Category Archives: Mexico

Pearls from artists* # 421

Mexico City

Mexico City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

The economic meltdown that followed the crash of the U.S. stock market in 1929 shattered the country’s faith in itself.  With one third of the country unemployed and droughts devastating the Midwest, many Americans doubted their ability to endure and triumph.  More than ever, as the American novelist John Dos Passos asserted, the country needed to know “what kind of firm ground other men, belonging to generations before us, have found to stand on.”  Guided by the Mexican muralists, whose art they had ample opportunities to study in reproduction and exhibition, American artists responded by seeking elements from the country’s past, which they mythologized into epics of strength and endurance in an effort to help the nation revitalize itself.

Thomas Hart Benton led the charge.  Long a vociferous critic of European abstraction as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people, Benton hailed the Mexican muralists for the resolute public engagement of their art and for portraying the pageant of Mexican national life, exhorting his fellow American artists to follow their example in forging a similar public art for the U.S., even as he firmly rejected the communist ideology that often inflected the Mexican artists’ work.  African American artists were likewise inspired by the Mexican muralists’ celebration of the people’s fight for emancipation.  In creating redemptive narratives of social justice and liberation, artists such as Charles White and Jacob Lawrence transformed that struggle for freedom and equality into a new collective identity, one that foregrounded the contribution of African Americans to national life.        

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

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Pearls from artists* # 411

On top of an unexcavated pyramid, Veracruz, Mexico

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

… it reasserts that U.S. artists have learned and borrowed from Mexican traditions and, above all, that people of goodwill in both countries share in the belief that art unites, it doesn’t divide; it can be utilized to attack inequity and exploitation of the past and present but it also expresses hope and yearning for a better existence than can be realized in the present. 

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

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Pearls from artists* # 410

Mexico City

Mexico City

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Faced with the disparities between lived reality and America’s professed ideals of inclusion and equity, countless artists have begun embracing the social role of art and using aesthetic means to speak out against all manner of injustice.  In such a climate, the Mexican muralists [Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros] have once again emerged as models of how to marry aesthetic rigor and vitality to socially conscious subject matter that addresses the most fundamental questions concerning our collective pursuit of a more just and equitable society.  Not withstanding the rich cultural ties and decades of migration that have long existed between the United States and Mexico, the relationship between the two countries has always been fraught, marked as much by mutual wariness and bouts of hostility as by a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation  Yet the ugliness and xenophobia of the recent debates on the American side echoes the worst of the past.  It thus seems more imperative than ever to acknowledge the profound and enduring influence Mexican muralism has had on artmaking in the United States and to highlight the beauty and power that can emerge from the free and vibrant cultural exchange between the two countries.  As much as did American artists decades ago, artists in the United States today stand to benefit from an awareness of how dynamically and inventively the Mexican muralists used their art to project the ideals of compassion, justice, and solidarity.  They remain a source of powerful inspiration for their seamless synthesis of ethics, art, and action.

Vida Americana:  Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925 – 1945, edited by Barbara Haskell

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Q: You have worked with twenty-plus galleries during your career. Which ones do you consider the best?

"Myth Meets Dream," 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, the earliest painting that includes Mexican figures

“Myth Meets Dream,” 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, the earliest painting that includes Mexican figures

A:  Probably the most prestigious gallery that represented my work was Brewster Fine Arts on West 57th Street in Manhattan.  Brewster was my first New York gallery.  In the summer of 1996 I mailed the gallery a sheet of slides, as we did in those days.  I was living in Virginia and had been a working artist for ten years.  In July while traveling around Mexico, I decided to check the phone messages at home in Virginia.  I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Mia Kim, the gallery director, to exhibit pastel paintings in October!  And she had not yet even seen my work in person.

Beginning that fall, I gained representation with Brewster Fine Arts, an elegant gallery specializing in Latin American Masters like Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and others.  I am not Latina, of course, but I showed there due to my subject matter.  At my October opening, I remember Mia declaring to the attendees, “Barbara has the soul of a Latina!”  That night I met fellow gallery artist Leonora Carrington. She and I were the only non-Latina artists respresented.  I knew I was on my way! 

The gallery continued to present my work in group exhibitions and the staff gave brilliant talks about me and my creative process.  For many years whenever I introduced myself to a new art aficionado, they already knew my work from having seen it at Brewster.  I continued to be represented there until the gallery closed years later.

Also, Gallery Bergelli in Larkspur, CA did an excellent job of representing my work.  I applied for one of their juried exhibitions, was accepted, and afterwards, they offered permanent representation.  Soon they introduced me to one of my best collectors, with whom I am still friends.

I have worked with many galleries, some good, some not, for various reasons.  Ours is an extremely tough business.  Unfortunately, many of the best and formerly-great galleries are gone forever.   

