[A guest post from Artist Joan Belmar, as part of our Art Bank Collection series]
My approach to making art tries to impose some discipline on what remains, at bottom, a chaotic process. My first step is to fly like a bird. For example, when I am not in my studio, I am always seeking to explore new situations, research new possibilities, read art books, visit exhibitions, art studios and discover new music.etc. Sometimes, the information I compile can be painful. Too many times I have seen examples of unfairness in the world. For instance, a few years ago when I went back to my native Chile after becoming an American citizen, I walked along a small street in Santiago and went into a bookstore. I couldn’t take my eyes off a book containing the story and photographs of naked indigenous people. I bought the book and devoured it in few hours.
From this book and online research I learned that the Selknam, also called Onas, had lived a semi-nomadic life for thousands of years in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) at the southern cone of South America. They had a rich culture that involved music, dance, theatre and performance. After the European colonists arrived, they suffered a campaign of extermination with the support of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selknam dead, which was confirmed by producing a pair of hands or ears, and later a complete skull. Some of them where taken to France to be displayed as animals in the zoo. Bounty hunters were given more for killing a woman than a man.
Today the Selknam are extinct. My knowledge of their persecution gave birth to a series titled Tierra del Fuego and was shown at Charles Krause Reporting fine art in 2012. In this series, I mixed imaginary maps, with drawings of Selknam almost hidden or erased from the surface of the canvas or paper–emulating in a way their extermination from this earth.
In 2013 I approached this series in a different way. The new works were less literal and were shown by Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington and New York. In 2014, I had a solo exhibition at Addison Ripley Fine Art, entitled “CHORDS,” where I melded the qualities of color and textures to creating a musical compositions. CHORDS #40 came from this last body of work. In making this abstract piece, I used many techniques, including the techniques that were part of my painting process for over twenty-five years.
The second step in my creative process is to choose a painting surface. In the case of CHORDS #40, I used oil paper because it absorbs very well. I start cutting paper. I mark it with sawing tools or anything that can leave a mark or a pattern on it. Then I pour different kinds of inks, acrylic or liquid watercolor onto the paper and allow them run free without any expectation of where they should go. It is a joy to see the painting flying free and mixing without premeditation. In their accidental travels they change their properties and transform. Then, I create translucent layers of paint and polymer, gradually increasing their thickness until become opaque and solid.
My the third step is to organize this beautiful mess. I balance the colors; I draw lines, dots, grids, and eliminate areas. In the case of the “Territories” series, I used the images of indigenous people with paint on their body or faces. In a photo computer program, I inverted the image to obtain an image where their perceptible flesh disappears and the dots or lines of their body paint remain. Then I project this image and I draw the dots or lines on the painting. So as a result, I get an abstract map feeling, but I feel and I know the indigenous people are part of the work. At the end, I add velvet colors on top as a contradiction to all the transparent layers behind.
As an aside, the art world that I perceived as hostile and distant when I came to the United States in 1999 is my friend today. And I think of all the people in it as my family–from the artists who struggle so hard just to pay the rent to the art leaders and collectors. I cannot thank DCCAH enough for its support since the beginning of my journey here.
– Joan Belmar
[In support of visual artists and art galleries in the Washington metropolitan area, fine artwork is purchased each year to expand the District’s Art Bank Collection, a growing collection of moveable works funded through the Art in Public Places Program. Works in this collection are owned by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and loaned to other District government agencies for display in public areas within government buildings.]