Ever since she was a child, D’Santina Ruiz found treasure in the recyclable. Wanting to create a new home for the displaced and reveling in the affordable, refurbished items she would often make new again; D’Santina found sanctuary in the aisles of Humboldt Park thrift shops. After the death of her Mother, D’Santina would be guided on a journey that would fuse the connection between her ancestral lineage and the omnipresent calling of her artistry.
Who is D’Santina Ruiz?
Denise Santina Ruiz is my full birth name, born in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood; I am the first daughter of my parents. I am a mother, an artist, a writer, and an agitator. I am a Boricua on the fault lines of brick, steel and bloodlines traced back from tobacco fields in el campo to city dwelling diaspora. I’m a hybrid of varied cultures and history. I’m a woman of contradiction and complexity, a critical global thinker, maker and life learner.
You are also the creative force behind Madre de Perla Designs. What was the inspiration behind your line?
The inspiration was percolating for years before I ever started to create. I have always been an avid thrifter. That hobby began as a kid alongside my father, buying clothes at the thrift shop and then extended to frequenting yard sales with my mom for home wares. Thrifting continued well into my adult years. I’ve had various ideas on upcycling (though, that word wasn’t fully formed in my brain yet), based on the items I would find, but considered doing this for myself, not to sell. I figured I’d fix this bag, re-structure this shirt or re-design this necklace for myself. I honestly began collecting bags for at least three years before ever starting on one of the various projects. Then my mom died. I had always been a writer, able to translate deep emotions, needs, and realities into poems, stories, plays, etc.
My mother’s death not only knocked the wind from me, but it also knocked the words as well. It felt ineffable to convey that type of loss. But grief needs to be exposed to air to heal. Grief will come out through clenched teeth, through pores, through the body, but it will come forth no matter what. So I needed to facilitate how my grief would show up so that I could manage those emotions in a healthy way, and get through it in one piece. It was the impetus for finally sitting down and creating what I had been thinking about for years. As a process of healing and self-sustainability for my family. That, and I loved the idea of creating one of a kind piece because no one person is completely the same, including our mothers. It was my way of honoring her, communicating with her, grieving her, loving her.
Where was the name Madre de Perla derived?
Madre de Perla translates to Mother of Pearl in English. The name came after the art. Once I realized I wanted to continue I knew I needed a name for it. While in Florida for my mother’s memorial I stayed in her house, I slept in her bed; I cried in her pillows. It still smelled like her. She felt physically present. I began talking to her like she was sitting on the bed. I offered her what my vision was. I thanked her for helping me see the designs before they happened. (Truth: There were times I found bags, and I heard her tell me who it was for, I’d create it, and that person she named would buy it). I asked for her guidance, and I asked her to help me find the proper name for this journey, this creation I was doing. I fell asleep. That night she visited me.Before I woke up, I heard her clear as day in my ear. She said “Mother of Pearl.” I woke up and said it slowly out loud, and it took only a few seconds for me to understand. My birthday is in June. My birthstone is Pearl. Mother of Pearl. I just broke down crying. I changed it to Spanish, and I have been journeying with her by my side ever since.
When did the dream of designer become a reality and what was the creative journey like?
That dream is still unfolding along with the journey. I think I finally looked it square in the face after a couple of years in and said, “okay, you’re IN this, now what, now where?” And I had to sit on it, and I had to think about how I wanted to leave a small legacy and remain aligned with my spirit and convictions. I have had to learn from my mistakes because I am self-taught all the way, so there have been bumps and tumbles. I have had to research extensively, be mindful and seek out mentors and workshops. Some folk have been incredibly helpful, and some have been competitive and shady, and that’s part of the process. I had to learn not to take that shit personally and recognize that both aspects of those who show love and those who don’t can fuel and teach you on your journey in a positive way if you love the work you do and do your best to convey your intention.
Who are some of your favorite designers and how have they influenced your work?
Indigenous/African cultures and artisans are my first inspirations. They epitomize the utilization of eco-friendly materials from their day to day life and surroundings which transform into gorgeous adornments. It isn’t a fad for them. It’s how they live and bring forth beauty on the daily. The history of my Puerto Rican people also serves as inspiration through the folklore and spirituality that comes out of the Caribbean. I love the juxtaposition of city style and natural earth elements, of the material and spiritual worlds that collide. The kids in my neighborhood, and in “hoods” across the globe are extremely influential. The Black and Brown and queer kids out of these spaces always lead the culture. I never forget them. I pay attention. I try my best to honor all of these influences by combining African/Caribbean/Indigenous/Street styles and elements to each of my designs. I try and take what is already present; because nothing is new and create my spin on it so that I am also a part of these influences.
