When I met Connie Arismendi 23 years ago, she was making mixed media objects, painting iconic images of roses, fire, the Sacred Heart, on wood panels with metal attachments—wings, arrows, crosses. I made a point of seeing her shows at Galeria Sin Fronteras (now closed) and supporting her work on the board of Women and Their Work, Austin’s historic alternative space. As our lives moved in different directions, however, we lost touch. I knew Connie had suffered a number of losses, but I had no idea she had moved into the realm of public art, winning several competitions city and statewide. When I ran into her recently and witnessed her physical transformation – she lost over fifty pounds and now has the body of an athlete – I knew I had to have her story for Creative Mix.
We met at Terrazas Library, just east of I35 in Austin, the site of two of Arismendi’s public art commissions. The librarian offered us the reading room for our interview, appealing with its golden tones and bright skylight. But it didn’t seem right, disturbing the men absorbed in their newspapers and college students hunched over their computers. We sat in a cold, grey meeting room instead, on folding chairs facing one another, with the tape recorder positioned so it wouldn’t pick up the uproarious laughter coming from the meeting room next door. It felt it a little formal and staged, but it didn’t matter. Connie lit up the place with her strong spirit. Her story is inspiring.
Saundra: Let’s begin with your transition to public art. What were you doing prior and what prompted you to move in that direction?
Connie: When you and I met twenty years ago, I was making small mixed media objects and paintings. I had galleries at that time in Texas and in California, and I was also teaching. My work started selling and since I wasn’t really making much as an adjunct professor, I decided to take off a semester and focus on my artwork. When I did that, I started making installations.
Saundra: So it grew out of something happening in your studio?
Connie: It did. My work was already experimental with materials and then the materials expanded into space. And when that happened, my work became less commercially viable, although I received more critical attention. So I moved out of the commercial realm into university galleries and museums and alternative spaces. As I started doing more experimental work and installations and enjoying that, I was being invited to apply for public art projects. These were big budget projects and I had no experience other than creating environments in these institutions. So I contacted my mentors at that time—Benito Huerta, Celia Muñoz, and Rolando Briseño.
Saundra: Those are some fabulous mentors.
Connie: I know, can’t go wrong there. I was getting rejected because I had no experience with a $100,000 budget. My mentors liked my work and their advice was to take a project, no matter how small, do a great job, and that would get my foot in the door, although I might not make a lot of money. I followed their advice and when the project here at the library came up, I applied for it. So that was my first public art project.
Saundra: This has come up over and over again in my interviews and resonates with my personal experience. When you move in a new direction, begin small with something you can do well. Take the first small step. Don’t begin with the $100,000 project. Yes?
Connie: Right. My subsequent projects grew out of that because I was diligent with the one project.
Saundra: Tell me how the commission came about.
Connie: It was a competitive process through the city of Austin. Prior to submission, they held workshops to help artists understand the public art process, and I went to those. I had actually served on a panel before, so I kind of understood it, but collaborating at that level was new to me. Those kind of collaborations, it turns out, are awesome. I really enjoy the process and that’s why I’ve continued and worked on so many projects. The idea is always mine, but it becomes a collaboration—siting the work, coordinating with the architect, meeting with the community, listening to their concerns. And each piece is different, so there are other variables. For example if it’s a memorial or tribute, you talk to the family. I begin with a clear vision of what I want to do, but I also look at it from a perspective of service.
I place my talent at the service of these people and the people that I work with. When you take that approach and they know you’re authentic and genuine, there’s a level of trust that’s established, which is an awesome experience.
Being an artist is a solitary experience, and when I finished graduate school and moved to Austin, I felt it. If you’re not in an artist’s community or an area where there are other artists with studios, you’re by yourself a lot. I had to make an effort every day to get out and have lunch or breakfast or coffee with people, to talk to people, to invite them to my studio to look at my work, to continue that dialogue that I had and is so powerful when you’re in graduate school. You have to adjust to that silence, but you can’t just exist in your head all of the time. You want to bring in people.
Saundra: It’s good for me to hear that. I get very lonely working on my own and if you let it go too long, you can lose momentum.
Connie: Yes, and I think the more successful you are, the lonelier it gets. The great thing about public art is working with a lot of people and that’s exciting for me, a lot of fun.
