Community, Family & Sour Grapes: Q&A with Texas-based artist Carlos Donjuan

An interview with Meow Wolf Grapevine collaborating artist Carlos Donjuan on life as a Mexican American artist, father, husband, son, student and educator.

The life of an artist is seldom linear; it is often a series of circles wherein the artist finds ways to begin again and again...and again. Carlos Donjuan's life as a Mexican American artist, father, husband, son, student, and educator exemplifies this beautifully through his choices to persevere and remain rooted in the people and places he comes from. As a result, his creations nod to the streets and the people within them while preserving a respectful and sharp direction to build and discover more.

Born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and raised in Texas, Carlos gravitated to the arts early in life as he was introduced to lowrider and graffiti cultures. Soon he was chasing trains to throw down a piece and cultivating a circle of artists that would (much later) blossom into an art collective. Now, with 20+ years as an artist behind him, his life has taken him down a path to become a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington with a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Painting. There, it is easy to imagine his life experiences—coupled with his education—make him an invaluable guide for the students he teaches as they try to navigate careers as artists.

mural on an exterior building wall with lots of shapes and foods, like a coffee bean or an avocado slice, with happy faces and sunnies on
Mural by Carlos Donjuan. Photo by Jordan Mathis.

Carlos' future is ripe with many future collaborations on the horizon with Meow Wolf, the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas, and his work with the Cheech Marin Collection and Sour Grapes. The loyalty and devotion embedded within his craft are a declaration and celebration of Chicano artists' past, present, and future contributions to the arts. Carlos' work mirrors its subjects while exploring such nuances as capturing the essence of an individual through surrealism, caked in Chicano style. His art has an ever-present softness and familiarity, leaving room for both complex reflection and comfort.

What is a typical day in your life?

As a professor at The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), I spend the first half of my day teaching Drawing and Painting. In the evening, I spend time with my wife and two kids. Once everyone is ready for bed, I work in my studio at the end of the night. In the summers when we are out of school, I spend more time in my studio working. 

Carlos Donjuan, a Texas-based artist, wearing a blue short sleeve button down shirt and leaning over a work space with a paintbrush in hand.
Carlos Donjuan working in his Dallas studio. Photo by Jordan Mathis

Can you speak to your relationship with education as both a student and now as an educator? I’ve found higher education can intimidate artists, so I would love to touch on what areas you feel benefited from it.

I was very lucky to have very supportive parents that were big advocates for education. No one in my entire family had ever gone to college, or let alone finish a higher education. With the support of my family I was able to receive a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Painting. Going to college was definitely intimidating because I really didn't have anyone to guide me on the dos and don'ts of being a college student, so I learned the hard way. Being the first to attend and finish college put a lot of pressure on me, but it also taught me to appreciate the opportunities that I created for myself. I always knew that my success and failures not only represented me, but my family as well. In college, I met some amazing professors who really believed in me and taught me how to navigate my career as an artist. Being a minority in a large university, it felt very rewarding to be surrounded by like-minded people that really wanted to see me succeed. These experiences gave me the confidence and the ability to recognize my worth and value of my work and research. My college professors enabled me to amplify my voice and experiences in a manner where galleries, museums, and other institutions have started to listen.

As a professor of art, I do my best to prepare my students for the many challenges that artists deal with. There is no easy path in this career and it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to see some success. I have learned a lot in the last 20+ years as an artist, and it gives me great joy to share that knowledge. In my teenage years and early 20s I was really big into graffiti, so I also learned a lot on my own and in the streets. This was before YouTube or social media, so you really needed to learn on your own or find artists that would be willing to pass down their knowledge of graffiti. Receiving my art education in both academia and on the streets gave me a different perspective, which in turn created my methods of education. I always try to be positive with my students, but I also keep it real with them. What we do and contribute as artists is not always understood by our communities, so I try my best to make my students understand that they play a major role in the progression of society. The stories we tell, the concepts we develop, and the work we create enriches our life experiences.

An up close look at Carlos painting in his workspace. The piece being worked on looks like a rectangle cartoon with two short feet, kind of like a popsicl
Carlos Donjuan working on art. Photo by Jordan Mathis

Where do you feel your curiosity for the arts came from as a child? Do you have artists in your family/community?

As a kid, I always loved drawing cartoons, airplanes, comics, video game characters, etc. Then, as a teen I really got into Lowrider Art and Graffiti Art. These things were introduced to me by my uncle Noe, who is a great at drawing. He introduced me to movies, music and art that sparked my curiosity for creativity. My uncle would also drive my brothers and me around Dallas in the mid ‘90s to search for murals and graffiti art. In these many journeys I discovered the work of many great artists like Marka 27, Sergio Garcia, Debt and the Infinity Crew. All these years later these same artists continue to inspire me, and I am lucky to call them my friends.

What is your relationship to social media as an artist? How do you engage with your audience?

When it comes to social media, I do post some work on Instagram, but I am not as active as other artists. I try to do better at it, but it's sometimes a hard balance with everything else I need to keep up with. Luckily, I have some great supporters online that always come to my shows, purchase my art, or simply just show their appreciation for me. It definitely helps motivate me because in a way I feel like I am representing my community in the art world.

