I met Sixto–Juan Zavala back in 2015 when I interned at the Mexic-Arte Museum. I was their Social Media and Graphic Design Intern and as the Visual Communicator for the museum, Sixto overlooked my work and became my primary mentor. My time there was exceptional. Seeing how this small yet inspirational museum functioned was life changing. I got to meet and interact with the people who worked behind the scenes and who transformed the museum into a center for Latin American culture. In many ways it made me appreciate my own heritage a little bit more and opened my eyes to Austin’s small latinx art community. I wanted Sixto to be part of UNICO, not only because he is a good friend of mine, but because as a designer myself, I see him as someone who is essential to the queer, latinx, and creative community here in Texas. He is someone to look up to. Recently we met at Jo’s Coffee off of 2nd and Lavaca Street in downtown Austin. With a cool breeze in the air and crunchy onion rings on the table we talked about his unique experiences living in the city and how they’ve shaped him over time. Here’s what he had to say.
Q. Who are you? What do you do?
I’m Sixto-Juan Zavala and I’m an art director, illustrator, graphic designer, and sometimes do live visual projections.
Q. How would you describe your work?
There’s a certain fluidity and romanticism that I like to express, but at the same time there’s a contrast of geometric modernism. I’ve always loved to play with this contrast, which is an organic and fluid look vs a cleaner and more structured look. I tend to use each general approach depending on the project and whatever it requires of me. I know a lot of designers tend to dislike the word 'style' or dislike the idea of applying your own distinct perspective to a project because they think design decisions should depend solely on what the project requires. They try to take an objective approach. But I don't really believe in true objectivity. It's impossible to be objective. It’s not real, it’s a perception that takes out the account that there’s a person perceiving and making judgements; all humans do that. I believe in style, picking from it, and making decisions based off the infinite possibilities available, all it needs is sensitivity and flexibility. My work has a certain feel but I like to present it as a voice that can be adjusted as long as it has a distinctive thread running through it. Design is hard to explain but all good design is like a poetry within its own form. I try to express something that’s slightly poetic in everything I do, whether it’s flower collages or typography, I want it to always have a sense of elegance and sophistication even when it’s rough, it should still have that quality. And ultimately people will be able to tell if you had fun with the design project. So above all else, it's best to try to have fun with it.
Q. You take a lot from Mexican heritage such as nature, color, and iconography. What is the purpose to this? What do you hope to get out of it?
It all depends on the project and whether it fits or not. Working at Mexic-Arte and helping rebrand Taco Cabana, I have been more influenced by Mexican design and culture. Recently I did a logo where I pulled refrence from Mexican 1920’s posters, influenced by Art Deco. Some posters had torn paper collage transform into type, shapes, and images. I was trying to subtlety express Mexican culture for this particular project without being over the top so I build type that was influenced by my perception of what I thought the logo should look like. Like I said, it depends on the project, I don’t necessarily look at culture for everything, but it obviously sticks in your head no matter what. I also do tons of research before anything and there’s definitely a voice within all design that resembles Mexico.
Q. A thing I really enjoy from your work is your use of patter. Can you describe how you've developed your unique ability to implement it so perfectly.
It was really hard to figure out. I’ve always been interested in textile patterns. Whenever I’m working on something I’m always looking for different patterns that you usually see in textile. I’ve done a lot of research and downloaded books, the work is pretty simple, but it’s hard to execute. Once you figure out how everything is supposed to line up the rest just flows. For example, with floral patterns, which are much more complicated because of the file size, it may take a longer time to complete. You have to make sure that what ends on the left, starts over on the right side or top and bottom. Doing it manually is more time consuming than doing it digitally depending if you have the resources. Just keep in mind how things can be repeated in different directions and be meticulous about it.
