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.”
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.
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.
When we are young, friendships come easily. We collect them like seashells or fallen flowers—precious in the moment yet when the moment is gone, another comes to take it’s place. To love unconditionally and forgive quickly is something we often lose with our childhood; life makes us less trusting and more careful about who we let in. But life can surprise us.
When we moved to another country, another city, another culture, I became like a child again, surrounded by strangers who each carried the possibility of the gift of friendship. Friendships that hung in the balance of both wanting to give, and wanting to receive.
One night I met a woman at a party and we got to talking – about life, love, art. She gave me her time and I accepted it like the treasure it was.
A ceramicist, she invited me to come visit her studio. Inside, the air was close with dust from the clay and heat from the kiln. She introduced me to all her children—some lay naked and waiting for her painters brush while others stood like soldiers in all their finery.
Her life partner was also an artist so she took me across the road to his workshop. The massive doors opened easily despite their imposing facade, and inside lay a fantasy world. Surrounded by the smell of wood and steel, I made my way through found objects that would one day become works of art. The raw beauty of the space was like nothing I’d seen, and even though I had yet to meet this man, his energy emanated from every nail, every stone, every piece of wood.
In infinite jest
the sun rose again today
the wind stirred
the water rippled
the shadows danced.
In infinite jest
each breath came
in and out
in and out
as if it were just another day.
In infinite jest
the clouds moved across the sky
a living canvas
its semiotic indicator
a waning moon.
becomes the sea
the sea becomes
death becomes life
In infinite jest.
Thank you for your fallen flower George Samuelson.