“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.”
About real reality, fake reality, and divergence points
When you first notice one of the abstract photographs by Dan Bernard, your mind goes from recognizing the familiar to realizing that it is now something else, or something in addition to what it is. bd dombrowsky’s paintings draw you in with cheerful colors and images that evoke an expectation of what you will see but once you’re close, you have to realize that what you see is a snarky reality, a caricature of what you were expecting. This month’s featured artists are experts in playing with reality, and in tricking the mind of the observer to create something new.
Here is how bd describes his art: “I think of my work as allegory painting. I like to tell stories. I want to create the essence of a story that is open so a person can bring their own part of the narrative to it.” The viewer is essential to the story that is about to be created. “My work is like a carnivorous flower. You get pulled in from a distance by friendly colors and images, and once you are there, it’s too late, you’ve seen it.” For example, you might think of it as a religious painting but then from close up, it is a snarky social commentary.
For Dan, “abstract is an image that makes you ask what is that? It is often something that cannot be identified. It’s a detail of a texture, or something ordinary taken out of context. It becomes interpretive, and very personal. It becomes much more than any other photography because it is selective. I select a piece of something that intrigues, isolate a part and create a world onto itself. The process of abstracting allows each viewer to project their own interpretation onto the image.” Omitting color enhances this effect. “Black and white images always fascinated me because it is not a literal interpretation of life. Rather a more interpretive visualization that allows me as the photographer to manipulate it, interpret it, to put my own fingerprint on it.”
The particular use of the medium
Dan’s focus is on landscape, street, and abstract photography. His contributions to the July exhibition are mostly photographs he took on a recent visit to Zion National Park.”I felt like I was in my temple,” says Dan. “Such a spiritually moving environment. The quiet but visually and geologically dynamic elements of the landscape are mind-boggling. You are sitting there and see over geologic time. You notice the earth-shaking things that have taken place.” Looking at elements that got pushed up by seismic or volcanic activity but are now frozen in time is an experience that he describes as “dramatic and magical.”
In order to capture a great street scene, “one has to capture ‘the decisive moment’ as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it." That is when movement, people, contrasts converge to create a fascinating/interesting moment to observe. “I am greatly influenced by him,” says Dan. Doing street photography is similar to “hunting”, because one has to “blend in with the landscape, be invisible, to catch that convergence.“
bd works in oil on panel. “Panel makes a solid substrate that I can prime and sand to a smooth state. That then allows me to draw cleaner lines and push out paint as far as I want. I use a “classical method” creating a monochromatic underpainting in umber tones and then apply layers of glaze over that. With the brown underlying, the use of thin oil paint, and glazing, I allow light to go through the layers of paint to the panel and come back up.” He sums up his style as “illustrative, with a pinch of surreal.”
When asked about his style, Dan describes it as “moody, dramatic, revealing, particular.” His goal is “to push past, break through the limits of what my style has been in the past; to surpass, exceed my style as I develop a new facet of it.” A great example are the new abstract images that he has developed for this exhibition, adding double exposure to his repertoire of tricks.
“Standing on the shoulders of giants”
This thought by Isaac Newton is very much applicable when talking about who influenced this month’s artists.
bd mentions Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Ron English, Edouard Manet and Caravaggio. He also loves Salvador Dali’s paintings but his “personality annoys me.” From Magritte, it’s “the non-sequitur quality of his surrealism. Taking things completely out of context.” Tanguy has this “ability to create the impression of a story or that some things look like they are real but are not. He plants seeds of things that look like real things but don't exist.” Caravaggio is an “amazing painter. His application was so gorgeous. He put religious themes in (at the time) contemporary images that allows people to connect on a very visceral level.”
Other than the Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dan is greatly influenced by Ansel Adams’ landscape photography. “I learned about photo-chemistry from Ansel Adams. His books “The Negative”, “The Print” -- I read and reread those multiple times. I was obsessed. That is how I learned how to develop film and control the medium.”
For Dan’s abstract photography, he looks to the work of Edward Weston. One of Weston’s great achievements is taking the ordinary and making it remarkable. Abstract pictures of bell peppers. Or, taken straight on, a close-up of the toilet bowl making it appear very sensual with its curves and white porcelain. Another influencer is Andre Kertesz, a Hungarian-born photographer who is now considered one of the seminal figures in his field.
The creative process
bd works on several paintings at the same time. “I have them around the house and stare at them. Meditate.” That is his way of trying to find out where a painting “needs to go”. It’s a “slow, transactional process.” The most fun for bd is actually painting. It evokes memories of coloring. “Drawing is like riding a bike uphill. A challenge every stinking time. Painting is the fun part, riding downhill.”
For Dan, it is “when I share my work with others and find that they are moved or inspired by what I created.” He describes that feeling as “exhilarating and addictive” and likens the making of art to an addiction. “The longer I am not doing it, the less meaning my life has. And as I re-engage to create, my sense of purpose grows. Sharing is the peak — emotionally and spiritually. When the moment is past, the process restarts.” While he is always his first critic, he also posts frequently on Instagram and judges from the reaction of his many followers how well-liked a photograph is.
