Annie Lopez on Her New Work and Exhibition at Walter Art Gallery in Scottsdale

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Some people keep their memories in scrapbooks. Phoenix artist Annie Lopez sews them into dresses.

She’s best known for using cyanotype photography, which pairs chemical processes with sunlight to make distinctive blue images, to create dresses imbued with family history, personal memories, and social commentary.

Her works are currently featured in a solo exhibition titled "Annie Lopez: True Blue," which continues through December 1 at Walter Art Gallery in Scottsdale.

Born in 1958, Lopez is a fourth-generation Phoenician. She lives with her husband and fellow artist, Jeff Falk, in a home not far from the one she grew up in, where each has a room that’s been transformed into an art studio. “It’s the first time I’ve had a dedicated studio,” Lopez says. For a long time, she simply laid her work out on other surfaces, including their bed.

Lopez has been active in the Phoenix arts scene since 1982, when she was part of a collective called Movimento Artistico del Rio Salado (MARS) for Chicano artists. “Back then, people didn’t want to show art by brown people in mainstream galleries,” she says. So MARS, which has since disbanded, found its own exhibition spaces.

Since then, Lopez’s work has been exhibited in several cities, including Denver, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Washington, D.C. Even so, Lopez says she’s often encountered galleries that don’t take cyanotype photography seriously as an art form.

But that never stopped her from doing it, and her dedication is paying off.

Phoenix Art Museum filled its Chase Lobby with Lopez’s cyanotype dresses for its “Annie Lopez: Contemporary Forum’s Mid-Career Artist Award Recipient Exhibition” in 2013. Her work was featured in “Cyanotypes: Photography’s Blue Period” at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts earlier this year. And she was honored with the 2016 Artist Award during this year’s Arizona Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony.

Lopez started taking photographs as a teen, often with her mother’s Brownie camera. “My mother couldn't hold the camera still," she says, "so I took it over.” Lopez quickly discovered she preferred being behind the camera instead of in front of it. Lopez took classes at Phoenix College, but doesn’t hold an art degree, so she’s self-taught in many ways.

“It’s easier to translate text and photos onto something you can control,” she says of choosing to work with cyanotype photography. Lopez gathers materials from many sources, from photo albums she’s found tucked away inside drawers of her parents’ house to state offices that have official family records. She transfers text and images to tamale paper, an homage to her family heritage, using chemicals that create a characteristic blue after about 20 minutes in the sun.

That’s just the start of her artistic process.

Next, she uses a sewing machine to stitch several papers together. For her larger dresses, she uses 20 to 40 sheets. Then she lays the material out like fabric, and places a dress pattern over it, so she can cut out the form. Lopez sources the patterns from thrift stores and yard sales, since she prefers to work with patterns created during her formative years – essentially the 1960s and 1970s.

When she was 8 years old, Lopez’s mother sent her to a woman’s house after school. There, Lopez learned to embroider and use a sewing machine, skills she used to make clothing for dolls, including Barbie dolls. This year, Lopez added creating doll- and Barbie-size dresses to her art practice.

More than two dozen of her works are part of the “Annie Lopez: True Blue” exhibition at Walter Art Gallery in Scottsdale, which continues through December 1. It’s curated by Robrt Pela of R. Pela Contemporary Art, who shows works by several Arizona-based artists, including Beth Ames Swartz and Bob Adams, and is a longtime New Times contributor.

The exhibition includes works made from 2012 to the present. Most are new works made just this year, specifically for this exhibition, Pela says. Lopez's prior body of work doesn't include the smaller-scale dress forms featured in this exhibition, so the new works are a significant development in her evolving art practice. "I made the smaller ones just to see if I could," Lopez says.

The exhibition includes primarily cyanotype dresses in various sizes, but also other clothing forms. One dress placed front and center was created with images of some of Lopez's favorite things – from visiting the local pancake house as a child to attending Phoenix Suns games.

But one piece was creating using something far more unusual: explanatory handouts stapled to prescriptions she picked up for her mother at the local pharmacy.

Health-related issues, from cancer to dementia, are prevalent in Lopez’s work. After her father, who died in 2011, developed Alzheimer’s disease, Lopez grew terrified that her own brain might undergo similar changes. So she channeled that concern into a series of work she titled “Memory Trajectories." Six pieces from that series are part of the “Remedy” exhibition that continues through mid-January at ArtsWestchester in White Plains, New York.

Even now, Lopez continues to balance family needs with her own artistic impulses.

She spends most mornings in caregiver mode, taking care of doctor appointments and errands for her nearly 87-year-old mother, who lives nearby. From noon to 6 p.m., she works as a seamstress at a local uniform store, which she enjoys. Art happens in pockets of time she steals here and there, as it has for most of Lopez’s life.

Lately, she’s given serious thought to tackling a new medium: upholstery fabric. Her father’s upholstery business burned down, but she suspects some of the upholstery fabric is still there. So Lopez just might incorporate it into her art practice, learning through experimentation as she’s always done. Even so, she plans to continue making her cyanotype garments.

“I have notebooks full of ideas,” Lopez says. “I’m always making new stuff.”

“Annie Lopez: True Blue” continues through December 1, when the closing reception takes place from 6 to 9 p.m. Get details on the Walter Art Gallery website.

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