Artist and SJSU alumna Cristina Velazquez has debuted an art exhibit at San Mateo's Avenue 25 Gallery, using her art to critique the way women are critiqued.


With a bevy of solo and group exhibits already under her belt, as well as a list of awards to her name, Velazquez's latest venture uses a collection of recycled, commonplace items to illustrate a woman's reality in the exhibit "Everything I Must Be," on display until March 4.


Realizing her passion for the arts at a young age, Velazquez said she always knew her affinity for creating would be a motivating force in her career.


Throughout her life, and with initial hesitation from her family, Velazquez pursued her dream of becoming a professional in her field and finds herself "staying with her art and having to fight for it" along the way.


Under the guidance of her mentor, Bay Area Chicano artist Rupert Garcia, as well as countless other professors here at SJSU, Velazquez graduated in 2001, receiving a bachelors degree in fine arts with a focus in pictorial arts.


Lack of grants, scholarships and financial aid to help back her in her new endeavors made life after graduation progressively problematic. For Velazquez, these shortcomings may have been her saving grace.


Forced to be more frugal in collecting materials to build her art with, she began to look around her own environment for inspiration.


Velazquez said she began collecting mundane, everyday objects from around the house to turn into something bigger, and with more meaning.


"This is when I started thinking and using junk to make art," Velazquez said. "At the time, I wasn't calling them recyclables or 'repurposables' or any of the other fancy names we have for them now ... I just wanted to transform objects into something else, something new and meaningful. I wanted to breathe new life into them."


"Everything I Must Be" is collection of dresses, each unique in their own proclamation/portrayal of what a woman 'should be,' Velazquez said. "La Mujer Tiene que Limpiar la Casa/ Women Must Clean The House" is a dress composed of old, used kitchen rags, while her piece "La Mujer Tiene que Ser Bella/Women Must Be Beautiful" is adorned with products deemed 'essential' for a female, including make-up, a portable blow dryer, fake eyelashes and a full hair roller set.


The dresses, she said, are essentially meant to be a depiction of the antiquated roles and expectations imposed on women through, "either culture, religion, customs, society or all of the above."


Walking down lines of dresses in the gallery, one will notice that three of the dresses in the procession have been taken down and in their place is a white sticker reading "CENSORED. For pictures, please see website," as well as a brief description of the piece.


One of the censored pieces, titled "La Mujer Tiene que Buena Amante/ Women Must be a Good Lover," a silky nightgown nicknamed 'The Red Dress,' is one embroidered with several positions from the Kama Sutra.


The positions, depicting women who are on top, are in poses of dominance giving pleasure to the male — this proved to be too racy for the space, which is run through the public library system in conjunction with the Women's Caucus for Art.


Velazquez, who had previously displayed the dress for a group exhibition for the same organization, said she was already aware that this piece would not be invited back for her solo exhibit. What she did not know is that a few other pieces from "Everything I Must Be," would also stir up some unexpected unrest.


"La Mujer Tiene que Cocinar/Women Must Do The Cooking," a piece characterized by dozens of assorted hanging kitchen utensils was among the pieces censored in the line up.


Among the various utensils hung three knives and because of the liability implications, it was called into question. After Velazquez offered to hot glue the edges of the knives, she said she was asked to remove them from the piece. Unwilling to alter her original artwork, she opted to remove it from the gallery.


The other dress in question, is one void of any racy visuals or sharp objects. "La Mujer Tiene que Ser Limpia/Women Must Be Clean" is decorated with an array of 'women essentials' when it comes to cleanliness, including dozens of razors, panty liners, soap and exposed tampons. Velazquez said, this particular piece, outlining an integral part of being a woman came to offend certain officials and was asked to be taken down.


Curator and self proclaimed 'chief bottle washer' of Avenue 25 Gallery, Kim McCool Nelson, took issue with the censorship of the last dress.


"It's nothing provocative, its nothing sexual ... to find a problem with some of these dresses, I really felt was unfair," McCool Nelson said. "It makes the artist feel as if the work is not acceptable or as if they are supposed to change it … and it's art."


Gallery goer Carol Perez, who was able to view the full exhibit in a photo binder, said she was also dismayed by the abridged version of Velazquez's work.


"I like it — I think it's a very interesting show that highlights women's issues," she said. "I think it should be shown without censorship ... in this day and age, it's like 'You've got to be kidding me.'"


"Everything I Must Be" at its core is a story as well as a commentary on what women have to go through, and removing that piece effectively disjointed the unity of the show Velazquez said.


"I am offended that they are offended," she said. "That dress is such an essential piece to the whole collection."


Velazquez continued, saying that seeing all of the dresses together makes a strong statement, the themes she was hoping to convey. Hanging together in procession like sisters, they are telling you the whole story.


McCool Nelson was quick to point out that everyone has their own taste. "As a curator, I see all art as being subjective to the individual," she said, adding that "not everybody is going to like everything."


Velazquez said she strongly identifies with and is inspired by many issues revolving around women, and will continue working in this field.


She reports that her curiosity on the subject was piqued as an undergrad student at SJSU when she took an introductory Women's Studies course. The female perspective, she says, has been prevalent in her work since.


I am going to continue to explore the female perspective in my work," she said. "I am a female and there is a lot to be."


In light of the aforementioned censorship, Velazquez finds herself in a bit of situational irony; officials critiquing an artist delivering her evaluation of the way women are critiqued.


Her full exhibit of dresses is available for viewing by visiting her website, cristinavelazquez.com, and can be seen by special closing reception on Feb. 26 at Avenue 25 Gallery in San Mateo from 2-4 p.m. where all 10 dresses will be displayed..