Norma Rios Sierra, 39, is a mixed media artist who creates with everything from glass, stone, paper and paint. She was born in Mexico City and now lives in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago. After meeting Norma through exhibitions for EXPO Collective, we worked on the Quetzal Art Fest together, hosted an art show and became great friends. I didn’t have a chance to sit down with her for this interview, but I knew that we needed to highlight her great work on our site. Now, please take a seat and enjoy the read.
Why did you start with mosaic art?
When I was 17 my parents moved to Mexico. I followed them after a year and lounged around until they decided they needed some stained glass windows in the new home they were building. They sent me off to a stained glass factory that let me hang out for almost 3 months. I translated for the owners business partner in Boston while I was there learning everything I could about stained glass. I was an impatient beginner and quickly got frustrated with the wasted glass from bad cuts so I decided to make mosaics because I can use every last little bit of a glass sheet.
Have you always worked with glass?
I love glass, the colors, the textures, each sheet is different and unique. Just like us. I do love glass and prefer it over any medium. I also love free art supplies and frequently will dig things out of the trash to transform them into art treasures.
How long have you been living off of your workshops and art classes?
In 2016 I was going to a very difficult transition and was struggling to find a way to pay the rent and daycare for my son. I had a few close friends who asked me to set up a class just for them and I thought that maybe I could set up a class and invite more people and make some money for the weekend. I ended up with 8 students that first class. After that first class I realized how much I loved teaching art and I promised I would make every effort to teach as long as someone would pay me. It’s been four years now and I have been lucky enough to be invited to several schools, organizations and museums, including the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Macys Flower Show and I recently completed a 3 month residency at the DuPage Children’s Museum.
What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
The universe showed me that it was my best option. I was at a crossroads in my life and the only income that was coming in was from my art. I realized this was my opportunity to take my passion to the next level. It was really important for me to be able to be there for my son. Teaching art allowed me to have the flexible schedule I needed and while doing something that never felt like work.
How did you get involved with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association?
The beautiful thing about making your own schedule is that you get to make time for things that really matter. I began to volunteer at my son’s school as a Parent Mentor and the classroom experience really opened up a whole world for me. I began to see the whole picture, especially how our smallest society members are impacted by bad legislation and policies. Once this presidential administration was elected I knew it was time to do something more.
The day after the election was report card pick up day at our school, a day that was supposed to be bustling and full of energy was solemn and quiet. You could feel the tension in the air. Soon after, many parents, living in fear of deportation, stopped bringing their children to school, there were reports that ICE was targeting our families. LSNA was so good about talking to all the parent mentors about what we could do so that we could all feel safer in our schools.
We got our neighborhood schools together, 12 total and we held a press conference and declared ourselves sanctuary schools and we vowed to not let ICE enter our schools or traumatize our children.
We were ready to stand up and defend our families even if we had to stand in those doors ourselves.
Only a few days later, CPS responded by sending a letter to all parents in all CPS schools that stated that there would be specific protocols in place and that no school would have to worry about ICE presence in our schools. It was in that moment that I realized the power of organizing. We had done that. We, as a united front, had protected our schools and our families were safer because of what we had stood up for. That launched our sanctuary school campaign, we have since provided Know your Rights training to thousands and even created a Welcoming Space logo that we post on local schools and businesses.
We have also been working diligently on our Welcoming Corridor, a network of immigrant friendly businesses along Armitage Ave in Hermosa.
I was elected to the board of directors at LSNA soon after the press conference. This is my third year serving as President and chair of the board at LSNA.
Have you always intended to use your artwork as a form of activism?
I think I always wanted my work to say something. I’m not sure if I ever really accomplished that until I became involved with LSNA. It has been such beautifully healing and rewarding work.
Can you talk about the butterfly project that you did, was it last year?
As part our Welcoming Corridor, we have been working with organizations across the city to build mosaic butterflies that we started installing last summer on the facades of buildings along Armitage Ave. These community built mosaics are a symbol of welcoming and a reminder that we are all in this together. They are a sign that those businesses are welcoming businesses and we encourage you to support them. We worked with volunteers from Chicago Cares, the Chicago Children’s Museum, Schurz HS and youth from One Summer Chicago. The artist residency I completed at the DuPage Children’s Museum was also all about welcoming art. It is a project that will keep growing and one that I am very proud to be a part of.
What does your art represent to you and what do you want the world to take from it?
Art represents my peace and my passion. My art is all about my identity and my culture. I grew up as a little brown girl in Chicago and heard a lot of negative shit about my people, I feel like my whole life has been about proving all those stereotypes wrong. I hope that my art demonstrates the beauty of my Mexico, my ancestry and in essence my own beauty and my own worth.
Interview by Christina Elizabeth Rodriguez-Estrada.