GRAPHIC DESIGNER MARIA JOSE BALVANERA TALKS ABOUT BUILDING BRIDGES AND ENLARGING BOUNDARIES BETWEEN CREATIVE PRACTICES
In 1996, Maria Jose Balvanera’s parents left their home country of Mexico and moved to London. Her father had recently been offered a great work opportunity. The next five years, Maria Jose learned to write and read in English. When she had to move back with her mother to Mexico in 2001, she was a ten-year-old who had a hard time adjusting. Her Spanish was not fluent, and it was unimaginable for her to overcome the challenges of learning to write again, this time a language that had found its way back into her life. When describing her feelings around this challenging time, Maria Jose talks about coping mechanisms that seem perhaps influenced by the elements of an Isabel Allende novel: a move across the world, memories that resurface, the search for a new identity, and words that seem too hard to grasp. “When language seemed too difficult to understand, and my words were too scrambled to get my point across, I started to draw and take photographs as a means of expression,” she remembers. We could also think of André Breton’s quote when it comes to childhood: ”A work of art worthy of the name is one which gives us back the freshness of the emotions of childhood.” We carry countries and places under our skin forever, especially the faces, smells, handwriting, newspapers, and languages of our childhood. Perhaps her move back to Mexico was a turning point in Maria Jose’s life, it is then that she developed her own language — if words were lacking, visual communication would be her salvation. For the rest of her school years, Maria Jose excelled in art classes and had difficulties in all of her other courses: “I always knew I would end up being a creator. As a child, I would spend all my free time making things. I’d take apart a chair and try to put it back together.”
Maria Jose chose to study visual communication, as it encompassed various forms and did not corner her into just one medium. She then chose to express her creativity through graphic design, using tools such as colors, typography, composition, and images. A few years ago, Maria Jose moved to the United States of America where her career flourished. After a BFA in visual communication in Mexico and an MFA in graphic design at the prestigious Otis College of the Arts, Maria Jose now calls Los Angeles home. First working for Content Object, an award-winning design studio that provides content-driven, object-oriented work specializing in book design. The projects Maria Jose worked on stemmed from traditional printmaking, durational methodologies, and conceptual art. She designed content from museums, cultural spaces, and non-for-profits. This passion to create a visual language for art institutions is at the center of Maria Jose’s career. She went on to work for other agencies such as Kilter, Omnivore, or JINX as well as museums loved by all such as The Institute of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles or the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, or the Armory in New York City. Her freelance works are also quite interesting, a combination of start-ups as well as companies focusing on lifestyle products or food: Facebook Latinos in Tech for which she designed the logo, Xandu’ Mezcal, Rizoma, TEDx Pasadena, Van Nuys Civic Center, and Festival, Carnaval de Bahidora, Clockshop, Our Place, or Fatty15, the vitamin company whose sleek ads you might have seen on your social media channels.
Speaking of praised everyday items, you might also have heard of the Everyday Pan. If the name rings a bell, you might have images of colorful round pastel pans that look both pretty and functional. The company behind the pan Our Place designs kitchen items that bring people together. They view their collections as “new heirlooms from the cultures and places that make up the fabric of the modern multi-ethnic kitchen”. Maria Jose also worked as their senior graphic designer. A perfect match to the company, she handled the design and art direction of many of their campaigns, one resonated close to her heart — the NocheBuena collection that focused on limited artisanal kitchen items created by artisans from Mexico. From the child who did not have the language to put the words on regained landscapes and grammar, she now has a whole vocabulary to launch beautiful and insightful visual campaigns that reflect her culture and roots. Impressive. When we look at the visuals from the campaign, tortilla warmers, next to hand-made bowls, delicately surrounded by a few Poinsettias, the red flowers that can be seen everywhere around December in Mexico, we are transported. Maria Jose’s creative eye is specific and speaks more than a thousand words. Looking at the collection she worked on, we can feel on our hands the evaporating heat from tortillas or hear the sound of the Rojas Molcajetes, the traditional mortar, and pestle as chiles are being crushed.
Maria Jose’s work is an open book, one that we do not dare to put down. It is no wonder that one of Maria Jose’s calling was to enter the publishing world: “My biggest achievement has been the founding of Co-Conspirator Press which I did in 2019. With the press, I designed 9 books, printed over 10,000 copies between all titles, sold out of each print run we produced. We attended book fairs internationally, and have given lectures in many schools and forums around the world.” She quotes. Her adventure started with the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles. A network of women based in Los Angeles offering community-building events such as talks, workshops, or readings cultivating feminist-oriented practices. It is also a cherished co-working space supporting the local community. In 2017, the institution chose her as the recipient for their in-house fellowship. Maria Jose’s fellowship included the use of the facilities and their big-scale printer, as well as a space to work in. The light bulb went out in her head and her publishing house was born. Today, most of her books are sold out and she is now the in-house graphic designer for the Women’s Center for Creative Work, overseeing all their visual content. For your next visit to the city of angels, you might want to get your hands on a copy of the Feminist Organizations Handbook she designed for the WCCW, a one-in-all guide for artists who wish to start their own art organization combined with a map of the city and its resources.
Her work echoes throughout the art and design world. Maria Jose Maria received the Drac Novell International Award in the XVII Edition of the International Advertising Festival for the campaign poster for WWF Rainforest and was also a finalist for the Mexican Poster Biennial Competition in 2014 in 2016. We also hope one day to see one of the posters that she designed What Does a UFO Smell Like at LACMA in Los Angeles — it is part of their permanent collection!
Maria Jose’s inspiration stems from her environment with a touch of imagination and unfamiliarity. “I’m constantly inspired by artists and authors who want to share their voice and vision. I’m mostly influenced by unusual color combinations, fun typefaces that are not always legible but very expressive. I’m influenced by my culture, my peers, my friends, and any new collaborator I have the opportunity to meet.” Once again, Maria Jose is dancing between a few places, constantly looking for new visual lingos and bridges between her work and people.
When looking at the horizon Maria Jose’s goals remain unchanged: “I would love to design and publish more books, to meet more authors and collaborators, to continue to always have fun with what I do and to believe in the people I get to work with.” It sounds like a beautiful story we are eager to keep reading. As a matter of fact, we are excited to see her book design in San Diego this upcoming October for the exhibition Yolanda Lopez: Portraits of the Artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art.