Develop Skills and Transcend Limits through the Arts: Meet Luis Antonio Pichardo

Catherine Sturgeon, Children's Librarian, Angeles Mesa Branch Library,
Luis Antonio Pichardo
Luis Antonio Pichardo

DSTL Arts is a nonprofit arts mentorship organization based in Los Angeles that “inspires, teaches, and hires emerging artists from underserved communities.” The acronym in DSTL Arts stands for Develop Skills and Transcend Limits through the Arts. Co-founded by Luis Antonio Pichardo and Jennifer Fuentes in late 2012, DSTL Arts began as Luis’ vision for empowering the next generation of working artists from underserved and underrepresented communities in the arts, serving, at first, only youth whom aspired to become working artists in spite of a lack of a support system in their immediate community, including their families.

Luis and Jennifer received their respective M.F.A. degrees from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and are both fine artists and writers in their own right. Luis, who is primarily a poet, is also a practicing graphic designer and photographer, aside from being DSTL Arts’ primary teaching artists and Executive Director; while Jennifer currently mentors adult writers in DSTL Arts’ Arts Mentorship Program, and she teaches English and English Language Development at a high school in East Los Angeles.

Their vision is to “inspire people of all ages in our community, and…empower them to be the artists they know themselves to be,” and this is achieved through the organization’s programs: Arts Mentorship, Art Block Zine, Conchas y Café Zine, and Artist Residency Workshops. Art Block Zine workshops are currently offered at Baldwin Hills and Vernon Branch libraries, and the Conchas y Café Zine workshop series is offered at Baldwin Hills and Junipero Serra Branch libraries.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in the city of Vista, a suburb of San Diego, located in North San Diego County, back when the city of Vista was deeply feeling the effects of the recession that hit our economy during the 80s. As a child, I spoke Spanish, almost exclusively, and it took me a few years to learn English. Luckily, my mom, who was born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrants, helped me develop my understanding of English early on, and also introduced me to drawing very early in life. I know that it was because she wanted to find a way to keep me busy while she did her chores around the house, but I took to the arts like a fish to water.

My dad, who immigrated from central México a few years before I was born, inspired in me a deep love for music and my culture. It was a combination of my parents’ influences, plus the fact that I was primarily raised by my grandparents Monday through Friday, that I maintained a strong connection to my cultural heritage. This is something often seen in my artwork now.

I grew up poor, but happy. Paper and pencils weren’t expensive tools for art-making, and music was always free, so long as we had a radio. As I grew up, I learned to draw things that inspired me from my neighborhood. I drew lowriders, custom mini-trucks, jets and helicopters, and more. My love for cartoons and science-fiction kept my mind in the clouds, oftentimes finding myself in superheroes, robots, and monsters. I was definitely an impressionable youth.

Being surrounded by drugs and gangs in my neighborhood, I found that art was my main avenue for staying out of trouble, sometimes using it to make friends and earn “respect” from my peers who then let me be free of the drama that gangs would often bring to my surrounding community.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to get more interested in writing, thanks to my newfound passion: hip-hop. At first, I started writing rap songs, often finding inspiration in the lyrics of West Coast classics by Ice Cube, Snoop, and more. But when I found Underground Hip-Hop artists in the mid-90s, such as Mos Def, Common, The Roots, and more, I really found my calling as a poet-artist.

Inspired by the positive and socially-conscious messages of Underground Hip-Hop of that time, I began to write spoken word poetry and lyrics that became critical of the violence I’d often see in my community. I began to challenge people’s perceptions of me, a young Mexican-American man, and I began to believe that it was my purpose to fight against stereotypes and more through art. I started to believe in building community as opposed to destroying it. That was when I considered becoming a teacher, even though I was often on the verge of failing or dropping out of high school, mostly because of family strife and poverty.

Children creating zines during an Art Block Zine workshop at the Vernon Branch Library

Children creating zines during an Art Block Zine workshop at the Vernon Branch Library 

Did you and Ms. Fuentes meet at CalArts? Was the idea of DSTL Arts born while you were in the M.F.A. program?

I met Jennifer on my first day at CalArts in 2008, and I remember telling her my story about how I grew up. I shared with her that, after barely graduating high school, I had no aspirations for going to college, but found myself going anyway, thanks in part to my mom pushing me through a bit of that special mom-coercion. I entered college and eventually found myself becoming not only the first person in my family to be a high-school graduate, but also the first ever to graduate from college, with a degree in writing, no less, and now I found myself pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts.

