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.
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!
It’s a long way from Jackson Mississippi to Mérida Mexico, the ‘southern’ city Eck Follen now calls home. Her career as an artist, teacher and entrepreneur had humble roots. “In the girls dorm of a Presbyterian college”, Eck shared when I asked her where it all started. “We studied painting and drawing and polite lady art, which I had no interest in.” Instead, Eck flourished in hotbeds of creativity more liberal than her origins, ultimately becoming a sculptor. With furniture as her focus, Eck found her passion in wood and metal, exhibiting in galleries and museums from Boston to Anchorage. A few of those pieces travelled to her home/studio in Mérida, and it’s here we talked about her life as an artist.
You started out as a textile designer and then moved to furniture. How did that happen?
“I initially studied textile design but grew frustrated with the medium. On a whim I took a woodworking class and my mind exploded with the possibilities of what I could do with wood, and then metal. I realized immediately I was meant to work in another dimension and did my MFA in Industrial/Furniture Design at Rhode Island School of Design.
Wood is very much like a textile and it felt familiar to me. My mom sewed when I was growing up so I understood the concepts of designing and creating a pattern, and then fitting the pieces together.” She pauses to stroke one of her four cats, curled up on the studio table. “I believe that everything we create is something we already know, deep down in our cells. We are creating what already exists inside us.”
Her studio is filled with blocks of encaustic wax and stacks of oil pastels, in colours that look good enough to eat. Shelves of found objects share space with whimsical sculptures made of unexpected materials. Over here, two Calderesque sculptures of ultra thin dowelling await their next iteration. Over there, rows of tea boxes stuffed with empty wrappers tell a story all their own. “I’m a collector of stuff,” Eck admits as she sees me eying the boxes of discarded wrappers. “I’ve been collecting those for years—my life in tea,” she laughs.
You seem to have worked in a variety of mediums as an artist. Is there a common denominator in your work?
“I would say yes. I have a fascination with line—with the idea that a change in perspective can alter what an object is, and I use line and linear shapes to get there. A three dimensional city on the ground becomes a fantastical linear composition from the air. A flattened metal bucket once again becomes a dimensional object in another medium, all through my interpretation of line.”
And of course the question on everyone’s mind…how did you find Mérida?
“My husband Charlie, who is also an artist, wanted to move to Mexico for a long time but the places we visited didn’t really fit. I think the catalyst was a friend’s 60th birthday party where someone said, “I just love that I’m going to be sitting here 30 years from now, looking at this same beautiful landscape.” That thought kind of jolted us out of our inertia and we became serious about finding a place to live in Mexico. After a trip to Isla Mujeres we visited Mérida, fell in love with the place, sold everything we owned and came here.”
Sounds like the move was metaphorically a new canvas, much like how you approach your art.
“Very astute,” Eck laughs. “I’m reminded of a friend who’s been a tapestry weaver for 50 years—there is a depth to her work that only 50 years of practice can give and I respect that immensely. I think I would go mad if I did the same thing or lived in the same place for 50 years, it’s just not in my nature. I get juiced up by learning new processes and Mérida has definitely given me that.”
“At this point in my life, I’m creating art to feed my own curiosity,” Eck says when I ask about her new work. “There’s a freedom in not having to placate a gallery or worry about putting food on the table.” She pauses. “That said, there is also a real challenge in having no parameters, but as I think of myself as a math-free scientist, the studio is my lab where I get to experiment, and play.” Eck smiles. “I think people on the studio tour will be surprised by what they see this year, and I’m excited to be a part of it again.”
I can’t stop touching things as I move around the room, her studio an obvious place of play and experimentation. “Play is an underrated art form,” Eck tells me, “and one of those words that has become derogatory, as in ‘if you’re just playing, you’re not really serious’. My philosophy is that play is close to child-like and child-like is close to wonder, and wonder is where you discover things. Living in wonderment is a very pleasant state to be, and at this stage of my life, it’s where I choose to live.”
Originally published Nov 1, 2016
Ric Kokotovich speaks in lyrics. Perhaps it’s the ten years he spent as a drummer; perhaps it’s his ongoing love and collection of music. Or maybe lyrics just pop into his head like so many nouns and verbs. On the eve of his first solo exhibition in Mexico, I had the pleasure to interview Ric amongst his work at Centro Cultural La Cúpula in Mérida, and we talked about his life as an artist.
How old were you when you recognized you had a creative voice?
I guess when I learned to play the drums at age 12. I practiced on chairs, tables, tin cans, myself, until my father realized I was serious and bought me a snare, a bass drum and a cymbal. At 15, I left home to tour with a band. I was 6’ tall with a fake ID and an attitude, and wanted nothing more than to be out of Edmonton and on the road.
What did you love about being a musician, and why did you leave it behind?
Music is a part of my soul and I loved the ability to express myself as a musician. I stopped touring because I got married very young and my wife didn’t want me travelling across the country as a musician, for the obvious reasons. So at 21, I picked up a camera and got my first break. I had a great relationship with other musicians, and the owner of the Riviera Rock Room hired me to take photos of bands like Split Endz, Heart, and Motely Crue. That was my first real foray into photography.
