Memphis artist gains national recognition for highlighting plight of immigrants

By Nick Lingerfelt

When Argentinian-born artist Aylen Mercado dropped off a piece of her series titled “After an Eight Day Workweek” to a gallery, one of the attendants was brought to tears by her art.

“I was in a gallery show at L Ross Gallery in East Memphis, and I had a piece exhibited there that was sold,” Mercado said. “One of the gallery attendants … saw it, didn’t even know the context of it, then went to the back room and started crying. I was like ‘oh my God, my art made someone cry.’”

Mercado drew eight portraits of her mother in a series entitled “After an Eight Day Workweek,” to describe and detail the pain and fatigue of what seems like a never-ending workday takes on someone’s body.

Mercado created the series for her advanced placement art class in high school. For the assignment, her teacher told her and her fellow students to choose a theme and create eight to 12 art pieces from it.

“I chose the subject focusing on immigration and workers and mothers and women because I saw a lot of strength in my own mom,” Mercado said. “I remembered growing up always seeing her wake up really early to make sure we were getting ready for school, and she would walk and take the bus long distances to be able to be with us.”

Mercado’s mother, Cristina Condori, worked the late shifts, from 12 to 8 a.m., at a manufacturing place, but she still managed to be a community organizer and a mother.

“She was holding these multiple jobs, but as a community organizer, she’s not paid,” Mercado said. “But she still did it.”

Condori’s work ethic and dedication not only to her family but also to her community drove Mercado to share the strength and perseverance she sees in her mother.

“Sometimes I would go see my mom work,” Mercado said. “She would pick me up from school and would still be cleaning houses.”

Mercado wanted to create these works of art to immortalize her mother and the physical toll work took on her body.

“I saw a lot of the wear that work took on her, on her hands, so a big focus on that portfolio was on the physical wear and tear this work has for mothers and immigrants who are workers,” Mercado said.

Mercado believes the acclaim her work has received is because it elicits a physical reaction in her audience.

“These portraits have so much form and depth and value,” Mercado said. “There’s a lot of contrast that dramatizes her image and the way I represented her body, like the veins and the folds on her back. I think physically people have reactions to that.”

At the 2015 Mid-South Scholastic Awards, Mercado received a gold medal for her whole series and Best in Show for one of the pieces from her collection. Galleries in New York City and Washington, D.C., including the Department of Education and the United States Capitol, have exhibited her work. The pieces were also displayed in galleries around the country on a two-year tour following their exhibition in those prominent places.

Mercado believes her work gained both local and national recognition because of its universal message. She represented people’s lives and something many experience every day.

“My mom isn’t the first person to go through all of this,” Mercado said. “It’s a continuous struggle that’s been going on for years.”

University of Memphis student Kelsey Bowen, one of Mercado’s peers who attended White Station High School when she did, thought the series was an interesting subject no one really talks about – how hard people work and how much of a toll it takes on their bodies and mental state.

“I thought it was nice to see someone talk about that in a way that no one’s spoken about it before just through art and emphasizing those specific places,” Bowen said. “It was refreshing.”

Mercado’s high school art teacher, Charles Berlin, thinks Mercado’s series is one of the most poignant series one of his students has produced.

“I’ve been teaching advanced placement art for about 28 years, and it’s one of the most amazing series (because it) exposes the plight of the working class,” Berlin said. “I think it’s really moving and revelatory, too, and makes people think and examine what life is like in circles where it’s a never-ending workday.”

Berlin displays Mercado’s work on his classroom walls. He uses it as an example of an exceptional series, and he believes his students find inspiration from it.

“I think that’s what Scholastic Art Awards really showcase … people who have a unique point of view,” Berlin said. “It inspires me to keep working to find the next who wants to tell a very specific point of view.”

Berlin believes Mercado’s work had such an impact because of what it portrays about the human condition.

“Whatever social position one takes, whatever political position one takes, you can look at Aylen’s work and feel the humanity that’s poured in it,” Berlin said.

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