Can you speak on the Cheech Marin Collection and Sour Grapes? What do these very different spaces/communities mean to you? It sounds like they're very unique and necessary spaces.

Cheech Marin is a good friend of mine and he started collecting my work many years ago. He has always been a leading voice for Chicano Art and Chicano Artists. In the Summer of 2022 he was able to open The Cheech, the first museum dedicated to Chicano Art in the world. The Cheech is located in Riverside, California and houses an amazing collection of art. Being part of that historical experience last Summer was surreal, and it felt like our people made a big splash in the art world. Chicano artists have been here for a long time and we will continue to cement our position in history.

A mural on an exterior wall in Elmwood, TX with shapes in varying colors with cartoon faces
Mural by Carlos Donjuan. Photo by Jordan Mathis

Sour Grapes is an art collective that was originally a graffiti crew that I started with my brother and some friends from high school back in 2000. We basically watched each other's backs as we were out at night painting graffiti on freight trains. After some trouble with the law, we shifted gears and started to paint free murals on buildings with permission of small business owners. We mainly focused our work in underrepresented, low income communities in Dallas to show our appreciation for our people.  After a few years of doing this type of free work, we started to get commissions for work from other small businesses throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Small projects soon developed into larger projects that not only required murals, but graphic design, illustrations, installations, sign painting and photography for larger clients. Soon we began working with clients such as Nike, Starbucks, Target, and Facebook, to name a few. Our graffiti crew evolved into an art collective over the years, which put us in a position to work on larger scale projects. Although it is nice to work with these great corporate clients, we have always kept our mission of contributing to our community alive. We partner with local nonprofits, large institutions and museums to provide community outreach programs for low income kids, at-risk youth, and the community in general. Being able to give back to our community that has always supported us gives us great joy and balance.

What do you seek when collaborating with others?

When collaborating with other companies or clients, I just want to make sure that there is a clear understanding of our visions. I don't want to compromise or misrepresent everything that I have worked for in the past 20+ years. Having a clear understanding of each other's goals is key.

What are you feeling the most excited about currently?

Art-wise I am very excited about this project with Meow Wolf [in Grapevine, TX]. I am working on a project that I think my community will love, but will also be appreciated by others. In the Spring, I will have some pieces and a mural on display at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, Texas. This is a big deal to me because it's in a well-respected museum, and I have so much love and history with the city of San Antonio.This summer, I will be having a solo show at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, who has been representing me for the last 15 years. I owe a lot to Kirk Hopper and my gallery because they have always believed in me and have always treated me well. The work that I am making for this show is the most personal work I have ever made, so it's exciting and scary at the same time.

Carlos Donjuan wearing a blue button down shirt with short sleeves, holding up illustrations for his space inside Meow Wolf Grapevine
Carlos Donjuan showing off some artistic plans for the future. Photo by Jordan Mathis

Your website speaks to your “work [being] acutely personal, often referencing family and friends in hopes of gaining a better understanding of his [Carlos’] fears of not belonging, failure, and even mortality. A young father himself, he is concerned that his son will face the same moral impressions that perplexed Carlos in adolescence.”

I’d love to touch on this, i.e. where you currently feel you are in this reflection, how you move through it within your work, and if you feel any responsibility within this.

Preparing my young sons to be strong, educated Mexican American men is something that I think about every day. They will experience many similar experiences that I had growing up, but they will also have their own unique challenges. I think a lot about my parents and how they raised my brothers and me. They instilled a hard work ethic in us at a very young age, and always supported us no matter what. My parents didn't have a lot growing up, and then when they became parents, they worked very hard to provide for us. As immigrants, the challenge of achieving the American Dream came with extra obstacles for my parents. Not only did they have to leave their home, but they had to learn a new language and adapt to a country that hasn't always treated us equally.

As a father, I want my sons to understand everything that my parents, my wife, and I had to go through to be where we are today. I want my kids to be a voice for their people and help others, because that is the only way we will persevere. My wife and I are both educators, and we work every day with our students to help them succeed. I hope our sons can learn from and appreciate what we are doing for them and others.

That being said, all of my work is about documenting the many journeys my family have endured because it is important that we preserve and tell our stories.

Carlos sitting on a chair wearing a red fuzzy head covering mask and lots of pencil or black and white artwork surrounding the space behind.
Carlos Donjuan wearing one of his art pieces. Photo by Jordan Mathis

What brings you joy as an Indigenous person creating art? Artist spaces are notoriously complex for minorities, so I am curious about how to cultivate inspiration and joy for your work?

It's always exciting to meet people that appreciate that I am telling our stories because they relate to them as well. They feel like they are being represented in the conversations that are happening in the art world. Navigating through art space can be tricky for minorities or people of color, but we are making greater strides and impacts on how we are represented. Opportunities and spaces are opening, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. I am seeing a lot of great young talent, and the future is bright for my people. We just need to stay focused and work hard.

Watch our interview with Carlos Donjuan here.