Interview with Veronica Enns

by Abigail Carl-Klassen


1. Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up in the Campos Menonitas of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, Mexico, in the early 80's isolated from the surrounding Mexican communities, amongst strict monopolies of Mennonite denominations who prohibited public education and all media and literature other than the Bible. Amongst a few cousins, I was one of the first to go to public school in a small Rancho were I learned Spanish and another culture. However, after secondary school, I was held home for three years before continuing high school due do religious limitations. Homemaking and helping with the younger sibling was priority to school homework and was a must for all women. In my free time I would raise chickens and have deep conversations with them about homemaking. They were my children and had to go to bed early. I loved playing alone as my sister was more of the motherly kind and helped mom with the younger siblings while I was barefoot running and chasing my chicken children in the corn fields. These are among my favorite childhood memories.

2. What was your community's relationship with art? What kinds of creative expressions were accepted? Forbidden?

Art? From an outsider's viewpoint there might be art in some of the lifestyles or in the skill of preserving an important lifestyle that avoids modernization, but from the inside it is all about surviving.Our background entails a subsistence lifestyle in remote third world areas where keeping safe, warm and enough to eat is the only reason to live. Our heritage is very practical and art is considered a gift and talent that is otherwise considered completely useless.

The only "art" I had growing up was my grandmother's drawings for children's coloring books. These were beautifully drawn in the innocent style of lacking perspectives and only had simple lines. I learned to draw the roses going on tea towels from her books and doodled them everywhere. My family and relatives were always admiring my drawings and asked to keep them. I always felt embraced as it was more of a skill then art at the time. The private schools then and up to this day do not offer art classes except, perhaps, some limited seasonal and religious crafting sessions.
Art as seen from the world's perspective has not lived yet here in the Campos. Indirectly it would be forbidden as the purpose of Art Making for me is to bring to the surface and raise awareness to issues otherwise hidden.

3. Did you know anyone growing up who created art? What was their relationship to the community? How did this impact you?

There was no reference to any artist growing up, only skillful aunties making crafts.

4. When did you start creating art? In what ways did you transgress and/or embrace the community's artistic boundaries while growing up?

I strongly believe being an artist is not always a choice as in choosing that career. Since a very young age, I questioned many norms. This was due to my overly sensitive observations—skills that I believe are physically and emotionally linked to being an artist.

The religious climate affected my personality development hugely. I was mostly confused about most of the rules in my family and church setting. I was definitely shunned and excommunicated for simply asking why I couldn't wear pants when working outside. To me, this relates directly to being an "Artist," but in this case it never had directly to do with anything I painted or expressed visually other than painting my lips red one day. On that occasion, a girl had seen me driving through town with red lips and I was excommunicated for what she had witnessed. Those times were nerve wracking for an adolescent since being excommunicated meant not having anyone speak or smile at you until you confessed your sin of vanity in front of the pulpit to the congregation. Then afterwards they still had to decide if I was worthy to be accepted back. Those were quite devastating emotional and traumatic memories.

5. You immigrated to Canada as a young woman. What role did migration play in the formation of your creative processes and identity?

I migrated to Canada under strange circumstances which made the transition very challenging. Having no popular culture, no art history and no English was tough. However, for the first time, the religious congregations I belonged to in Vancouver encouraged me to study and recognized my artistic abilities and nourished them for me.

I upgraded English for three years in a self-based setting, isolating me culturally from the new world. Finally, when my scores were high enough to stop upgrading, I applied to a program in the only area I had enough prerequisites for, a Visual Arts Diploma. I applied, made a portfolio with a variety of drawings, paintings and even sculpture in only ten days and submitted it. I was called in for an interview and was accepted as a fast-tracked student. This was finally my good news!

6. How did making art impact your relationship to your family and community? In what ways has this changed and or remained the same over time?

While an art student, I was challenged to look at myself far beyond skills, techniques and talent. I was bombarded with social, cultural and political topics for the first time ever. Ironically, one day in class, the term right or left-wing fascism was a topic to paint about. I had no clue what it meant, but now looking back, I realize I grew up in a right-wing fascist environment and knew the feeling inside out, but at the time I couldn't find a way to paint it. Moments like these in art school taught me how to find myself through expression. I often say as many other artists have, art changes people and it certainly did for me.

Art caused conflicts as a student. I felt divided and acting like two personalities all the time feeling confused and disappointed.Of course, during the art education process, the art itself started asking me questions about uncomfortable truths. I started questioning religion altogether, in particular the kind I had grown up with where materialistic feminine vanity was always the topic. Men chose most things for us and that was just it!

