Chicago-based artist Isabella Mellado's paintings and sculptures are vibrant, colorful and larger than life. Her work represents autobiographical and allegorical scenes, nearly all of it featuring characters inspired by the tarot.
Mellado (she/they, pronouns she alternates between) designs elaborate physical sets with hand-made props to generate reference photos, which are further rendered in Photoshop to create fantastical images that more closely match her expressive vision for her paintings. The shining stars of Mellado's prop-making, however, are the papier mÀ¢ché masks she creates to represent tarot characters, like the Sun, Moon or Death cards.
"Queering the tarot" is a common sentiment in various queer discourses. Many in the LGBTQ+ community have woven the tarot into their dating apps, their belief systems, and their core identities.
"Tarot is a symbolic framework that allows me to insert myself because it's made for that," said Mellado. "It's about identity."
They just completed their final semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and earned their MFA from its painting and drawing department in May. Growing up in Puerto Rico and completing their undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mellado has had plenty of experience moving between different cultural spaces.
But it wasn't until Mellado came to Chicago that she finally found an ideal mix of Latinx and queer communities: "Because my work engages with being part of the diaspora … I decided to go with SAIC, and I'm very happy that I did."
A supportive community is vital for most artists and creatives, and Mellado is no different; they keep community at the core of their work. Switching between communitiesreturning to their family in Puerto Rico, moving about their neighborhood (Pilsen), engaging with various Latinx and queer spacesfor Mellado is indeed almost like donning different masks.
Her work started exploring what it meant to be a queer artist relating to her community, how queerness is a part of social dynamics, and her core identity as an artist. The city allowed her to find ways to express themselves authentically. She took on a role, as many artists do, as a recorder of history.
"We are capturing what the culture is around us, and that's intuitively what I'm doing and what I'm still doingjust capturing the world around me," Mellado said.
She initially combined this experience of masking and code-switching with their original inspiration, the vejigante, a Puerto Rican folkloric character that teases the audience during parades and festivals. These are jesters, whose name directly translates to "liver giant." They carry dried cow livers with seeds rattling inside like a maraca. Learning about and engaging with the vejigante, a deeply rooted aspect of Puerto Rican culture, was the beginning of Mellado's deep interest in mythology and folklore.
Mellado's first mask, used as a prop in the painting called "Interview with a Gargoyle," drew from folklore about a local Puerto Rican town that couldn't get rid of a gargoyle attacking their livestock. Inspired by this story, Mellado created a mask with chicken wire and beads; their sibling posed as the gargoyle being interrogated by the town, and the years-long series began.
Mellado then started making masks and paintings that reflected their life experiences, and how and where they aligned with the teachings from the tarot.
"I was using the tarot as a framework, thematically, for what I wanted to say that related back to me, personally," she said.
Rather than the deity-like characters from the tarot, Mellado paints human characters donning masks. Their characters are vulnerable; they have flaws, they experience hardship.
Over time, the meaning of the masks have changed and deepened. Mellado explores their multiple meanings, employing the traditional background of tarot characters, but applying the metaphor of using masks as protection for moving through cultural and community spaces.
Mellado's identity has transformed since their arrival to Chicago in 2021. She wasn't as 'out' before she moved, but said that "moving [to Chicago] emboldened me, because I was able to move from conservative spaces, where I was afraid that I wasn't going to be accepted, to a space where I'm in art school, surrounded by other queer people. I felt safer to explore making work about being queer."
Indeed, Mellado feels safest within the queer community: "When I'm here in Chicago … and I'm in queer community, I'm masking less; I know I'm safe there." On the multiple masks she wears, she explained, "They're different aspects of my identity, and they all belong to me."
In the last few months, they have had works in Heaven Gallery, The Martin, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Blind Barber and Art in Common. They believe that Chicago's ability to convene artists and creatives in such a powerful way allowed them to explore their impact as an artist who seeks to connect directly to their audience.
Mellado said, "I want my audience to look at my paintings and see themselves in it. As a Puerto Rican artist, as a queer person, I want to provide that representation, and I want to open doors for other people who are like me…I just want them to feel seen; that's the point. I want you to feel seen, I want you to feel held; that is the core value."