* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
As the art historian Jack Flam has noted: ‘Art constantly reinvents itself. As time passes, new audiences find new ideas and inspiration in it and keep reframing its meanings and significance in fresh ways. Art also encourages new mental attitudes and ways of looking as it travels across space; some of these attitudes and beliefs might have been inconceivable to the people who created it, but the art nonetheless manages to speak persuasively and to create fresh images in other collective imaginations.’
Quoted in Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens by Wendy A. Grossman
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A: In the early 90’s my late husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City. At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand. Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns. The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s 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. On that first trip to Mexico we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); 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. This 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 this past March to study Olmec art and culture.
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A: It didn’t take long to become smitten with these beautiful people. It happened on my first trip there in 1992 when Bryan and I, along with busloads of other tourists, were visiting the Oaxacan cemeteries on The Day of the Dead. The Oaxaquenos tending their ancestor’s 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 them and with their beliefs. My studies since that time have given me a deeper appreciation for the art, architecture, history, mythology, etc. that comprise the extremely rich and complex story of Mexico as a cradle of civilization in the West. It is a wonderfully heady mix and hopefully some of it comes through in my work as a painter and a photographer.
By the way I often wonder why the narrative of Mexico’s fascinating history was not taught in American public schools, at least not where I went to public school in suburban New Jersey. Mexico is our neighbor, for goodness sake, but when I speak to many Americans about Mexico they have never learned anything about the place! It’s shocking, but many people think only “Spring Break” and/or “Drug Wars,” when they hear the word “Mexico.” As a kid I remember learning about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and other early civilizations in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, but very little about Mexico. We learned about the Maya, when it was still believed that they were a peaceful people who devoted their lives to scientific and religious pursuits, but that story was debunked years ago. And I am fairly sure that not many Americans even know that Maya still exist in the world … in Mexico and in Guatemala. There are a few remote places that were not completely destroyed by Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century and later. I’ve been to Mayan villages in Guatemala and seen shamans performing ancient rituals. For an artist from a place as rooted in the present moment as New York, it’s an astounding thing to witness!
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