Isabel Avila Focuses Her Lens on LA

Interview by Pancho Lipschitz

In a society that doesn’t value art, it’s very difficult to be a professional artist. Even when you are in group shows and solo shows and museum shows, you can still be left with a lack of funds and a pile of student loans. I sat down with the photographer Isabel Avila. Since she was featured in the Vincent Price Museum’s Hoy Space back in 2012 she’s been trying to balance work as a professional photographer with making time to make personal work and looking for new opportunities to show her work. Ultimately, she opted to go back to school for an M.F.A. .
Pancho Lipschitz: I read that you went to the high school for the arts. How was that?
Isabel Avila: It was great. I went to Alhambra High my first two years and I hated it. I felt really miserable there. I felt like cattle.
PL: I went to Alhambra High School so I know what you mean. It’s kind of a prison industrial complex.
IA: I got accepted to LACHSA and that was a huge difference. It was really enriching and going to that school really instilled a feeling that “You’re an artist” right away. I went to school with Sonia Romero and Arturo Romo and friends who are [now] doing music. I got to explore different ideas and different media. That’s actually where I discovered photography.
PL: Everybody now does photography on their phone, so was there a moment where you realized, “I really like this and I’m good at it’?
IA: I think it was when I was in the beginning photo classes at LACHSA in the darkroom. People liked my images, and it felt like it came easy to me. I liked the idea that you can mass produce it in a way, because with drawing I had an attachment. Even though they may not have been so great or whatever, I was still attached to them, so it was easier for me, through photography, to have images that you can mass produce and do something else with them.
PL: And then you were teaching at LACHSA. How was that?
IA: It was interesting. Things changed a lot while I was there. I think everyone feels that every year the classes get less eccentric and the school gets more controlled, and I can’t help but agree. When I was there, it was more like a crazy art-circus school. There was a lot of wild behavior and eccentricity that seemed to have been toned down. My sister went there, too. She’s the one who introduced me to the school.
PL: So there are artists in your family?
IA: My dad is a closet artist. That was my early art exposure. When we were kids he would take butcher paper and put it on the wall and draw cartoon characters and Disney characters. And he encouraged us to do that. He would take us to museums.  My sister became obsessed with trying to render the figure perfectly, and I sort of bypassed that with photography.
PL: Then you went to Art Center? What was that experience like?
IA: Overal,l it was good except for the debt. I got to learn my craft really well. It was mostly focused on commercial photography at the time. But I didn’t mind that so much. It enriched me with skill. Because with subject matter, I always had my ideas of what I wanted to do. I took fine art classes and film classes. Sometimes I got more interesting critiques in the fine art classes. They seemed to be more interested in my work. My work was never commercial enough for the commercial people. 
PL: What do you think makes a good photo?
IA: I like aesthetic qualities. I want to be attracted to an image by its inherent beauty. Draw me in, so I desire to know more about it… 
PL: I think one of the things that draws me to your work is that there’s stuff going on in the foreground but there’s stuff going on in the background that is just as interesting.
IA: I tend to like a lot of information. I consider them environmental portraits. So you have the image of the person that shows what they look like, and then there’s the environment... a lot of information about that place; the landscape adds to the story.
PL: So you’re going to Cal State Long Beach grad school for photography?
IA: I’m actually really excited... because I have an opportunity to work with instructors in the Fine Art department and the American Indian Studies department. Long Beach is sitting on a Native American sacred site. I would like to explore that in a more conceptual way using photography. It’s a political issue, a cultural issue, a historical issue.
PL: So what is your background?
IA: My family history goes back in Los Angeles pretty far. My parents are born here; my mom in East Los Angeles and my dad in San Diego. My grandparents are also American citizens on both sides. And my great-grandparents; some of them were born here. I can’t confirm that all of them were born here yet, but I know that they were all here.
I think part of the reason I became interested in exploring that history is that on my mom’s side, they didn’t pass down the native heritage. They just passed down the Spanish heritage. I think my grandmother got a lot of discrimination because she was dark and Indian looking. So it wasn’t something that they wanted to identify with in Los Angeles in the thirties. They saw it more as a hindrance.
I would ask my grandmother, “Tell me more about my great-grandfather.” I know he worked on the railroads out here. He was really native looking and I know they had a program to employ Native Americans to work on the railroad. And that’s where my great-grandfather met my great-grandmother.
My great-grandmother was very Spanish, previously married to a Spaniard. They had a ranch. He was murdered for the ranch, and she was widowed with six kids. My great-grandfather ended up marrying my great-grandmother... he was probably marrying below her social caste. But she married him and had six more kids.
PL: How was your experience with the Vincent Price Art Museum?
IA: It was good.
PL: How did it come about?
IA: I was a part of a group show that was curated by Vincent Ramos, and I had four pieces in that show; Exploring the Chicano Movement. [museum Director] Karen [Rapp] saw my work and she offered me a show in the Hoy Space Gallery for a solo show.
It made me think of other avenues for art making… [because] I didn’t find the gallery space… completely satisfying.
PL: What would be satisfying?
IA: I’d like to put a book together... [a] way of showing my work in a different context. But it’s something that I want to explore in grad school; other ways of presenting art work. I’d like to create that community feeling that I maybe didn’t feel in the art world that much.
To see more of Isabel Avila’s work go to
Pancho Lipschitz is a Barrio Flaneur and a Barrio flan connoisseur. Follow him on Instagram @pancho_lipschitz. Pictured above: La Causa Next Generation Brown Beret, 2013, digital print.


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