Doña Mayfair

Posted by Mayfair in Blog, Uncategorized on February 5, 2017

By Oscar Sandoval | Rocketship Senior Policy Associate, San Jose, Ca. 

She demands your attention the moment she comes into your line of vision. You might  try to shrug her off and continue on with your day, but, for some reason you feel this invisible pressure to approach her, the same pressure you’d feel at family parties, when your mom asks if you said hi to every single person in the room, even the folks you’ve never met. Except this time, you can’t lie through your slightly crooked teeth and slide on by.  She won’t allow it.

Cool, calm, and composed, she reels you in step by step until you’re overwhelmed by the letters that shield her eyes like a pair of kaleidoscopic sunglasses. Sunglasses sown with the same hues of the zarapes you see through family room windows, hugging the curves of a couch or the shoulders of a tía that someone hasn’t seen in years. These glasses are not as impenetrable as they seem from afar. As you inch closer, and you begin to make out her tight-lipped smile, you may hear the sound of oxidized metal clanking against the cement floor, as shards of whatever armor you threw on when you left your house slowly tumble to the floor.

Doña MAYFAIR is one of  Sam Rodriguez’s latest works. A visual artist, and East San Jose native, Sam contributed the mural to the School of Arts and Culture at MHP to display during its year-long Mayferia exhibition, a celebration of the talent, beauty, and rich cultural history of the Mayfair community here in East San Jose.

I was able to connect with Sam a few weeks ago to learn more about the inspiration for his mural, along with its and his ties to the Mayfair community.


I understand you’re currently based in San Jose. Were you born and raised here? If so, what neighborhood?

I was born in East San Jose at Alexian Brothers Hospital. Throughout my childhood, we moved around a lot and didn’t have much money. Not many people in my family hold degrees or own property and have since then have been driven out of SJ due to high costs and well before the gentrification struggle hype. I’ve lived on Alum Rock and Capitol, Tami Lee and Crucero, Jackson and San Antonio, Rocksprings apartments (Nordel and Senter), and later in my teenage years near Roeder and Monterey. Basically migrated from East to South East SJ. I don’t know the names of those neighborhoods(laughs).

I’m sure you could go on for hours with this question, but how has the

neighborhood, and the greater city of San Jose, changed since you’ve been here?

Like I said I moved through several different neighborhoods so I never really had a strong sense of permanent home or attachment to any specific place, with the exception of the Flea Markets because I used to help my grandparents to sell goods at them and it was one of the only ongoing things in my childhood.  

When I was a teenager, I used to ride the vta bus all day almost everyday for going to school but also just to do graffiti on them (buses). Santa Clara and 1st was crowded with youth. I hung out in downtown and all over San Jose with a lot of other graffiti heads, we would ‘bus hop’ from hood to hood for house parties, or just to hang out or tag on stuff. I remember in the early 90s you could see more than 20 people walking down the street together or even hopping on a bus! That was just graffiti heads, there were also, lowriders, cholos, housers, rebels, and skaters mobbing around too with unique styles. It was San Jose culture and I remember other parts of the bay from Frisco to Oakland coming down here to party with us and being hyped on our scene. Later the city started implementing curfew laws and transit patrol, and breaking up the cruising scene. Now as an adult I can understand the perspective for that, but I wish there was a way to maintain some of the good stuff that happened in that time which was uniquely SJ.

It seems that today, there is less cultural authenticity. I see a lot of groups or individuals that mimic what’s happening in other places like LA or SF. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired, but I was brought up to add something new to the table, something that can stand up with these other scenes rather than under them. All it takes is looking around you, and using what’s there as the ingredients for whatever it is you do. It’s also just a matter of not caring about what other people think or if something is fashionable. You just have to create trends yourself and unapologetically because there is always going to be critics and I think it’s better to be criticized for your unique style rather than not having any at all.

We were broke and we did this, so in my opinion it isn’t so much about the money as it is about being resourceful. On the other hand, I see that the new generation is much bolder and smarter than when I was coming up. I sometimes envy them because they are making moves beyond the scope I had at their age. I have faith that our City is going to culturally thrive and broadcast its unique identity as the years progress. I need to do my part too, not just talk and complain.

