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.
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
There are two different ways of looking at the world—you can walk on the path or you can walk through the hedge and I think that’s the beauty of art—that it just makes you step aside from the normal way of walking or looking.” – Andy Goldsworthy
Artists do have a unique way of viewing the world, and for one day every year, the Merida English Library (MEL) invites us to do just that—step off the path and into the studios of Merida’s artists.
On February 17th, over 450 art lovers, students, visitors and local Meridanos did just that—walked, cycled, and carpooled to studios as diverse as the art itself. With 35 painters, sculptors, photographers, glass, ceramic and wood artists to choose from, the hardest decision to make was whom to visit, what to buy and where to stop for that cerveza.
MEL has a long history of interacting with the burgeoning creative community here in Merida. More than 30 years ago, a printmaker, a painter and a photographer opened their own studios in what was to become the home of the Merida English Library. Since then, MEL had grown from being a lender of books to a community outreach of culture, exchange and learning. The Artist Studio Tour is one of the most successful fundraisers for MEL, generating much needed funds for ongoing and new programming, children’s books, computers and administrative expenses.
In a true symbiotic relationship of mutualism, both MEL and the artists benefit from combining their talents, their energy and their resources to create one of the best experiences you’ll find in Merida. A great big thanks to the tireless organizers, volunteers, artist helpers and especially, the artists—you just keep getting better!
“Art is reality reshuffled.” Robert Rauschenberg
When you move around a canvas of Emilio Suárez Trejo, you can see how he’s re-imagining the world. In unskilled hands, an accumulation of text, photographs and found objects would simply be just that. In the hands of this young artist, the collection becomes an intersection of art and everyday life.
I met with Emilio at his new studio space just east of Centro Historico in Mérida. It’s here we looked at his work, discussed his influences and talked about his life as an artist.
How long have you been working as an artist?
From a young age I have always been drawing, and I knew that someday I wanted to have a career that involved drawing. I graduated from the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida in 2010 with a degree in Visual Arts and have been working to find my own voice as an artist ever since.
A ‘career as an artist’ is often an oxymoron to many parents. How did your parents respond to your decision to follow this path?
Well, my father is a lawyer and so of course he wanted me to be a lawyer as well. Both he and my mother were skeptical of my choice, not understanding what ‘being an artist’ means. I believe that it’s important to do what you love, and I think they’ve come to see that doing what I love means a lot of hard work (smiles).
So at 28, are you able to support yourself as an artist?
For the first few years it was a bit of a struggle. After I graduated, I did residencies in Veracruz and Cuba that helped me develop, but more importantly, showed me that I could actually have a life as an artist. When I returned to Mérida I began teaching privately, and I now teach oil painting at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. I feel I’m a very lucky man in that I have the freedom to work on my own pieces and the opportunity to teach others.
What do you love most about teaching?
When I teach, I’m as much a student as my students are, in that I’m always learning something… I find that very gratifying. For that reason, I ask them to call me ‘Emilio’ instead of ‘maestro’. Rather than teaching how to paint, I teach them how to feel, and give them the tools they need to express themselves.
How do you find time to work?
I’m always working. If I’m not working on a piece I’m thinking about a piece. Teaching is simply a complement to that. I paint everyday and my students know this. I try to teach the importance of establishing a painting practice because that is the only way you will find your true voice as an artist.
Who has influenced you as a painter?
Before I went to University, I hadn’t studied much art history. As a student, I learned to appreciate historical artists from my own culture but I became fascinated by contemporary artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the New York artists from the 50s, 60s and 70s like Robert Rauschenberg.
Have you ever been to New York?
No, but if I could travel anywhere right now, it would be to New York—to see the work of the artists I most admire. I saw Rauschenberg once in France and I realized then how important it is to see the art itself—not just in photographs—to see the paint on the canvas, the emotion in the work.
This is your first year on the Artist Studio Tour. What are you most looking forward to?
I’m a little nervous but also excited. This is the first time I’ve had a studio of my own and I think it’s a great opportunity to meet people who haven’t seen my work, and to hear their opinions. I am most interested in building relationships and hope that one day, this studio can become an ‘art lab’ of sorts—a place of learning, experimentation and inspiration for others, and of course, for myself.
Emilio is one of 36 artists in 29 studios participating in the Merida English Library annual Artist Studio Tour February 17th from 10 am to 5 pm. Information on the tour, the artists and where to buy tickets is available at meridaenglishlibrary.com.