Was there a defining moment when you went from being a person who appreciated art to someone who had to make art?
I can tell you exactly. It was an image by Diane Arbus of a young boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park. The emotional connection I had to that photograph was visceral—still is to this day. It triggered something in me that made me want to be a photographer; to create images that would touch people the way I’d been touched by Diane Arbus.
What was the first piece, in your opinion, of fine art you created?
I think it was a photograph I made in Acapulco. It was an abstraction of a Travellers Palm, like the one I have in my garden in Mérida today. Someone paid me $250 for that image in 1979, and I suppose that was another pivotal moment in my life when I realized I could create images other people were touched by.
Was there a catalyst for the Mardi Gras work?
Subculture was a fascination for me but I’m not sure what the catalyst for that first trip was. I just woke up one morning and said to my wife at the time, “I want to drive to New Orleans and shoot Mardi Gras,” and that was it. We got in my 280Z, slept in the car in a La Quinta parking lot and I spent the next week documenting the mayhem and magic that was Mardi Gras in the early 1980s. It was then I met a book publisher and we came up with a plan to shoot over five years. Unfortunately he went out of business after three years and the book never happened, but I kept shooting.
How did photography transition into filmmaking?
I’ve always been interested in story and for me, film allows for a fuller rendition of narrative from beginning to end. The story in a photograph is more finite. I was a filmmaker for 10 years and it was very gratifying. When I finished Claire with my creative partner Julie Trimingham, it was nominated for a Genie so that helped validate all the time, money and energy that went into making it. Our film, Beauty Crowds Me, screened at MOMA in NYC and even though I didn’t have the finances to be there, it was a rewarding achievement.
After completing your film in 2001, a short drama called Bitter My Tongue, you stopped making films. Tell me about that decision.
I was in NYC to collect the New York Independent Film Festival Audience Choice Award for Bitter My Tongue. This was September 11, 2001 and we all know what happened that day. My film didn’t play—my world changed as did everyone elses’. I quit making films mostly because it takes a lot of money, time and energy and I was burnt out. Instead I took another easy career path (laughs) and wrote a screenplay. After two years I went back to being a photographer, travelling the world to places like Yemen, Sudan, Nepal. Photography excited me again.
Author Jennifer Egan says in Why We Write: “When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again. “
How would you describe your own compelling need to make art?
I wake up every day and something inside causes me to look for ways to create something visual—why I have this need I’m not sure. At this point in my life I’m inspired by everything and anything; my neighbours’ house, the hummingbird I saw in my garden this morning, the perfectly crushed tubing in the middle of the road. Like the author says, there’s a void when you’re not working, and you have to fill the void with something. I like to fill the void with work, with creative process. It’s part of the stabilization I need to be a decent human being. Or at least a more grounded one.
Monet was in his early 40s when he really started to paint, whereas Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, was a phenom in his early 20s. How would you say the gift of time has helped develop your own voice as an artist, and would you say you’re a ‘better’ artist now, at 61?
Definitely a better artist. I take more time to process clearly. More thought goes into the work than energy, and by that I mean the course from beginning to end is a straighter line than when I was much younger. As a younger artist, you throw a lot of things at the wall and hope that something sticks. Now I just want to walk up to the wall and put something on it.
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED Talk in 2009 called ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’. She spoke about her encounter with American poet Ruth Stone, and I’d like to quote Elizabeth here:
“Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life, told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
People often believe in this phenomena of creative thought—that if you’re ‘creative’, ideas just come. With that in mind, tell me about your own creative process. Do ideas thunder across the cosmos to land in your body fully formed?
No, I collect things—images, objects, words, photographs of old paintings—anything that stirs something in my soul. Some of these images have been around me for years. Recently I started interpreting my own version of Madonna del Prato by Giovanni Bellini and Venus at her Mirror by Diego Velázquez. There’s a lot of story in these pieces and interpreting them is like making a film. I shoot all the elements after drawing the idea, but unlike creating a photo, I feel I’m creating a scene in a movie. The story is open to interpretation by the viewer because my interpretation doesn’t matter. I get more juice watching someone look at my work, than I do looking at my own images; I enjoy seeing that emotional reaction.
In working as an artist, how do you juggle isolation with the obvious need for collaboration and relationship?
More than anything, filmmaking taught me about the power of collaboration. Even though I primarily work alone in my studio and enjoy it, the work only becomes fully formed once it’s outside of myself. I’m currently working on a large piece called ‘Daughters‘, an experiential installation that pays homage to hundreds of missing or murdered women in Mexico. It’s a collaboration between creatives in both Canada and Mexico, and involves video, sculpture and sound. The Daughters project is an evolution of process for me and represents the direction I would like my creative practice to take; one that allows me to explore story through many different mediums and avenues of expression.
Ric Kokotovich and 39 talented artists will take part in the 2019 Merida Artist Studio Tour Feb 16/17. Visit meridaenglishlibrary.com for details on the artists, the tour and where to buy tickets.