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Lessons of Oaxaca


At 10 pm on November 9th, 2016, I left the election night party I was attending in Woodstock. The mood turned from festive to anxious nail biting. I saw where things were heading and I couldn’t bear watching the results for one more minute. I drove home with my mind spinning. This wasn’t possible. How could this happen? Who are we as a people? I no longer knew who Americans were. And who are these people living around me? How can we be so vastly philosophically and ethically divided? The world and all the progress we had achieved and that I naively believed in, was suddenly seeming to be violently being ripped away. Here beneath the façade of my neighbors, family members and a huge swath of America was a simmering primal stew of hatred and despair. Now I was the one feeling the hatred and despair. And that didn't feel very good at all.

Back in May 2016, after a belligerent Trump bellowed about building a 2000-mile wall on our southernmost border and sending Mexico the bill, I went on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico with the School of Visual Arts. The Oaxacan people we visited with were obviously upset with Mr. Trump and fearful that he would become the next US president. We all thought that was silly and impossible. These were sweet gentle people: artists, tour guides, drivers, museum directors and translators. We saw intelligent scientists and artists working together with concern and care for the earth in ways you rarely see firsthand here in the US.

Oaxaca was a busy vibrant joyful place of art, craft markets, food, music, color, religious ritual, archaeological sites and pre-Colombian antiquities. And conversely, it was a place of political strife that was being played out in the streets. There was a sprawling tent city, a teacher’s strike encampment, in the zòcalo, a park in the city center. The hilly and cobbled streets of Oaxaca are lined with well-kept Colonial stucco buildings that are bold, bright, colorful and simple. At night, people gather to dance, to celebrate weddings in traditional costume, they hang out in the square to talk to each other, they parade in the streets with musical instruments and large papier mache puppets. With so much life in the streets, there was also an undercurrent of danger in the air. The public school teachers, mostly tiny round brown ladies, were protesting the authoritarian government’s repressive education reform. The teachers and the parents were not going to acquiesce to the government regime. One month after we left, the police brutally attacked the teachers with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The government police killed 9 teachers and injured 100 more while blocking access to local hospitals. 23 people went missing. Not once has the Mexican government police force gone after narco-traffickers and look what they were willing to do to school teachers. Are we in for the same authoritarian insanity and brutality here in the United States?

What does this have to do with art? And what does this have to do with my work?

After my trip to Mexico, I was in the studio all summer making drawing-paintings that were fun, silly, colorful and lighthearted to counterbalance the vitriol of our insane presidential election campaign. I began by making purely gestural scribbles. As I kept working, X’s, O’s and other common symbols began showing up in my work. I was using bright intense velvety colors made with gouache straight out of the tube inspired by my visual experience in Oaxaca. I used aluminum acrylic paint as a background color and for texture as well. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to bring the joy I felt of the humble non-materialistic life in Mexico home to the United States. I wanted that for myself — to live simpler, to let go of the striving, the overthinking and the unending busyness. I wanted to dance in the streets and live in a colorful world where there is meaning and purpose in everyday life. What I didn’t want to bring home was the darkness of Mexico’s brutal authoritarian regime. And it seems that I may have involuntarily brought that back with me too.

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