Saundra: Also, interesting and smart people, like architects, people who are involved in public life, and then a variety of people, too.
Connie: When I worked on the Trail of Tejano Legends, a project to honor musicians that helped create Tejano music here in East Austin, I researched their lives and their work, went to the Austin History Center, and actually met with all of the families. They were quite tolerant of me, because I asked for a lot of stuff. I wanted to see their family photos, and hear what it was like for them when they were young, when there was only one high school in Austin. I really enjoyed that, establishing trust with individuals and creating those kinds of relationships where people feel safe sharing information, and then taking all of that, thinking about it, and presenting something.
Saundra: Wonderful. Tell me more about the finished project.
Connie: The Trail of Tejano Legends is made of up multiple sites around East Austin, starting at the Mexican-American Cultural Center. Although you can start anywhere and follow the path of Town Lake through East Austin and end up at the Mexican-American Cultural Center where there is a tribute to the Perez-Ramos families, big names in musical history. They are also in the Texas Music Hall of Fame. From there, you can follow the trail east and there’s a tribute or memorial to Nash Hernandez, a big band orchestra leader. And if you continue to follow the trail, the Roy Montelongo Scenic Overlook. I did the shade structure, bench and garden, by the Longhorn Dam. Then there are some small parks buildings that have been named for other members, other legends, but those are the three that I worked on. Incidentally, the project has been elevated to national status.
Saundra: That’s awesome, Connie, really amazing.
Connie: Thanks. Public art is competitive, and that was the largest jury I had ever presented to. I think there were twenty-one people, because there were representatives from every family. And then there were people from the city, and from the parks. It was the first time that it was a unanimous vote.
Saundra: It’s a fabulous project, brilliant, very beautiful. Can you take us through the process of proposing a project like that? Maybe a few of the major steps.
Connie: They’re all different. Sometimes they only ask for qualifications. They want to see your resume and what kind of budgets you’ve managed and samples of your work in slides. Sometimes they a request proposal, and that’s what happened here with my first project. They had located an area and we had to present boards. For the Terrazas Library, I considered that it was the most used public library in the city of Austin. More users come through here than any other library in the city of Austin.
Saundra: Because of the location between east and west?
Connie: Yes, but also, because it’s primarily a children’s library. I have friends who went to school in East Austin and they would come here to borrow music, too. CDs and things like that. So I used that idea and then thought about my childhood and what inspired me. I thought of the Unisphere from the World’s Fair in Queens, the big globe that’s still there.
Saundra: I know it. I used to take the train past it every day.
Connie: I went to that World’s Fair and remember it and incorporated it into the project.
Saundra: What’s the inscription underneath the globe in your piece?
Connie: In Spanish it reads, “El futuro es una página en blanco. ¿Qui escribirás en ella?” The future is a blank page. What will you write on it?
Its perfect for this library. Then there are horizontal registers—not hard registers, but you’ll see it when we go outside, there is water, air, earth, and fire. The stars are the fire. The water’s at the bottom and that’s also my childhood living in Corpus Christi, near the ocean.
Saundra: So you made one transition into making public art and more recently you made a transition into being a hot-shit athlete.
Connie: I know, who’d have ever thought that?
Saundra: Tell me what prompted that. It was a big change, and interesting in the context of Creative Mix. We hit a certain point in our lives—we’re moving along, getting our work done, progressing in our business, and then we run out of steam. We bump up against our limitations. I feel like it’s important for people to hear what’s possible.
Connie: I ended up at the gym not because I loved working out. I was never an athlete, although I was a cheerleader in high school. I was in my fifties and my doctor told me I needed to do something. I was on a downward trend, five feet tall and 185 pounds. Plus I had osteopenia—my bones were dissolving. I could hardly move. I couldn’t even stand up at my own art openings. My feet hurt so badly, I couldn’t wear heels.
I knew I had to lift weights and I was afraid. I went to Cross Fit Central, started in the basic class, and quickly realized I needed more help. I took the private training and ended up with a great coach, who was very empathetic. I started dropping weight and enjoying it, and got better at it and found out that I actually love it. If I could have started earlier, I love Olympic lifting.
Saundra: Wow, that’s intense.
Connie: Olympic lifts are different. There’s powerlifting and Olympic lifting and Olympic lifts are faster. I discovered all of these things in my fifties. I am more fit now than when I was young, and I can do things in my life I could never do before. CrossFit helps you gain strength and confidence so that you can live your life.
