A conversation with Joseph Kurhajec
I asked Alexander Calder once, at his Guggenheim retrospective in 1964, how he got to making toys, and he said, “Joseph, I like making toys, and kids love them too!” But let me tell you, that wasn’t why. Calder started making toys in the late 1920s. He lived in Paris and was working on the mobiles, but he wasn’t being noticed yet. I know this because many years later when I had a restoration business in France, someone found a stack of Calder mobiles in an old chicken coop, covered in chicken shit—can you believe it? I had to re-paint them! Of course now Calder is one of the most famous sculptors of his time, but at one point, he made toys.”
Joseph Kurhajec’s Merida studio is more like Pan’s labyrinth, where one is confronted at every turn by devils, masks and monsters. “It’s true, I have my scary side,” Joseph tells me as we sit at the kitchen table surrounded by his collection of African fetishes. “But I also like a diversion from all that darkness, which is why I go fishing, and make my sardine can sculptures and my toys. I sold almost everything I made at my show in France last year, and on June 1st, I have an exhibition of toys in Treadwell NY, where I have a studio.”
People seem to love Joseph’s toys—maybe that says something about these times we’re living in. A longing for the object so obviously made by hand, by someone who’s always lived a little on the ‘outside’. “My parents never encouraged me to be an artist,” Joseph tells me. “In fact, they discouraged me. But I pursued it anyway. After graduating from art school and working for a time in New York, I was invited to be part of a group exhibition at the Whitney called, ‘Young America 1957: Thirty American Painters and Sculptors Under Thirty-Five’. At 26, I was the youngest of a group that included Warhol, Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler. My brother came to the show and I remember to this day, he said, ‘When are you going to do something with your life?’…maybe that’s where I found my sense of humour.”
If you have a creative child, encourage them! At 18, I was lucky to have discovered art school and had incredible teachers, yet many people go through life without having fulfilled who they really are.”
“My first memory of art was when I was 4 years old,” Joseph tells me. “My uncle painted a watercolour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that I still have, and since then, I’ve painted over 500 renditions of the sacred heart.”
“We’re all inspired by something,” he continues when I ask who his inspiration was. “I personally think the idea of a naive artist is horseshit. Even Brancusi, whom I’ve admired my whole life, must have discovered, as I did, the pre-historic stones of Corsica. That said, I do believe we’re all born with an art gene—that naiveté just needs to be nurtured.”
By his own admission, Joseph Kurhajec is a lucky man, despite lifelong challenges of being a committed artist in a fickle world. That is why experiences like the Artist Studio Tour are so important in our appreciation and comprehension of both art and artist.
Joseph’s studio is just south of La Ermita, an area that includes artists Ric Kokotovich, Ivan Gabaldon, Benne Rocket and Bernardo Gervacio. Visit them on the Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour February 16 and 17, from 10am to 3pm both days. Go to meridaenglishlibrary.com for ticket and artist info.
Charlie Swanson bakes bread—but not just any old bread. Charlie bakes bread like a scientist clones DNA—through research, experimentation, and finally, technical mastery. In its simplest form, Charlie’s bread rouses the senses, much like the lush environment in which he lives and works. Both are the perfect alchemy, an art based partly on science and partly on magic, and it’s here I discovered the art and science of Charles Swanson.
“I guess I’ve always been that way,” Charlie says as we head to the porch room—a nod to origins in the southern US. In tones of chocolate plum, pale avocado and golden tangerine, it’s a room designed for the comfort of friends. Today is washday, and the family cats have relinquished the couch for piles of freshly laundered shirts nearby.
“What I mean by that,” Charlie continues, “is I’m a bit fanatical in terms of my approach to learning about a thing. I’ve had many passions over the last 40 years, both as a person and an artist, and with each one I understood initially that I was in need of further education.” To be honest, Charlie actually said, “I was still pretty stupid…” but as the writer here, I’m taking creative license.
