I learned a valuable lesson during one of my most memorable exhibitions: “Magia Verde” a solo exhibition at the Main Gallery at Altos de Chavon in La Romana, Dominican Republic”. I had returned to the Dominican Republic after a 15 year absence, and was rediscovering my roots. I decided to begin with the basics…what did the place look like? I went outdoors and took a good look, amazing color, lush, verdant vegetation, clear intense skies. I had been a figurative painter up to that point, but suddenly I was painting tropical landscapes. The investigation worked, I became more familiar with my birthplace.
Altos de Chavon is a beautiful place with cobblestone streets, lovely gardens and dramatic cliffs that drop into the Chavon River. Six miles down the road is Casa de Campo an elite resort with elegant villas. The place was maintained by many laborers, gardeners, repair personnel, waiters and waitresses in the restaurants, taxi drivers, and general merchants. Every day I greeted them and had a little chat about something simple, sometimes we’d share a joke or two. My community extended past the artists, students, and administration, it included them as well.
When it came time to install the exhibition, I engaged the gardeners and asked them for advice, and they brought in the most exquisite plants to complement my work, that created a magical environment. I extended an invitation to them to attend the show because they were part of it in my mind. I also invited the taxi drivers, the waiters and the security guards. I cannot find the words to express the warmth exchanged between us. They were so excited to have been asked to attend. Including them broke a mold, the show was not only for the elite, but for the common person as well. They came with their families dressed in their best clothes. They were so proud to introduce their families to me, and I to meet them.
The main painting in the show a dyptich called “Wind and Tenderness” sold to one of my students, villa owners and tourists bought work, but the lesson here was that the gardeners, waiters and taxi drivers also bought work. The show sold out. That experience made me realize I wanted to make sure that my art was accessible to people of all income brackets.
If someone loves my work, I want to find a way to make it accessible to them. At this time I am exploring ways to make that happen. At the end of the day my goal is to sell the work to those who really want it. My prayer is that my art brings them joy.
The last panel I painted of Giacometti’s “Annette” at the Metropolitan Museum was my most expressive. Changing the focus from Giacometti’s techniques to the sitter his wife Annette, opened up a whole world of possibilities for me creatively. Knowing it would be the last panel allowed me to make some bold decisions. Fist of all, I dropped Giacometti’s grey palette, and used my own palette which is bright, and colorful. It was limited to green, and blues and black. I made Annette Caribbean like me. During the week I experienced a dialog of sorts, a story I could tell about her. The process of getting to know the sitter was very fruitful, it provided me with a narrative to tell, and became a source of creativity. The idea of focusing on Annette rather than Giacometti, allowed me to be expressive.
Searching for the emotions behind the sitter was a more intimate process, and I needed to tell it through elements that were familiar to me; a Caribbean palette, and a Caribbean woman. Painting that day was exhilarating! I painted quickly, with large physical gestures, moving into and out of the canvas.
Instead of feeling like I was slowly peeling back an onion, it was like being under a waterfall, water rushing over my head. Catching all that was being revealed required that I move quickly.
The marks on the canvas are a road map to Annette’s emotions, her thoughts and sorrows, her struggles, her intelligence her choices and the sacrifices she made. I could have gone on forever, it was a fantastic. The tourists at the Met that day did not interrupt me that day, they observed and snapped pictures. I was in a zone, and they recognized it. They witnessed, and respected my feverish focus.
This last panel is my favorite, it is the culmination of what I learned. It marked the relationship that can occur between a celebrated artist from the past like Giacometti and a contemporary artist of the present, like myself. I’ve believe strongly that the art on museum walls is the legacy left behind to us by masters. I think of it as my inheritance as an artist. Their art teaches and inspires me. Their life’s work validates my own choice to be an artist. It provides me with support and an eternal kinship.
The third panel I painted of Giacometti’s “Annette” at the Copyist Program at the Metropolitan Museum marked a shift in my focus. I stopped thinking about the artist and his approach, and focused on the sitter his wife Annette. The previous week a conversation with an Australian tourist who had read Giacometti’s biography had caused the change in focus. He shared some of the difficulties in their marriage with me, and now I was interested in telling her story. Not knowing the details, caused something interesting to occur. I had to get the story directly from the painting. What was Annette telling me? Where did the energy emitting from the painting come from?
My entire focus now became psychological. The stare, the uncompromising pose, the anger, the containment, what was she feeling? What was her story? When I stopped looking at the painting with the eyes of an artist, and opened my heart to the woman posing for her artist husband, a narrative began to emerge in my head. I stopped being analytical of Giacometti’s process, and became sympathetic to Annette the sitter….my heart was now involved.
