I have observed a spiral pattern in the evolution of my work. Various subjects, motifs, and styles appear and reappear. I have at times focused on subjects of a political, social, or cultural nature, such as my Farmworker pieces or Maracame en ceremonia. This latter work also speaks to another major facet of my gaze–the spiritual and the transcendental. Naturally, my work is always grounded in my identity as a Chicano. But this identity is a point of origin, not a predetermined itinerary. I believe that authentic, personal work is universal, and vice versa.
My work has been to a great degree my life's journey. The two are inextricably bound. If sometimes my work is slow in coming about, it's only because I have to bring myself along too. It is in many ways a process of letting go: of working through the sins, the hurts, the disappointments. And of breaking through the illusions–personal, social, and political–that provide us with a false sense of security. It is a journey through illusion toward the real.
Finally, as the Huicholes of northern Mexico have demonstrated to me, art is (or should be) a way of praying, of making an offering to the gods.
The other material I've written for this submission also contains information about the way I approach or perceive my work as an artist. My "biographical information" includes a description of my intent and purpose as an artist. And my narrative of the processes for each of the enclosed works includes thoughts on my goals and intentions as they've evolved through the different periods. In addition, I'm also attaching an artist's statement that I prepared for my 1995 solo show El retorno a lo sagrado; this statement describes my aspirations and inspirations for the Madre Tierra series, and offers reflections on art in general.
The term "artist's statement" sounds so definitive, so conclusive. Whatever insights I can offer, come only at the risk of having to prove them wrong or insufficient later on. If not, then I am surely not growing as an artist. Any statement about my work is necessarily limited to what I know, to what I've done. Yet creation comes from emptiness. At various stages in my artistic career I have found myself having to forget or unlearn everything I know and start anew.
Let us see what tomorrow will bring.
El retorno a lo sagrado
But the cycles never stop turning, and now we find the Goddess reemerging from the forests and mountains, bringing us hope for the future, returning us to our most ancient human roots.
Marija Gimbutas (The Languages of the Goddess, 1989)
A hundred years ago, at the turn of the century, Western art was undergoing a radical change. Impressionism had altered irrevocably artists' perception of light and color and was giving rise to a proliferation of styles and schools. Today, at the turn not only of a new century but of a new millennium, another transformation is under way.
Our world today is whirling out of balance. Materialism is the religion of the industrialized world–living for the future without regard for the past. Technology overpowers nature. The masculine overshadows the feminine. Tragically, this emphasis on the material, this dependence on technology, this imbalance on the side of the masculine, is serving to injure matter–mater, our mother, the Earth, which nourishes and shelters us. It is this perilous imbalance that my work addresses, or seeks to redress. Without the spiritual, materialism is hollow; it can never sustain us.
As we face the twenty-first century, therefore, it is crucial that artists make another breakthrough, which perforce has to do with the function of art. The artist's role in society should be similar to the shaman's. Through their work, artists should be healing the spirit of the world and of all its inhabitants; they should be providing people with the opportunity to experience exalted states of consciousness.
In my recent work, I have been attempting to restore the sacred principle of the feminine to its rightful place in our consciousness. Through the use of ulvic* symbols, I have sought to express the mystery, profundity, and power that belong to the feminine. And I am searching for an image that expresses that harmony of the integration of both aspects of duality–a universal, unifying myth. I have also found prayer and ceremony becoming intrinsic to the artistic process. This has been a natural, inevitable evolution for me, influenced by my personal contact with some of the ancient traditions and cultures of Mexico.
*My brother Víctor Guerra is proposing the term ulvic (from the Sanskrit ulva,'womb') to refer to symbols of the feminine principle. Interestingly enough, we found that no adequate word existed in English or Spanish.
Descriptions of the Processes Used to Make the Artworks
1. Hasta la Gloria, 1977
I caught up with the Texas Farmworkers Union on their historic march to Washington, D.C., on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I walked with them for three or four days, nursed my blisters, and did quick sketches of the farmworkers, individually and while they marched as a group.
