palace-like place, it’s crazy!
JS: What does your family think about who you have become?
RDN: They just look at me and think, ‘he is really doing it.’