with Sandra Equihua
by Jessica Fernandes, Spark CG Society
November 28, 2019
It's Monday, 10AM, and I'm having the time of my life. Why? Because I'm speaking with Sandra Equihua, a multi-talented artist, who within 5 minutes of conversation inspires you to want to be best friends. Her vivacious personality, infectious laugh, off-the-cuff candid responses, and overflowing warmth reach you even through a phone chat.
Best known for her character designs on The Book of Life, and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera (a TV series co-created with her husband, and long-time collaborator, Jorge R. Gutiérrez), Sandra began drawing when she was little. "I used to gravitate towards comics, illustrations, colours; even just the smell of crayons used to get me excited!" she exclaims, her enthusiasm palpable. "I grew up in Tijuana and we used to go to papelerias," she continues, the Spanish rolling off her tongue so beautifully as she describes these mom-and-pop shops of childhood wonder. "My dad would take me, you'd buy paper by the sheet, and if you were lucky, sometimes you'd even find a special colour in the marker set! It was gloooorious," she reminisces with relish.
It was only as Sandra grew up that she started noticing that everyone around her was either in the medical field or academics. Her dad was a surgeon, general practitioner, and professor of anatomy, so she grew up surrounded by real human craniums and vertebrae. "They would give him permission to choose any unclaimed bodies from the morgue and he and his students would clean them in our backyard," she says, her voice breaking into a laugh at how odd yet familiar that sight became. In time, two of her sisters became doctors as well, but Sandra never gravitated towards that calling: "It looked really hard. They put in long hours, you had to do internships and they had to sacrifice a lot in their lives along the way. I didn't know if I was ready to sacrifice all that, and I didn't think I had it in me to deal with everything that comes with it psychologically — saying goodbye to patients who don't make it, etc." So, she decided to become a dentist instead. "How I went from wanting to do art, to wanting to be a dentist?" she laughs heartily, before dropping into dead seriousness, "I thought it was fascinating, the way that teeth morphed. Wow. Have you ever seen the way a baby's cranium looks on an X-ray? The formation of their teeth is fascinating! Not to mention, I had braces, which made it all the more interesting. And as a dentist, I'd never have to worry about killing anyone!"
She discovered architecture as a possible alternative to dentistry, but by the time she graduated from high school, she realized (her voice now falling to a whisper): "I was really bad at math. Like really bad." So, she decided that path wasn't for her. Around the same time, a friend introduced her to Communication Arts magazine. In seeing it, she knew this was what she wanted to pursue. The only place offering the type of program she needed was Universidad Iberoamericana Plantel Noroeste (colloquially referred to as Ibero), so that's where she went, graduating with a bachelor in Graphic Design.
Finding Her Way
Her entire time at Ibero, Sandra was dating her now husband, Jorge. They met when they were 17. While she was studying graphic design in Tijuana, he was at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Santa Clarita, studying Experimental Animation. "He kept telling me about his cool projects, and saying, I can't wait to work with you, we're gonna get married someday... and I was like 'sure kid, whatever'", she laughs affectionately. But eventually his words came true and they ended up getting married and working together: "We started doing everything from poster design, corporate design, murals, characters, and one thing led to another. I started working freelance on Warner Bros.' Mucha Lucha, then we moved over to Disney, then Nick Jr., and before I knew it, we needed to figure out what next. That's when we went to Texas and started on The Book of Life. I've been doing character design with Jorge since the beginning of our relationship. That's how I got into animation." Quite the trajectory, and quite the story! "And that's just the condensed version," she chuckles.
Our conversation finds its way to the humour in our respective families not understanding what we do for a living, and having to come around to the idea of art as a viable career (mine thought I was a programmer, when I was an artist, an animator, when I moved into management, and nearly fell over when I brought home my first paycheck in this field). For Sandra, it came up in conversations with her father: "I had already been working at Disney and Nickelodeon for years, when my father told me 'I was so worried for you, wondering if my child was just going to be drawing little stick figures in her sketchbooks for the rest of her life.'" An amazing man, having lived an incredible life, it was on his deathbed at 91 that he told her: "I'm glad you figured out what you wanted in life, and that you're making a living out of it. Though I still kind of don't know what you do." We burst into laughter, in unison, feeling a strong love for those who might not fully understand, but who are there to support us nevertheless.