Q. How would you interpret your use of nature?
I grew up in a ranch; my grandparents ranch, my aunt’s ranch, and just being in family members ranches, and I really love nature. It’s a peaceful place for when you’re stressed out, it’s all around you and sometimes we don’t appreciate it. It’s been very inspirational for me creatively and I think that in a lot of the work that I do I tend to be more attracted to things that reference nature. Especially now and how it’s is being treated, it’s something to keep in mind. If people appreciate it, they’ll preserve it. It also relates to the cultural construct that we’ve talked about. If you help communicate the beauty that’s inherent in culture, like Mexican culture, latino culture, or queer culture, to people of all backgrounds hopefully their response will be positive.
Q. What are some organizations or places you've worked with that stand out the most?
I’ve worked with some non-profits and some creative groups. I worked with the San Antonio AIDS Foundation in collaboration with Essentials which was really fun. Other groups I've worked with include Raspa Magazine, a queer latino literary magazine; Essentials, a multimedia applied arts collective; Runway en la Calle, an annual fashion show in San Antonio headed by Agosto Cuellar. I've also collaborated with several other artists, musicians, and creatives in the queer and latino cultural communities.
Q. How have these experiences shaped you as a queer person of color?
With Raspa, it’s interesting, because I’m not really a writer, but I like literature and designing for it. Creating content for them allowed me to see through other people's perspectives being queer and latino. It was really cool and brave of them to share those experiences, which makes other people feel less alone and know that there are a lot more individuals like them. Raspa Magazine always tries to broaden its' range and be inclusive of queer latinos from all over the country, including under-represented communities like trans and female writers. It made me feel very confident being part of the growth of the community, vibrancy, and creativity. It was the same with the Mexic-Arte Museum, which is a platform for latino artist to show their work and in return the community gets a lot out of it.
Q. What inspires you?
There’s a lot. I’ve always liked European design and now I think I have a lot more influences. American design hits you over the head and it’s overly conceptual to the point where it loses its sense of poetry. It tries to grab your attention and communicate quickly whereas a more poetic form would allow you to read and interpret the content. And maybe even encourage the viewer to be critical of it. You should take time to interpret it and let it sit for a minute before all the layers add up. I see that in some older french design like Toulouse Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard. Both of their typography is really cool; hand-done, elegant, and really expressive. There is Polish expressive poster design that I’ve been really into for a long time. There are well documented poster designs for popular Hollywood movies that interpret the films very differently from the American posters that we see. There’s the Vienna secessionists and a workshop called the Wiener Werkstaette. There’s Japanese woodblock prints. I love the fact that at the time they were made they were inexpensive throw away prints, like how we would perceive contemporary everyday design or illustration, but they held up so magnificently over time. I’m also inspired by some contemporary designers and other french type, but I could go on forever.
Q. How would you describe your experience as a queer person of color growing up in Texas?
I was born in San Antonio, but I spent a lot of my time in Encinal Texas, which is close to the city of Laredo. Then my family and I moved to another small town called Somerset which is 30 minutes south of San Antonio Texas. Eventually in high school we moved to back to San Antonio. It was a lot of small towns before the big city and I feel like I did most of my development there as an individual. I started to figure out who I wanted to be. My family has always been very supportive of whatever I do: creative endeavors and especially drawing. I'm incredibly lucky in that way. When I came out to my mom when I was around 18 it was very awkward and difficult for me. She ended up being surprised but supportive. My father passed away when I was 9 but I think he would have been cool with it. My other immediate family have been nothing but supportive and positive.
Q. What was the response of you coming out from the community you surrounded yourself in at the time?
I don’t really feel this need to let people know that I’m gay right off the back. I kind of feel like I just want people to judge me on my character and then when they find out organically about my sexuality, then it shouldn’t be a big deal because it isn’t. I know it is but I don’t think it should be. I try to treat it the way I want to treat it. I told my friends in high school and they were fine with it. But whenever I would meet people starting college I wouldn’t really talk about it overtly. You would just have to get to know me and then you’d find out. It helps defuse it for me because it’s anticlimactic. Judge me on who I am before anything else.