I returned to Austin and studied my drawing until I was able to compose the image–a portrait that I felt expressed their determination, pride, and endurance. From my finished drawing I created ten hand-cut stencils for the ten colors I used in the poster. Opaque inks were used, though by the use of hatching in a few areas I created additional colors.
I was teaching at the time at Austin Community College, so I used the silkscreen equipment in my classroom. The paper and inks were donated by different local companies, and with the help of my top students I printed a large edition–250 or 300 copies.
I finished the edition and got it to the farmworkers as they were arriving in Washington. I don't know how much money they raised in all from the sale of the edition, but by the end of the first or second week they had raised about $8,000.
2. Texas Farmworkers, 1979
I was so inspired by the farmworkers when I traveled with them through Louisiana, that I had to do another work on them. This time I painted oil on canvas, although the entire underpainting was done in colors complementary to what is there on the surface.
I had done many sketches of one of the farmworkers, Julio Coreño, and I used those drawings as my point of departure. What I was after, though, was not a portrait but rather an archetypal image of a farmworker, a person of dignity whose labor makes the earth yield its fruits. A people struggling for economic justice, setting limits on inequity. Yet the painting became more than that–it became a symbol of the earth imbuing us with its strength.
3. Maracame en ceremonia, 1997
I began this painting in 1985. It started out as a portrait. I worked on it off and on for a few years and eventually abandoned it, until a dear friend and patron, Jerry Patchen, saw it in my studio in Mexico and insisted that I finish it.
Again, this painting evolved as I worked on it. It became an archetypal image–a composite, if you will, of the Huichol shamans that I've met in the Mexican states of San Luis Postosí and Jalisco. I tried to capture the intensity of their spiritual ceremonies, which I've been fortunate enough to participate in, as well as the multiple layers of feelings and realizations of such occasions–from the pitch-black night to the light of Tatewari (grandfather fire) and its many lessons, the learning that begins where science ends.
4. La guardiana del altiplano, 1994
Here I worked totally without a model–I created her out of my imagination. I worked on modeling this stoneware sculpture for about nine months–made the face three times before I found what I was looking for. I had to build a kiln just to accommodate the sculpture. The color is achieved by firing the clay to a very specific temperature. I made trial firings at various temperatures to find the color I wanted.
This sculpture was part of a commission to create two guardians for the entrance to the home of my friends Balz and Ricarda Shurmann. I, of course, had to create guardians for the entire region where their home is located.
5. Nuestra Señora de Tepeyac, 1995
This sculpture may be the culmination of my Madre Tierra series. I created the figure without a model. I achieved the color of the sculpture by controlling the temperature carefully. Clay has a firing-temperature range, which also causes a range of values or colors in the finished piece depending on the clay that is used (e.g., yellow to orange to brown). I also used a clay stain on the snake around the waist.
The pose of Nuestra Señora is reminiscent of that of my Texas Farmworker, and both are reminiscent of that of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of fertility and agriculture. However, I first encountered Coatlicue after the Farmworker was created–but before Nuestra Señora.
The chapel caused me more work and worry. This chapel is actually the third one I created. I just wasn't happy with the first two. I intended the black to come from the reduction of oxygen during firing (reduction firing). It didn't come out as dark as I wanted it–so, just days before I was to exhibit it, I fired it again and it did come out darker, but it developed some hairline cracks.
Yes, our earth is injured. Humanity has seen to that. So I accepted the cracks, but also repaired them with silver wire––not by filling in the cracks to hide them, but by stitching wire over the cracks––a truer portrait of our earth.
6. Espíritu del desierto, 1985
I did a lot of walking and camping out in the dessert of San Louis Potosi during this period. I was getting away from teaching, and connecting with something very deep and primal.
This oil painting is very spontaneous–done in one sitting–all from memory. Even though I carried a sketchbook with me for years during all my desert hiking, I never did any sketches while in the desert.
This painting is of my impressions of the desert and of its hidden power.
7. Árbol de la esperanza, 1985
This painting may be the culmination of my Desert series, done in gouache and sumi ink on rice paper with traditional East Asian brushes.
