The artists Gabriel Rico and Estrella Payton, years ago, began collecting materials that most would consider trash — or plain ugly. Rico keeps shelves in his studio stocked with items such as fruit-shaped porcelain sculptures, porcupine needles and petrified wood.
Meanwhile, Payton has used construction materials including drywall, pieces of lumber and tarp.
"I think it's really fun that we both get to challenge the materials that are used as art objects," Payton said recently.
The two artists live more than 1,000 miles apart — Rico in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, and Payton in Phoenix. And the materials of their choosing might be most of what they have in common, except for an experience they shared last summer: Rico traveled to Phoenix for a six-week art residency at the ASU Art Museum. And Payton traveled to Guadalajara for a matching residency at the home of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco in Guadalajara.
The residencies happened largely thanks to two women, one from Phoenix, one from Guadalajara. Lorena Peña Brito, who directs an arts nonprofit in Guadalajara called PAOS, met Casandra Hernandez, director of a Phoenix arts nonprofit, in 2016 when Hernandez was traveling to Guadalajara as part of a trade mission organized by the city of Phoenix.
When they met, the two realized how much they had in common. For example, their cities are big, but not destinations in the art world.
“We’re both are art scenes that are still growing and making stronger,” Peña Brito said.
The residency accepts one artist from each city per year. The organizers wanted to create a matching arts residency program so artists from both cities could have meaningful connections across the border, Hernandez said.
"But also make us curious about one another and make us want to investigate further the ways that we are bound to each other," Hernandez said.
On a recent afternoon, Rico, who has a neatly trimmed beard and the rugged hands of a construction worker, walked through his studio near central Guadalajara. The studio is named Taller Guayabos — the Guava Workshop, in English — after the five tall guava trees in the building’s courtyard. Rico shares the studio with three other artists.
“We call ourselves the Guaya Boys,” Rico says with a smile.
Rico goes through some items in his storage space: old Coca-Cola bottles, a deer femur, rocks. He’s brought objects from South Korea to Lebanon to Navajo County, Arizona, and other places in between. He uses them to make collages.
"I don't like to divide my real life from my practice like an artist,” Rico explained. “For example, it's very normal when I walk on the street and I find a tree branch, I just collect it with my bike."
When Payton, the artist living in Phoenix, traveled to Guadalajara, she went on walks near the studio and discovered green squares painted on sidewalks here — named Puntos de Reunion or Meeting Points in English — marking safe places for people to meet after an earthquake.
"They really became a place of potential, a place for encounter," Payton said.
"[The arts residencies] make us curious about one another and make us want to investigate further the ways that we are bound to each other." —Casandra Hernandez
Payton created a Google Map of Guadalajara and recorded herself reading works by other artists, such as Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Sea,” which she placed along a street named Mar Caribe, or Caribbean Sea. It was especially meaningful for her because she was born in Puerto Rico.
"It kind of felt like a natural rhythm, the fact that I was walking through the city and a lot of the paths were personal," Payton said.
Payton says that working in a new environment pushed her. It probably pushed Gabriel Rico, too.
“Both of our cities being mid-size cities,” Payton said, “in some cases, some practices can be a little insular and not necessarily be challenged."
Payton is now working on a small arts publication with a publisher from Guadalajara. And Rico says the residency will open doors to more collaborations in other countries.
The organizers of the residency say they hope it will raise the international profile of both cities. They’re looking for this year’s residents — one from Phoenix, one from Guadalajara —and their deadline is March 19.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correct Guadalajara as Mexico's second-largest city.