Living color and unrelenting emotion drench the visual language of the multi-hyphenate artist, Mariell Guzman. Her vast artistic vocabulary and abilities make her work a living chameleon, breathing and adapting organically on clothing, plantitas, installations, or murals across the U.S. and Mexico. Engaging with her work evokes almost every emotion in its highest potency, reflecting what it means to live and feel. It makes perfect sense that her creations move people, attracting brands and collaborators who are starving for a genuine connection to their audiences.
Born in Zamora, Mexico, and raised in Texas, Mariell’s creations mimic her own capability to blend in and stand out all at once. Having spent most of her formative years in Texas, she often had to adapt socially and culturally, temporarily sacrificing aspects of herself to gain footing in education and her career. Now, armed with a blooming self-awareness of that learned survival practice, she is finding the freedom to flourish within the complexities of her lived experiences and life.
Mariell’s evolving life is evidence we can all reintroduce ourselves to where we come from and our past selves, endlessly. She is a refreshingly intentional artist with a contagious passion and love for her work. Her future endeavors with Meow Wolf are on the horizon, and the excitement is palpable when speaking to her on Zoom. This woman lives in color and offers it with an ease to be admired.
I'm curious about your upbringing—was it only in one place? What places are meaningful to you?
I was born in Zamora, but I moved to Monterrey when I was one, so I don't really remember my first year as a baby there. But my grandpa and a lot of my dad's side of the family lives in Zamora. So I got to visit almost twice a year [for] summers and Christmas, [and] I would also visit Guadalajara, where my mom's side lives. So those two cities were my biggest in terms of where I spent the most time in Mexico, besides Monterey.
I've been trying to think more about [myself] growing up from one to 10 years old, before I moved to Texas, [and now] always feeling distant from family. And that's not very big in Mexican culture. It's usually something like: I can go to my tia’s house and hang out with her today, or I can ask my cousin for a favor, but for me it was always just my immediate family.
Both Zamora and Guadalajara have such contrasting landscapes, so that was really inspiring to have that distinct type of experience in both spaces. My grandpa had a ranch, so that was a really big kind of memory of mine…of my childhood…visiting his ranch, getting to walk around this big land and seeing, like, all the vegetation. The one I remember the most was a big field of strawberries; that was really cool to witness… that this belongs to my family and it's something he worked so hard to develop. Then I moved to Texas when I was 10 with my mom, dad, brother and sister.
And had you been to the US before?
We used to go to Laredo and McAllen for Christmas shopping. I got to choose my Christmas presents [laughs]. So all I remember Texas [for] was going to these malls or outdoor shopping centers. To me, because the landscape didn't stand out to me at all—it seemed like it was just toys and huge stores. Everything is shiny. That was exciting.
Being introduced to American capitalism and consumerism can have an effect on a blooming artist. I know it's a huge Pandora's box, but I’d love to touch on how you initially felt or feel in retrospect about that level of consumerism and its effect on a young artist. Have you come to terms with it as the artist you are today?
It's a big question. [laughs] When I was a kid, I didn’t really think about that. Kids don’t think about capitalism, maybe they do now because of TikTok. I’m like, “Wow, these kids are going to be so far ahead of where we were thinking at that age.” [laughs]
Because I grew up in Monterrey, and it's a big city in Mexico, and those big cities can feel like L.A., New York, Chicago—they’re very developed parts of Mexico, so even though I didn’t necessarily grow up in a wealthy family I wasn’t used to having those material things around me. I feel like the first time I felt I was being consumed…[was] art school. When I was starting to create my work, critiques or things I would often hear sounded like, “Well, you’re from Mexico, you should make work about Mexico.” Those were the things that would make my work valuable, that made me interesting; is that I was not White. But I feel like I am more. That is not my entire identity. And now, developing this career, there has been a pattern with brands where the campaigns are for Hispanic Heritage Month [for example]. So they will find their Latino token, but then other times of the year we don't exist to them.
Overall, with a lot of these brands, they are just fascinated about me being an immigrant, and that is the main thing they want to talk about; not really a lot about my art. So that was kind of weird because it can feel like I'm performing. This is something I've definitely become more aware of in the recent two years, because I’ve reached a point where I’m working and getting opportunities. I'm being given a platform—that’s insane. Still to this day, the fact that I can even make a living as an artist so early in my life has not really registered.
So initially, when any opportunity would emerge, I didn't even have time to really think about what the actual intentions were because I just needed to keep going and maintain the momentum. But that's a different conversation.
