January 31, 2022 • By Christine Pasalo Norland
Practitioner of Play
The examples of exploration in Sharon Lee De La Cruz’s Instagram feed are many. An animated line drawing of her cat Lennox walking on its hind legs. A video of De La Cruz breathing into a sensor to check that lights she had sewn into a black leotard turn on with each exhale. Years of one-shot digital comics and illustrations, some finished, some in progress. It’s a virtual quilt chronicling De La Cruz’s practice in play.
“I’m a master of none,” says De La Cruz. A native of New York who grew up in Hunts Point in the South Bronx, De La Cruz has made playing a part of her formal art process. The habit positions her to discern outcomes directly and in real time, and to learn things she didn't expect. Hatched theory is unraveled through experimentation, triggering reconsiderations and course corrections.
“That’s totally how I process this world,” she says. "But that also makes it fun because at least I am not as scared to dive into different realms."
We met up for our video call on a Tuesday, one of two days in the week when De La Cruz teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as a Red Burns Fellow. On the other three days, she works at The Point CDC, a nonprofit dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of Hunts Point. She makes art in-between these commitments, such as The Itchies, a 20-page zine she self-published as part of the 12th annual Wonder Women Artist Residency awarded by the New Jersey City University Galleries.
“I was super committed at making a book,” says De La Cruz. The Itchies is their second long-form autobiographical comic after their debut graphic memoir I’m a Wild Seed. “I learned so much from making I’m a Wild Seed that I wanted to put that practice to the test.”
The Itchies tells a story related to the black leotard with sewn-in lights. On its surface, the comic is a cautionary tale about tech tinkering, particularly with regards to wearable art made with materials not intended to have prolonged contact with skin. Look deeper and The Itchies illustrates what it can mean to move through the healthcare system as a queer femme person of color.
“I hope that folks feel how nuanced and how nonbinary the issue is,” says De La Cruz. “It's not just about the 'bad doctor.' It could also be not having health insurance, or having health insurance and thinking, 'Who’s gonna listen to me? Who’s not?' This is a fucked up system and so how do you work in a whole bunch of gray areas without feeling defeated, in order to find out what's wrong with you?”
The Itchies was also a project that forced De La Cruz to better understand her Risograph, a machine capable of high-volume printing that she bought in 2019 without really knowing what she was getting into. Inspired by La Impresora, a small press based in Isabela, Puerto Rico, and Queer.Archive.Work, a nonprofit publishing studio and library in Rhode Island, De La Cruz dreams of one day operating a cooperative around her Risograph. She wants to cultivate a space where artists can buy into the use and maintenance of the machine, learn by doing and making mistakes, and feel that their work is worthy of archiving.
“I’m over having to fight for space,” she says. “To me, the machine represents punk. You’re less dependent on these larger institutions to think how worthy your work is to print, to archive. If communities are doing it for themselves, that is what is valuable.”
It’s a trajectory De La Cruz is compelled to explore, even though it's one not understood by everyone in her circle. “My mom is like, ‘What is the next step for working for Disney? ¿Que paso?’” says De La Cruz with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Na na na, I’m good.’ That’s a cool goal, but that’s not my goal right now.”
De La Cruz is also challenging herself by developing a proposal for a nonfiction graphic novel that isn't about her experience. A study in biomythography, the project aims to tell the story of two people who are strangers to each other–one a citizen of the United States, the other a citizen of Cuba– and follows their journeys as they each leave their home countries in search of liberation in the country of their story counterpart.
“I am indeed obsessed with the notion of freedom,” says De La Cruz, who has been immersed in making comics since 2013 without having formal training in the artform. Before then, she was uninterested in comics because she equated it to superheroes. And then she picked up Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s what I want to do,” says De La Cruz of Persepolis. "There’s a story that was being told that I could buy into and I could travel with and see through."
So she started dabbling in comics as Instagram posts during grad school. In doing so, she gained confidence and curiosity. “The structure feels so limitless,” she says. “It really tickles a lot of my fancies around why I love art, art making, and tools that make art.”
For De La Cruz, creating comics is the first time they understood what their professors meant by finding a voice. Comics give her space to play with ideas. It's where her perspective feels welcome, where her humor has a home. It's a place she can access and occupy without a fight.
"It’s a privilege to be able to tell stories and be considered peers in storytelling with so many," says De La Cruz. "That is what keeps me excited about challenging myself further.”
She also gravitates towards comics because of the way it builds community.
“It’s additive. It feels inspiring and it feels safe,” says De La Cruz. “I feel like we’re all scaffolding together and that’s exciting."
The Itchies is published by Sharon Lee De La Cruz and a limited amount is available to purchase on their website sharonleedelacruz.com. I’m a Wild Seed is published by Street Noise Books and can be purchased at Bookshop.org and other online sellers, or ordered through your local comics shop or bookstore.
Follow De La Cruz on Instagram at @sharonleedelacruz and on Twitter at @SharonleeArt.
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