People sometimes ask me if I can remember the moment when I first realized that I am artist. It’s a good question, and one many artists are asked. On one level, that could be tough to answer, because I honestly can’t remember a time when drawing and painting and cutting and pasting and making weren’t a part of my life. I have been creating art ever since I could hold a crayon. But engaging in an activity, and realizing that it is your calling, are two entirely different things. I have been thinking a great deal about what art means to me lately, and I decided to share part of the story here today. I will write more about the subject next month, when I switch to a different theme in my studio journal.
For me, the moment of realization came at the age of 12. When I was in elementary school, I travelled to Mexico City, Mexico, as an exchange student. It was the first extended period I’d spent away from my family. And while a bit frightening, at the same time it was also the most thrilling experience of my young life. I stayed with a host family in the very heart of the city. They were very excited to have a little American girl staying with them, and they planned our days according to my interests. I couldn’t have been more than 48 hours into my trip when I pulled out my sketch pad and pencils. We were visiting one of the sites in the city, nothing major or particularly memorable, except that there were some carved birds that caught my eye and I wanted to make a drawing to remember them. My hosts had stopped for lunch and I began sketching. I remember feeling the distinct sensation of being watched, and when I looked up, all of their eyes were glued to me and my drawing. I felt self-conscious and started to close my notebook. But my exchange mother stopped me, and she was smiling. They were all smiling. “Usted es artista”, “You are an artist”, she said, “That is a great gift”.
Diego Rivera’s historic mural at the National Palace in Mexico City (photo: Wikimedia Commons – click image for link). I saw this, among other works when I was 12. When I returned home, I began painting murals on the walls of my family’s cellar (I lead my much better behaved sister into this forbidden activity as well). At first I got into trouble for my graffiti, but eventually my parents gave in; allowing us to completely fill the walls with drawings and paintings. They are probably still there —beneath studded walls and sheetrock— in the present owner’s finished cellar.
I was twelve years old, and in spite of the fact that I was already compulsively creating art, no one in the US had ever said that to me before (at home or in school). I don’t think I really knew what it meant —to be an artist— but I got the sense that to my exchange family, artists were very important people, at least in Mexico. From that moment on, art museums, exhibits and tours became the central focus of our itinerary. They recognized, acknowledged and responded to a part of me that no one had ever noticed before. It was as if a door opened up on that day, and they lead me through it. It was an incredible act of generosity. And yet to them, it was merely an observation ,and a matter of fact. The Mexican culture values art and artists. I learned this major cultural lesson within my first two days in their country.
I saw the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo for the first time while I was in Mexico City. We visited the museums containing both artist’s work, as well as the childhood home and place where Frida Kahlo died (Casa Azul). My family took me on day trips to artist villages in the mountains, and an extended vacation to the town of Puerto Vallarta, where the Malecon and sculpture walk were beginning to take shape. I returned to Puerto Vallarta as an adult in the late 90s, and those early memories came back to life.
Casa Azul – The home of Frida Kahlo, where she grew up, lived in the latter part of her life and died. The house became a museum in 1958. I visited when I was 12 years old, during my visit as an exchange student to Mexico City in the 1980s. The way Mexican artists lived, and the way society viewed them, made a strong impression.
I have been thinking a lot about my time in time in Mexico. My memories were stirred earlier this week, when a new friend described some of her early art experiences in Spain, including the discovery of her chosen medium. I wonder how many artists discover their calling —or develop an unseen side of it— while traveling outside of their own country. Or more to the point, I wonder how many Americans need to travel outside of the United States to discover that they are artists, or discover their medium. I wonder how many artists are fortunate enough to have their talents recognized and encouraged at a young age by astute and sensitive adults. Finding and honoring your gifts is an important part of life. Perhaps our culture could learn a few things from our neighbors to the south…
“La Nostalgia” Ramiz Barquet 1984 (Photo ⓒ Shelby Karns via Puerto Vallarta Culture Pulse). Barquet’s “La Nostalgia” is one of my favorite pieces of three dimensional work on the Malecon. I was fortunate to meet Ramiz –and pay a visit to his studio– in 1998 when I returned to Puerto Vallarta, for the first time as an adult. His workspace was filled with plants and comfortable chairs, and it felt like home.
“La Rotunda del Mar” Alejandro Colunga 1997 (Photo ⓒ Shelby Karns via Puerto Vallarta Culture Pulse). Colunga’s “La Rotunda del Mar” is my undeniable favorite work of art in Puerto Vallarta. I love everything about this piece. Each of the characters in Alejandro’s group of sculptures has been transformed into a chair. They are wonderfully smooth —worn so by use and the elements— radiating cool in the evening and early morning, and heat in the mid-day. They have become a living part of the boardwalk, allowing visitors various seated vantage-points on the town, the immediate village, the city and the water. Children gravitate toward this grouping –climbing and sliping in and around these chairs– playing all sorts of games with one another. I love that. I love it when art becomes part of life and breathes with it.
To the Padres family, my hosts in Mexico, I extend a heart-felt thank you. My time with you meant more to me than I can possibly express. I am forever grateful to you for helping me to find my way.