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.
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A: I am working on a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting. Rather than create and photograph a new setup each time, I sometimes search through older photographs to find ones that might spark a compelling painting. Photos that I haven’t seen in a while often have new lessons to teach. The one clipped to my easel above is from 2009.
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A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out. Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults. It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible. It is ALWAYS possible!” However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea. You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed. The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent. For most artists the work is autobiography. Everything is personal. When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it. Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment. When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END. It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time. I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on. It is still a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work. During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach. A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising. Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like. On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that. On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them. If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.
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* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
ART when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.
When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.
The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.
Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making. Art tends toward balance, order, judgment or relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
Comments are welcome.