Today is an overcast and drizzly rainy day in the central Alentejo region of Portugal. This area has not had rain in over six months and is dry as a tinder box. The locals have never seen a dry spell last as long or be as starkly dry as it has been this year. There has literally not been a growing season. The rain is welcome, but still makes for a melancholy, gray day. The process for packing up and ending my residency at Foundation OBRAS has begun. I have my final exhibit and artist talk tonite, and pack it up after for the flight home.
It has been a surprise that it has taken me a couple weeks to get into the rhythm and philosophy of the region. This area operates on its own time. The clock for me is signaled by the early morning squeals from the pig farm about a half mile away or the melodic bells of the sheep as they go to and from their pasture. I have been told they are on the move constantly because of local sheep rustling. Who knew? What I do know is that these simple sounds and the pleasant easy-going people I have met, make for a truly calm, peaceful, pastoral setting. For any burnouts or workaholics, this is the place to be. The Alentejo is truly chill! Sort of “whatever will be will be” kind of attitude. I revere the rustic architecture, the rock masonry and the 800 year old plaster walls. Everything has a story.
Nearby Evora (the oldest city in Portugal) is rustic, but sophisticated and much more moneyed. After all, they had to deal with the Roman conquerors, the Moors, and later the Christians. Then there were the aristocratic landowners followed by the dictators and the inevitable communists. People here have seen it all and are relatively unfazed.
My favorite town in Portugal has been Estremoz. Great farmer’s market on Saturdays, lots of energy, gorgeous tree-lined streets, good inexpensive restaurants and Moorish influenced architecture with great weather. I’ve even become hooked on the local pingado coffees and small Sagres beers and the local chorizo. Estremoz feels like a neighborhood and totally accessible by foot. What really knocks me out are the bands of colors on the bases of the buildings. Rich ochres, tinted ultramarines, and soft grays. They actually sell powdered pigment in the building supply stores that is so potent it will dye your hands if you touch it.
The work (words + pictures series) I have been doing has been reinforced by the colors in the landscape and architecture. Simple, monochromatic, organic color infiltrates the concepts. Rocks continue to play a big part in the visual influences. For my final exhibit, I put three 8’ primitive wooden benches end to end and piled selected rocks (marble, quartz, granite) on top to serve as the base for the final paintings. Somehow it seems to fit the the visuals and plays homage to where the work was created.
My process has been pretty simple. 9 paintings, 3 weeks. I have kept a tight but relaxed schedule. This is significantly faster and more ambitious than anything I would attempt at home. Every painting has had accompanying small sketches or diagrams to reinforce the concepts and speed up decision making. I trust my drawings. Up at 6 am, coffee and oranges, email, internet news, and then on to the studio until noon. I usually have four paintings going simultaneously (which I would never do at home) because of the drying times. It’s a hassle to get the paint dry here, unless I move it into the sun, which can disturb the paint surfaces. So wait and wait and wait. Usually the ultimate wait becomes time for a nap and reading by the luxurious pool after lunch. Then back to the studio. Repeat as needed. We have shared dinners (everybody makes one dish) every couple days and artist talks/lectures a few times a week. There are writers, filmmakers, photographers, performance artists, musicians and painters here. Always something to look forward to with lots of laughter and new cultures. Luckily a couple local artists have joined us, which really completes the experience. They provide a totally different point of view. This one Portuguese artist I have become friends with, Oliveira Taveras, has some serious drawing skills. Really special. I will have a final dinner at his house tonight with he and his wife Fatima.
Last nite we went to a Flamenco concert across the border in Badajoz, Spain. It was a quartet consisting of two Bass Violas, one Percussionist and the pretty famous vocalist, Rocio Marquez. Absolutely stunning. Lots of passion and expertise. One of the Violas was sometimes played like a guitar and the percussionist had instruments that were totally specific to this region. A great way to wind down the trip with gypsy flair.
I saw an exhibit this morning at the Estremoz Palace Museum. All the work was local artists from 1949 and consisted mostly of small watercolors and ink drawings. Probably 50 pieces in call. Three or four were excellent. It is amazing in that period of poverty, so many artists were living here. I was really lucky to stumble on this show.
It is going to be a jolt going back to reality. I will miss harmony of this place. I will not miss the absence of media. It’s been five weeks since I have been in Savannah and I am sure to look at it with new wonder. Of course I jump back into the hotbed of activity with so much going on in the next few weeks. When I close my eyes I will blissfully think of the Alentejo and OBRAS.
Foundation OBRAS is located near Estremoz (pop. 9000), Portugal about a half hour from the beautiful famed city of Evora. So far there has been only a glimpse of Evora from a bus window, but it’s tree lined streets and whitewashed buildings look pretty enticing. This central region of Portugal (called the Alentejo) takes up much of the country but has the least population. It was known for it’s many crops from wheat to grapes to olives, as well as cork and marble production.
The Foundation is on a large rebuilt quinta (farmhouse and outbuildings) that has been rehabbed into comfortable artist’s quarters and large studio spaces with stone floors and 200 year old layers of whitewashed plaster. Great morning light and cool in the mornings as well. Mid- afternoons reach the low 90s and can be a bit heated. Later afternoons are quite manageable with cool breezes. I time my studio hours with the light and start working in earnest at 7 am to noon. Knock off for lunch and a nap, then back until about 5pm. Try to get my pool time in as well even if it is only for reading by the water. It makes for a a very productive and steady day.
I had prepared nine 24 x 24 inch luan plywood panels with my formulated ground and a coat of bitumen and brought them over as checked luggage. Kind of a pain, but it worked and they were packaged reasonably well. The materials are basic and sparse. I consider this all part of Arte Povera, and the simplified process makes choices and methods more simplistic. The nine panels are the first main component of the words + pictures series that is a visual response to the NY Times daily chosen words about the current presidency. It was intended as a protest and interestingly the work has taken on a life of it’s own. Metaphors, abstractions and symbols are used, but the methodology and being in Portugal adds an antiquity and patina to the work. The mix of current U.S. media news and the rustic imagery has a compelling juxtaposition. So far this has had a life of its own, with me struggling to keep up. Different from any of my other work. As it should be.