Women in the arts: A look into Cal Poly Pomona woman creators, visionaries

By Athena Flores, March 18, 2024

Through the perspective of women artists in their paintings, music, theater and all other forms of craft, people can find a better understanding of history, culture and even the simplicities of life. These three Cal Poly Pomona faculty women find joy in creation and inspiration in their own unique ways. Juggling the duties of teaching, traveling, being a mother and constantly inventing, these CPP artists are a glimpse into the crucial role of art and the women who contribute.

Jessie Vallejo: Associate professor of ethnomusicology

When CPP associate professor Jessie Vallejo is not teaching ethnomusicology and her 10 other courses or directing the school’s Mariachi Ensemble, she is traveling to pursue her passion of playing violin and studying the music of different cultures. Vallejo said her love of art was never a discovery but instead a calling to her that came naturally. Growing up in New York with a low-income family, music was not always an easy extracurricular to participate in.

“They (parents) initially told me no,” Vallejo said. “They were worried about how expensive it would be and they were constantly budgeting and saving so taking up music was not an easy thing, I had to sign up in secret.”

Once Vallejo finally convinced her parents, she never put it down, playing all through her formative years. Despite her love for music, Vallejo steered toward a career in science, a subject she excelled in and was a practical and secure path. However, when it came time for undergraduate school, Vallejo knew in her heart that she was not done growing as a violinist and decided to major in music education, eventually earning her doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, through her studies and music. Vallejo was able to pursue a better understanding of culture and music in a social context. Today, Vallejo teaches numerous courses in the Music Department for her ninth year and serves as an academic senator. She has also recently completed a publication that explores performing mariachi music during the pandemic, showcasing a reflection on her as a performer and the Latinx community.

Although music has brought Vallejo a plethora of happiness and success, she feels that a career in the music industry also comes with some judgment.

“Sometimes people will make side comments,” Vallejo said. “They assume I’m less competent because they don’t think that playing music or being in this field is intellectually rigorous or they think it’s all fun and games when, in fact, it’s actually very demanding.”

With a career in music comes performances that require a certain amount of concentration, dedication, emotion and an intercultural understanding of the music she is playing for others. In addition to judgment, Vallejo acknowledged that navigating her place as a woman in this male-dominated industry can be difficult at times.

“When I was younger, I tried to navigate it by trying to be one of the guys but that did not always work,” Vallejo said. “I started realizing that in some areas I found that developing close relationships with people who will be your advocates and be happy for your success rather than feel threatened is key.”

Vallejo also says there have been times at her gigs where she is the only woman playing and people will assume that she is just a family member rather than a performer.

“I’ve had clients say, ‘Oh wow I didn’t think you’d be able to play your instrument,’” said Vallejo. “Most of the time I will politely smile and say ‘yup’ and that might be a surprise to them that day but hopefully it won’t be a surprise the next time a woman performs for them and knows their instrument.”

Another professor at CPP, Alyssa Lang, also incorporates her passion in the arts with teaching.

Professor Jessie Vallejo poses in traditional Mariachi clothing | Courtesy of Jessie Vallejo

Alyssa Lang; Professor of Art and Graphic Design

Philadelphia native Alyssa Lang has been a professor in the CPP Art Department since 2008. With a master’s degree in fine art and a minor in graphic design from Graphic and Interactive Design at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Lang spends a lot of her time outside of teaching designing books, hosting workshops and making print art for her Etsy shop, Studio Pienza. As a self-proclaimed “goofball,” Lang attributes a lot of her artwork style to her fun personality. From typography to watercolor to ceramics, her experience and interest in numerous forms of art allow Lang to be constantly learning new skills.

Since childhood, Lang was always compelled to various forms of art and often found arts and crafts as a creative outlet. For her, this fascination with art was never considered as a career path until her late high school years. She acknowledged that during this time there was a much more negative stigma about pursuing a career in an artistic field. Lang explained that there was a societal assumption that if someone was going to be a professional in art, they would be a “starving artist.” This was partly because there was no social media to increase visibility and not as many art opportunities as there are today.

“You couldn’t just Google stuff,” said Lang, laughing. “I had a very limited view of what someone who was interested could do with art. Now, I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I get to do this stuff daily.”

In addition to art and teaching, Lang finds joy and inspiration in the simple aspects of life whether it is gardening, traveling, playing an instrument or attending her son’s soccer games. At home, Lang is grateful for her loving and supportive family. Having found a good balance of managing a personal and professional life, Lang shatters the misconception that a woman can only be one or the other.

“It’s not serving anybody,” said Lang in regard to making unnecessary sacrifices. “I’m a better mom, I’m a better wife and I’m a better person when I feel like I’m allowing the space for my creative pursuits.”

Professor Alyssa Lang poses in front of her handmade artwork creations. | Courtesy of Alyssa Lang

Sayda Trujillo; Assistant professor of Theatre

“The daughter of Guatemala immigrants,” is the description CPP assistant professor Sayda Trujillo always uses to tell people about herself. This aspect of her life is important to her identity and contributes to the inspiration in her work. As a theater maker, Trujillo writes and performs her work, allowing her to take up space and be the owner of her own stories. She uses her work in both an academic and community setting to explain that theater is a tool for social change.

“My work makes me very happy,” said Trujillo. “I want to use art to change perspectives and connect to stories of lineage and ancestry.”

Trujillo discovered her passion for theater when she moved to Los Angeles at a young age. Young, learning a new language and feeling lost, she found community in a local youth arts program where she took acting classes and participated in playwriting with mentors and peers. The program would inspire her to attend college and pursue a career in theater.

“I didn’t have to speak perfect English,” Trujillo said. “I felt seen, and I felt heard in this community of theater and it made me know in my body that this is what I wanted to do.”

In her field, Trujillo admits that she is typically surrounded by other women. Although gender diversity in the workplace is not an issue, she raises the question of equality.

“I think it is more about are women getting compensated?” Trujillo said.

Recently, Trujillo had a residency at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she performed her play, “Win The War Or Tell Me A Story,” which is inspired by her time in Palestine. The play explores the concept of war and dares to ask people what role they may have in the conflict even if it seems far away. The play is going through its second round of re-examining and will incorporate cultural collaborations such as custom traditional textile costumes from Guatemala. Trujillo hopes to bring the play to the CPP campus soon.

“It’s doing what I want theater to do, which is to provoke conversation,” said Trujillo.

In addition to educating and theater-making, Trujillo is a trained theatrical clown with Clowns Without Borders, an organization that brings art and performance to children in places of need and crisis. Trujillo has worked all over the world including Latin America, Palestine, and Egypt to name a few.

“The belief is that laughter is healing,” said Trujillo. “When we are in dire circumstances, we need food and shelter, but we also need laughter. We need breath. We need people to be witnesses and see us, so that is what I do with this organization.”

Professor Sayda Trujilo is a professor for theatre department. | Courtesy of Sayda Trujillo

Feature image courtesy of Sayda Trujillo, Jessie Vallejo and Alyssa Lang 

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