My life is not in the gym, by the way. It’s on the trail and traveling and doing what I want to do, like climbing Machu Picchu, or a three-day hike, carrying heavy things if I have to, not worrying about picking up that bag and hurting my back. All of my health issues disappeared.
Saundra: When you got in shape?
Connie: Yes, and my nutrition changed as well, my supplementation, which helps me maintain muscle. I feel like my life, in many ways, is just starting, and I’m creating it.
When I first started, I had this kind of Peter Pan thing going on, because I would hit all of these marks in the gym. I got kipping pull-up really handily, and thought “Oh my God, this is great.” Then I’d come home and check my e-mail and hear from old friends that were getting sick. I had reconnected with some friends from high school and some were in poor health and a lot of it was related to nutrition. People get complacent. They like where they are because it’s comfortable, but it’s killing them.
If you’re willing to make yourself uncomfortable and be comfortable being uncomfortable, you will progress.
Saundra: It’s like that with anything in your life. If you’re willing to make yourself uncomfortable and not be perfect and just get started.
Connie: When you start, you’ve got to push aside your ego, because you’re not going to be good at it. I talk to so many people, and they have so many excuses, lists of things they have to do before they go to the gym. “Yeah, right,” I tell them. “You know what? Get your ass to the gym.” But some people think, “I’ve got to get fit before I get to the gym.” That’s crazy talk.
Saundra: It’s like when you clean the house before someone comes to clean the house.
Connie: So I came to this at a point in my life where I was very low, emotionally and health-wise, and I achieved this transformation because I was around extremely positive people.
Saundra: In the gym?
Connie: Absolutely. It’s a positive environment. At CrossFit Central, where I train, they care about you as an individual. It’s nice that you can lift heavy weights, but then they’ll ask, where do you want to go.
It’s about getting that into that mindset, setting goals that are outside the gym and then living big.
I had a very negative mindset when I showed up.
Saundra: That’s how I would show up, like, “Are you kidding me?”
Connie: Me too. Ugh. But that’s not going to change if you stay with people who are negative. You’ve got to get around people with vision of where they are going, and then you think, “Ok, I’m going with you.” Instead of, “Ugh, let’s not go there.”
Saundra: So, you were at a low point in your life, and often that has to happen before we’re willing to change. I was wondering if you could address that.
Connie: Yeah, I can do that. After my mother passed away, I took care of my dad, emotionally and otherwise, for about twelve years. He had Alzheimer’s, so it was progressive. On top of that, my beloved brother-in-law was killed by a drunk driver. He and his wife and adult children were in the car and they were all injured. He survived for a few days after the accident and then he died.
Then my husband, had taken a job as a director of a research lab in New York, in Yorktown, and so he was commuting back and forth, which took a toll on our marriage. My health was not good, and with all that stress, I had to do something different. I was in trouble on so many levels. And that’s when I showed up at the gym. So much was happening. My husband and I got divorced in August, my brother, Rusty, died in September, and then my dad died in November. At that point, my health had begun to improve, although it was still rough. But I was in an environment with very supportive and positive people who would not let me sink.
Saundra: That seems to be a theme here. One of my mentors, Jeffrey Davis, says, “Forget DIY. Don’t do it yourself. Instead, think of DIT. Do it together.”
Connie: Absolutely. I think as artists we want to go it alone and do it ourselves. We’re accustomed to that. But in reality, we absolutely need each other and we thrive when we’re with other people.
Saundra: In addition to getting yourself into shape, you feel called to mentor other women. Can you tell me about that?
Connie: The whole idea of service has always been important to me, providing your time, energy, talent, your money, to a cause or to a community. I did that for many years with Women and Their Work. I served on their board for nine years and two terms as board president, and I loved it. I loved supporting emerging artists in experimental work, and helping raise money for that. After I left the board, I did some committee work at Mexic-Arte Museum.
But then I needed to reconstruct my life, and I found post-construction, at 53 years old, I was in best health of my life. Honestly, all those medical issues were resolved. I saw my friends in poor health, but I told myself, this is not my realm. My realm is art, right? But I was also growing emotionally and personally, trying to navigate my life and understand. I wanted to be happy. When I was going through my divorce I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go through this with as much dignity as possible and I’m going to get past this and I’m going to have a freaking great life.” That was my goal, so it was totally selfish on my part.