Also, I’m inspired heavily by painters, artists, and photographers. People who combine cultural, political images, textures and patterns in a unique way, just to name a few: Krista Franklin, Kehinde Wiley, Ebony Patterson, Carlos Rolon, Hassan Hajjaj, Diego Huerta, Nadine Ijewere and of course the amazing Malick Sidibe, Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat. As far as current makers, folks whose business models appeal to me on the style and marketing end are Persian artist, Melody Ehsani. She excellently blends urban culture with a historical and ethnic context that I love. Her photos are always vibrant and dope.
Coyote Negro by Puerto Rican designer, Melissa Hernandez, is another influence whose concepts stem from a connection of art, nature, and culture. I love her photos as well. Out of NYC, Mara Hoffman is great in how she references vintage patterns and art into fresh, contemporary styles. Out of Cali, I have always loved another Puerto Rican artist, Nena SoulFly, as she is rooted in the same influences that I am, so we are very in tune. And Mexican designer Zane Marie is also a dope bag remixer whom I feel a kinship with aesthetically. Music and poetry also influence at times. I’ve been influenced by Julia de Burgos, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Fania and Bomba groups throughout the diaspora and have created pieces that honor them all. I can honestly go on and on with this question, but I’ll stop here!
You have an ancestral connection to the diaspora visually present in all of your pieces. Can you tell me about the spiritual element behind MPD?
The spiritual element is first and foremost grounded in ancestral honoring that begins with my lineage. I start there first. Always. Being Boricua with African, Indigenous, and European ancestry, I attempt to connect the dots of history, language, spiritual and cultural complexities into pieces that through their design, tells a story.
It’s about creating a space through those who came before me and who walk alongside me. For their legacies, innovations, and teachings to continue, but with my twist. I love the patakis and nature aspects of Orishas, how they reveal us to ourselves and guide us accordingly. The Lukumi faith within my community and culture is vibrant. Filled with color, beauty, complexity and music that is all spiritually interconnected. The merging of those things continues to influence my designs.
My practice is also bound in the natural world; I think about my connection to everything on the earth and how it makes a whole. What is indigenous to me in my home country, my neighborhood, in my ancestral origin, etc. and how do I create something meaningful and unique out of that connection? In the West, we compartmentalize so much, but truly everything is dependent on the other to survive and thrive, so I think about that and draw on that from a spiritual place and practice. And truthfully, I am also inspired by deities and spiritual teachings that are not always of my culture but have influenced my thinking and practice. For instance, I’m not a Buddhist, but there are aspects of that faith that resonate with me, that I have gained wisdom from, same goes with astrology, crystals/earth gems, and American Indian spiritual traditions. I grew up going to Pow-Wows as a child and listening to Native elders speak on different issues. I mean, there’s just layers to this.
Can you tell me about the creative process and what that looks like for you?
My creative practice is part studying, reading and researching. Sometimes sketching and then hunting recycled materials to put the concepts together by a theme thought through ahead of time. Sometimes it may just be watching the collection theme appear in my process on its own. Many times I start an idea, and then I let it sit there, from a few days to weeks at a time. It’s advice I learned from writing that has proven to be beneficial in this art form as well. Let the work cool down, walk away, look at it again later with fresh eyes. Do you still love it? Where can it be better? What needs editing and so on and so forth. I know I’m on to something by how my heart races when I see it. If I don’t love it, if it’s not something I’d rock, I don’t put it out there. I rework and remix my remixes until I find the right design for that particular piece. I love playing with vintage elements; layers of patterns, textures, embellishments, shells, seeds, etc. all of these materials add depth to the designs.
What will your legacy be?
Hmm, that’s such a great question. There’s a book called, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and in it the author writes about the various types of players needed to galvanize a movement or transformation. I want my legacy to be as a connector and a maven for my culture, my ancestry and my countries of origin. I want to be part of the legacy and movement for self-sustainability, eco-innovation, healing and indigenizing this earth again. Going back to the basics of nature, the land, the spirit and all it provides and teaches. I also want to leave a legacy of using my art/privilege as a weapon and part of the puzzle piece in the struggle against Colonization, anti-blackness, homophobia, xenophobia and oppression. It’s a lot, so I still have a lot to learn and do.
What’s next for D’Santina and Madre de Perla Designs?
Well, I’m currently finishing up my newest collection which will be out soon and prepping for the upcoming holiday vendor markets. I am also working out my business plan for the creation of a collective boutique and e-commerce store, and delving into expanding my designs to an upcycled homeware collection which I’m excited about. Lots of collaboration in the works.
Where can folks connect with you?
The best place is on my Facebook business page: Madre de Perla Designs. I post my newest work and vendor gigs there first. I can also get back to folks faster through that site. My website is www.madredeperladesigns.com and is definitely a work in progress, I am looking to have my store up before the holidays and will announce it on my Facebook business page once it is.