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Pearls from artists* # 376

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

Chalcatzingo, Mexico

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

In the cemetery all the vultures began to circle, and the sky filled with birds.  It was then that I began my series on birds – many of my bird photos came from this moment.  All this to say that in life everything is connected:  your pain and your imagination, which perhaps can help you forget reality.  It’s a way of showing how you connect what you live with what you dream, and what you dream with what you do, and this is what remains on paper.

Graciela Iturbide in Eyes to Fly With:  Portraits, Self-Portraits, and Other Photographs

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Q: When did your love of indigenous artifacts begin? Where have you traveled to collect these focal points of your works and what have those experiences taught you?

Mexico City

Mexico City

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure. 

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975.  

The following autumn, Bryan and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (During my research I had become fascinated with this festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!

Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns for the “Day of the Dead.” The indigenous people tending their ancestors’ graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs. 

From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  We visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of Western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. The first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times, most recently to study Olmec art and archeology. In subsequent years I have traveled to Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in search of inspiration and subject matter to depict in my work.

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Q: As you reflect on your overall art career beginning with your art education, what major event stands out as an important sign that you were headed in the right direction?

"His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike," soft pastel on sandpaper

“His Mortal Enemy Was Poised Ready to Strike,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  In 1989 I left a career in the Navy to pursue life as a full-time professional artist.  In July 1996 Bryan and I were traveling in Mexico.  Something told me to check the phone messages at our Virginia house so I did.  

There was a message from Mia Kim, the director of Brewster Arts Ltd. on West 57th Street in Manhattan, requesting a dozen large pastel paintings for a two-person exhibition in October, just three months away!

At the time I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia so exhibiting in Manhattan – let alone securing prestigious gallery representation – seemed a far-off dream.   Yes, I had sent Mia slides, but she had not seen my work in person.   She first saw my “Domestic Threats” pastel paintings when I delivered them to the gallery for exhibition.  The show was called “Monkey Business.”

Brewster Arts was an elegant New York gallery that specialized in Latin American Art.  There was just one other non-Latina artist that Mia represented, Leonora Carrington, whom I met that October at my opening.   I remember Mia introducing me and declaring to the entire crowd, “Barbara has the SOUL of a Latina.”  I’ve always loved that.  It was the first time I realized I was really on my way!

Brewster Arts Ltd. continued to represent my work until the gallery closed some years later.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What was the first folk art figure you brought back from Mexico?

Mask from Oaxaca

Mask from Oaxaca

A:  In Oaxaca I bought a large carved wooden dragon mask with a Conquistador’s face carved and painted on its back.  My intent was to depict the dragon in a subsequent “Domestic Threats” painting (the series I was working on at the time).  The dragon still hangs in my living room in Alexandria, VA.

This first trip in 1992 was a revelation and marked the start of my on-going love of Mexico:  its people, landscapes, ancient cultures, archaeology, history, art, cuisine, etc. There would be many subsequent trips to Mexico to learn as much as I can about this endlessly interesting cradle of civilization.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Does your attraction to Mexican folk art have anything to do with the way you see life or your taste for color?

Studio corner

Studio corner

A:  Initially, it was the fact that these folk-art figures opened up an entire new world to me.  I had learned almost nothing about Mexico in school, a fact I found mystifying, considering Mexico is the United States’ southern neighbor. 

When I started collecting, I was launched on a rich intellectual adventure with seemingly no end.  The folk art figures had so much to teach and prompted many questions.  Most were unanswerable, but still, I was curious:  who made them, why, how, what did they represent, what did they reveal about the maker’s worldview, how did they fit in with historical and contemporary forces, etc.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why did you first decide to depict Mexican folk art in your work?

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38"

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″

A:  As a Christmas present in 1991 my future sister-in-law sent me two brightly painted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, Mexico. One was a blue polka-dotted winged horse.  The other was a red, white, and black bear-like figure.  See the two Mexican figures in “Myth Meets Dream” above.

I was enthralled with this gift and the timing was fortuitous because I had been searching for new subject matter to paint. Soon I started asking artist-friends about Oaxaca and learned that it was an important art hub.  Two well-known Mexican painters, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, had gotten their start there, as had master photographer Manual Alvarez Bravo.  There was a “Oaxacan School of Painting” (‘school’ meaning a style, not an actual building) and Alvarez Bravo had established a photography school there (the building/institution kind). I began reading everything I could find.  At the time I had only been to Mexico very briefly, in 1975, having made a road trip to Ensenada with my cousin and best friend from college. 

The following autumn my then-boyfriend, Bryan, and I planned a two-week trip to visit Mexico. We timed it to see Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca.  (In my reading I had become fascinated with this unique festival).  We spent one week in Oaxaca followed by one week in Mexico City.  My interest in collecting Mexican folk art was off and running!  

Comments are welcome!

 

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