Sandra has worked on children's book illustrations, poster designs, corporate image design, logo types, sculpture, character design, and paintings, to name but a few. When I ask her what the common denominator that she carries forward in her work is: basic and simple shapes. "It's very hard for me to venture into very detailed design, which is the opposite of Jorge. He's a volcano of detail! Every time I say, ok, that's enough, he erupts with more. When we're working together and I feel something's done, he'll burst out with 'No, it's missing the crown and the mustache!' And you're like oh, you're right, you're right! And you keep adding. It's very difficult for me to do that on a whim or by myself, so I'm happy that I have Jorge to prompt that. If it was up to me, I would stop where I initially wanted to stop because I like simplicity. I think it's clean. I think the composition reads better. Maybe it says something about me? I guess my motto is less is more."
New to her sculpture work, I prompt for more details and get a crash-course in Judas sculptures and traditions. In Mexico, they used to create huge paper-mâché effigies (some measuring up to 5 meters), and burn them as part of a religious celebration. "They're gorgeous and artisanal. I would love to do a show with humongous, towering Judases, with a strong meaning. Look out for that, I know I'm definitely going to do something with that!" Sandra exclaims. In seeing the potential scale of these sculptures, I can't wait to see it come together. In the meantime, I ask about her material of choice for sculpture work. "So far, I've used wood and paper-mâché" she tells me, launching into an interesting anecdote from her time post El Tigre. That show was the first one that she and Jorge had created, back in her Nickelodeon days: "The experience was like giving birth — really hard, but also really rewarding," she shares. When the show got cancelled, it really hit her hard. "I have a thin skin when it comes to critique" she notes, her voice dropping a notch. "No one had prepared me for trolls. When we started getting our first trolls (because there are always trolls!), Jorge was like a rhinoceros, his skin was so thick. But I kept thinking, OMG, they don't like our show!!? They don't like her hair!!? Any little thing would freak me out" she wails, in mock hysteria. But by the time the show got cancelled, she was "like a seasoned veteran, with a smoker's rasp, angry at the world." She did a sculpture show based on how she was feeling and how angry she was at "producers, the network, the hierarchy and the bureaucracy of everything". She called it Beautiful Loss. It was about "giving your all to something, and in the end feeling really hurt." She created four sculptures out of wood, in the shape of hourglasses.
These "two-faced monsters" had happy approachable faces on one end, and monster faces on the other end. For Sandra, that was a representation of showbiz: "'Come on in, we'll take your show, we love your ideas, let's make some money out of it.' But in the end, it's really to benefit them. And before you know it, you're canned and then you're nothing to them anymore. Thank you! And then they kick you out." But now that she's spent more time in this industry, she laughs: "that's how I felt back then, but now it's obvious that I was just very angry." These days, she takes it in stride, knowing it's not personal, that's just the nature of the business.
Somehow, we're now talking about wanting to do ALL things, but not having enough time to. With my ever-expanding list of hobbies and interests, I know the struggle is real. "I wish I could take ukulele class. I could probably find tutorials on YouTube, but I don't even have time to cut my toenails!" she exclaims. Mother to Luka, her incredible 10-year old son, she adds: "Let's just put it this way, I haven't taken a shower since Friday. I took a shower this morning and it was 10 minutes, but it felt like a glorious sauna. It was like a retreat, a spiritual awakening. No ten-year-old knocking on the door, asking if I'm in there (where else would I be?). It was delicious." I'm doubled-over in laughter. Not because the circumstance is laughable (my hats off to anyone who balances life so well!), but the way she shares it with such wit, energy, and ease. I feel like I've stumbled onto the world's best stand-up show, and I don't want it to end.
No stranger to injury, I hear her recent struggles with back strain, and can't help but sympathize. She's been told she needs to take an eight-week hiatus from the gym — the longest she's had to miss out in two years. You can hear the sadness in her voice as she says it. Exercise is "one of her strongest sources of energy," she tells me. With Luka being so active and always wanting to do things, she feels extra sad that he's missing out. "I have to get back on track, for him!" she says, with gusto. I'm forever impressed by mothers, always so selflessly thinking of their children.
We're now talking about preferred mediums to work in. Tying into our last topic, the answer is immediate: "right now, print is my best friend, due to lack of time. But if I had more time, I'd love to work with cardboard. Really big, big, cardboard. I'd love to sculpt with it." And that's how I learn about Sandra's inspiring dream project: a pop-up temporary interactive installation for kids — for all kids, but geared especially towards those with autism. Luka's on the spectrum, so this project holds a special place in her heart: "A lot of our kids tend to have a heightened sense of sight, smell, sound, touch or taste. Some need their environment to be super quiet, while others need to be around a lot of noise. Some don't like to be touched at all while others thrive on pressure," she explains. Her goal is to create something that would be validated as art, but would have as its main function to be an interactive activity for kids on the spectrum. She was inspired by community-run interactive spaces like Spark, in Dallas, which uses recycled materials contributed by the general public. "I know my project requires a lot of funding. But it's something I have to do before I die. It's my biggest goal," she shares, with the kind of earnest determination that makes you want to back her cause and help make it happen.
