Questions and Answers: Interview with José Santiago Pérez

Rebecca Sun, the Lunder Institute’s Summer 2022 Artist Programming Intern, interviews artist José Santiago Pérez, Lunder Institute for American Art Residential Fellow to learn more about his basketmaking practice and commitment to teaching in addition to his work as an artist. 

1. How do you use baskets to express entangled relationships? Specifically, how do you perceive and understand them? Are these relationships specific and personal or universal?

Thank you for this question, Rebecca. On a personal level, there are sets of relations that I’m continuously spiraling back to in my work. These relations are sometimes shared with others. Other times they’re withheld, depending on the nature of a particular conversation, who is involved, if it feels safe, etc. I exercise a bit of caution in choosing when/where/if those personal entanglements are revealed.

As a way to balance that hesitancy to disclose (which has to do with responding to residues of historical regimes that seek to render certain someones completely knowable…to better extract from and manage), the formal elements in my work (especially, the body of work I started during Lunder Institute summer residency) offer viewers a set of relations to consider that are not contingent on autobiographical knowledge: relations of material, proximities of process, kinships of color, etc., that while situated in my particular story, also open outward, like the generous rim of a fanner basket. A story that is potentially ‘entangled’, as you say, with other stories and others’ stories…

More importantly (and why I am so invested in the basket as a category of object, whether traditional or experimental in its form), baskets materialize relatedness. They have historically centered relations between humans, plants, animals, things, and the (in)visible and (im)material worlds, through their making and their varied uses and purposes. They hold, gather, carry, and transmit histories of relating. Those histories are articulated and accented differently at different times by different communities, but what feels like something in proximity to cultural specificities and traditions (to use an awkward phrase in lieu of the universal), to me, is this fundamental characteristic of baskets as objects of relation.

2. When you make a bigger sculpture, have you thought about how people may engage with the work? I am thinking specifically of playful engagement such as the moment in the intern’s visit to your studio when Colby staff member Christine and intern Katherine picked up one of your woven foil textiles and tried it on.

Lunder Institute Special Projects Intern Katherine Zhang and Mirken Family Postbaccalaureate Fellow in Museum Practice Christine Zheng try on mylar textile during studio visit with José Santiago Pérez at Greene Block studio

Work like mine that directly engages with craft (which involves the orchestration of touch, process, and material) generally evokes interaction. Baskets in particular are extensions of the body that have historically increased the capacity of humans to enact the labors of living and caregiving, so their very existence as objects are in intimate relation to physical interaction. Whether on a large or small scale, I do think about evoking the sense of touch and desire for interaction. It’s impossible not to. That said, not all the bigger sculptural baskets are available for physical interaction. That element of activation is dependent on the conditions and parameters of a particular exhibition. Sometimes, they are offered as objects to be-hold.

José Santiago Pérez talking about his work with other LIAA summer fellows and interns at summer studio visit

3. What made you decide to pursue teaching alongside your artmaking practice? How are these roles influenced by each other?

I think I’ll respond to these related questions with a few attempts at beginning to answer…because the relation between my practice and teaching is relatively new and unfolding…

Maybe it’s all in the timing. I was invited to teach in the Fiber and Material Studies department at the School of the Art Institute at just the right time.

It could have something to do with the 10th house Virgo moon placement in my astrological chart…something about the theme of being of use or service to others.

It could be related to the fact that teachers (both inside and outside institutions) have played such significant roles in my life. Teaching may have to do with expressing gratitude to those teachers, advisors, and mentors, and attempting to be of support in the creative flourishing of others.

Perhaps because it’s a process. It’s a kind of relating process across positionalities and generations.

Maybe there is something about…the possibilities of thinking about the studio classroom as a kind of basket…that gathers and holds many creative growths together for a time…something about crafting that kind of space for others holds my attention and curiosity. 

José Santiago Pérez is an artist and educator based in Chicago who traces his ancestry to the Nawat people of Kuscatlán (El Salvador). He weaves plastics into containers of time, vessels of memory, and spaces of belonging. He is a 2019-2020 HATCH resident at Chicago Artists Coalition and a recipient of a SPARK grant and an Illinois Arts Council Agency grant. José has presented craft and performance based work in solo and group exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Features and reviews of his work have appeared in ArtforumBasketry+ MagazineSixty Inches from CenterNewcity ArtArt InterceptsOther Peoples Pixels, and the Archives + Futures Podcast. José holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he teaches in the Fiber and Material Studies department.