“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”
This is how the French writer André Breton describes surrealism in 1924. This month’s show at Alberta Street Gallery is called (Sur)Realismo Mágico because of surrealist elements in Katrina Zarate’s work and the “realismo mágico” of Verónica Arquilevich Guzmán’s clay figurines. Both artists take inspiration from a place that is different from the reality we all experience, and they also blur the lines between dream and reality in their work. André Breton would have been proud.
Sources of Inspirations
Growing up in Mexico, Verónica learned about the spirit animals, alebrijes. These creatures are based on real animals but have features or elements that make them new, unknown, fantastical. The artform goes back to Pedro Linares in the 1930s. When he was lying in bed severely ill, he saw strange things in his dreams and later replicated them out of cardboard and papier-mâché. If you have seen the movie Coco, it is filled with alebrijes, including the dog with wings.
For Katrina, inspiration came from a true nightmare: an eye condition that seriously threatened her sight. Several surgeries later, her eyesight had improved but “these issues with my eyes solidified how important art is to me and gave me the impetus to do it while I still can.”
Paths to Becoming an Artist
One of the biggest questions that every artist must answer for herself is where to get inspiration. What is the reason to create art in the first place? Where does the drive to be creative originate? In life, it can come from unlikely places that are not always positive experiences.
The strongest force in Katrina’s creative drive was when she experienced serious issues with her eyesight. “Because both my (retinas) detached and tore, I had to have a number of surgeries to repair the damage. That is why the way I perceive reality today is different from what it was. I was nearsighted and had LASIK surgery. The complications that followed were cataracts and then being farsighted. And now, one eye is nearsighted and one is farsighted. I still have blind spots in my vision and sometimes lines are wavy. My brain compensates but not always. And, by moving through different vision perspectives, ‘I saw’ how different the same thing can be, and how it affects our perception and representation.
“I started painting when that happened and watched my art change and be affected by how my vision changed. For instance, I gravitated to bold, impactful colors from having a cataract and having to work through the cloudiness. Bypassing my eyes and working through experience has taught me how to paint and create representation,” says Katrina. She is quick to add that while this was a serious life experience, she is happy where she is today and how it has enriched her life.
Verónica says that, “When I was a young kid, the only thing I liked to do was drawing and painting. But I never knew that there was a career opportunity. I studied graphic design with a focus on advertising. But when I worked in an advertising agency, I didn’t like that as much, so I started to do art.” She also started teaching others. “I emptied my dining room and made it into a classroom.”
While she lived in many countries around the world since, it was only when she came to the US, that art became more central in her life. She created her own exhibitions and continued teaching children. “I needed to convince myself in the first place that I am an artist , and that art is what I should be doing. Only if I believed it, other people would as well.” Before Portland, she lived in Dallas and Santa Barbara.
“In Santa Barbara, I had a couple sponsor me. They were interested in the variety of my style.” says Verónica. “In that moment, I realized that this is really happening. I thought to myself, you can be a real artist here.” Still, things weren’t easy, but she persisted. “I was cold-calling in my broken English. I was knocking on doors until I found the door that was open. Life is full of opportunities everywhere, but some people just don't take risks.”
Living in many countries, Verónica always painted what she saw, but she really started focusing on ceramics while living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The many different cultures in one place were “almost like a culture shock. I couldn’t focus on what to paint. It was too much,” she explains.
Both artists were also inspired by what their respective fathers did to earn a living. Verónica’s father was a biologist who “gave us that sense of respecting nature and to love it. With my pieces, I try to get people to love and respect nature.” She lists nature as her greatest influence. How Katrina’s father influenced her is most visible in the window display. “My dad is a writer and director in the theater world. The staging and stage design that happens in my compositions come from there. Growing up with him being rooted in the world of theater really influenced some of my compositions.”