Charlie Swanson didn’t start making art until his early 30s. After acquiring a Degree in Business and Economics, he owned a construction company for a while, and that fuelled his love of woodworking. Feeling once more humbled by his lack of knowledge, he took himself off to a ‘fancy woodworking school’ in Rochester, NY where, as Charlie puts it, “I had my first exposure to a new kind of creative thought.” A Masters Degree in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design launched a career in furniture design at a time when Wendell Castle and George Nakashima were leading figures in the craft. It was also around that time period that Charlie met Eck (Follen) and together they opened a studio that would eventually encompass 10,000 sq feet and 10 artists. “Sometimes I miss that kind of creative collaboration,” Charlie said as we talked about the role of the studio in an artists work. “But I don’t miss the management and maintenance of having a studio that size.”
The house is filled with Charlie’s sculptural work from that time period, and we talked about his ongoing need to experiment with materials, as evidenced by his NASA-approved painters easel in the studio. “Most of my ideas were generated not so much from deep conceptual notions, but more from experimenting with materials,” Charlie shared. “The series I created of plaster work and steel rods was originally inspired by a grocery shopping cart full of plaster that a sculpture student had left outside the woodshop door. I was obsessive in my experimentation, which is typically the way I work, and the end result was part design, part engineering and part artistic expression.”
This is the second year Charlie will take part in the Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour, but this year, he’s turned his focus to photography, another medium he’s trying to master. “Actually”, Charlie said, when I asked about the shift from painting, “photography preceded my career even as a furniture designer. But life took me in another direction and I’m excited to re-discover both the medium and the technology. I’m not done with painting, but right now I’m fascinated with the capability to compose images that are familiar yet somehow almost impossible. And I’m living in a city that can fuel that fascination.”
Which brings me to the inevitable question – why Merida?
“Merida itself seems to me a city in transition,” Charlie answered, “part of a developing process, if you will. I’ve always considered myself a work in progress, so I think we’re a pretty good fit.”
As published in Issue 1_2019 of Mid-point Magazine
Ivan Gabaldon has lived in Mexico for 10 years and in Merida for the last five. During that time, he’s photographed whale sharks off the coast of Quintana Roo, exotic birds in Calakmul, led National Geographic photographers on the hunt for jaguars and, more recently, collaborated on several pieces for the Palacio de la Musica. We met up recently to discuss the direction his photography is taking, his love of Merida and her culture, and what he’s on the hunt for next.
What led to the shift from nature photography to capturing performance artists in Merida?
Shooting bands and musical and theatre performances is something I’ve done since I started as a young photographer. When I became a professional journalist, I was hired by magazines and newspapers to do the same, so you could say it’s second nature.
What were the first concerts you saw when you moved to Merida?
Salif Keita (Teatro José Peón Contreras) and Teresa Salgueiro, the amazing Fado singer from Portugal (Teatro Daniel Ayala), made us realize the level of international performers who were coming to Merida, and how accessible it was to see them. We decided immediately to start documenting these artists and to date, have captured over 40 performances.
How do you find out who’s coming and where they’re performing? There doesn’t seem to be a singular arts and culture portal with all the information.
This is where Rose comes in; she’s a producer with a background in radio, TV and film, so her research skills are invaluable. She has her antenna working all the time, and searches online for festivals and cultural programming. From there she curates the information to help us decide what to shoot. Some performances are more visually dynamic so our research helps us determine what best to document. Even then, events slip under the radar and many of the shows we see are sadly half empty.
Taking photographs of moving subjects, at night, under varied lighting and weather conditions must be hugely challenging. What do you do to prepare for these shoots?
Having great equipment and fast lenses help, while a new generation of LED stage lights can hinder, but the technical challenge is only one element in the equation. Framing and composing while working around the action, the audience and all the stuff on the stage is really where it gets interesting. My focus is simple—capture the emotional moment—if the artist and the audience are feeling it, then we’re feeling it, and that’s usually when I get my shot. To be invisible is also part of the challenge. We dress in black so as to not take away from the performance, we’re mindful and respectful of both audience and performers, and we move quietly to minimize our presence.