I told Jennifer, when I met her, that I had a dream of returning home and starting my own nonprofit organization, one that would incorporate the arts and work-readiness skill development for youth. After graduating from college in San Diego, I became the director of a work-readiness program for teens, which greatly influenced me, not only as an educator, but as an administrator of nonprofit programs, and through this experience, I explained to Jennifer, I came to realize that no one ever teaches an artist how to be a working artist. We just create and are often times left to figure out the entrepreneurial side on our own. CalArts was no different in this way.

As Jennifer and I went through our MFA program at CalArts, the “mentorship” we received from our program-assigned mentors left us wanting for so much more. In this way, our shared experience at CalArts informed the way we would eventually structure our Arts Mentorship Program, the first program we endeavored to create through DSTL Arts. My time at CalArts also showed me that there is a great need for this kind of programming everywhere, but mostly here, in Los Angeles, where 1 out of every 6 jobs is part of the Creative Economy, but where people of color represent a minuscule part of that workforce. I still hope to, one day, expand DSTL Arts into other communities outside of Los Angeles, especially my hometown, but the best support I have found has been here, in my adopted community, a community that has embraced me like no other has before.

Please explain more about your dedication to breaking the stereotype of “starving artist” and replacing it with that of the “working artist.” How do you work to achieve this?

I strongly believe that the idea of a “starving artist” is overly romanticized, and speaks too often to the culture of what we value most as a society. The arts are often the first thing to be cut from schools, and are almost always the least funded line-item in nearly all governmental budgets. But people love to create and consume artwork, often at the expense of the artist creating it.

The idea of the working artist is what I strive to inculcate in the minds of the individuals I work with through the various programs we offer through DSTL Arts. Each program aims to teach a practical skill beyond just the developing of an artistic practice or skill set. I teach zine-making through our Art Block Zine and Conchas y Café Zine workshops because it’s a cost-effective way of self-publishing, and I encourage participants to charge people for their zines once reproduced, sometimes with our help, thanks to our new Mobile Art Lab. Through our Conchas y Café Zine workshops, we also explore self-publishing platforms, including copyright and small press practices, which are a viable way of adding to the cultural expression of our community while earning some money to support, in part, a career as an artist.

As a small press, we are also able to offer a recognizable publishing credit through our zines and more, since DSTL Arts is able to assign ISBNs to our various publications thanks to the support of our funders. Our Arts Mentorship Program participants, in particular, develop manuscripts that we publish and promote through various events throughout the year, which translates into sales of chapbooks, zines, and art with a portion of those profits going back into the pockets of our Arts Mentorship Program artists. And our Artist Residency Workshops encourage people to critically analyze the state of our community and find ways to work toward empowering not only themselves as artists and change-makers, but also their neighbors by using social media and visual storytelling, as well as poetry, to engage others. All of this is always done with a focus on providing entrepreneurial skills-awareness that individuals need to establish themselves as working artists: artists who are being paid to create their art.

In the five years that DSTL Arts has been serving our community, I’m happy to say that we’ve published over 50 titles, and counting, and have helped our emerging artists achieve major milestones in their creative careers, from getting into colleges and universities, including MFA programs, and even starting a photography business. Now, as we’ve expanded our Arts Mentorship Program to also serve adults, we are further leveraging social media to promote contests, grant opportunities, and more for the benefit of our emerging artists of all ages. Our work is still ongoing, and we look forward to inspiring, teaching, and empowering more of our working artists through continued mentorship in our various programs.

Conchas y Café Zine participants at the Junipero Serra Branch Library

Conchas y Café Zine participants at the Junipero Serra Branch Library

Would you expand upon your vision for DSTL Arts and the communities it serves?

DSTL Arts primarily serves communities that are the most underserved and underrepresented in the arts. This often includes communities that are low-income, “at-risk” in some form or another, or may have “special needs.” Sometimes our participants may be homeless, sometimes they may be linguistically isolated, and/or from immigrant communities, and sometimes they might simply be looking for a community of artists that understands their background and can help them articulate their individual story before it’s lost.