I was slowly understanding why I married a strange man who I had little in common with and why I had married him only after seeing him three times within ten months of a long distance relationship. We didn't speak the same language. WOW! Had I been in love? With so much religious pressure I did what I was taught to believe at the time even if it meant that a strange man could pressure me into making life changing decisions.

Eventually, I left art school to find a stable job so I could make myself more independent. As a whirlwind of happenings, some true mistakes, and overwhelming guilt, I left my marriage after reaching a somewhat stable financial situation. This was tough for both families as it was my own decision to leave. That's what is was, my own decision!!!! I felt liberated, felt I had been vindicated and so another challenging road of isolation and leaving a lifestyle I learned to love over the 10 years in Canada.

Art making did not make me a financially independent woman; however, earning a Laboratory Assistant Diploma did. The phlebotomy job I got changed my life. It is a job many immigrants take as a transition job for further growth and it was an incredible feeling knowing I could set my mind to any goal and triumph even in an area that was very challenging for me! The job as a Laboratory Assistant performing crazy numbers of venipunctures a day, becoming a skillful and very loved phlebotomist by many patients and donors was rewarding, especially on the social levels. However, after four years of long commutes, hectic workplaces and the stresses to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world I became homesick for my primitive Mennonite roots.

7. You recently moved back to Mexico after many years of living in Canada. What was the transition back to life in the Campos Menonitas like? How has this move impacted your art and creative processes?

The focus of coming back to Mexico was to embrace art making again and be near my family. Coming back to my roots in the Campos Menonitas de Cuauhtémoc was at first delightful as I only focused on the sunshine, easy peasy pace of life and low living costs. Soon, I was hit with reverse culture shock once again and realized how estranged I was to the world here in Mexico. The first thing I noticed was the lack of culture and art. I missed it so much and the rough and "macho" way of looking at everything made me very sick and uncomfortable. It didn't just only make me uncomfortable, but many of my loved ones also thought I was quite insane for most of my free spirited opinions. I started to suffer depression and longed to live away from the villages. I missed nature and soon a small hill with oak trees came up for sale at a very low price and my mom and sister wanted to show it to me. My younger sister always went there to do photo sessions and it was quite different from the rest of the common living settings around. I fell in love immediately and my father did too. The property was purchased and a few small cabins were built—the first one for me. Here I felt at peace and in no one's way. I felt protected by the trees, the stones and the earth. The less human interaction, the better, for me at the time.

I started working with clay, unpacked my paintings form the storage, which by that time, were almost half-eaten by mice, but that didn't matter at all. I experimented for several months all alone. I lived truly off grid in the sense that I had no telephone, cellphone internet or television. Waking by dawn and sleeping by dusk, I worked with clay and painted in between times of hard physical labor. I also helped furnish and stage the cabins we rented, so I was nice and busy. Then the internet came and I felt so at home, so blessed! I was again connected to my world of long distance friends and started sharing my new work on social media. This attracted local young kids to visit my studio and even to undertake some workshops and classes in drawing and painting.

My art back in Mexico started off as very practical and functional with ceramics. Art therapy has been my favorite area in the arts as it is healing. I love the clay! I felt connected to the Mennonite women when making soup bowls or a coffee cup and, of course, I added a stylish and more modern flair to them because I love experimenting with materials and techniques. A lot what I did then was adjusting to the different climate. I needed to test my materials and procedures for many months until learning them well. This resulted in functional ceramics which became popular!

8. Tell us a little bit about your current creative and community projects.

Currently, I have drawing and painting classes scheduled for homeschool groups in January. There will be a range of ages and I must admit I am very curious about their skills and talents. It will be a new canvas as I believe this might be their first art class ever!

This past summer I had weekly ceramic students making story telling tiles, some functional wares and wheel throwing practice. It is always rewarding to share; however, due to incredible violence and insecurity in our communities from the drug wars, several schedules had to be cancelled. The most recent event included a seven year old Mennonite boy was shot in broad daylight a school bus. In many ways we are living in a crisis. It's debilitating and limiting and I wonder where on earth can the arts fit in? Through all the stress; however, moms approached me requesting clay workshops as they thought they had heard it could help with concentration. So I offered a therapy style clay session where we did nothing but talk, touch clay, listen to great music and follow no rules.