Ivan, that sounds not too dissimilar to photographing in nature!
You’re right! (laughs)
Tell me about one or two performances that really stood out for you.
One musician who was new to us, Ala.Ni, a jazz singer from the UK, is an incredibly unique performer, and was a real revelation for us as music enthusiasts. On a beautiful night at the outdoor stage in Parque Santa Ana, accompanied solely by a guitar and harp, Ala.Ni showed us all that night why she is a rising star in the world of jazz. And I just have to say—these beautiful outdoor plazas in centro historico are one of the great things about the cultural scene in Merida.
Another memorable performance we photographed was a contemporary dance company from South Korea. The K Arts Dance Company performed at Teatro José Peón Contreras during the Festival Yucatán Escénica, and for one magical evening, flew their bodies across the stage in choreographic splendor. It was exhilarating to watch and very challenging to capture in pixels.
Do you ever get to meet the artists you’ve photographed?
Artists are more accessible now than ever, but we prefer to stay in the background and just do what we love. Sometimes we get to hang out with the performers but it’s pretty organic when it happens. We had a great night with the uber talented Orquesta 24 Cuadros from Mexico City, and spent another evening with the musicians who performed with Dutch jazz trumpeter, Maite Hontelé. We also post our images to Instagram (@kinetropico), which has led to some new friendships.
What’s coming up for you in 2019?
We’re excited about Mérida Fest, which runs from January 5th to 27th. With 140 events showcasing 600 local, national and international artists from Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico, China, Japan and Spain (among others), I think we’ll be busy! The Culture and Tourism Offices are doing an excellent job in bringing diverse world-class talent to Merida, and best of all? It’s very affordable or free!
On February 16th and 17th, I’ll be taking part in the 2019 Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour. Although this is my second year on the tour, I’ll be teaming up this time with fellow artist and collaborator Ric Kokotovich. With 40 artists in 32 studios, the 2-day self-guided tour will be a great opportunity for people to meet all kinds of artists in their own environments.
When visitors first come to Merida, they often muse about what lies behind the ancient doorways and grand facades of this historic city. And yet—it is sometimes the most humble of facades that contain her greatest treasure—artists and their studios.
Behind one such façade, I discovered Egyptian artist Liliane Karnouk. Born in Cairo and further educated in Rome, Montreal and Vancouver, Liliane is herself discovering what it means to be an artist in the 4th quadrant of her life.
How did you come to be in Merida?
The first time I visited, I was driving by myself in the Yucatan. I loved it as it felt very close to my homeland in Egypt—the water, the sunshine, the pyramids; the dark-skinned, brown-haired people. So when I thought of moving from Vancouver to a warmer country in the winter, I looked to Merida as my new home. I saw this house on the internet and knew I had to buy it because the tile floor in the bedroom is the exact same tile that was in my grandparents house on their cotton plantation in Egypt.
Wow, I’m getting goosebumps! And what about the walls? It appears they have become a living canvas for you.
I come from an ancient land where everything has layers, so the first day I arrived to this house, I began to uncover the stories hidden in the walls. The original colours of turquoise, ochre and crimson were there, and in some places I found stencils and patterns that I enhanced. It’s been a privilege to have huge walls to play with instead of drawing on little pieces of paper.
Which brings me to your favored medium…paper.
I’m trained in the art of papermaking and have had several exhibitions of art created on handmade paper, some up to 2 metres wide. I brought my cotton pulp with me from Vancouver and make my paper in the garden, in the pool. It’s very physical as I have to beat, prepare, and stretch it, so I make paper when I’m feeling strong. This technique of papermaking is quite primitive because I don’t have a press, consequently, it’s very textural and sculptural, much like the walls.
Tell me about the sculptural books you’re making.
