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Veronica Melendez is an illustrator and photographer who grew up in D.C. and Wheaton. She’s the co-founder of the collaborative zine La Horchata, which features artists of Central American heritage. You can follow her work @veromelen on Instagram and see her photos in “Surfacing,” a group show at the Mansion at Strathmore, on view through March 31.
You’re focused on illustration now, but you studied photography. Do you still do that?
I did photojournalism for undergrad and fine art photo for grad school. I felt like after grad school I needed to take a little break, so I decided to do some illustration just for fun, but that became this whole other thing. I actually just got the darkroom residency at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. I proposed this project about photographing my seven aunts. So I’m going to take portraits of them, and hear their migration stories, and do some found family photographs and make a photo book. I’m excited to do photography again.
Was that photography break the first time you did illustration, or have you always done it?
I’ve always doodled. It was never really serious, so it was a leap of faith to see if I could really do it. I think my technique has improved since I started. I used to do them by hand, then scan them in and make a digital copy, and color them in Photoshop. I finally got a Wacom tablet and used that for two years. I hate it now, and started using Procreate. I didn’t study illustration or graphic design or anything like that, so I’m trying to teach myself.
It’s interesting that you have this photography background, because your work is so representational.
I feel like it does have a photography composition. I go into a store and take a photograph of what inspires me, then bring that photograph into the computer and use that as the base of the illustration. The ones of the people I’ve done are usually found photographs of family members. I use that as the base and take them out of the backgrounds. There’s always photography in some aspect within the process.
There’s a pop art quality to the food ones, but you also make the brand names totally illegible. What’s that about?
The project is called “Iconic,” because all the products are very iconic to my upbringing as a Central American Washingtonian. They’re so iconic that even without their brand names on it, you can identify what they are, because it’s more about the feeling the object gives you, the nostalgia that it invokes. But also I felt that taking away the branding let me make it my own. I took away the names and writings and put my own doodles where the text was, and that way I kind of took control of it.
A lot of your work has a social activism current running through it. How do you use your art to further activism?
The zine [La Horchata] very much has that running right through it. For me, it’s making sure people know this Latinx community is here in D.C. As much as it’s getting gentrified and pushed away, I get a lot of motivation to make space for us within the art world. It’s a shame that in D.C. there’s a huge Latinx community, but you don’t see that much representation in the fine arts world.
You made a bunch of posters against ICE. Can you tell me more about those?
It’s out of necessity, and a responsibility. It’s kind of to show solidarity, like there’s other people out there that feel the same way. So if you’re out there and feel alone and you see people are putting up posters to support my people, it’s a little comforting to see that. Especially here in the nation’s capital, where decisions are being made and Homeland Security was given birth, it’s to make sure people know that this is not OK. And maybe if you don’t know what ICE is and you see a poster, you look it up and find out what’s going on.
There’s such a huge Central American community here, and we’re so affected by what’s going on at the border and in our communities. It’s also just me feeling helpless too, because I can’t quit my job and help people at these detention centers or refugee camps that are outside of the States. I can’t go there and be there, and sometimes that feeling is so overwhelming that I have to just go outside and wheatpaste posters around the city, because it helps me deal with all that.