Tracey Snelling’s Bordertown Romance

For the installation artist, border towns are a muse, and a state of mind

Tracey Snelling has the slow, studied gait and flinty-eyed gaze of a sheriff in an American western. And she looked every bit the part, surveying her new film noir art installation on a recent Tuesday night. Called Bordertown, it appeared at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and now resides in the gutted-out Barnes & Noble in Jack London Square, as part of the Oakland Underground Film Fest. It looks exactly as the name implies — one of those end-of-the-world places that you find in Tijuana or Mexicali.

Snelling seems naturally drawn to such environs. She captured every minute detail, from snarled telephone wire to the faded Tecate billboards. She looped clips from famous “border town” films and projected them through the hotel windows, so you could peer in and see the lonely Christina Ricci of Buffalo 66, or a scene from Paris, Texas. The characters look indistinguishable from people you might see sauntering outside Snelling’s Fruitvale art studio. Other elements, like the mobile ice cream cart and liquor store, give Bordertown a familiar cast. It’s Lynch, but it’s also East Oakland. More importantly, it represents Snelling’s interior world.

At forty years old, the artist cuts a striking figure. She’s tall and broad-shouldered, with green eyes and a soft, kewpie-doll face. Depending on her mood, Snelling can give the impression of stern authority, or of a little girl trapped in a grown person’s body. On Tuesday she looked more the former — leather jacket, severe ponytail, beer in hand —but she spoke in soft, measured tones. Snelling has a way of describing her work without calling attention to its aesthetic value, so it’s easy to see how she stays under the radar. She ekes out a living by selling art installations, and devotes her spare hours to a new non-profit called the San Pablo Arts District Fund. Now represented by six galleries internationally, Snelling is one of the most successful artists working in the East Bay. And you’d never know it.

Born in Oakland and raised mostly in Manteca, Snelling has led many lives. She was a waitress, a substitute teacher, a caramel-corn seller, an art-store clerk, and a firefighter. She worked seasonally in the forest service to put herself through college at the University of New Mexico. She did odd jobs because she couldn’t keep regular jobs. And she always made art. As a kid, she assembled shoe-box dioramas and made sculptures out of Play-Doh. She came from a family of brainiacs: Her father ran a welding lab at Lawrence Livermore; her mother is a student advisor at University of the Pacific; her sister eventually went into electron microscopy. Snelling wasn’t exactly a black sheep — she said her parents support her work — but she might qualify as the family romanticist. “I used to take this little black and white TV into my bedroom and watch whatever was on,” she said. “The Graduate, The Wizard of Oz, Westworld, Planet of the Apes.”

After graduating from college, Snelling worked primarily as a photographer and collage artist. She took snapshots from everyday life and made them surreal, either by painting over the images or tearing up the negatives. That led to more ambitious projects, like assembling an entire 2-D house from magazine cut-outs. One day she made an elaborate New York brownstone from snippets of 1940s-era Life magazines. She left out the façade so you could peer inside and see a different scene happening in each room. In one room, a Victorian woman painted at an easel. Another showed people in overcoats walking through rain-slickened streets. A shiny locomotive chugged through an upstairs vestibule, its box cars barely fitting through the half-moon-arch doors. Called 1881 Chestnut Street, the picture was a world unto itself. “That made me think that it would be interesting to build a three dimensional house,” Snelling said.

Ergo, El Mirador, a large sculpture of an adobe hotel with six windows. Snelling set up a DVD player behind the piece and showed a montage of film clips through each window, to give the illusion of action happening in the room. She sequenced them so that the characters in each window appear to be interacting with one another: A door opens in one screen; a character walks out and reappears in the room next door. She made two separate montages, one culled entirely from black-and-white Luis Buñuel films, the other from modern classics like Wild at Heart and Fool for Love. The original El Mirador was twenty inches tall. Snelling made a bigger version — “Big El Mirador” — to show at Sundance, and later at the Oakland Underground Film Festival. Big El Mirador is six-and-a-half feet tall and a lot more technologically complex, requiring six DVD players (one per window) and a synch box.

Across from El Mirador lies the similarly-designed El Diablo Inn, another run-down motel with grating along the balcony railings (taken from a heater), and movie scenes screening in the windows. A nearby installation, called Zaragosa y Obregon, shows a fully-rendered border town in miniature: hotels; bordellos; lowriders; ramshackle homes; the Chuy Vega automechanic; liquor stores that advertise Corona Extra and hielo in their windows. A sign poking out from one quick-e-mart façade says “Drift” in blue neon letters. Nearby sits a life-sized ice-cream cart, modeled after the paletas that roam through Snelling’s East Oakland neighborhood. It’s packed with big missile pops, Virgin Mary emblems, and packaged ice cream cones, all carved out of wood.

For all its intricacy, Bordertown looks stark, at a glance. Christmas lights strung from the ceiling give the whole place a lonely, nocturnal glow. For an artist who spent most of her life drifting, it seems almost apropos. Snelling is just starting to exhibit her work in local galleries. She and the other members of arts district fund took over a donated storefront on San Pablo Avenue, which they now use to show exhibits and host bi-monthly lit events. Ultimately, Snelling may play a key role in generating the San Pablo Arts District, which now consists of a few galleries and a couple cafes with art on the walls. Whatever function she plays as a do-gooder and community booster, Snelling tends to undersell it. A long time will pass before she has local celebrity caché.

Perhaps she prefers it that way. Border towns are more than just a muse for Tracey Snelling; they’re a state of mind. She said as much, pointing to the smallest hotel in her installation, an end-of-the-road crash pad called Another Alley. One window shows a looped sequence from Buffalo 66. A bone-blond Christina Ricci sits at the edge of a hotel bed, staring blankly at a wall. She looks despondent and listless. Time and space contract, as though the actress were trapped in a prison of her own making. To Snelling, that’s rather satisfying. At the very least, it’s a way to encapsulate larger themes. “It’s about how you can be lonely, even if you’re in a city full of people.” Like Tijuana. Or Oakland.


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