Geppetto’s Workshop

A conversation with Joseph Kurhajec

©Alexander Calder

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.”

Sardine Cans ©Joseph Kurhajec

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.”

Jaguar ©Joseph Kurhajec

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.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus ©Joseph Kurhajec

“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 for ticket and artist info.


Meet the Artist: Manuel Taure

I don’t call myself an artist. I am simply a filter of my life.”

When artist Manuel Taure shared those words with me, I knew this interview was going to be intruiging, just like the man himself.

Manuel Taure in his studio

Manuel Taure in his studio ©Alison Wattie

Manuel, or Manu as his friends call him, has been making art since he was a child in Barcelona. After graduating from art school, he freelanced for many companies as a graphic designer, always dreaming that one day he would create for himself. At age 31, Manu bought a plane ticket to Brazil where he hoped to discover his own voice as an artist. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why did you decide to go to Brazil and how did you survive once you got there?

©Manuel Taure

©Manuel Taure

Going to Brazil was a life coincidence (laughs). My dad had just returned from there and at the same time, I met somebody who came from this little town in Brazil called ‘Pipa’ which means ‘kite’. In a way, I was putting my life up in the air to see where the winds would take it so I decided to go!

©Manuel Taure

©Manuel Taure

I also had to see if I could survive as an artist, in a completely different context from Barcelona. Once I got to Brazil, I made small watercolour paintings and charcoal drawings. I painted what I saw—people at the markets, on the streets, in the parks, at the beach. It was a way for me to earn a living but more importantly, it helped me to understand the different cultures more deeply.

How did you end up in Merida?

©Manuel Taure

For a while I went back and forth from Brazil to Barcelona until one day, I could not afford a ticket to Brazil. But I could afford a ticket to Mexico and ended up in Puerto Escondido. I made a great friend there and a few years later, he convinced me to come to Merida. I was living in Puebla and needed a change so I came to Merida for a visit and decided to stay because I loved the city. I still do!

What do you love about being an artist?

I don’t call myself an artist, I am simply a filter of my life. I try to be honest with myself and hope the art I make is honest. I feel lucky everyday that this is what I get to do, even though it has been a struggle at times. When I first arrived in Brazil and was painting and trying to sell my work on the street, I would get discouraged. Then I met an artist who said “There is not a canvas for every person but there is a person for every canvas—have faith in that.”

What music do you listen to while you work?

I love all kinds of music because I spend so much time alone and working. But the music that really fills my soul is Tinariwen—Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali.

Do you have a favorite artist?

An important artistic reference for me is the artwork from my father, Tomás Taure. I grew up with the scent of his oil paint permeating my bedroom. I also admire the work of Melva Medina and Abel Vázquez from “Nahualli, Casa de los Artistas” here in Merida. My own studio space was made possible through the support of these two talented and generous artists.

It seems you are constantly experimenting and teaching yourself new things. Do you have a vision for where your work is going, or do you let the experimentation decide that for you?

©Manuel Taure

©Manuel Taure

I have to play play play, always. Since I was a child, I have been drawing and painting and experimenting. I will never stop doing this, until I die. When I came to Merida I taught myself about printmaking and linocut/carving and now I teach this process every afternoon in my studio. This past summer I went back to Barcelona to be part of a printmaking show. I sold 90% of my art and used that to buy specialized carving tools to continue my work here in Merida. I am also working on a book. I would say my curiousity inspires what I do next.

You speak a lot about the importance of curiousity and play in your work. Do you have children?

(a long and thoughtful pause)

I felt I had to make a decision to be an artist, or to raise a family, but that it would be hard to do both. And so I made a decision to be an artist.

The Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour is such a lovely way for people to ‘see’ art. What is your advice to people when they look at art?

©Manuel Taure

©Manuel Taure

Art can be anywhere, not just in galleries and museums. Walk through your life with your eyes wide open. If you see an artist’s work in a gallery or museum, try to be inside the mind of this artist and really feel for yourself what the artist is trying to say. If an artist is being honest with themselves, you will see it in their work—and you will feel it in your own heart.

You were on the tour last year. What do you enjoy about being on the Artist Studio Tour?

People get to come into my world, where I create, and they get to experience the work in that context, which is very personal. Interacting with people and receiving affirmation for my work is what keeps me going.

What is the most important thing for you as an artist?

To learn new things. Learning keeps me fascinated…Fascinado!