Saundra: You get one life.
Connie: One life. You know I had taken care of my dad, I had taken care of my mom, and I have no children. And my dad was to the end the most joyful and the most beautiful person I had ever known. It didn’t serve me to be sad, and it didn’t honor his life. I needed to find out how to be happy.
A friend gave me the gift of going to a Tony Robbins seminar in San Jose. I had listened to his tapes all those years during the divorce and while my father was dying. Michael Gregory, my coach at CrossFit, gave me several CDs by Tony Robbins and Marianne Williamson.
Saundra: Not what you from a coach at the gym.
Connie: Well, you know that’s a stereotype. I had this Tony Robbins CD that Michael had given me, and when I was stressed, I could not go to sleep unless I listened to this one part where he interviews Deepak Chopra. So I got this gift to go to the seminar in San Jose, and while I was there I was taking notes and listening, thinking, “This is great, I’m getting some real tools to go forward.” And then Tony said, “If you are good at something, you have responsibility to share that information.” Now doesn’t that go back to service?
So what was I good at? I’d lost the weight and I was good at keeping it off. I had learned some things, and I needed to share that information. I found that when you get well, and for me that was largely through the AdvoCare supplements, you start to function better and the weight comes off. And then you start to move and you can become healthy. And that’s something we absolutely need.
But I didn’t know how to share that, and Michael coached me and helped me. As in all things, just like in public art, when you ask people, “How can I help you? How can I serve you?” — when you approach them with authenticity and genuineness — they respond. I reached out first to my high school friends, the ones I told you I was so worried about. When I saw them losing fifteen pounds to begin with and how it affected their health and wellbeing, I knew I needed to continue. And so that’s what I do now part-time.
Saundra: And you do that through AdvoCare? That’s part of your income?
Connie: Yes it is.
Saundra: So you’re supporting yourself as a public artist and through AdvoCare, sharing with other people something that served your own life.
Connie: Yes, but I didn’t approach it that way. It was organic. I wasn’t looking for this opportunity or this tool. I feel absolutely blessed that I landed in a great place, at the gym that I did, at CrossFit Central, in a community of people that care, and that I was given an opportunity that we didn’t even know back then. These supplements are awesome. I’ve been taking them for six years, and I’ll take them for the rest of my life. Those were things that I couldn’t have planned.
Saundra: It evolved out of taking care of yourself and knowing the next right thing to do.
Connie: Right, and also my desire to want to help and serve others, a connection I never got until now, after your questions.
Saundra: Everybody I’ve interviewed has mentioned their desire to serve others. It’s a stereotype that artists are selfish and self-absorbed. I haven’t planned for the series to be about service. I’m just looking for examples that I think would benefit other women. Like I think it would be interesting for other people to hear about an artist who’s also a kick-ass athlete.
Connie: Thanks. I like hearing that I’m a kick-ass athlete.
Saundra: I think we get to a certain point, where we’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time, and one day we turn around and see that the old ways aren’t working. You start to wonder, How am I going to continue? How am I going to build the stamina to continue? Because you can’t create if you can’t get out of bed in the morning.
Connie: Or if you can’t lift.
Saundra: Yes, especially for artists.
Connie: Recently I started trail running. I still work with Michael Gregory at the gym, but Teo Ledesma has been helping me with my running. When I first saw that the trail was rocky and full of roots, I wondered how this was going to work. But Teo is an expert, and I listened to him. When you have trust, you pay attention. And I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s another thing I never thought I would ever do, running on a wild trail. Not Town Lake Trail, but where there are rocks and roots, natural and very beautiful. And it goes back to some of my early work, my attraction to nature. I find great solace there.
Saundra: Tell me about the kettlebells.
Connie: When I started at CrossFit Central, I learned about kettlebells and their use. But whenever I showed up for class, I would either end up with a kettlebell that was either too heavy or too light, never the right one. So I purchased my own and brought it to the gym. Chris Hartwell, one of the coaches, told me I needed to put my name on it. So I got a piece of tape and started to write, but he said I should paint it. He was worried about it getting stolen.
