Taking its name from the Mayan word for “bat,” Z’otz* Collective consists of three artists with Latin American roots who also maintain individual practices: Nahúm Flores (Honduras), Erik Jerezano (Mexico), and Ilyana Martínez (Mexico/Canada). For over fifteen years, these artists have worked collaboratively out of a shared Toronto studio on drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures, pottery, and site-specific installations. Now, AWE’s Audience Engagement Coordinator Abbey Lee Hallett catches up with the Z’otz* Collective about their recent project with AWE: a community art project created in collaboration with migrant workers from Pure Flavor Farms in Leamington, ON.
Abbey Lee Hallett: Could you tell me a little bit about the Z’otz* Collective, and how you got involved with it?
Erik Jerezano: It’s a group of three artists with Latin American backgrounds. We formed in 2004 and we’ve been working in three different mediums, which are drawing, ceramics and large-scale murals, and we are a process-oriented group. We are not interested in how we start or how we end so all our joy and struggle is in all that big in-between of starting and finishing.
Nahúm Flores: Actually we first formed a collective in 1990; we were part of a bigger group and it was based in Toronto. It was made of artists from different genders and we gathered together for the purpose of exhibiting.
So, you know, a few of us wanted to form a group where we could grow within, you know, learning with each other. And so that’s how we formed Z’otz* Collective.
Ilyana Martínez: It’s a collective of a group of three artists, and we’re all based in Toronto, but we’re all from Latin America. And initially, we got together because we were all interested in working collaboratively, and that’s how we started.
ALH: Can you describe the project you did with AWE and Pure Flavor Farms to someone who might not have heard about it?
IM: So we were invited to do a series of workshops with a greenhouse in Leamington and we went to the greenhouse and had workshops with the workers there. And since it’s working collaboratively, it’s doing drawings together with the workers. So it becomes a kind of very lively space. We were doing it in the lunch room where they have lunch on some big tables.
So that was one key element of this project was the drawing workshops with the workers. And also we were invited to create a mural in the Leamington Arts Center, and that’s a mural that we do directly on the gallery wall. And then the other part is to show the work that we did in collaboration with the workers in this space so that the community at large can come and see the work and that the workers can also visit the center and perhaps see some of the drawings that we did with them as well.
ALH: That’s fantastic. I’m curious, now that you’ve gone through half a week of this project, was it what you expected, or was it different than what you expected?
IM: Usually when we set out to do a project we don’t have any expectations about what the final outcome will be because we’re a process-oriented group. And for this project, we had never really worked with a group of people like the workers who were going to do the workshops with us. And so we found that it was a really enriching experience because we learned as much from them as they did from us.
I think we have a very good dynamic in the group working at the greenhouses, and it was such an unusual space and such unusual circumstances for us. So I think it ended up and ended up being a great project for us.
ALH: That’s really, really interesting and cool to hear from you. I’m curious too, like when you’re in talks for this project, what about this project really excited you? What made you want to be involved with it?
EJ: Well, this project is really special because we never had the opportunity to work with the agricultural workers who are part of our community. And it’s a community that, you know, has been well, let me pick my words: rejected, or marginalized, or put it on the sidelines. Even though they’re so important for our food chain. And, you know, they produce so many things that we eat.
And it’s a little thing that we are doing here. But it’s important to us to make them feel welcome and to provide them with an oasis of laughter and distraction. And also, you know, to get to know them and in between, to know each other. So it’s very important because we feel that we need to step up and do something for the migrant workers that are coming here to Canada.
NF: The amazing thing about collaborating with the workers, all of the migrant workers is that, I mean, they come from different backgrounds, you know, like Mexico and Jamaica. They come mainly from small villages and they don’t have, like, training like someone who comes from the city.
And another thing is that you know, like when you’re away from your country and into a new country like Canada, right? Sometimes, you know, it is necessary to have an activity to channel, so it’s a good way to socialize and learn from each other.
ALH: Have you been involved in other projects like this or is this one kind of like, a little unique in terms of the things that you normally are involved with?
EJ: No, it is really unique for us. We have been involved in other projects with other communities that are “at risk.” And we have the opportunity to do murals with the community in different parts of Canada and sort of mentorship. But really, this thing is not about teaching anyone. It’s a back and forth, learning from us and from them. But with agricultural workers, this is the very, very first time we have done a project with them, and we’re very happy to be invited by Art Windsor-Essex and hosted by the Leamington Art Center to do this wonderful project.
ALH: So it sounds like the learning and the experience are very collaborative, which is awesome.
If you wouldn’t mind, could you tell me a bit about the mural that you created during the project?
NF: The way we work, like we work with preconceived ideas and we just enter to a space. Like this wall space, you know, we see it as white space and then we just start working with forms and marks and we respond to each other’s marks. And that’s how things and animal-like figures are emerging.
So at the end, what we do is interpret what we have done and sometimes we come out with surprises. Sometimes it’s really hard for us to come out with cohesive ideas. And I mean, like a piece like this can have many angles so that’s what makes it interesting for us.
ALH: You know, if you were to dream, if there was another step for this project, what would you hope for? If we could continue this project, what would that next step be?
IM: I would love it if there were more programs like this so that more people could experience the wonderful time that we had together with the workers. I think that projects with the people who work so hard to do so much for Canadian society — if they had a bit more connection maybe with the community and more ways in which to express themselves, that would be wonderful. So I would really love to see a program like this continue.
ALH: Last question: how can people keep up with Z’otz*?
This project is part of the AWE Centre for Art and Wellness.
AWE’s Centre for Art and Wellness is an interdisciplinary mental wellness portal that uses creative programming to foster community well-being. Through partnerships with local organizations, the Centre for Arts and Wellness will provide wellness programming for our community members who are most vulnerable during COVID-19 and beyond.
The AWE Centre for Art and Wellness is generously supported by the Solcz Family Foundation.