Shop Talk: Juliet Menéndez

Blog Category:  Museum Shop
A white flag hangs on the facade of a stone building. The flag has an image of two black ceramic vases and

Museum Shop Director Adriana Regalado spoke with author and illustrator Juliet Menéndez for a conversation about her illustration style and book Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers.

A view from above shows two hands resting on a piece of paper. The right hand is holding a brush and painting with watercolors. An unfinished artwork is visible on the paper: It shows a woman with a dark skin tone, black hair, and an orange shirt, composed of geometric shapes.
Juliet Menéndez painting in watercolors; Photo courtesy of the artist

Your illustrations have such a distinctive style. What is it about watercolors that you enjoy working with?

It just so happened that I found both my style and medium on a freezing cold day in New York on my way to the subway. I popped into the art store to warm up and stumbled upon these adorable Old Holland watercolors locked away in a fancy glass case. I really didn’t have the money to buy anything at all, but somehow, I said yes and picked out four little tubes and walked out with them in a tiny paper bag.

To be honest, I thought about returning them. But the colors… rose, emerald, honey yellow, and manganese blue were just so beautiful. They reminded me of the painted signs, advertisements, menus, and sun-bathed street murals in Guatemala. I don’t know if it was the memories of being warm that made me keep them, but once I used them, I was hooked. 

A watercolor picturing a woman painted in geometric forms holding a telescope. The woman has a medium dark skin tone, long, brown and braided her, and in colorful, capital letters it says “Antonia Navarro” and “topographical engineer”.
An illustration of Antonia Navarro from Juliet Menéndez’s Latinitas: Celebrating 40 Big Dreamers; Photo courtesy of the artist

I love your beautifully illustrated and very thoughtful book Latinitas, which profiles more than 40 amazing Latinas from all over Latin America. What inspired you to research and create this book?

The book actually started out as a poster project back in 2014. I was working as an art teacher in Upper Manhattan at the time with students whose families were mainly from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, but the posters up in the halls of their schools were of figures like Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, and Dalí. And I thought to myself: what if some fresh new faces that looked more like my students were up on these walls?

I originally planned to include both men and women, but when I saw women’s contributions to history repeatedly relegated to the footnotes and margins as though they were observing rather than shaping our history (like I knew they had), I changed my mind. If there was anything that was going to bring out the feminist in me, it was that. 

You mentioned once in an interview that you enjoyed critique in art school because it pushed you to experiment and challenge yourself. How do you continue to push or challenge yourself creatively?

I am constantly searching for new references and incorporating what I see into my illustration. I am always delighted and surprised to find connections across cultures and time periods to weave into the work I do now. I love, for example, to find parallels between the geometry of Andean textiles, the work of Fortunato Depero, and the contemporary illustrator and designer Malika Favre, and see how I can bring those influences into my work. 

What woman artist, or which artist’s work, are you particularly drawn to?

There are so many! I can never give a comprehensive answer to a question like this, but I can say who is currently influencing my work. Those artists would be Sonia Delaunay, Maria Luque, and Manuja Waldia.

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