Pilar Castillo (image courtesy Pilar Castillo)

Welcome to the 15th installment of the interview series Meet LA’s Art Community. Check out our past interviews here.

This week, we interview Pilar Castillo, who is a designer and archivist. Castillo’s work investigates the role of ‘tropical romanticism’ in Caribbean identity and representation, both homegrown and through the lens of the tourism industry. She currently manages the archived collection of mural pioneer Judy Baca, collaborating with international scholars, curators, collectors, and publishers, and facilitating the publication of Los Angeles’ mural legacy worldwide. In 2018, Pilar opened the Castlepillar Design Studio and has since completed numerous commissions, including the 2018 launch event of the newly redesigned LAX Terminal 1 for the Los Angeles World Airports. Pilar holds an MFA in Graphic Design from Otis College of Art and Design, and a B.A. in World Arts and Cultures from UCLA’s School of Art & Architecture.


Pilar Castillo, “Passport” (2019)

Where were you born? 

I was born on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, in the Maya heartland of Central America, amid jungle and rainforest as far as the eye can see. I was raised on the land my ancestors had cultivated for over a century. In a time when the Mayan temples were accessible as part of our cultural heritage, where we would picnic on temple steps and swim in nearby rivers. You betta Belize it!

How long have you been living in Los Angeles? 

LA has been my home away from home since the age of 13, and I am now 280 — do the math! I already had in me a sense of adventure but LA inspired in me all the rebelliousness and angst that would shape me into the woman I am today.

What’s your first memory of seeing art? 

When I first saw Frida Kahlo’s 1932 painting “My Birth” in the school library, it wiped away all memory of any other artwork I had ever seen up until that point! Seriously, this is my first recollection of really SEEING art. It was captivating, vulgar, unapologetic, courageous, and disorienting. I immediately felt that Frida was sharing a deep, dark secret with me alone.

Do you like to photograph the art you see? If so, what device do you use to photograph? 

I use my phone to capture most of my art experiences, from galleries, to architecture, to still life and plant life. I look for particular color combinations or details where you can see the hand of the artist in the work. As an archivist I tend to document more so for the sake of inventory and reference.

What was your favorite exhibition in Los Angeles this year? 

The exhibition that stirred my soul is Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, at MOLAA in Long Beach. As a Caribbean-identified artist myself, it was like coming home — it was a body of work I have been yearning to see, with themes I have interpreted in my own work. Echoing an internal dialogue about the complexities of living in the diaspora and experiencing your country as an outsider, floating further away from your most sacred memories of home.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

A House for Mr. Biswas by Trinidadian-born Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul. My literary goal is to read all of the award-winning books written by Caribbean authors. To this end, my Trini friend and I are currently reading a wild epic by Jamaican writer Marlon James Red Wolf, Black Leopard. Previous to that, Antiguan-American Jamaica Kincaid’s Small Place. Short stories by Dominican-American Junot Diaz, and poetry by Belizean author Felene Cayetano.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends? 

It depends on the exhibition as much as the friends. I like to get lost in the work, to circle back and revisit favorite pieces. It’s never a linear experience, and it helps to have a like-minded friend to share in the adventure.

What are you currently working on? 

As archivist I’m working on mural pioneer Judy Baca’s 2021 retrospective at MOLAA. In my own art practice, I’m committed to a full-scale redesign of the standard US Passport, essentially a counterfeit of the official document. The booklet I designed mimicked the structure of the official passport, and replaced the content, imagery, and text to reflect a partial historical timeline of US policies against immigrants and laborers.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of? 

I am particularly proud of venturing into entrepreneurship in 2018 with my very own Castlepillar Design Studio. My most commercially viable work features a pop-culture aesthetic, reinterpreting iconic images into original designs and offering a custom collection of works on paper, including textile and jewelry design.

Where do you turn to for inspiration for your projects? 

A curious person by nature, I find inspiration everywhere and tend to venture down into rabbit-holes fearlessly. I am most passionate about my subversive projects that are ‘designed for impact’ — much of this work is research based and concept driven. Ultimately, I’m inspired by my tropical roots and culture, as I aim to produce work that represents my personal narrative within a political and sociocultural context.

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.