I took it home and I painted a Japanese Koi on it with waves. When I brought it to the gym, people wanted me to paint theirs. I didn’t even know other people had their own kettlebells. So I started doing it for fun and then I got better handling the paint, because it’s a different—it’s enamel. And then, as a gift, I painted bells for Michael Gregory and for Jeremy Thiel (founder of CrossFit Central), because they had been such great friends. And when I did that, my work went from painting kettlebells for casual Cross Fitters to making them for elite athletes, nationally and internationally known. When they Tweeted a photo of their kettlebell, it went around the world.
Saundra: That’s very cool.
Connie: Isn’t that awesome? Because I loved them, I wanted to make the most beautiful bells. So I made one for Michael and one for Jeremy, and when Jeremy posted his on Facebook, people contacted him about getting their own. “You know you, have a business on your hands,” he told me. I needed money then. I absolutely needed money, and I was shocked. Really? I could do this? And so I have that business because of Jeremy Thiel. And I have my AdvoCare business because of Michael Gregory, because of his mentorship and helping me work with people to get healthy.
I also developed a relationship with great people at Fringe Sports in Austin. They manufacture their own line of kettlebells, so when someone calls from out of town, I direct them to Fringe, they order the bell, through them and I pick it up and bring it to the studio. I’ll call the person commissioning the bell — I have an interview process I developed — and then I paint the bell, and French Sports ships.
Before people were contacting me from Australia and Japan, Spain, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the bell to them because of the weight. There was a CrossFit place in England that was going to bring me over to paint bells for everybody. But the logistics were impossible. I’d have to cover my airfare and I’d need a place to stay, plus my materials and a studio. How many bells would I need to paint just to cover my expenses?
Since my AdvoCare business took off, I’ve pulled back some from the kettlebells, but I still love it, because I love working with athletes. And what I try to do in the interview process is arrive at who they are as an athlete and what they do, what they care about, all of those things, and then I make the image.
Saundra: Similar to the public work?
Connie: Exactly. I had a Tony Robbins coach for a while who talked to me about the ability to change your state to a level of preparedness. An elite athlete needs that to pick up a heavy object or to power through when they are working really hard. That’s when I want to change their “state, when they need more, something to inspire them to that next level. That’s what I’m aiming for. And I feel honored to be able to do it.
What I’m doing is pretty unique. I am, a fairly well-known artist with some skills, and I was painting these kettlebells, and I got some pushback. Chris Cowden (Director of Women and Their Work) helped when she said, ‘”You are bringing art into a different place, in an expected way.” So some people use the bells and others don’t.
Saundra: It also has a personal meaning as well as direct communication between artist and the person who’s using it. What else is there?
Connie: Also I had my work featured in a national CrossFit magazine.
Saundra: Great. Who needs Art in America?
Connie: And when that happened, even more people around the world saw it. CrossFit is a great training method for the military now, as well as firemen and police officers, people who are called on to rescue people and to defend themselves. So after the magazine piece, I got contacted to make trophy bells for special ops guy, who by the way have their own CrossFit games in Afghanistan.
Connie: The CT Raiders. And because it’s a military base, it’s like sending something through the post office. So the shipping is taken care of. And the work is with different people.
Saundra: You mentioned a group of mentors—Benito Huerta, Celia Muñoz, Rolando Briseño. Tell me about your relationships with them and how they helped you as an artist.
Connie: Everyone needs a mentor. When I got out of graduate school and moved here, I was the gallery director for Galeria Sin Fronteras (now closed), which is where I met Benito. He was one of the artists we wanted to represent and I sought him out and made a studio visit, which was the first time we met.
I scheduled the show for him and then had to leave the gallery because my father-in-law had a stroke. I continued to work at home, and he remembered that I was an artist, and he invited me to be in a show he curated. He made a studio visit and he came with Celia. After that, we stayed in touch and he would come to Austin if he was in an event, or a show, and he would usually stay with us. We’ve been friends for thirty years.
I met Celia shortly after she got into the Whitney Biennial, when she was on the move. I was as an emerging artist then, Latina, Hispanic artist, Chicana. I wanted what she had. She was fierce. Oh my gosh, she was fierce. I learned different things from the each of them. And my association with Women in Their Work helped me see myself as professional artist. Period. Treat me that way.
Saundra: And from early on.
Connie: Yes. From early on. There are certain requirements if you want to show my work. I’ve always gone forward like that, and they helped me do that.