How did you derive the inspiration for Doña MAYFAIR from your personal experiences here in San Jose?

This image was easy for a couple of reasons. One is I had help with the art direction from my longtime friend, Demone Carter, and the School of Arts and Culture. Collaboration lightens the load when brainstorming because other people bring a fresh perspective. I also have been around Mayfair throughout my life whether through living there or hanging out. The material is all around, from colorful zarapes, to plantlife like agave and nopales, it was just a matter of sampling things like this into the images through color or patterning.

What particular element(s) of the piece do you feel embody the historical and cultural identities of the Mayfair community?

I think the portion of the woman embodies the community. I think of a warm welcome at mine or my friend’s grandma’s house. To me, this simple and gentle smile, surrounded by fragments of colors you see in the yard or living room are clues to what you experience there. That emotional connection is the root of Mayfair, and fuels historical events.

I understand (on a limited basis at least) that before you began your formal arts education your initial interest and self-schooling was in graffiti art. How did that come to be and how has it continued to inform your work?

I got into graffiti when I was 12, I just loved it and wanted to do it. So I did and practiced a lot and eventually connected with other youth who did it, and kept expanding in that way afterwards. Graffiti gave me a strong foundation in abstraction, and style, this is a fundamental part of being a visual artist.

Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to pursue art at a professional level? If so, what was that moment?

I think that moment was shortly after high school when I worked with Silicon Valley De-Bug and Youth Outlook Magazine. I met Raj Jayadev (SJ) and Josue Rojas (SF) on separate occasions, and they both showed me the gateway to being a professional. I also think that seeing Barry McGee’s artwork in a gallery, after seeing it all over the streets of SF, inspired because I didn’t know I could even be a pro and there I was looking at an artist who occupied two types of spaces. It was possible and I wanted in! Although I did have some pro gigs shortly after college around 2006-2007, I didn’t really become a full time working artist until 2012.

How has your family supported and shaped your artistic pursuits throughout the years?

My wife believed in me always and that’s all I need. As for my Mom, and extended family, they were more or less neutral. They just wanted us to be safe and away from trouble so anything was good. I think the challenge earlier on was not really having many connections or reference points into the industry I was entering. I really never knew any working artists when I was growing up and in fact didn’t even know it was possible to people like me.

Who are your biggest sources of inspiration, both past and present, for your work?

Wow, this is so broad —  I have so many sources from musicians, to public figures and artists. I will need to do a separate interview for this one.

One of my favorite aspects of your work as a whole is its continuous exploration of multiculturalism and identity. Why do both of these themes play such a prominent part in your artwork?

In my opinion, these stem from growing up in San Jose’s predominantly Mexican and Chicano neighborhoods. Even though we are broadly defined as one group, there is so much diversity within our communities. There is so much cultural variation from family to family depending on what part of Mexico you’re rooted, or how long you have been in this country, some since it was Mexico! Our food, our language, our taste in music, from my perspective it is all hybridity that could be traced to Native Americans, Europeans, Middle Eastern, and even the African continent.  I feel like we are unknowingly experts in the field of multiculturalism and it is just a matter of learning how to tap into it. So for me, it was just a matter of taking that experience and enlarging the scope toward a larger study of the world.

You’re well known for your distinct uses of Topographical Portraits and Type Faces. From where did your interest in these styles originate? Why do they continue to be central aspects of your work?

Everything lives by the rule of nature and not man made laws. I will always be able to find endless combinations through this way of working because the variants come from us who come from nature. It will take a lifetime to study life through this art form.

Given the theme of the exhibition(s), what is one aspect or staple of the Mayfair community that you’d like to highlight for our readers?

Look at your own relatives, or your own surroundings as references to sample when being creative or inspired because unlike the current trends, your lived experience cannot be duplicated or taken away.

Are you currently working on any projects?

Yes, I am constantly working on my personal body of work, and trying to release more prints. I am also working on some brand collaborations and murals that you can learn more about on my website.

Where can folks go to see some of your past work, as well as stay updated about your upcoming projects? or Instagram: @samrodriguezart