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ArtPrize Artist Profile: Claudia Santillan-Lensink, upcycled material master of manipulation

Claudia Santillan-Lensink discusses life as a mixed media master and new ArtPrize artist.
"Night Owl"

"Night Owl" /Claudia Santillan-Lensink

Underwriting support from:

See Santillan's entry at ArtPrize venue The B.O.B.

20 Monroe Avenue NW in Grand Rapids

Claudia Santillan-Lensink

Claudia Santillan-Lensink


"Watchbird" /Claudia Santillan-Lensink

“When I first started doing mosaics, it was because I needed cheaper materials,” says Claudia Santillan-Lensink, laughing about her choice of craft media. She explains that when she walks her dog or takes her infant daughter out, she is on a unique mission to seek out craft materials. The positive side effect of eco-friendly recycling is not highlighted as an initial goal of Santillan’s method, but is embraced as a happy coincidence. As a mixed media artist, Santillan collects what others would consider garbage: bottles, cans, upholstery swatches, and any other "old" usable materials. She then sews, glues, and otherwise attaches them to create visually appealing works of art.

Santillan is the artist behind the eye-catching robin and owl mosaics displayed on the second floor of the B.O.B. for ArtPrize 2012. “Watch Bird” and “Night Owl” are a part of Santillan’s “Bird Friend Series.” The owl and robin depicted are birds found in her own neighborhood. She admires and wishes to represent their very simple and at once strong presence. Each colorful mosaic is entirely composed of used aluminum cans, articulately arranged and resting in a rustic wooden frame. The master aluminum manipulator says she rarely drinks soda or beer, so most of her art materials are found on runs or given to her. “I've run many miles holding a dripping soda can upside down, and I've often wondered if people think I can't go an hour without soda,” says Santillan of her can collecting habit, though she clarifies that not any can will do. There are rules to her careful material selection process. She does not accept any can containing foreign substances. Cans must be intact enough to be usable. Beer cans are only collected if the color is needed. Finally, Santillan does not retrieve cans from recycling bins and often collects cans from neighborhoods with no recycling service available.

The Texas native graduated from Harvard University in 2000 with a degree in visual and environmental studies. Santillan later studied culinary arts in Phoenix, occupying her niche at various restaurants and bakeries. She landed in massage therapy and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Utah in 2005. Finally Santillan realized she wanted to combine her various loves and become an art therapist. She went on to get a master’s degree in transpersonal counseling psychology with an emphasis on art therapy at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She applied her knowledge in art therapy, or the use of art as a healing technique, at a holistic substance addiction rehabilitation center. This was only given up—or rather put on the back burner—after the birth of her daughter Juniper in July 2011.

Santillan continues to make and sell art at her home in Fort Collins, Colorado. In addition to mixed media mosaics, she creates upcycled tote bags, purses and small accessories for her online Etsy store, Junipurse. This is where the upholstery swatches and other usable materials come into the picture. She describes this process of upcycling materials as “collecting beautiful and fun used materials that must have a second life.”

Santillan was first introduced to ArtPrize by her husband and his family, Grand Rapids natives and fans of the venture since its birth. She is a first year entrant, but states that she will definitely enter again, perhaps creating something on a larger scale and doing an event. Though she admits that ArtPrize might be more ideal without a “massive, ridiculous jackpot” looming, she describes a positive end result.

“People who may not be exposed to contemporary art are getting to do that.” She also notes that the prize behind ArtPrize is the trigger that attracts such a large spectrum and variety of artists.

“Each of us gets to have thousands of people see our work,” she says animatedly. She goes on to explain that the event has a “tremendous influence on the community.” This defines exactly what ArtPrize functions as for the individual artist and the art community: the opportunity for exposure to new audiences is almost unparalleled.

“[My goal as an artist is to] always be changing and evolving, and to allow myself to be strongly influenced and to continue to grow,” says Santillan. She admits that imitation is the beginning of the process of forming one’s own creative process. Santillan is greatly inspired by nature and landscapes, as well as the work of contemporary artists like Gustav Klimt, Chuck CloseAlphonse Mucha and Santiago Perez. Her tone takes on an almost dreamlike quality as she defines the features and quality of her idol's works. 

Santillan's focus for the future is to continue this very organic reproduction of natural objects and to begin incorporating more textures and patterns. She discloses that she and her husband recently found a large, discarded wooden frame in her neighborhood that she has big plans for. Santillan describes the statement behind her 2012 ArtPrize entry as showing others how “to really embrace and keep your eyes open in your everyday life.” And this she does with her very earthy existence and method of seeking materials and creating art.

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Saw these pieces yesterday and really liked them. Thanks for this feature.