Dan hopes to “evoke in others the feelings that I experience when I see art and hear music: Exhilaration. Hopefulness. I want to inspire them, perhaps to create their own art. I dream that my creations will leave an indelible impression or memory, just like the art and music that I admire”. For bd, creating divergence is central to his art. “How things start out from one point and go different directions.” At times, he takes an old painting of his and recreates it, adding another layer of abstraction. “It’s now not only divergent from a story but also from itself. It’s double divergent.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that both feel deeply about art. Art for bd “is my entertainment, my therapy, and my job.” Adds Dan, “After family, it is the main organizing principle of my existence.”
Advice to budding artists
“Create. Create. Create. Art. Art. Art.” is how Dan sums it up. bd is as black and white in his view: “Dive in or quit. Only do it if you can’t not do it.”
Both Dan and bd are experienced artists. bd has exhibited his paintings all over San Diego and Southern California, has participated in solo and group shows in many cities and also shows in places like restaurants and coffee shops. He is also a regular at the Portland Saturday Market. Dan, in addition to being a photographer, is also a musician in his own right. If you’re lucky, you can catch him performing at the Gallery, most notably during his and bd’s Last Thursday opening reception in June.
Art Inspired by Movement
Picture a group of snowboarders carving up a mountain, leaving a variety of lines in the snow. Even after they are gone, the traces they left are testament to the dynamic movement, energy, and the fun they had. Now, picture a bicycle in a street race. Individual spokes are disappearing because the wheels are turning so quickly. The gears are spinning similarly fast and all you are able to see is a blurred image of what you know is a gear wheel.
Getting inspired by fast movements, capturing what these do to their surroundings, freezing a fleeting moment in time -- that is what both of these artists do so beautifully in their art. Brian Echerer’s sculptures are made out of gears and spokes, the very elements that are so dynamic when in use, but now forced by him into permanent positions. The surface of some of Ian Wieczorek’s ceramic pieces shows deep fissures, crossing and intersecting with each other. They might as well have been carved by mini snowboarders coming down the sides in a wild race of bliss. It is a manifestation of both artists’ deep love for different sports that is influencing their artistic creativity.
Sport Begets Art
Brian Echerer was an avid bicycle racer who participated in road races, mountain biking and
cyclocross.”My art is cycle-centric and an expression of my passion for cycling. But to me these pieces are no longer chains and gears. It’s like a different medium now.” Bicycle art has been around for a while. People have created bracelets out of spokes for example. Brian at one point realized that “you can do so much more with it.” He added decorations to his spoke bracelets and started selling them at the Saturday market, on Etsy, and other places. “I am lucky in that if I can imagine something in my head, I know I can make it come to life.”
Not surprisingly, Brian prefers the term “maker” over “artist.” Self-taught, he has been constantly expanding his skill set as his visions became more elaborate. “When I needed to learn how to weld in order to create my vision, I watched YouTube videos and learned from others how to do it.” He did the same when there was a need for soldering, for glass pieces to be incorporated into his art. “Often it’s trial and error,” he adds. “Even as a child, I was always taking things apart and putting them back together, learning on the fly.”
Ian Wieczorek explains that “my sculptures are drawn from my experience with action sports. It’s all about fully living in the moment, being hyper-focused on what I am doing.” He transfers that “meditative state” into the studio, where everything is in a state of flow and he just creates and responds. Creating ceramics is a hands-on, almost “sensual” experience. “I particularly like that clay displays different characteristics in the different states of creating ceramics. Initially, it’s wet and malleable. When dry or after a firing, I get to use a different approach and tools to continue making the piece into what I envisioned.” Working with glazes and the chemistry behind it “engages the nerdy folds of my brain,” he explains. In contrast to the intuitive process of creating the sculpture, when glazing, he needs to be very precise with measurements and temperatures,“ otherwise the piece is a brown pot and not a vibrant sculpture. And it’s fun to create unique glazes that complement the different textures and forms. It keeps things fresh.”
Life’s Double Takes
Both Ian and Brian very much appreciate being a part of the art collective where an artist can hang his or her art for much longer than in traditional galleries. They also cite the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from other artists as yet another element that the gallery brings to its members. It’s funny that Ian and Brian are having a show together because of how their artistic lives intertwine before.
Ian joined the gallery in October of last year. He lives nearby and walking on Alberta Street, he noticed a few people painting the walls in a store and putting finishing touches on what is now our new gallery space. He walked in, started a conversation, and ended up jurying into the art collective. Brian, on the other hand, is one of the main reasons that the gallery looked at this space when we lost our lease in the old location. He and Maquette (one of last month’s featured artists), in different ways, were instrumental in negotiating the terms, getting people excited about this opportunity and making it finally happen.
