Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
By Jaime Ferris
Photograph: Jaime Ferris
As powdery snow dances in blustery whirlwinds across Connecticut’s monochromic landscape, all many residents can think about are warmer temperatures, green grasses and fragrant blossoms.
Such a landscape seemed far from the mind of artist and poet Desiree Alvarez, who was hiking the region’s trails with her dog last Saturday morning, hours before the opening reception for her exhibition, “Peaceable Kingdom,” at the Minor Memorial Library Community Gallery in Roxbury. Rather, she was admiring the beauty of nature and what she considers the “seamless relationship” between nature and humans. As she put the finishing touches on two installations in the exhibition, she noted that each of her paintings is “a wish for … peace between us and our world.”
“I grew up here; I spent every weekend here,” Ms. Alvarez said. She is the fourth generation of women in her family to call the woods, gardens and fields of Bridgewater home. “My great-grandmother, my great aunt, and my mother have all come to live in the house in Bridgewater – an old 19th-century tobacco barn. I grew up hiking in the woods there, where I found inspiration and sketched from nature.”
While her work is inspired by nature, Ms. Alvarez strays from the trappings of realism and taps into the poetic side of her personality to infuse her work with a unique sense of whimsy and enchantment, using a palette of color as luscious as the landscapes that inspire her.
The daughter of two painters, Ms. Alvarez grew up drawing, an interest that continued well into college with studies in studio art and English literature at Wesleyan University. She furthered her studies at the Atelier Mac’Avoy; Academie Port-Royal in Paris, France, and at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she earned a master’s in fine art.
Nature has always been a source of inspiration for the artist, who lives and works in New York and who still visits the region every weekend. Inspiration for “Peaceable Kingdom,” she admitted, came after a visit to the Whitey Museum of American Art in New York.
“Several years ago, I saw [Pablo] Picasso’s painting ‘Minotaur Moving’ at the Whitney Museum. It was the first time I wanted to steal a painting. It was almost small enough to slip in my handbag, but not quite,” she recalled in an artist statement. “I went home to my studio and painted my own version. Picasso’s minotaur drags behind a cart full of the artist’s bonds to the world – a ladder, a canvas, a dead horse, a tree, a rainbow, the night sky.
“In my version, called ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ a turtle drags the New York skyline and a tree full of nesting cheetahs across a jaguar backdrop. Thus began a series of open-ended allegories that nod to [American folk painter] Edward Hicks with visions of harmony between the human and the natural world,” Ms. Alvarez continued, noting the inspiration from weekends in her great aunt’s woods, gardens and fields in Bridgewater. “My paintings reflect a seamless relationship between the outdoors and my imagination.”
Over the years, Ms. Alvarez has been an artist-in-residence at P.S. 122 in New York City and at Yaddo, an artists’ working retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Her paintings and fabric art have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the country and around the world, including the international drawing collaborative titled “Weather Report,” and a commission for the government of Ireland, among others. Since 2002, Ms. Alvarez has taught art as an adjunct professor at New York City College of Technology, CUNY in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a curator with exhibitions at the International Print Center and at the Walter Reade Theater Gallery at Lincoln Center.
Ms. Alvarez is also a writer whose poetry and nonfiction have been published in industry magazines and journals. She translates her love of narratives and her appreciation for nature using a variety of printmaking techniques for her giant fabric installations, as well as her oil paintings.
“I think of the works on silk as giant drawings,” Ms. Alvarez said. “I’ve always loved the simplicity and gesture of Zen ink drawings (Zenga) made swiftly by the monks after hours of meditation and a cup of plum wine. A tradition dating back to the 1600s in Japan, Zenga is closely connected to calligraphy, often treating folkloric, animal and humorous subjects.
“In my paintings, characters shift from one state to another. The metamorphoses involve struggle and ecstasy, and are enacted on a mythic terrain. For me, the act of painting exists to give face to that which is hidden: the vibrations between creatures and their surroundings, and the structure of desire,” she continued. “Each painting is a wish for the ultimate transformation – the peace between us and the world.”
In the Roxbury show, Ms. Alvarez shares about a dozen of her oil paintings, each a short allegorical tale. Also on display are some of her sketches and dry-point etchings, as well as two extraordinary scrolls on silk chiffon, hanging from the ceiling of the gallery and just barely touching the floor.
“Painting on silk the way I do is incredibly challenging, which is why I love it,” Ms. Alvarez noted, adding that the 18- to 20-foot scrolls are laid flat on the floor so the artist can paint them. “It is very immediate, with little room for error; you can’t always tell if you’ve got what you want. If you don’t get it the first time, you don’t have it. Silk is very unforgiving. It makes watercolors seem as easy as paint with numbers,” Ms. Alvarez said, looking on as the second of her silk works was hung in Roxbury.
While Ms. Alvarez finds fulfillment in sharing her linguistic and artistic wish for peace between us and our world, she admitted she could see herself doing many things.
“I always wanted to be a marine biologist … and an actress, but art was the one that remained constant and always stayed with me. Being an artist is a hard, very solitary existence. Had I known that being an artist was this hard when I started out, I would have been an actress,” Ms. Alvarez said with a chuckle.
In the depth of winter, Ms. Alvarez is looking forward to the spring, noting, “I have a seasonal studio in Bridgewater, and once spring time is here, I will be inspired by what’s coming up.”
“Peaceable Kingdom” is on display through Feb. 13 at the Minor Memorial Library Community Gallery, located at 23 South St. in Roxbury. It is open Monday, noon to 7 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It can be reached by calling 860-350-2181, or by visiting www.biblio.org/roxbury.