I came to the San Luis Potosí desert after visiting Japan and Korea–of course, I saw all the art I could, and brought back all the art materials I could carry.
This painting speaks symbolically. It is not portrait of a tree of the desert, but of the longing for the integration of duality.
8. Desert Series: Sounds III, 1985
This painting was done in one sitting. I was using traditional East Asian materials and methods to create the feelings of a very Mexican landscape. It's a desert not experienced from an air-conditioned car, but by walking in sandals through days of heat and thorns. Strange cricket-like sounds, and many other desert sounds, crackle out of the shimmering heat. There's a hum that permeates the entire desert.
9. Hojas # 28, 1975
During this period, I was living in the countryside just outside of Austin. My world centered around family, bringing up a daughter, trying to live as simply as possible (after years of working at a halfway house for mental patients in Dallas), growing a garden with my wife, and creating art.
This is a reductive linoleum print, though I was working with five or six plates. Each plate would reduce after its printing–but not all the plates touched each print equally, or even in the same order. Of the edition of (I don't remember exactly) fifty or one hundred prints, no two are alike. They are all different, each one somehow reflective of different aspects of my life at the time.
This Hojas series was prompted by my brother Víctor's request for an illustration for the cover of a book that he was editing, Hojas: A Chicano Journal of Education (Austin: Juarez-Lincoln Press, 1976).
10. Entre el cielo y la tierra VII, 1989
Gouache and sumi ink on rice paper. Though I've used East Asian materials and I admire Zen calligraphy and Eastern painting, I am not working in the Eastern tradition. I've incorporated some of the traditional East Asian materials and approaches to painting into my way of working, which naturally includes a great deal of the European traditions that I inherited through training. I also bring to my work the influence of some U.S. and Mexican painters, and my life in the city of Austin and in the desert and small villages of San Luis Potosí in Mexico.
The Heaven and Earth series was begun after the Mother Earth series of sculptures, but completed long before. These paintings were done usually in one sitting–more time was spent in the mental and spiritual preparation for the act of painting than in the material act of painting.
11. Mountain Night I, 1985
Hiking at night in the mountains of San Luis Potosí inspired this small series that followed the Desert series and led to the Heaven and Earth series.
Like those two series, this one is done in gouache on handmade Korean rice paper with Japanese brushes. Unlike in traditional East Asian paintings, the paint in the Mountain Night series was layered to create the density I required.
Walking at night in mountains with gorges and cliffs, along narrow slippery footpaths, one realizes the mountain is the master. It is said of the mountains of Central Mexico that they either like you or they don't. If the mountain likes you, it protects, shelters, and feeds you. But if the mountain doesn't like you, get away before you break a leg or worse.
12. Madre tierra: Caracol, 1995
The wood here has been worked (distressed) and stained to appear old and weathered. The clay sculptures in the Madre Tierra series were done before the wood panels and the found objects were incorporated into the works. It took many years to find the objects that belong with the clay pieces.
I suppose my work has always involved symbols. However, the Madre Tierra series does this perhaps more purely–with only the essence of the symbol, and with very little else–yet nevertheless establishing a mood of reverence, without ornament.
13. Madre tierra: Resolución, 1995
The comments on Madre tierra: Caracol apply as well to this work. For Resolución it is interesting to note that the horsehair in the work is, of course, from a black stallion, and not a mare or a gelding.
14. El sentido oculto de la tierra, 1990
Of the works in the Madre Tierra series that are meant to hang on a wall, only two pieces are complete without the wood panel or found objects. This is one of them.
The black of the sculpture is achieved through reduction of oxygen during the latter part of the firing.
15. Madre tierra entera, 1993
Three works in the Madre Tierra series are freestanding. This is one of them. As with the other clay sculptures in the Madre Tierra series, the sculpture here was created years before the entire piece was completed–in this case, completed with the addition of the necklace of skulls and the limestone base. I discarded two other bases (made from other stones) before I selected the fossil limestone, which is from the Austin area.