Q. How has this experience shaped you as a designer?
I don’t really like to introduce myself as a queer latino designer. I’m just a designer who happens to be queer and latino, but at the same time I am proud of the things that make me who I am. I don’t really feel like it’s something that should define all of my work. I think it's important to support the queer and latino communities. I know that I am especially sensitive to culture and I think that my being a queer latino is a part of why I'm so sensitive to it. San Antonio is a city well known for its Latino culture. Almost everywhere you go there is a kitch reminder of it. Especially with San Antonio’s love of Fiesta. Día de los Muertos imagery, calaveras, papel picados, tacos, Selena, cholos, bright colors… After a while it can get to be a bit overwhelming. There is a lot of bad design surrounding those cliches in San Antonio especially. I didn’t want my work to feed into a repetitive reductive stereotype. So innately, without really thinking about it too much, I rejected those symbols and that vernacular. I wanted to do something totally different. I have noticed that some of my creative friends in San Antonio have voiced similar sentiments. Where that heavy cultural imagery is all around you and you don’t feel a need to reflect it back. That’s not to say that it doesn’t still influence your work or come through anyway. Growing up I was heavily influenced by European and Asian culture like British music, French design, Asian art and mythology. Then later on when I started working at BradfordLawton, LLC, a San Antonio design agency, we got Taco Cabana as a client and I helped work on their rebrand. At that point, I had to go back to that San Antonio aesthetic. I went back to this thing that I rejected and tried to reinterpret it in a new way, which actually ended up being very healthy for me. After that I was freelancing and got to explore more of my own interests. Then I started working at Mexic-Arte Museum and again I had to take these themes that often included, what to me seemed like, Mexican cultural cliches and exhausted symbols and I had to reinterpret them in a way that I thought was contemporary and more relevant. It’s too easy to follow through with the existing symbols and styles. To take a Jose Guadalupe Posada copyright free illustrations and stick it on a flyer. I wanted to manipulate these symbols and themes and make them my own. I am a queer latino designer and there is no escaping that, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed or do the things that other people expect me to do.
Q. Can you tell me your experience as a queer person of color living in San Antonio vs Austin?
There is a difference. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve spent so much time in San Antonio as opposed to Austin, but I feel like there is a tighter community in San Antonio. It’s a really big city but there is a tight creative community. If you know a few people in that circle, you’ll eventually know everyone. In Austin you can go to any type of art show, but the audience is usually not that diverse and so it’s kind of awkward for me and sometimes strange and uncomfortable. It makes you rethink a lot of things you usually don’t think about. There are a lot of amazing, talented, friendly people in Austin's creative community but I think it could be more diverse. Especially in terms of a latino art community, I think Austin doesn't have as strong and close of a community. What's good about it though is that you can have some freedom to grow or reinvent yourself. Whereas in San Antonio, it's such a small community that it's hard to start again fresh because everyone knows your history.
Q. How does your work represent you as a queer person of color?
Like I said I don’t really like to label myself as a queer designer. I’ve always just thought of myself as a designer. It’s like playing a role in society, you’re wearing a mask, but you’re not really this mask, you’re something else. You put on this mask so you can show people and help them identify you. It’s a better way to help them understand you and a way to communicate yourself to them. But ultimately I hope that I'm contributing to the culture in a positive way.
Q. What is your ultimate goal as a designer?
Since I was a kid I’ve always loved drawing and image making. In high school I realized I wanted to be a designer and before that I wanted to be a comic book illustrator. I’ve come to realize that what I do is visual communication, art design and illustration. If I could keep communicating to people through my specific vision and express things that are hard to communicate with words, I’d hope people would feel more connected and less alone. That’s what I ultimately want to do, help people feel more unified.
If you want to know more about who Sixto–Juan Zavala is, check out his website by clicking here. He is currently freelancing and enjoying his time in Austin Texas. Don’t forget to follow UNICO on Instagram and Facebook and as always show all the love.
If you know someone within the LGBTQ community making their mark or making a difference and would like to be featured on UNICO, shoot me an email! I’m currently on the look out for incredible every day people to meet and write about.