When I was young into my teenage years, my main objective was to do my best to blend in, even though I've always been kind of a very competitive person. Moving here and being out in ESL made me realize, oh, I am not the same. Everything I'm being taught is not the same as what the others were getting. They're getting taught more advanced stuff because technically I don't understand because I only knew the basics of English. That was the first time I experienced feeling inferior to a different human, or less intelligent, and that really freaked me out. So from there I decided I was gonna just do my best to master the language and get rid of the accent because I knew that accent was a big thing. Somebody would be talking to me, immediately hear I have an accent, and it would change the way they interact with me.
So then I went into survival mode—I started to distance myself from Latino people to talk to American people, because [I thought] if I force myself to be in their world and only speak their language, I'm going to learn [English] faster. And it worked! I was able to get out of ESL in a year and a half. But because a lot of my teenage years was me trying to blend in and be more American, I didn't take my time to embrace my heritage and know that that has its own value. But that was just because of the way that they made me believe in this culture.
Would you say that now you are reintroducing yourself, or—how do you view the process of returning back to those things you had to alienate yourself from to survive?
I’m definitely still in that phase because it didn't start until my mid-20s. I’m now 28. I’ve realized I wasn’t really able to go back home and explore different parts of Mexico until my mid-20s once I was making enough money to buy my own plane ticket. Thankfully, I was also able to go to some of these places because I was invited for mural festivals and stuff. That was another really big moment—when I was able to go back and create and then connect with the community. Murals are very interactive, and because you're literally putting your work in someone’s space, I always like to be very conscious of that by getting to know the people that will get to experience it every day. I leave it behind, and I want to make sure it will be loved and accepted, because it's in the public space. It doesn't belong to me.
So those kinds of trips, specifically, really helped me with reconnecting with my roots. I have this feeling, a longing for this part of my life that I just didn't get to experience growing up, and even distanced myself further from. I'm still figuring it out, but it definitely can feel sad. Through this process of reevaluating my sense of identity and belonging, I had the realization in my mid-20s that I’ve always felt like I didn’t quite belong in either Mexican or American culture. My survival drive to become more fluent in English and integrate into the culture led to forgetting some Spanish and feeling out of the loop with certain Mexican expressions or common pop culture references. Thankfully, I was able to use art as a way to cope with this inner struggle and create my own world where I felt I belonged. In a way, I was also creating my own language in which I felt I could truly express myself in the most authentic way. This art installation I’m creating for Meow Wolf is the ultimate culmination of this special world I’ve created since I was young.
I see so much of what you say moving through your art and it brings up a lot of nostalgia for myself through your use of color. We see Indigenous peoples drawn to vivid color, especially in our lives, not just our art. What is your relationship to color?
Color is a very important factor, or something we want to have around us all the time, whether it's wearing it or in our living room. In Mexico, I would say a lot of the homes are colorful, and I remember realizing when I moved here that there just wasn't any color anywhere. And that just freaked me out. [laughs] It’s like a different reality.
There was definitely a certain period of my life when my work was very dark because I was going through this self-discovery with religion—because I grew up Catholic in Mexico. Everything that I learned centered around God, and because I really respected authority, I fully believed all these things. I wanted to be an example of somebody that would be deserving of heaven, and then when I moved [to America] and started going to public school I was introduced to different ways of learning and seeing the world; different cultures, different histories…so many different things that flipped my world around. It made me want to learn about different religions and different theories. In my teenage years, I realized I was definitely more inclined towards Eastern religions and philosophies. So when I go back and look at the paintings from before that realization, there's a lot of dark colors. Then I realized I can create my own destiny [and] purpose, and if I felt I found my purpose in art, it was enough. That’s where I was able to create this world that made sense to me and where I found joy. It was really liberating.
How did Denim Disco come to be?
So that specific collaboration is with my partner. He was the first person that I've ever dated and crossed over to that very vulnerable place—because he is a creative person. It's been a very rewarding experience and it’s made me realize that you can go beyond just the physical or emotional side of things; you can also be collaborators. Whenever we're hanging out we’d talk about the way we experience the world. He works in film and photography, which is a really amazing way to see the world. It felt very natural to collaborate and start to do things together because before I would have to just do it all myself, so I finally kind of had somebody that I could bring in their skills and I could trust—and we work organically. It's not competitive. No idea is better than the other; we just make them coexist together and let them run. I think he truly taught me the power of collaboration, that somebody else's mind can lead to more powerful work and stronger work, together. You can do it all yourself, butI feel like it can make you a better artist. Just renouncing the ego is the most important thing you can do as an artist because you're gonna get to a point where your work just doesn't grow anymore, and it doesn't tap into anything new.