When I ask about creative or daily routine, it's really interesting to hear how that has shifted over time. Back in her Nickelodeon days, given that she and Jorge were the creators and producers of the show they were on, they were the first ones in and the last ones out every day. "And it wasn't super healthy. We literally lived 10 minutes away from Nickelodeon. As soon as we were done at work, we'd each get into our respective cars and we'd drive home practically next to each other — to the point that I could put my window down and remind him to fill up on gas — and then we'd get home, put on our pajamas, go to sleep next to each other, and wake up and do the whole thing over again. It was insane. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It's been a really fun ride with him. He's amazing." Back then, that was her routine. And now, as with most parents, life centers more around her child. "But it doesn't make me sad. If anything, I'm thankful that Jorge doesn't want me to stop working, but at the same time, I'm weaning him off because I can't balance it all. And to be honest, I don't know how that makes me feel. Sometimes it makes me feel angry, because I feel like I'm supposed to be able to have it all — work, kids, do everything I did before. Prior to Luka, I thought yeah! I can have it all! And now, I have a fear that if I say I can't do it all, I'll be looked at as not as strong as I thought I was. I want women to know it's OK. That even in this community where we've been fighting so hard for our rights, it's not going to be in vain. It's OK for you to say I need to step back for a little bit and breathe. Because if I have to choose between designing, and taking care of my kid and my family, I'll choose the latter. And there's nothing sad about that."
Inspired by Life
Next up, greatest inspiration. I know the answer before I've asked the question. "Luka." My heart warms further in hearing Sandra expand on the 'why': "He takes me out of the box. It's not that he's thinking out of the box, he's just thinking the way he thinks, asking questions like 'What would happen if we put plungers on the ceiling?' or 'How many ripped up paper towels would a leaf blower be able to lift off the ground?'" And being the cool mom that she is, she embraces the curiosity and ideas, and makes it happen, leaf-blower and all. The cleanup can be a pain, but it's well worth it — she loves what she learns and shares with Luka in the process.
Jorge provides a wealth of inspiration as well, she explains in animated rapid-fire: "His brain works a mile a minute. What if we did this?! What if we did that?! He's so funny. I don't know where he comes up with these crazy ideas, he's always ad libbing. And visually he's very inspiring. For example, I look at a pomegranate and think it's perfect. He's the kind of guy who needs to open it up and look inside. And when he does, and sees seeds, he still needs more. He wants to open up those seeds and find the smaller seeds inside. Keep going. You can find more. You can always find more. I love that about him."
Finally, her tempo slowing and tone softening, she credits her background and culture: "It's very colourful, and happy, and never ending. It has so much iconography. The textiles, music, there's so much to pull from. I'm so thankful to have Latino heritage behind me, holding me up."
Drawing her further into those memories, I ask what it's like to have grown up in Mexico and now be living in the U.S. How does that influence her work? "Wherever you may be from, you never know what you have until you're away from it. And when you're away from it, you draw all these memories and inspiration from it that maybe aren't as true as when you were there. Even the bad smells can prompt inspiration. For example, my mom used to take me to meat markets when I was younger, carnicerias. Back then, they were pretty gross: the cows heads would be looking at you with their eyes popping out, there would be decapitated animal heads, and chicken feet right next to that. And everything had such a terrible rancid smell, mixed with the smell of Ajax on the floor, and sawdust. Now, whenever I smell sawdust, or something rancid, it whips me back to when my mom would take me to those places. And there are other memories, like being a little girl, in my shorts, itchy because it was summer and there were mosquitoes biting me because I was in the garden laying on the grass looking at the clouds. And I have such wonderful memories of my mom's garden and those smells. And when I see those memories, I see myself. But I see myself illustrated. It's so funny. I take inspiration from that. That's what I looked like, that's what I remember, that's what I smelled. Nostalgia creates inspiration." In hearing her vivid retelling, you feel like you're right there with her.
