Tianna Rivera installs her mural "Arm's Length Away" in Boston's Egleston Square. Photo: George Annan
Tianna Rivera '19 has always been interested in how art can function as a form of language. Growing up in Worcester, Mass., she was drawn to both fine art and the immediacy of commercial art and design.
“My dad's a graphic designer, so I was always into graphic design and art in general,” she recalls.
But she looked towards a more personalized approach.
“As an artist, my dad worked in the streetwear industry, mostly designing sneakers and that world. So I knew that that was an option when I made things, but it wasn't necessarily what I wanted to be a part of.”
At Lesley she focused on printmaking, earning her BFA in Graphic Design with a double minor in art history and fine arts and resisting what she saw as a solution-focused approach to design.
“I tried to push more of a contemporary storytelling approach to graphic design, but not necessarily trying to solve a problem. I just wanted to pose a conversation. Being able to tell people things without having to have a conversation has always been interesting to me.”
She was interested in public art that reflected the everyday visual language of posters, advertisements, and signs. In the summer of 2020, her proposal for a site-specific art installation was accepted by the Area Code Art Fair, a COVID-friendly outdoor fair run by Boston curator David Guerra.
“The point of this specific installation for me was to get an exhibition about my culture, my experience of the second-generation practicing artist,” Tianna says. “Being Latina is a part of my identity and I wanted this installation to be in a space that people like me and my family can view it at no cost and at no inconvenience to them.”
Tianna’s graphic mural “Arm’s Length Away” was installed on the wall of the Latino Beauty Salon in Egleston Square, a lively commercial district in Roxbury, Mass. with a mostly Spanish-speaking population. The piece explores themes of religion, success, and family in a second-generation immigrant household and struck an immediate chord with passers-by.
“There were so many people that came by and introduced themselves to me and were reading it and telling me how they related to it, which was a great conversation to have,” says Tianna. “I had never had a situation where I could talk to people viewing my work as I was putting it up, which was really fun. It was exciting to have a new space to converse with people about why you make things and why they're going up in their community.”
Tianna aims to do more installations that take art out of the context of a museum or gallery and open it to a wider audience.
“The mural in Roxbury was my first moment of making a mural and trying to have a genuine conversation, something that was very specific to the people in this space and to my culture.”
Creating the ‘Unofficial Committee’ of artists and activists
In 2019, frustrated by the state of national politics, Tianna joined two friends from Lesley, X-tine Lopez and Yerri Portillo, to form Unofficial Committee, an open group of artists and activists and community organizers creating social change through community advocacy and education.
“We wanted to be a part of making young people as upset and activated in the spaces that they live in as they should be.”
Their first goal was to increase voter registration in communities of color, creating a series of digital voting campaigns to get people informed.
“You get these really thick mail packets about voting and no one reads them. We went through them and highlighted and researched and broke it down into ten slides on an Instagram post.”
The group’s latest project—a series of graphic tote bags re-purposed from used burlap coffee sacks—has a more global aim. A percentage of the profits from sale of the bags goes to Food 4 Farmers, an initiative that helps combat food insecurity among coffee farmers in Central and South America.
Tianna is also expanding her own focus. Her areas of interest are urban planning, combatting food insecurity, and sustainable design, all through the lens of improving equity and access.
“My goal, career-wise, is to take what the sneaker and streetwear and fashion world are doing successfully with keeping generations of young people super involved in their product and their storytelling, and move that into something like urban planning so that you’re taking all the things that excite kids about their sneakers and get them equally as excited about like, a new park in their neighborhood.”
She accepted a role as a Footwear Graphics Design Apprentice for the Converse All-Star Team, an initiative the company started to engage young artists and creatives.
“They’ve been really wonderful in helping me figure out how I can have a career, but also be connected to a company that’s willing to help me engage my community outside of work.”
These days Tianna is feeling optimistic about using her art to start new public conversations.
“Everyone is hungry to be a part of things right now.” The one silver lining of the pandemic shutdown, she notes, was the way it focused people’s attention. “Between the election and the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID—we were all home and capable of seeing all of these things unfold at the same time. We were all available enough to be angry together for the right reason. And now how do we keep that anger and all of that emotion and all of those things that we care about present and in front? I'm hopeful. I'm very hopeful.”
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