Like most women her age, 22-year-old Erica Mendoza finds inspiration in loss, love
and healing. Yet, instead of blogging about it or ingesting a tub of ice cream, the recent University of North Florida graduate creates kickass sculptural works out of cast metals, steel, leather and natural objects.
“I used to make this joke that I was the Taylor Swift of UNF sculpture because my work deals with relationships — falling in love, losing that person in my life and mending myself afterwards,” she says.
The sculptress’ current exhibition, Erica Mendoza: Visual Love Letters, deals specifically with “the feelings generated by having a crush on someone and eventually falling for them.”
The show, which runs through March 30, is the conclusion of the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s inaugural student-artist-in-residence, for which Mendoza was chosen to spend her last semester working in museum studio space to create a body of work for her senior portfolio and this exhibit.
“During my time at MOCA, not only did I complete eight sculptures, but I also got first-hand experience with the inner workings of a professional museum,” Mendoza says. “I worked with the curator, communications, public programs manager, designers and installers — all of whom are essential to the museum.”
Born in Jacksonville, the daughter of a Navy man, Mendoza grew up moving every three to four years from Virginia, Mississippi and California to Hawaii and Japan before settling back in Northeast Florida.
“I told my mom I wanted to be an artist when I was 4 years old,” says Mendoza. “I was always that child who drew on the walls with permanent marker, but it wasn’t until I took ceramics classes throughout high school that I started taking art more seriously.”
Mendoza graduated from First Coast High School and attended UNF for its “big university feel” and proximity to family. During her freshman year at UNF, she took a 3-Dimensional Design class that would change her life.
“I fell more in love with creating things, and I knew I had to do this for the rest of my life,” she explains. “I had this realization that you can make anything out of anything. The possibilities are literally infinite.”
She’s not kidding. Mendoza utilizes a variety of mediums to create works like Guide Me Home, a series of eight dripping-candle-like pillars created from cast iron, and Plague Doctor Mask 01, a bird’s beak guise of steel, flowers, potpourri and leather.
“There isn’t really anything like making a sculpture — to make something that creates its own shadows, that has mass and weight, that you can hold, that exists in space,” she says. “Sculptures create a totally different experience with the viewer because you have to physically move around it to fully take it in.”
For the last 13 weeks, since the start of her final college semester, Mendoza split her time between campus and a studio space on the fifth floor of the museum. Museum visitors were able to observe Mendoza at work and ask questions about her process.
“I worked at MOCA on Mondays, when the museum was closed, as well as Wednesdays and [during] all of the Downtown Art Walks,” she says. “It was really incredible for the people and families that would continuously come back to see me during Art Walks to see the progress that I was making for my exhibition.”
The young artist welcomed the attention from the crowd. “It was nice to have people draw their own personal connections to the work I was making,” she says. “Like, maybe it reminded them of how they used to make candles with their grandmother, or their wife’s favorite flowers.”
With her residency complete and a freshly minted BFA in sculpture from UNF, Mendoza has the world at her feet.
“When I was four and I told my mom I was going to be an artist, I never thought in a thousand years that I would be here today,” she says. “Chasing those ambitions of my 4-year-old self has been a wild adventure so far, and I am so glad to be a small part of MOCA.”