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A tale of academic life informing art

Paloma Villegas' art is often informed by the people and ideas she encounters in her academic life. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Like most accomplished artists Paloma Villegas can derive inspiration from just about anything she encounters in everyday life.

As an academic most of what she encounters deals with the complexities of the Canadian immigration system and the personal, often gripping stories of those forced to traverse it. The result is an ability to turn often complex ideas into colourful works of art. 

It’s that talent for combining the serious with the sublime that led Villegas to create the cover art on a new book that examines how those without permanent residence status enter and remain in Canada.

The cover depicts a snake and a ladder on top of a tapestry of squares. The image symbolizes the experiences of non-citizens as they navigate the Canadian immigration system, which can be likened to a real-life game of snakes and ladders.

“To win the game and gain full immigration status you need to climb the ladder,” says Villegas, who also contributed a chapter to the book.  “There are numerous obstacles facing non-citizens in their ability to move up the game and many end up moving down for a variety of reasons.”

Patricia Landolt, chair of the Department of Sociology at UTSC and co-editor on the book, says Villegas’ proficiency both as an artist and academic are remarkable, especially her ability to convey complex ideas through her art.

“Paloma is such a gifted academic that initially it was a surprise to me that she was also this fantastic artist. She has a bright future in both.”

While Villegas often finds artistic inspiration from her field of study, she also created a painting to commemorate Landolt’s appointment as chair of the sociology department at UTSC. The large, colourful oil-on-canvas painting depicts lush branches festooned with books growing out of a chair. Landolt plans to hang it in her office at UTSC.

Villegas, who is also a sessional lecturer at UTSC and received her PhD from OISE in 2012, found her artistic voice as a form of stress relief while writing her dissertation. It seems to have helped because she recently received the Leithwood Award for outstanding thesis of the year by an OISE student. Her art also serves a purpose beyond stress relief. 

“Not everyone can fully understand an issue by reading a long research paper, so an image can have the power to convey a message if you explain it properly,” says Villegas. 

She recently painted an oil-on-canvas that was inspired by a paper she wrote on the difficulty faced by precarious status migrants in planning for the future.

“One woman I interviewed told me, ‘I can’t even buy a bed because I don’t know if I’ll have to leave tomorrow,’” says Villegas, who decided to name her paper after the quote.

“So many of these people are frozen in time and unable to look ahead because they may be deported at any moment.”




© University of Toronto Scarborough