In collaboration with Jesse Brass, Making Art (video)
Interview by Ekaterina Popova
Alonsa Guevara was born in Rancagua, Chile. She spent seven years of her childhood living in the Ecuadorian tropical forest with her family, growing up surrounded by magnificent landscapes and magical environments, a big reason to be a lover of light, nature and colors. Alonsa received her BFA from the Pontific Catholic University of Chile in 2009, and moved to New York in 2011. She graduated from the MFA Program of the New York Academy of Art in 2014 and was granted the Academy's Fellowship award 2015. Her most recent solo show was at Anna Zorina Gallery in NYC, 2016. Alonsa is currently living and working in New York.
When did you first start painting?
I always drew and did creative crafts since I was very young, but I started oil painting when I was 12 years old with the help of my grandmother from my dad’s side. My Abuela Maruja used to draw, paint and make clay sculptures as a hobby. She realized that I enjoyed making things too, so she took me to her studio and encouraged me to start new projects. She taught me how to build a wooden easel, stretch canvases and introduced me to basic oil painting techniques. I kept painting on my own and when I was 18 I joined The Visual Arts Program.
Being an immigrant myself, I love learning about what parts of their story artists bring to their work. How do you feel your cultural background influenced your current paintings?
I had a very intense and nomad childhood. I was born in Chile and moved to Ecuador when I was five years old. During those seven years in Ecuador, my family and I lived in different towns and for a couple of years, I lived on an animal farm where nature, flora, and fauna were around me all the time.
We returned to Chile when I was 12 and also lived in different cities, thus I got to experience a variety of environments and landscapes. At the same time, because I was in nine different schools from kindergarten to high school, I got to share the culture and traditions of different people, which made me more open and tolerant.
I guess that everyone keeps memories of their childhood when becoming adults. It is such a significant part of life that is difficult to forget. I have very vivid memories of the places where I lived; I won’t forget the smell of the humid earth, the songs of the cicadas during twilight and the adventurous hikes into the jungle.
Now I have been in the US for six years, which makes me think “you don’t know what you have until it is gone”. Being far away from home made me appreciate the connection between mankind and their natural surroundings in a different way.
It was back in 2015, my fourth year living here when I began the series of work called Ceremonies. I went back to Chile to visit my family and I thought of the idea of making a real ceremony with my siblings, surrounding three of us by fresh and rotten fruits. So I got a truck, got hundreds of pounds of fruits and staged this ritual. During this process, I took pictures that I used as a reference for my paintings. I have done the same process again in Chile, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and here in the US with family and close friends.
These "Ceremonies" are a representation of an imaginary world where the characters celebrate the cycle of life, especially fertility and fecundity. This celebration is for themselves and their families, as well as their lands and the harvest. I imagine these characters expressing gratitude by making offerings and ceremonies where the people appear nude laying down on the ground covered with a mix of fresh and rotting fruits, vegetables and flowers from their seasonal harvest: an act of connection with their lands and nature.
The vegetables and fruits depicted in my paintings are sometimes fresh and juicy and other times smushed and rotten; making fertility and life coexist in a parallel with decay and death; the full cycle of life.
What do you love most about your process?
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the whole process of setting up, from buying the fruits and flowers, creating compositions with shapes and colors, to taking the pictures of the models lying down.
However, by far my favorite part of my process is when I am in my studio painting. My two favorite moments are: when I start covering the canvas with looser brush strokes and when I am working with tiny brushes making details like seeds, juice, ants, and especially when I am painting the portraits.
What keeps you painting?
I ask that same question to myself over and over, and I don't have a sure answer. But I think that I keep painting as a desperate reaction to let my creativity and passion to take over my life!
The process of creating it is like an extension of real life, creating new worlds brings me excitement, happiness and a lot of pleasure. Therefore, since after I graduated from undergrad I always found the time to paint, even when I made a living as a painting teaching or when I had a full-time job.
I am grateful to say that since 2015 I have been able to make a living as an artist, so now I am a full-time artist and I spend almost every day painting and making things.
What is the best advice you received in your art career?
During my first year of undergrad, I had a teacher that told me that I should focus on printmaking because my paintings (which I was doing mostly from my imagination) “weren’t working”. I’m very stubborn and I wanted to paint so bad that his advice just made me want to paint more and get better at it. So during that year I took Painting I and started painting objects from life, and I realized that I was pretty good at it when I had a reference to look at. After that year, the same teacher asked me to be his assistant for Painting II and said to me: “You can listen to other people’s advice, but more importantly, listen to yourself.”
What is your biggest dream as a painter?
I would love to be able to keep making a living as an artist and keep sharing my work with people. And my dream as a painter is to have the skills to paint everything accurately completely from imagination, this way I can recreate images that I have in my mind. I’m already able to paint a lot of things from imagination, but I would love to have the skills to paint everything I have seen! From human figure in all positions to a forest with hundreds of flora and fauna species.
Tell us about your interests outside of the studio.
In my studio, I have a lot of different instruments that I play during my painting breaks. I love to play the guitar and sing and lately, I got a keyboard so I am learning how to play it. I also have drums, a tambourine, harmonic and some instruments that I made myself, and I love to get friends together and have some musical parties.
Also, I spend time exercising almost every day. For a whole year since 2016, I did CrossFit (which sounds extreme) but I really enjoyed it. Now I am taking some African dance classes called Kongo beat, I’m doing Spinning classes and also I go for runs at the Promenade in Bay Ridge.
How do you replenish your creative pool?
Here in NYC you are so exposed to an enormous variety of artistic creations that it is impossible not to be inspired or influenced by it. But in general, I get inspired by so many things! By meeting new people and listening to their stories, by traveling to different countries and getting to see their landscapes, I even get inspiration from a tiny cut open blueberry to paint a fruit portrait.
Creativity comes randomly, sometimes I have great ideas and other times the worst idea you can think of, but allowing myself to spend that time developing those ideas, playing around and making mistakes, is what makes me realize what works and what doesn’t, and most importantly I learn from that process.
I think what has helped me the most is to be open to new ideas and to overcome FEAR, making mistakes is OK, making silly ugly things is fine, cutting your painting on a thousand pieces won't kill you, you just have to DO IT!
I always say “It is better to regret what you did, than what you didn't do. So go for it!!
What do you hope the viewer experiences when looking at your paintings?
I explore the relationship between a person and his or her environment as a means of embracing a connection with the beauty of nature that has seemingly weakened with the growing reliance on industry and technology.
With my paintings, I'm trying to create magical worlds that contain my experiences as a woman while offering my personal understanding and appreciation of beauty.
In my “Ceremonies” paintings I find the people that I paint beautiful because they have natural bodies loaded with what we call “imperfections” that are actually just perfect. While I paint these nude bodies I pay special attention to their stretch marks, veins, asymmetry, freckles, etc. For example, my painting “María José’s Ceremony” represents a mother with her child, and here I painted her cesarean section scar because it is a beautiful mark of which any mother should feel proud.
We live in a world that seems to relate beauty with synthetic and unnatural; to be beautiful you have to change the way you really look. But with my paintings, I am trying to inspire the viewer to open their eyes to the natural beauty that surrounds them. I hope the viewers feel attraction to my painting and make them believe the truthfulness of the image they are seeing. I hope that when the viewer sees my paintings they think about the paradoxes of life: desire & repugnance, fertility & decadence, birth & death, truth & fantasy.