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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

Comments are welcome!

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.   

Comments are welcome!   

Q: Mexico has been a big influence on your work. What first drew you to Mexican folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A: In 1991 my future sister-in-law sent, as a Christmas present, two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, blue and white polka dot flying horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black dots and lines.

At the time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School there, and working as a full-time artist. I had resigned from the Navy after seven years on active duty, although I still worked one weekend a month at the Pentagon as a reservist. I was looking for something new to paint with soft pastel, having found portraits deeply unsatisfying.

I had never seen anything like these Oaxacan figures and was intrigued. I started asking friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that the painter, Rufino Tamayo, and husband and wife photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, were from Oaxaca. (Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there). 

I had been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and other artists associated with Mexico, and had a long-standing interest in pre-Columbian civilizations. I knew some Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca and Mexico and soon became fascinated with the Day of the Dead.

In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to see Day of the Dead observances and to study the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.), and another week in Mexico City to visit Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and nearby ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).

I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first mask, a big wooden dragon with a Conquistador’s face on its back. Bryan and I found it high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The dragon was three and a half feet long and three feet wide. Because it was fragile, we hand-carried it onto the plane and were able to store it in the first class cabin (this was pre-9/11). I chuckle to remember that we covered its finely carved toes with rolled up socks to prevent them from breaking!

I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting the central and southern states. I travel there to study pre-Columbian history, archaeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating country that has long been an inspiration for artists.

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