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?
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.
Comments are welcome!
*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 my view… the most useful definition of creativity is the following one: people are artistically creative when they love what they are doing, know what they are doing, and actively engage in the tasks we call art-making. The three elements of creativity are thus loving, knowing, and doing; or heart, mind, and hands; or, as Buddhist teaching has it, great faith, great question, and great courage.
Eric Maisel in A Life in the Arts: Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists
Comments are welcome!
* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
PC: In your painting, you’ve always kept this speed of movement. One senses that you work something out slowly, deep down, that it’s hard work, but there’s always something fresh about its expression.
HM: That’s because I revise my notion several times over. People often add or superpose – completing things without changing their plan, whereas I rework my plan every time. I never get tired. I always start again, working from the previous state. I try to work in a contemplative state, which is very difficult: contemplation is inaction, and I act in contemplation.
In all the studies I’ve made from my own ideas, there’s never been a faux pas because I’ve always unconsciously had a feeling for the goal; I’ve made my way toward it the way one heads north, following the compass. What I’ve done, I’ve done by instinct, always with my sights on a goal I still hope to reach today. I’ve completed my apprenticeship now. All I ask is four or five years to realize that goal.
PC: Delacroix said that too. Great artists never look back.
HM: Delacroix also said – ten years after he’d left the place – “I’m just beginning to see Morocco.” Rodin said to an artist, “You need to stand back a long way for sculpture.” To which the student replied, “Master, my studio is only ten meters wide.”
Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview, Henri Matisse with Pierre Courthion, edited by Serge Guilbaut, translated by Chris Miller
Comments are welcome!