This piece has been on exhibit in Galería Marchand in Torreón, Coahuila (in an unfinished stage); in a solo show at Galería Sin Fronteras in Austin; in the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago; in the Concordia University Gallery in Austin; at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio; and in the Dadian Gallery Center for the Arts and Religion of the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Artist Statements about the Three Selected Artworks
1. Texas Farmworker, 1979
I had been asked by the Texan Farm Workers union to create a commemorative poster on the occasion of their historic march from Austin, Texas, to Washington, D.C., June 18 to September 5, 1977.
Accepting the challenge, I caught up with them on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I walked with them for three or four days. Nursing my blisters, I did quick sketches of the farmworkers, individually and while they marched as a group. I then returned to Austin and created a ten-color silkscreen poster, Hasta la Gloria (1977). I completed the edition and got it to the farmworkers as they were arriving in Washington.
The short time I spent with the farmworkers impressed me greatly. I felt an urgency to write a narrative of their journey, and also of the time they fasted for twelve days on the steps of the Texas State Capitol in the summer of 1978. This narrative, "El cuento de nunca acabar," was published in Arco Iris, a special issue of the journal Tejidos (1978).
I was also inspired to create this painting, Campesino de Tejas. The image of the Texas Farmworker formed itself in my mind's eye. It's oil on canvas. The entire underpainting was done in colors complementary to those of the finished work.
I had done numerous sketches of one of the farmworkers, Julio Coreño, and I used those drawings as my point of departure. What I was after, though, was not a portrait but rather an archetypal image of a farmworker, a person of dignity whose labor makes the earth yield its fruits, representing a people struggling for economic justice who set limits on inequity.
Yet for me the painting became even more than that–it became a symbol of the earth imbuing us with its strength. Only later was I to discover that the posture of the Texas Farmworker is identical to that of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of fertility and agriculture.
2. La guardiana del altiplano, 1994
This sculpture was part of a commission to create two guardians for the entrance to the home of my friend Balz Shurmann. Naturally, I felt compelled to create guardians for the entire region where his home is located, in the mountains of San Luis Potosí. I do a lot of hiking in these mountains for inspiration. The campesinos of the region believe that these mountains either accept and protect you, or they reject you. I think they are right. Further, I believe that the mountains must surely have a roving guardiana spirit, protecting the mountains and its people.
Here I worked without a model–I created La guardiana del altiplano entirely out of my imagination. I worked on the modeling of this stoneware sculpture for about nine months–the face alone I made three times before I found what I was looking for. I also had to build a kiln specifically to accommodate the sculpture. The color is achieved by firing the clay to a very specific temperature. I made trial firings at various temperatures to find the color I wanted. (In "Of Ceremony and Ceramics," published in the February 1997 issue of Ceramics Monthly [Vol. 45, No. 2], I recount the story of a series of significant events in the creation of this sculpture.)
3. Omecihuatl, 1994
I suppose my work has always involved symbols. In my Madre Tierra series (1989-1995), I have tended to do this more purely or minimally, establishing a mood of reverence, without ornament–with only the essence of the symbol, and with very little else. However, this solar etching, Omecihuatl, while part of the Madre Tierra series, departs from it in this regard. It incorporates ornament. The symbolic form itself is covered in pre-Columbian and prehistoric decorative motifs, which are symbolic in themselves.
I have generally also resisted using patterns that have been popularized or over-popularized. In this case, I am referring to the pre-Hispanic decorative motifs often found in the artwork of the Mexico City public mural and sculpture movement that began with "los tres grandes" and continues as a program to this day, and found also in the artwork of the Chicano art movement, which in many ways appropriated this visual vocabulary.
It was during an all-night Huichol Indian ceremony that all these patterns appeared before my eyes. It's as if the fire that I was watching was the screen upon which the patterns were projected–fluid, pulsing patterns, ever-changing and eternal, obviously observed since pre-Columbian times. The evidence was overwhelming. I couldn't ignore the yearning to create these patterns. Later, I noticed that Huichol jewelry, glass beadwork, demonstrates an infinity of these patterns as well.
During the same ceremony, the doe appeared also, breaking through the flowing pre-Colombian motifs. The deer is a member of the sacred trinity of the Huichol beliefs.