LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Clay Mata’s home studio is her happy place. The dozens of spray paint cans and bottles of acrylic scattered across a table cover a rainbow of colors. Vibrant paintings depicting everything from video game characters to pop culture icons and Mexican folk art influences line the walls. A handmade Frida Kahlo rug channels the energy of one of Mata’s favorite artists.
“I really think she’s brave,” Mata said of Frida Kahlo, a famous Mexican painter best known for her brightly colored, often emotional self-portraits. “She is super chingona.” (Chingona is a Spanish term used to describe women one considers to be “badass”, capable or talented.)
Much like the paintings of Frida Kahlo, Mata’s work is full of brilliant colors.
“[Color] is very, very important. I feel like everything in Mexico is colorful, even the food. Like if you just see a bowl — like a plate is colorful and everything is colorful, the dancing, the music, everything about our culture is so colorful and I love it.”
On this day, Mata is transforming a closet door in her home studio into a vibrant mural of a cat with wings. She’s painting an alebrije, an imaginery creature often seen in Mexican or Oaxacan folk art. She uses a combination of stencils, spray paint and acrylic paint to breathe life into the fantastical beast.
Mata’s Mexican heritage is as prominent in her paintings as the bold colors she brushes across her canvas, which isn’t always a closet door. It could be a jacket, sneakers, a wall — even the side of a building. From wearable art to decorative pieces, her work sells to clients all across the country.
Mata is living out her childhood dream with every brushstroke. She was a little girl when she discovered her love for drawing on the backside of Churchill Downs.
“One day I was just sitting there [at Churchill Downs] while my parents were walking horses. I started to draw on napkins and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m good.’ My first drawing was a cardinal from the UofL,” recalled Mata.
Drawing inspiration from Muhammad Ali, Pokémon, a Muñeca, The Golden Girls, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, even Frida Kahlo, Mata’s current work features everything from pop culture and historical icons to Mexican folk art influences.
Mata’s art will be featured in several Hispanic Heritage Month events. Later this month, Mata will return to the place where her dream of becoming an artist began. She’s doing a live art presentation at Downs After Dark at Churchill Downs on Sept. 24.
Two of Mata’s paintings are also on display in the Kentucky State Capitol Rotunda, part of the Kentucky Arts Council’s “Our Kentucky Home” exhibit featuring some of the state’s Hispanic, Latin American and Latinx artists.
“I didn’t realize how many Hispanic artists are in Kentucky, so that was exciting,” said Mata. “I don’t see a lot of like Hispanic art museums or exhibits here in Kentucky. So it was really exciting to hear about that because that’s what I do—I do a lot of like Hispanic art because I’m always inspired with the Mexican culture.”
The “Our Kentucky Home” exhibit is on display from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday in the Capitol Rotunda through Oct. 5. The exhibit will then travel to LexArts Gallery in Lexington and The Kentucky Center in Louisville.
Editor's note: In a previous version of this story "alebrije" was misspelled. The error has been corrected.