This interview was conducted in February 2015
Every city has its “East Side”, and every east side has its share of artists, musicians and outliers. The east side of a city is where things often get interesting—it’s where you find a richer cultural mosaic versus the homogenous crème de la crème, the grit vs the glam. And the east side of Merida is where I found Ernesto Novelo.
You have an extensive and rather cerebral library here in your studio. I have to ask…have you always been a painter?
I’m actually a lawyer. I studied law but when I finished I decided what I really wanted to be was a painter. My family told me I would starve but I didn’t care – I knew it was what I wanted to do. For many years I worked as a waiter at night and painted during the day, or vice versa, and I was very happy. I was doing what I wanted to do, living a life defined by myself and not defined by others. My first real exhibition was at the MACAY and I was also a waiter at the event so I guess you could say my two worlds eventually collided.
We’re looking at a large diptych you completed last October. Tell me about this piece.
I’m not a prolific painter – along with my engravings and curatorial projects, I only do a few paintings each year. They are usually fairly large and they always come from my emotions. The white one is a painting about life and the black one is a painting about death, at least how we as Mexicans view death. I completed this work a few days before my wife and I lost our twins in utero. It was a devastating time for us and I did not paint for the rest of the year. My gallery in New York encouraged me to look at the piece again, to see what I must have been sensing at the time, and to start painting again.
It sounds as if you have a very supportive gallery…how did they find Ernesto Novelo, a waiter/painter hidden away in the Yucatan?
One day I was starving (laughs) and I decided to sell my prints through eBay. This one time when I was sending a small piece off to a buyer, I decided to put my CV in the envelope, which is not something I had ever done. It turned out this buyer was a gallery owner and he contacted me right away. We have had a great relationship now for 5 years.
Have you had any other serendipitous experiences like this?
My first show ever was with five other young artists in a shopping mall, much to the horror of my veteran artist friends. About 5 pm a tall black woman came by and asked to take pictures. I became a bit of a tour guide for her and discovered she was a very important art critic and a director of the Zoma Contemporary Art Centre in Ethiopia. She nominated me for a grant through Moma and I was awarded that grant in 2004.
And how did you use that grant?
I decided to travel to Ethiopia, Cairo and France, and through that experience, I established Zoma in the Yucatan. I mentor young artists and help launch exhibitions in the city so in a way, that experience in the shopping mall has come full circle.
Where is art in the Yucatan going do you think?
Art here is changing. We have the old masters who paint in the old style and who are very important to our history and to art in Latin America. But there are more and more artists, young artists, serious artists, contemporary artists from the Yucatan who are working to be the best that they can be as artists. Gabriel Ramirez, one of the Yucatan and Latin America’s most important painters said that being an artist is a career for life and if that is true, then I believe that the Yucatan will launch some great careers.
Meet Ernesto and over 25 other artists on the Merida Artist Studio Tour, Saturday February 20, 2016.