“Ultimately, I make figurative work,” says Maya Vivas as we chat in their ceramics studio. I have known Vivas for some time and observed their sensual and precise way of manipulating materials—be it food, clay, or clothing—over the years. They have a knack for considering concepts from unexpected angles, and they always counter-direct my perspective in our conversations about art. I often wonder how their unique way of being emerges through their sculptures. On this studio visit, I finally have the chance to satiate this curiosity—and to learn a bit more about their shift away from organizing with Ori Gallery in the process.
Vivas lets me hold a set of maquettes, which serve as mock-ups for forthcoming pieces. “I can’t deny that it makes me think of a fetus,” I say, turning one in my hand. “I know,” they respond with an air of intrigue. “It’s purposeful.”
I first encountered Vivas as the co-founder of Ori Gallery in collaboration with polymath artist-organizer Roux, who is one of Portland’s current Creative Laureates. The two opened Ori in 2018 with an unwavering mission to present works of Trans and Queer Artists of color.
“The whole point of Ori was to take care of artists in a way that they weren’t being taken care of by other art institutions and to give them opportunities that they weren’t getting,” explains Vivas. They express pride in the exhibitions they helped organize at Ori—endeavors that had pushed the limits of their own introverted nature, giving them chops for navigating art spaces.
“I also opened Ori when I was starting my Saturn Return,” they laugh. As a fellow queer with an affinity for astrology, I see the connection: Saturn Return is regarded as a time of growth and upheaval in a person’s life as they move toward their 30s. Vivas describes this period with Ori as necessary and beautiful, but not without an intense emotional toll. “It’s a heavy thing to carry, to feel responsible about how someone is represented and presented to the world,” they reflect.
Vivas admits that they are not an art administrator at heart. “I had to remind people that I was an artist,” they recollect. “I think I was afraid of losing myself and sense of direction…”
Feeling this misalignment, Vivas decided to step back from Ori as of January 2022, taking much care with their transition in hopes of a long future for the gallery.
“I never saw Ori as something that was mine,” emphasizes Vivas. “I want it to continue beyond me.” And surely, it will. Ori recently announced the addition of some new team members—including Princess Bouton as Head of Curation—alongside a season of virtual residencies. The gallery continues to grow and adapt to the times, while staying true to its enduring mission.
Meanwhile, Vivas’ investment in self begins to bear fruit. Their studio walls house a pair of white porcelain works-in-progress: one curls up in a wavelike fashion with a bulb protruding from its meatiest side, while the other is flipped up from underneath like a tongue trying to lick itself. Both look alive, as if they have grown along the divine trajectories of plant life. I can correlate them with so many other referents in the natural world—but, ultimately, they occupy an existence unto themselves. Like Ori, they carry forth Vivas’ efforts and will live beyond it.
“I’m making beings,” Vivas says, as our conversation shifts toward artistic practice.
Together, we speculate that their work might, itself, be a form of propagation. “Maybe I am doing that,” they ponder, “like, I am cutting off a little piece of myself, putting it in a little metaphorical glass of water, and allowing it to take root and to multiply.” These beings become Vivas’ alternate selves, future selves, or even family members or chosen family. They emerge in series over the years, like different generations in the same family tree.
For their 2019 show, “i have no choice but to suck the juice out, and who am i to blame” at Littman + White, Vivas presented a series of bulbous black sculptures, both hung and floorbound, with white protrusions covered in beaded texture. The black bulbs looked mid-spit or mid-suck (I could not tell which), while their white probes reached out in an exploratory manner. Vivas rendered mind-bending, ambiguous motion throughout this series, evoking a sci-fi world of questioning and uncertainty. Each being seemed to seek something.
Vivas’ 2021 series—“in their own imago,” exhibited as part of Time Being at Oregon Contemporary—featured forms in more self-assured liminal states. These brown clay beings were pierced through with studs, signaling contemporary queerness. They looked content in their own morphology, manifesting palpable care and tenderness at the sites of their piercings. I appreciated that, despite their abstraction, these swirling entities communicated their queerness with aesthetic indicators that many humans use—as if to imply that we share some affinity and could even be friends.
Vivas acknowledges that their bodies of work have begun to blur together as of late, taking longer to complete. “The more my understanding of the world is complicated, the more blurred my work becomes,” they observe. “I think it’s just a reflection of my own evolution and growth.” Vivas’ recent works-in-progress integrate facets from past series, such as protrusions and waves, but they have plans for new playful color variation.
Sculpting gets emotional for Vivas. “I’m literally sitting here by myself laughing at a chunk of clay,” they reminisce. “I know that a form is successful when it elicits some kind of emotional reaction from me.” Vivas’ intimate relationship with this medium fuels their performance practice—which often involves moving and vocalizing while supported by wet clay. The spirited nature of clay begets a pressing question for their next body of work: “How do we find the playground at the end of the world?”
“I think that Black artists aren’t allowed to be [seen as] self-indulgent or self-serving, or aren’t allowed this space or choice to do that,” contemplated Vivas as our conversation drew to a close. “Our [socially acceptable] role is to give so much of ourselves and to take care of others, and it immediately becomes uninteresting or selfish if we are indulgent within ourselves, for ourselves.”
“It’s like, I’m only as valuable as what labor I can give to others.”
Maybe self-determination is an important first step in finding this playground at the end of the world that Vivas seeks. Certainly, folks should have agency to build meaning for themselves in whatever modus operandi suits them best—be it organizing, art-making, or anything else. But, as Vivas points out, this effort should not be dictated by the insidious scripts of white supremacy.
“What’s important is being able to choose what I engage in and how I spend what precious little time I have,” they explain.
They continue following their intuition accordingly, propagating new beings that integrate a growing knowledge of self and of the world. “Making art has always been my MO,” they affirm, “and that’s what I need to be doing with my time on this earth.”