We don’t turn anyone away, and all are always welcome to participate in our workshops, but we hope to always offer an opportunity and creative space that is safe for individuals. We want everyone to add to the conversations that are being had in the arts world, especially as it relates to cultural equity and representation. And we want our community to be as involved as possible in the supporting of each other through positive social change, with the arts as a vehicle for articulating those changes. There are too many stories being overlooked, and that is why we work in the communities we currently serve, because these are the areas where we see these stories having the most impact as long as those stories are captured and shared.

What are the most gratifying and rewarding things about your job?

As a person who grew up with a minimal amount of support in the development of my own career in the arts, I find that being around my fellow artists is extremely gratifying. I feel that we’re often in this together, from my Volunteer Arts Mentors to workshop participants, to my own mentees; and this sense of community pushes me to work even harder for them. I love creating my own artwork, writing my poetry, and sharing it, but the satisfaction of seeing a person who was once shy and nervous about reading their poetry out loud now being a master of their voice and performance, I could never ask for a better reward as the founder of DSTL Arts.
DSTL Arts may be my job, but building and establishing community is now my life’s work. And to think that it’s all through the most amazing thing I could have ever found, the arts; well, let me tell you, I find that amazing, and oftentimes humbling.

Please explain why you decided to present 'zine workshops and how making 'zines is important for the community and for one's artistic voice?

For me as an artist, I immediately saw the value of zine-making once I learned of it, especially as a poet who always struggled to find platforms and publications that would publish my writing. Being bilingual, and bi-literate, I’ve always written in Spanish and English, as I encourage my workshop participants to do, and this has always made it difficult to publish work of my own. However, zine-making, especially now, has become an invaluable tool for creative expression, and with the growing interest in the zine community, I've really seen it have a discernible impact on my workshop participants, particularly those who find zine-making a much more affordable entry point into the publishing world.

Video: the LAPL Zine Library brings voices from the community into the collection

While DSTL Arts is publishing collaborative zines through our various programs, I've also shared different zine-making techniques through our workshops to help our participants fully understand concepts beyond just the value of writing, but also the importance of design thinking and the utility of a zine in spreading a deeper message of community and expression. For many of our participants, once they learn to make a zine, especially the mini-zine formats I teach, they find themselves so much more willing to share their ideas, their voice, partly because of the cost-effectiveness of using a single sheet of paper to make a little booklet.

I've seen zines produced through my workshops ranging from small, poetic collections, to mini handbooks on interacting with others in a respectful manner. And when I've shared zine fest information with my participants, especially when DSTL Arts is participating in them, the participants who attend become enamored with the sense of community they find in the zine world. Their voices are given a place of importance through their zines, and that, for me, is the true impact of zine-making in our community. Those who felt they had no place, no voice, are suddenly validated and given a space of their own, a platform through which they can tell their story and share their experiences as individuals living in our larger community.

April was National Poetry Month and what do you, as an award-winning poet, have to say about the importance of poetry and the arts?  Please share with us some of your favorite poets and/or poems.

One of my favorite quotes relating to poetry, and the arts in general, is attributed to William Carlos Williams. He wrote:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

As a poet, I strongly believe that this quote is true, since poetry and art teach us compassion, empathy, soul; and as a poet I believe that there is a certain level of spirituality that we tap into as we create. For that reason I have tattooed on my arm a paraphrased line of poetry by the Chilean poet, Vicente Huidobro, taken from his “Arte Poética.” My tattoo reads “El poeta es dios.” It has a double-meaning for me. It means that the poet is god, both the spiritual being and the channel for that being. We are most like a god when we create art, and I want to be that kind of creator who shows both benevolence and love, always.

My favorite poet, by far, is Pablo Neruda, and I have to admit that I’ve been honored recently with the compliment that my poetry is Neruda-esque. But I hope to channel all of the greatest Latin-American poets through my work. I aspire to be as politically-relevant as Efraín Huerta, Eduardo Galeano, and even Pablo Neruda. I hope to maintain a sense of romanticism for love, the arts, and knowledge as did Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Jorge Luis Borges. I hope to develop my craft as finely as T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and so many more.

I can’t point to one single poem as my favorite, but I can at least share which poem always comes to mind when I consider the purpose of my writing, and that is Vicente Huidobro’s “Arte Poética,” which tells us very clearly: “Que el verso sea como una llave/ Que abra mil puertas. (May the verse be like a key/ that opens a thousand doors.)”