As for a project that holds a special place in her heart, Sandra tells me about an exhibition she worked on recently with Jorge, called Border-Bang, put on in L.A. It was an homage to Tijuana: "I made posters, seven of them, that reminded me of good things growing up. There's this really old place, called La Mejor, it's a panaderia. That's where you buy Mexican sweet bread. I think it's been there since 1937, and it's like a weed, I mean they've built all these buildings around it, torn so many things down around it, and they're like nope, we're standing our ground, we're staying here. And it still has its original tiles, the same bell that rings when you enter, the same really rickety old tray carriers that they always had. I made an homage to them. They made my childhood so happy. And I made another one for Tijuana taxi cabs. If I was a tourist, I'd want to take one of those to see Tijuana; it's the best way to see the city. You pay them and they take you a long, long way on an established route. When you get to the end, you do a U-turn and you come back the same way. It's a long way and you'll never get lost. I used to take one of those to school and used to meet the weirdest people on it: boyfriends and girlfriends hooking up, going at it in the back making out, making everyone else uncomfortable, housemates coming back from their jobs and going back to their families to cook. Again, memories. That's been one of my favorite projects."
When asked about her greatest achievement, she ponders for a moment longer than on any other question I've asked. A pregnant pause and pensive "hmmm", before: "That would just be getting to where I am. I don't think a lot of Latinas can say that they've been blessed enough to have worked with and met so many amazing people. To some people, meeting the people that I've met may not mean anything. But in my world, in this industry, it's been incredible to have worked on this, or had the opportunity to meet that person, or be able to work in mediums that are now obsolete. Technology's come a long way and now in Mexico there's more information about animation than when I was growing up. But when we do conferences and meet students from Mexico, a lot of them have aspirations much like the ones I had, to come up here and work. And it's hard, especially now with politics and everything that's happening with the president, it's making it more difficult for us to do what we want to do in life."
How about greatest creative challenge? "My Achilles' heels... drawing men. I can draw men, but not as well as I'd like to. Jorge's always drawing the men. He's always drawing the burly, sweaty, hairy, big, bushy, crazy-looking men. And when you put mine next to them, they look very soft and tender. And I can't draw old people as well as I'd like to. And layers of skin. And I'd love to be better with anatomy! Those are my weaknesses. But I'm getting better at them!"
When we talk about where she'd like to see the animation industry progress — in film, TV, the industry as a whole, Sandra's quick on her response: "More experimental stuff and more properties that are original." She has the nostalgia and longing to see some of the old properties rehashed, definitely appreciates the skill and talent demonstrated on these projects, and marvels at how incredibly well some of them work (like She-Ra and My Little Pony), but she can't help but wonder what could be achieved if those same talented teams were given the green light to create original content. "But it's not just up to them, it's up to the company. If companies were a little more open minded about taking risks, on creating original content, then that would open up an entire new world in the animation industry. I think that's one of the things that Netflix is doing well right now. And I'm not just saying that because we're working with them at the moment. They're taking a chance on new shows, willing to invest money and see how it goes. It's a big risk." She feels lucky to have that opportunity with Netflix, and to have had it with Disney prior to that — to have been given a chance with people who were looking for new blood and new ideas.
Another area to improve on: diversity. "We're getting there with diversity, but we need more. We need more Latinos, more Asians, more. And not only having them as secondary characters. We need them as main characters too. It's great that we're out there now, but we need more of it. It's a no-brainer."
As for current projects, Sandra and Jorge are working on the Netflix series Maya and the Three. "It's our version of Lord of the Rings, with a tip of the hat to Mesoamerican culture," Sandra explains. Think three juicy episodes featuring elements from Peru, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. Initially Sandra wasn't meant to be working on it, but Jorge has a crafty way of "tricking" her into things. "He did a rough of a character, and I couldn't figure out if it was a guy or a girl. It was meant to be a girl, so I started fleshing it out a little, to help. He started providing more details of her age, etc. and before I knew it, I had designed the character. And he was like 'haha, I gotcha! She now needs a friend.' And just like that I was on Maya and the Three."
We wrap things up with me vowing to say hi when next I'm in L.A. This has been the most entertaining interview I've ever conducted. It feels like I just spent the last hour catching up with an old friend: a very funny and incredibly inspiring friend. Having remembered that I met Jorge once (while dressed in a Zoidberg/Ghostbusters mashup Halloween costume), we agree that it's likely best if I arrive in normal clothes if ever we have a chance to meet (lest she mistakenly calls the cops on me). And Sandra, being the considerate mother that she is, leaves me with thoughtful advice: "Have you eaten? Remember to hydrate!", adding, "If you were here, I would have offered you a snack. Do you like apples? I can get you an apple. You want some salt and lemon on them? They're really good with both!" Agreed. And I'm left laughing until the very end. I finally disconnect, a giddy smile across my face. Who knew Mondays could be so uplifting?
||Jessica Fernandes is an adventurer and wordsmith based in Vancouver. She enjoys spreading appreciation for the arts through stories and encounters with inspiring creators.
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