I looked at her with compassion, and something emerged, a story line in my head. It was fascinating to experience this. It was not one big story, instead they were little suggestions, whispers of what the dynamic might be. Like peeling an onion, a thin layer fell off. I chose to follow one of these suggestions, which was that Annette was a beautiful woman, though the portrait does not portray her as such. She was beautiful, and life had piled on so much pressure that it changed her natural beauty. I decided to look underneath the undefined eyes on the canvas, and to give them a shape, the suggested mouth, and to put in more detail, the uncompromising brows were softened. Her long neck, I made more feminine, and softly defined the edges of her hair. I relaxed her shoulders, and softened the fold of her arms, and there she was……a pretty Annette.
It was so exciting to me! I could feel her hidden beauty, and now we became friends Annette and I, we had a chat, a visual communication woman to woman. I left the Met full of exuberance that day. The new approach was exciting to me. I would listen all week to the suggestions on how to approach the next panel.
There’s a plaque next to “Annette” on the wall that states that after exhibiting the painting, Giacometti continued working on it. He added texture to the head, building up the surface, and repainting it. I read somewhere else that it was hard for him to finish a painting. It made total sense to me that he would build up the surface of the painting, he was a sculptor, surface, and texture would be important elements in his expression.
I decided to focus on this aspect of the technique on the second panel. I added a grainy acrylic paste and focused on the head only. The paint absorbed very differently over the acrylic paste, it really made painting completely different. The brush no longer glided over the surface. I had to push the paint into the raised area. A different sensation from the previous panel.
Interacting with visitors while working at the Metropolitan Museum was a very important ingredient to the experience. I always welcomed a conversation about the work or the artist. I shared my thoughts and process with the visitors. Interacting directly with an artist at work adds vitality to the visitor’s experience, making it unique. The interaction between the artist and the visitors adds an important ingredient that the Copyist Program provides. Visitors come to the Met from all over the world, and that fascinated me. I met tourists from Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Africa, Italy, France, Germany, Argentina, Dominican Republic……and many others. Some were shy, and others very bold….one thing they all did was take my picture.
It was an Australian tourist that told me he’d read Giacometti’s biography. He shared all sorts of information with me about the artist and his relationship to his wife Annette. They had difficulties as a couple, she was not appreciated according to him….and it made sense. Looking at the painting confirmed what his was saying. I will take the time to read Giacometti’s biography. I am very interested and knowing more. I wondered how WWII affected his work.
The conversation with the Australian tourist was important to my process because it marked an important shift in my approach. My focus would change in the subsequent panels because of this conversation. It was a subtle modification. I stopped focusing on Giacometti and his technical approach, and focused instead on the model who generated all of the emotion on the canvas. I would focus on Annette.
The first panel I made of “Annette” was an introduction to Giacometti, a hand shake of sorts. The first thing I considered was the composition. He placed his subject right smack in the middle of the canvas! We were always encouraged not to do that in art school, so it made me smile to see him disregard this notion. Annette sits ram rod straight, her pose is non negotiable. She stares straight at the viewer, her arms rest on her lap, her collar is high.
The painting’s focus is the head, and it is the darkest part of the image. Features are suggested, in a general way. There are lines suggesting a physical space. Giacometti wants us to know she’s in a room, but is quick to erase the structure with brushstrokes. He wants us to know that she is sitting in space, however the energy that emanates from the figure is depicted carefully with big expressive strokes.
One thing is unequivocal, Annette’s mood. She glares at the viewer, she is not happy. Standing in front of her can make a person quiver. A group of middle school boys dropped by while I was painting, and they stared at her, and commented that she looked like she was in a straight jacket, before they walked away giggling. Wow! They read the emotion that lives in this painting. There’s nothing pretty, glamorous, soft or inviting about this portrait, just raw emotion. Still I was interacting with Giacometti the artist, and was busy with his technique.
Standing in front of the painting and closely observing is one of the advantages of being in the Copyist Program at the Met. Generally, one can get more information, structural, technical, but not so with Giacometti. When I stepped in to take a closer look, the whole image disintegrated. It had the reverse effect, instead of revealing more information, it became clouded, chaotic strokes disintegrated before my eyes. What a nice trick, I had to admire his ability. I was denied any further information. One thing I understood that day, learning from this painting would have to go beyond technique.