About Art and the Process of Making it
“I would describe my style as simple, classy, chunky,” says Brian. Indeed, all elements are visible and uncluttered. Not pretentious at all. When asked the same question, Ian describes his style with words like “flowing,” “expressive,” “texture,” “movement” and “gestures”. No surprise that he draws inspiration from interviews and clips of snowboarders talking about their passion for the sport. Brian early on was influenced by his parents and an uncle who all are artists in a variety of artistic endeavors.
Ian says that “I want my art to provoke a spark of energy, curiosity and imagination. And the impulse to touch the textures.” He looks up to progressive ceramic artists like Ken Price, Peter Voulkos and Ron Nagel. He admires how these artists have been changing how people look at pottery; from something that is “pretty” and “decorative” to a contemporary place that is edgy and expressive.
When making art, Brian is fascinated by the fact that he “can visualize a piece in my head and make that. It’s almost mystical. To envision something and bring it into the real world as an object.” When asked what he wants people to walk away with after seeing his art, he says “the art” and laughs. Seriously, he loves seeing people’s reactions to his pieces. In fact, it was a strong reaction of a person at his stand at the Saturday Market that made him realize that he is an artist in his own right. It took persistence on his part and that is also his advice to young artists. “If there is a will, there is a way. Persistence will win the day more times than not.”
For Ian, the most fun about creating art is “getting in there and making.” To be in a studio, listening to good music, enjoying the company of other artists and getting lost in discovery. His advice is “Chase your curiosities; who knows where you will go. Because mine have taken me around the world.”
Blurred Lines at Alberta Street Gallery
April’s Last Thursday opening sets the stage for a month-long view of two very different artists at Alberta Street Gallery. One of them, Maquette Reeverts, has been with the gallery for more than a decade and works primarily in acrylic and oil. The other, Ray Andresson, is a recent addition to the group of 30 artists and has been with the gallery for only nine months. He showcases his abstract and mixed-media drawings.
For Maquette, Blurry is Beautiful
Maquette draws inspiration from photographic mistakes that people make, whether that is cutting off the heads of their subjects or taking blurry photographs. The latter is what she has been focusing on for the last few years. “It’s all based on light and how light goes through the lens of an SLR. I started as a photography teacher in high school and saw a lot of photographs with obvious ‘mistakes,’ but that made them also interesting. Not necessarily wrong, just different and something new,” she explains. “I am fascinated by how light works from going through a lens.”
Maquette has an art history background and finds inspiration from a wide variety of styles and the work of many artists. It’s that breadth that influences her, more so than any one artist or group in particular.
When asked about what is the most fun for her when creating art, she explains that “I really enjoy seeing the difference between the photograph that inspired me and the finished piece of art. It’s kind of a private pleasure since I never exhibit the two side-by-side.”
Inspired by Nature, Microscopic Organisms and Landscapes
While Ray’s earlier work was more pattern-centric, he now gravitates towards nature and organic subjects. Talking about his process, Ray explains: “Sometimes it takes me two or three months to finish a piece. I’ll stop when I run out of steam, then I pick it up later, and let it rest again. It takes me a good month on average before I feel that a piece is finished.”
For inspiration, he often looks at images in books and online and the work of other artists. While he took a lot of art history and studio art courses that also influenced his work, Ray points to the Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky as his strongest influence. ”You cannot look at linear perspectives without the person that invented it. One of the assignments in a painting class was to pick a song and paint it. Kandinsky was a pioneer who tried to visualize music in his art.” He adds that the best part of creating a work is “not knowing how it will look like when it is finished.”
The Role of Art in Their Lives
Both were drawn to being creative since they were children and never stopped. As Ray points out, “Paraphrasing Picasso, every child is an artist and the trick is to stay one as one becomes an adult.” He worked in a variety of media over the years. “I really like ceramics. I did mixed-media sculptures with found objects. I also tried a little bit of jewelry.” But for now, “at a very basic level, the kind of art I am doing now is in part driven by affordability and accessibility of the material.” He adds that even during the darkest times in his life, he has always had an urge to create art.
For Maquette, the importance of art also cannot be overstated. “It is at the very center of my life. I try to live a creative life, also in other things that I do and get involved with. It’s noticeable in my home, sometimes in what I wear.”
Advice to Budding Artists
“Keep practicing! Don’t let anyone pigeon-hole your work and where do you want to go with it,” says Maquette. Ray adds, “Most importantly, don’t take rejection or failures too personally.” Both stress how important it is to do what you love and look for inspiration everywhere, in life, other artists, books, and online.
Why Alberta Street Gallery?
“One of the main advantages of a co-op gallery is that your art is continuously up,” explains Maquette. “You change it out, but it is not rotating off the floor as in a traditional gallery.”
“Most galleries are businesses that profit off an artist’s work and provide space only,” says Ray. “The co-op model is very different because everyone contributes to the success of the gallery, the operation, and the direction it takes.”