When Thomas Glassford (B.F.A., Studio Art, 1988) moved to Mexico City to set up a practice in the early 1990s, he never dreamed he’d still be there nearly three decades later.
“Mexico City is a massive city with an enormous historical footprint—it's the oldest colonial city in the New World—so of course it's a huge amount of history to tap into,” said Glassford when asked about what’s kept him there so long. “I think more than anything it's just the fact that I've been here and created a home here and an exchange.”
Glassford grew up in Laredo, Texas, in a family where he and his siblings were encouraged to pursue their interests.
“I was always interested in building things, from crazy multi-story treehouses to trying to engineer a go-cart in the garage,” said Glassford. “But also painting and playing around building things. I was also interested in, more than anything, a lot of fabrication."
He came to The University of Texas at Austin to study architecture, but after finding the School of Architecture too constraining, he found his footing in the Department of Art and Art History’s Studio Art program. He immersed himself in a studio practice, while also taking advantage of the incredible faculty resources in Art History—he particularly remembers sweet-talking his way into a graduate level class taught by groundbreaking Mayan historian Linda Schele.
“She was such a powerhouse of energy and so energizing to her students and anybody who crossed paths with her,” said Glassford. “I was very interested in Mexico as a neighboring country that's always influenced me, and especially pre-Hispanic cultures and the Maya, which I think are just the most amazing in the aspect of the depth of their understanding and knowledge.”
While many of his peers were moving to New York or Los Angeles after school, Glassford moved to Mexico City in 1990 and joined a young avant-garde group of Mexican, European and American artists living in the city. Looking at his success now, it was clearly exactly where he was supposed to be, but he got a lot of questions at the time about why he was moving there instead of New York.
“I remember being extremely defensive about it whenever asked about that,” said Glassford. “Why not Mexico City? Why would I look north instead of south, especially when I have much more affinity and connection personally? I'm much more interested in broadening my understanding culturally and also developing that other aspect of my own personal background, having grown up on the border, than in delving into some histrionics of more of modernism.”
Since the early 1990s, Glassford has used everyday materials—ranging from gourds to broomsticks, anodized aluminum to melamine plates—to create architectural or installation-scale works.
“Mexico City has been extremely influential in a lot of different ways, or Mexico in general,” said Glassford. “From working with organic objects or flora—I did a lot earlier work in the early '90s when I moved here that had to do with gourds that people always referred to as being very Mexican and thinking this was a very Mexican thing. But the gourd isn't even initially from the Americas. It's actually between India and Africa. My fascination was that it was a migration vessel, and this was something that was the first canteen. The whole impulse of the civilization being able to move water, to be able to separate yourself from a body of water. So I think that was what I was fascinated with, and of course it has to do also with this iconography of gourds as these very simple and historic vessels within Mexican culture in certain ways. There's everything that kind of gets mixed into that.”
Moving into the 2000s, his work reflected a more urban aesthetic with his use of hard lines and colorful aluminum siding. He also created a series of pieces that used stacked melamine dishes to create tall, standalone columns and abacuses with shapes that were influenced by his travels in southeast Asia in India and Burma.
“It's also about bringing it back and reapplying it through a Mexican aesthetic or a universal aesthetic,” said Glassford of the melamine plates. “Anywhere you go in the world, it's like the cheap cafeteria ware. It's this unbreakable thing that is actually like a bone structure because it's made out melamine, which is this high-nitrogen element, which is then mixed with formaldehyde and then pressed with heat into these forms. So it's like making fake bones, which I'm fascinated with.”
His work has been celebrated and shown all over the world, including the widely covered piece Xipe Totec, an LED light installation enveloping a former Foreign Ministry building in Mexico City fraught with a painful political history. A more recent work, Siphonophora, was hung in the atrium of the Blanton Museum as part of their permanent collection re-installation last year. The exhibition Thomas Glassford–Testigo/Witness: Popular Fiction and the Dismembered Object is on display through Oct. 28 at the Quint Gallery in San Diego. He’s also been commissioned by the General Services Administration (GSA) to create a work in Laredo, Texas for the Lincoln–Juarez Bridge Port of Entry.
“I think it's about being a global denizen in certain ways and then really enjoying the process of exposing yourself to different aspects of culture and how those cultures have been part of your background and how it keeps broadening our own base of being a citizen of the world,” said Glassford. “Not to sound really hokey, but I think it's about really absorbing and exchanging and furthering all of that exchange in so many different ways.”
Images: Dean Doug Dempster visits Thomas Glassford in his studio in Mexico City. Photos by Alicia Dietrich.