Making paper is compatible with countries that have forests. I had a studio on the Nile in a houseboat where I made papyrus paper; I taught the art of papermaking in Germany where I lived for a time, and I love walking the forests close to my home in Vancouver. I wanted to honor these forests and trees by re-using them in artworks where I incorporate a variety of materials and techniques. I’m particularly fascinated with the dark side of the forest—the bark, the foliage, the monochromatic nature of light in shadow. I call them Forest Books, a restitution of a sort of dignity and pride to trees that’s in opposition to the rendering of trees as cones and geometric shapes.
When I’m feeling strong I make art, when I’m feeling vulnerable, I write.
What influenced you in your development as an artist?
I was a sick child and spent a lot of time in bed drawing so the tactile side of my art comes from that. At the age of 11, I travelled with my parents to Europe for the first time, to see a doctor. While there, we went to all the museums and my world just exploded. When it was time to decide what to be when I grew up, there was no question I wanted to study art. That said, I never had a gallery nor made money as an artist. I taught art and art history to earn a living and was invited to make art for public spaces and museums.
I never looked at art as something for sale; I looked at art as something for me.
You’ve had almost 40 solo and group exhibitions in Europe, Canada and the US. Tell me about one that stands out the most.
I’m very content-oriented in my work and often used my art for political statement, such as the fires of Kuwait, the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, as well as many environmental issues. But, it was my installation at the British Museum Hall of Egyptian Antiquities called Time Machine that for me, was the pinnacle of that expression of my work. It was an exhibition of contemporary artists and our response to the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and I felt the pieces needed to be in their original burial grounds. Instead, I brought Egypt to the British Museum. Working for two months with a molecular biologist from the University of London, I learned how to clone palm trees from cells, and resurrected a palm grove inside test tubes I installed around the Egyptian sarcophagus. That experience led to an ongoing fascination with the interface between art and science.
You’ve explored your creativity as an artist, theatre designer, educator, journalist and author. What brought you back to the drawing table, so to speak?
In Modern Egyptian Art: 1910-2003, which took 10 years to write, artist and author Liliane Karnouk examines the work of over 70 artists from 1910 until the present day, tracing the parallel steps of modern Egyptian art and the social and political environment in which that art was and continues to be created.
Last year I got sick again, and after I recovered my strength, I went back to the studio to let it all out.
It’s fascinating to me that, as a young girl, you found your creative voice when you were ill, and at this point in your life, found a new voice after an extended illness.
Painting after my illness was a very cathartic experience, as well as a new form of expression for me. That said, there has always been the issue of the body in my work. Life has texture, a nervous system, an inner and an outer, so to explore the body more literally in this work seems a natural extension.
Liliane Karnouk is one of 41 intriguing artists opening their studios February 16 & 17 in Merida. Details and participating artists for the 2019 Merida English Library Artist Studio tour will be posted and profiled soon! Visit us on Facebook at MEL Artist Studio Tour 2019, on Instagram at meridaenglishlibrary and at www.meridaenglishlibrary.com.
My mother is deciding whether to sleep upstairs or down. 16 stairs up or 16 stairs down. It doesn’t really matter, as both are hard on her knees. She discovers the ‘T-Zone Vibration Technology ‘ 16 stairs down and that decides it. Stepping gingerly onto the footpads, she sets the display to ‘Fat Burn’ and hits ‘Start’. It rocks, low and slow, not what she expected but that’s why she stepped up. For the unexpected.
…“THIS FADED AIR, TORPID WIND, GENERATIONS OF BONES IN THE DIM LIGHT…” From another room at the front of the house, I can hear her… “THIS FADED MIRROR, PATTERNING THE EMBERS OF MY FACE…” As she rehearses for a spoken word performance, I’m reminded of the first time she cracked her soul open with the power of language…“I WILL DESCEND TO THE RIVER, TO THE BED OF STONES, THE SADNESS OF LEAVES, FLOATING…” There’s no one in the house but she and I and yet—I feel as if the whole world is watching. My 80-year-old mother is flaying herself in the middle of my friend’s living room and all I can think is, “What if someone hears?”