Last September, a local journalist and radio host, Abraham Siemens, invited me to a Platdeutsche Medien Conferenz where one section included Kunst-Art. The leader of this area was Bennie Peters from Manitoba, Canada, and Loma Alta, Paraguay. This table was filled with several local talents and together we came to several conclusions that our language alone sets barriers for the arts. Our local language is so basic and includes only vocabulary that revolves around our primitive survival lifestyles. We asked, "Where is the art language?" In a group we tried to find references to art in our childhoods and it was tea towels, children's coloring books and some illustrations in religious book covers. The group included several very talented and skillful painters, yet our focus was to draw in Platdeutsch, which meant finding a way to express our roots and not only copy a beautiful image we found on some page or book that has no meaning in our daily life. At the end of four days of workgroups, we performed some art, collaborated a collage and a spark of "expression" was certainly started. The group voted me as a future local leader for "Kunst op Platdeutsch" were we are planning to go to the next Conference in 2019 in Germany.

The event I am extremely consumed with these days is the organizing of the Campos' first ever craft fair market for Christmas. This event will give approximately 70 Mennonite women an opportunity to exhibit their arts and crafts in public for the first time. This is quite exciting as it entails many positive changes being embraced in the Campos Menonitas for women.

9. You've had your art exhibited in galleries in Chihuahua and have been featured in Mexican arts and cultural publications. What is your relationship with the larger arts community in Mexico? How has this impacted your work? What are some current and/or future ways you are collaborating with Mexican artists?

For local Mexican communities, a Mennonite female artist is a fascination. Art is a rarity here, although talent in aesthetics and design is not lacking these days amongst young Mennonite folks and the Latin fashion has greatly influenced our communities.

My art was discovered at a local Agro-Industrial Expo where a booth was empty right next to my father's seed business stand, so I asked if I could stage it with art. They gave it to me and together with my art students we staged the booth nicely. This created my first interview and publication in a local magazine. This, of course, led to more artists visiting my studio and connecting me with venues in Chihuahua City. These exhibitions included design venues and art galleries.
In these environments, the art has a more international approach where, at least, art can be practiced and be critiqued and analyzed as it should be.

Miguel Valverde is the reason I became connected to the art scene in Chihuahua. He was born and raised in Cuauhtémoc and has created a wide range of work about the Mennonites in his paintings. He is an incredibly humble and inspiring human being. This brought on some positive changes in my personal life as well as the artistic endeavors. He brought another artist into my life, a documentary photographer who I fell in love with, as he respects women and me, for example. As a team we have been able to conquer a whole lot in only a short time. Life can bring some blessings along.

10. Who are some of your favorite artists? Why?

I have several favorite artists from different art periods. I love the masters of the Renaissance like Rafaelo as his skill and technique is overwhelming and certain symbolism allowed him to express himself. I prefer the artists who certainly have skill, but choose to express themselves and change the rules of art making practices. Art always changes as our worlds do. I also enjoy the group of the Stijl, in particular, Piet Mondrian. Ephemeral art fascinates me as it shows how the fleeting moments of physical conditions impact the work and how it symbolizes life. Andy Goldsworhty is my favorite as he works in nature with nature.

11. What advice would you give to girls and women in conservative communities who want to make art? What support and resources are available to them?

The advice I would give is to follow your intuition to draw or make whatever you are attracted to. As most women have not given a chance, they are very shy and timid towards making their own choices. They question their every move and look to their neighbor's art and think it's better. We don't have a community centre, a common space to gather to invite and create art.

The internet and social media is the only recourse for some women, but speaking about conservative women they are mostly very occupied with their families and isolated. I believe if art classes were offered, especially in Platdeutsch, there would be a surprising number of even the most conservative women participating.

12. What are your long-term goals as an artist, educator and community worker?

It is a hard question, as I moved back to Mexico to stay in my Mennonite community and work hard every day to achieve some results. However, the recent violent events have challenged my very being and have complicated to plans to build a private art academy where I could offer workshops, classes and even offer space and equipment rentals to everyone interested. This would help establish my Kunst op Platdeutsch gathering place, offer us an exhibition space, and a small marketplace to keep everyone motivated by selling crafts and arts. We are in the process of doing this, but are awaiting the green light of safety in our community.

13. How can we find and support your work?

It would be wonderful to have visitors, invited instructors, or even, artist residency exchanges eventually. The area where I currently live has cabins for rent and a quiet place to create and visit. Financial support for this cultural centre is always welcome as it could fund classes for those with a lower income.



About the Author

Verónica Enns

Verónica Enns is a Mexican-Canadian visual artist based in Mennonite Campos de Cuauhtémoc in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

She carried out her visual art studies at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia, Canada. In Mexico she has developed her own style inspired by the fusion of cultures. Her philosophy is also based on the great admiration and respect for the pottery of Mata Ortiz. She has carried out several pottery and painting workshops in her community as well as paints murals by request in residences of the state and other entities.

In 2015 she won second place in the X Chihuahuan State Craft Contest and her work has been published in several state editorial publications.

She is a leader in her community supporting the arts and women’s rights.