Q: Why Mexican dolls and folk objects?
In 1991 as a Christmas present my future sister-in-law, Iris, sent two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, winged, dark blue and white polka-dotted horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black lines and dots and with a quizzical look on its face. At that time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School, and finally working as a full-time professional artist, having recently resigned after seven years on active duty as a Naval officer (I was working part-time at the Pentagon as a Naval Reservist). I was looking for something new to paint, since I had decided that I was not cut out to be a portrait artist.
I had never seen anything like these painted Oaxacan objects and was enthralled. Oaxaca was new to me and except for a weekend road trip in 1975 from Berkeley, CA to Ensenada, Mexico, I had not been to Mexico. I started asking my artist-friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that Rufino Tamayo and Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, the well known photographers, were from Oaxaca. (Indeed Manuel Alvarez Bravo had founded an important photography museum there). Of course I had long been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, and other well-known artists associated with Mexico and I had long been interested in Pre-Columbian civilizations. Further, I had some limited knowledge of Spanish after studying it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca in particular and more generally about Mexico. I soon became fascinated with the Mexican Day of the Dead.
In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to watch the Day of the Dead observances in local cemeteries and to study Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.); followed by a week in Mexico City to see Diego Rivera's murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul, and ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).
I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of locating my first acquisition, a big wooden, cob-web-covered half dragon, half Conquistador mask that Bryan and I found high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan mask shop and hand carried on the plane, putting rolled up socks on its feet to protect its toes from being accidentally broken! I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting central and southern Mexico. I love the light, the colors, and the sights of the high desert plateau. When I say "Mexico" to most Americans their first thoughts are of "beautiful beaches," but I have never been to a Mexican beach. I travel there to study Pre-Columbian history, archeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating place!
Q: How large is your current collection of Mexican folk objects?
I haven't counted them, but I would guess around 200 pieces of various sizes, if you also include the Guatemalan figures. I started going to Guatemala last year and just returned from my second trip. I divide my time between my house in Alexandria, VA, an apartment in the West Village in Manhattan, and my studio in Chelsea. The figures are everywhere I am.
Q: You liken your pieces to scenes in a movie. Is there an audition process? What qualities must a doll possess to be cast in one of your paintings?
There's not an audition process, but I do feel like they call out to me somehow when I'm searching the markets and bazaars of Mexico and Guatemala for objects to bring back to paint and photograph. Color is very important - the brighter and the more eye catching the patterns are the better - plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they've had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where an object comes into my possession is an important part of my artistic process. Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but it's also an adventure and often a good story.
Here is a recent example. Two weeks ago I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel, a place which isn't often visited by foreign tourists. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, "That's it. I'll just have to leave them behind." However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous!
Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn't have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door!). Surprisingly the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala. All five figures from Panajachel are lined up on the floor in my living room awaiting their debut appearance in a painting.
When I set up a scene for a painting, I work very intuitively so how the objects were actually cast in a painting is difficult to say. Looks count a lot - I selected an object and put it in a particular place, looked at it, moved it or let it stay, and began developing a storyline. I spent time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. All of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, could shoot a couple of negatives with his 4" x 5" view camera.
I would have a 20" x 24" photograph made to use for reference as I make the painting, plus I also worked from the "live" objects. The earliest Domestic Threats paintings were set in my Virginia house, but in 1997, I moved to a six floor walk up in New York. For the next few years my paintings were set there, until 2001 when I moved to my current apartment. In a sense the work is a visual autobiography that hints at where I've lived and what my day to day domestic surroundings have been like.
Q: Can you elaborate on the series title, Domestic Threats?
This sounds prosaic but all of the paintings in this series are set in my personal domestic environment, in places where I reside or have resided, either my Virginia house or my New York apartment(s). Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure who is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures. So the title seemed an obvious choice. Depending on what is going on in the country at a particular moment in time, people have prescribed political associations to my work, and I suppose some of those are valid.
Artists are influenced by everything, whether we are conscious of it or not. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, many people thought the title Domestic Threats was prescient. They have ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to it, but that is not really what I had in mind. For a time some thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I had intended. The titleDomestic Threats means quite different things to everyone.
Q: There is a voyeuristic quality to your paintings. Perhaps it is because we are seeing objects most would consider inanimate acting out these complex scenes you’ve created for them. Where do the stories come from?
When I used to set up the figures for Bryan to photograph, I made up stories about what was happening. Being an artist has lots of negatives, but one of the fun parts is that sometimes we get to act like big kids! Some of the stories came from movies, mythology, folk tales, or dreams. I read a lot and I love stories of all kinds. I try to be open to all sorts of influences. You never know what will work its way in to enrich your art.
Q: Do the dolls go on to play different roles in different series or are their characters recurring?
The dolls and other objects play different roles in each painting and I paint them differently to reflect this. If you take one doll and follow it through the series, you'll notice that it evolves so that it never looks the same in any two paintings. I continue to think of each object as an actor in a repertory company.
Q: In your paintings, we occasionally catch a glimpse of blond haired female whom I assume is you. Are you also playing a character or do you appear as yourself?
I am playing myself. It's a bit self-conscious, but I like to include myself now and then. As I've said, I used to be a portrait artist so this is one way to keep up my technical skills. Beyond that when I'm in the painting it gives another level of reality to the scene depicted. I prefer not to analyze it too much.
Q: There is plenty of joyful and vibrant color in your work, but shadows are also ever-present. I would almost go as far as calling them the supporting players of your compositions. Can you elaborate on their importance and significance?
When I arranged the set ups, I spent a lot of time lighting the scenes in search of interesting cast shadows. At one point the shadows became so important that I thought of them as physical objects in their own right. I made them very prominent and gave them added emphasis. Often they had no relation to the object depicted as I gave them any shape that looked good in the painting. When I go to art galleries and museums, I always look at the shadows surrounding three dimensional objects. How less visually satisfying Calder's mobiles and stabiles would be without their shadows on the wall! I find shadows constantly intriguing.
Q: If your dolls could talk, what might they say about you as a director?
I hope they would say that I am very focused, that I know exactly what I am after, and that I use all the skills and knowledge I have acquired in 24 years as a painter (8 as a photographer) to make art that is worthwhile and meaningful.
Q: Your paintings are full-blown productions. You take great care to not only cast them, but to choose the right sets and lighting for them. Would you consider making films?
In the late 1990s I seriously considered it - I studied film at the New School and at New York University - but ultimately I decided to stay with painting. A well-made film will be seen by more people than a painting ever will, but the finances of making it are daunting. Historically visual artists have achieved mixed results when they have turned to filmmaking. Cindy Sherman was not very good at it, but Shirin Neshat's recent feature film is promising. Julian Schnabel is arguably a much better filmmaker than he ever was a painter. Most importantly for me, filmmaking is a collaboration. I love the time I spend alone in my studio and prefer having control over and being fully responsible for the results. It would be difficult to give this up.
Q: What are you currently working on?
In 2007 I began the Black Paintings series, which grew directly out of the Domestic Threats. It is a pared-down version of earlier iconography and evolved directly from my relatively recent photography studies. After I lost Bryan on 9/11 (as I alluded to, Bryan photographed most of the set ups for my Domestic Threats series), I needed to find a way to continue working. In 2002 I began studying photography at the International Center of Photography in New York.
Soon I began working seriously as a photographer and my new photographic work, the Gods and Monsters series, has been well received. I had my first solo photography exhibition in October 2009 with HP Garcia Gallery in New York (see http://www.nyartsmagazine.com/) and am getting ready for my next solo show there in May 2011. It will include recent photographs and new work from the Black Paintings series.