“Don’t think too much, don’t second-guess, go with your gut.” We’re writing together in a cafe in Inglewood and she notices I’m uneasy. I make poems in the solitude of my own home, where there are no persons raising judgey eyebrows over their coffee cups. “Okay, I’ll start,” she offers. Her prose is intense, dark, frightening—as if daring me to be her counterpoint. Dipping my words into a well of honey, I parry her with an optimism honed from years of practice. We spar like poetic gladiators, she with the spear, I with the shield; I with the spear, she with the shield, and the metaphor of our relationship is not lost on me.
Art and culture are what bring cities and communities to life, and in 2017, Merida shone under her crown of ‘Cultural Capital of the Americas’. Thousands of international and national artists brought experiences to Merida never seen before, and although the pace of events may have slowed in 2018, the collective passion of curators, gallerists and artists here in Merida has not.”
The Yucatan Peninsula’s only museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the Fernando García Ponce-Macay, is under partial renovation to eventually bring more exhibition space to the city. Throughout the summer, visitors can see new work by 80-years-young Gabriel Ramirez, in Ramirez HOY!, encounter the stones by Spanish sculptor Alberto Bañuelos, and contemplate paintings by Michoacan artist Francisco Barajas. Across the square at Casa de Montejo, an oft-overlooked exhibition space is beautifully curated by Citybanamex.
Photographer Flor Garduño’s “La construcción del instante” will be up until August 20, with an exhibition by Mexican painter Ricardo Martínez scheduled to open on August 28.
Merida’s museums, cultural centres and galleries have matured, with quality exhibition design becoming a top priority. Through August, the historic Palacio Canton will feature the exhibition “Ko’olel, transforming the way”, a journey through the history of women in Yucatan, while the highly anticipated Palacio de Musica is scheduled to open in July. In addition to the intimate concert hall, an interactive exhibition space will take up the entire lower level, enticing visitors with the story of music in Yucatan.
And that’s just the half of it.
Merida is so much more than cultural icons like Museo de la Ciudad and Gran Museo de Mundo Maya. Small commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, site-specific installations, cultural exchanges in restored haciendas, artist studio tours—these are the experiences that help to create a true cultural scene in any city and Merida is well on her way.”
Galería La Eskalera opened in Colonia Santiago in 2011, with a focus on local emerging artists. On July 20th, Andrea Pasos will showcase new work entitled “Transfiguraciones: a través del inconsciente”. Around the corner at El Zapote, artist Renato Chacon will open a small retrospective on July 6th of his grandfathers work, called “Apuntes de Viaje” by Manuel Chacon.
Slightly farther afield in San Sebastián stands a small contemporary space that is entirely outdoors—a place of reflection rather than a respite from the heat. Josegarcia.mx is an experiential space featuring a contemplative exhibit by Pablo Dávila called ‘Sin Necesidad de Titúlo’ that is open through August.
The always surprising Centro Cultural la Cúpula will mount it’s 3rd summer exhibition on June 29th called “Peninsula 3”, featuring 18 artists working and living in the Yucatan Peninsula, who explore the theme of creating new memory.
Lux Perpetua in Itzimná, one of Merida’s newer galleries, has become known for their impressive roster of international artists. Lux will launch its summer season on June 21st with the work of Guillermo Olguín’s “Nuit Fauve II” followed by Carles “Bodas Místicas con la naturaleza domeñada”.
Another hidden gem, Noox Azcorra, features temporary and permanent exhibitions in a renovated 19th century hacienda, right in the heart of Merida. On July 14th, Noox will inaugurate the “Festival de Calor”, a celebration of film and live theatre, and on July 27th, sculptures by Alejandro Farías will occupy the spaces.
The expression of art has always been a way for people of all ages and demographics to meet, connect, and share a universal language, and this summer in Merida is no exception.
As published in Mid-Point Magazine Edition 11, July 2018