Creating Andre Breton’s “Absolute Reality”
Here is how Verónica describes her art. “[It is about] my heritage, my roots, the colorful element that is in the Mexican culture. Earlier, my pieces were nature, plants. If you bring together nature and plants with the Mexican colorful element, you get what alebrijes are to me: Fantasy, animals that don't exist. An iguana with wings. The imagination of a child. I try to imitate (the colors and the patterns this art form uses,) but I do it in clay. Alebrijes traditionally are done in wood.”
Katrina started out as a portrait artist painting as close to reality as possible. You wouldn’t think that if you saw only her current work, which is more surrealistic. “I am taking pieces from other series that I used to do. I play with reality, color, line, dimension, scale,” she explains. “Through the years, I have been playing with one concept and one field of art, and I created a number of series of similar paintings, like the one of “dogs and beer.’ But now, I look at those series that include portraiture, pop art, strong lines, abstraction; and work on ways to combine them with realism.” The result is an enticing mixture of styles such as the realistic portraits of local musicians in front of an abstract background. “I am working with some things that are 3-D or 2-D, I experiment with scale - blow up or shrink elements, and with putting elements together in an interesting way. It’s an abstraction. Close to pop-art style at times.”
Verónica describes her ceramic alebrijes as “playful, colorful, nature-inspired. They are decorative but can be usable too. One of my creations is a bowl-like creature where the tail is a spoon. It could serve as a container for salt, salsa, etc.” In fact, one of the characteristics of a traditional alebrije is that parts of the animal can be removed.
Planning - An Important Part of Creating
Verónica wants her art to be an “inspiration about loving and respecting nature. And about having a sense of the Mexican culture.” The former is one of the reasons she is now focusing on working in clay, after many years of painting in a variety of media. She gets the most fun from “the wheel, from working with clay. Creating ‘the thing.’ ” Later, when she has to paint it, it is more difficult for her. “I have to do a lot of planning. But the coming out of something that is nothing -- that’s so cool. Something that connects you to nature. Clay is such a strong connection to Earth.”
Conversely, the most fun for Katrina is when the underpainting is complete and she gets to build transparent layers on top of it. “When that happens, it takes that thing from this good but not great thing, to that bigger, more realistic, deep canvas. It transforms from a flat painting to a real piece of art.”
Even though Katrina’s art looks lighthearted, “everything I do is pretty planned. I create my version of what things are going to be. I start with a sketch and lay out what the composition is going to be. I build an underpainting and then add multiple transparent layers of paint. It’s pretty meticulous work, pretty thought-out. It’s all planned. Some artists ’just go’ -- I am not that kind of artist.”
She describes her style as “weird” (laughing). She adds, “I enjoy playing with styles, so it is hard to narrow it down to just one. I am not a ‘this’ artist. My art is the most Portland art.” She wants people to look at her work and “leave with a sense of joy, to be inspired to be creative and to laugh.”
Being an Artist
For Katrina, it is clear that “everyone should make art, but not everyone should make art a career. It’s a hard life. If you can do anything else and be happy, do that thing. But if you can’t, then do art and do it as hard as you can do it.”
“Creation is a form of meditation,” says Verónica. For any artist, it is important that you “believe in yourself and focus on what you really, really want to do and do it.” She made that commitment for herself. “Me and art is like one thing. I don’t see it as a role, or a part of my life. Rather, it is something that cannot be separated. If I am not doing it, I feel that I am not doing what I am supposed to be doing in this life.” Just as important to her is teaching art, especially to children, because it teaches them about themselves and builds self-esteem.
Katrina describes the role of art in her life succinctly: “The entire thing. Literally my whole life. It is all of it.” However, she admits that she never wanted to be an artist. “Because I grew up with my dad and his life as a creative person, I knew how difficult it was to be an artist. The challenge was clear to me and daunting. So I tried to be everything but.”
Life experiences changed everything. Today, “when I am not painting, I am not OK. It’s a coping mechanism. I tried and can’t do anything else but being an artist.” Katrina is also firm in the belief that if you are an artist, it’s paramount to learn the business of art. “That is important and an ongoing process.”