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!
A: Yes, I loved seeing Alexander Calder’s wire circus at the Whitney Museum of American Art when I was a child. The circus, and the charming movie that he made with his long-suffering wife (to me she always looked bored and embarrassed that her husband was playing with his toys!) used to be on permanent display in a glass case on the ground floor. For many years Calder’s circus was in storage.
How thrilling to see it again, when the new Whitney Museum opened in May, just blocks from my apartment! Now any day of the week I can visit Calder’s circus – and other favorite works that have not been on exhibit for many years!
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.
A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now. When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months. His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known. The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts. “Sound imposes a narrative on you,” he said, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”
George Prochnik in In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
Comments are welcome!