Friday, August 05, 2016

THE HEART OF ART: LLÉVATE MIS AMORES (ALL OF ME, 2014) / MUJERES LUZThe Evening Class Interview With Claudio Talavera-Ballón

As part of their developing RoxCine programming curated by Isabel Fondevila, and co-presented by Galería de la Raza, Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival, and the Latino Community Foundation, the Roxie presents a special presentation of All of Me / Llévate mis amores (2014), directed by Mexican documentarian Arturo González Villaseñor, Friday, August 5 through Monday, August 8, continuing on to the Galería de La Raza, where All of Me will play Wednesday, August 10 through Monday, September 17.

As synopsized, Mexico and the United States share the greatest border between the first and the third world. That makes it a bridge for thousands of migrants who expose themselves to every danger as they travel through the country on a train called La Bestia ("The Beast"). That's where they meet the Patronas, a group of Mexican women who, every day since 1995, make food and toss it to the helpless as the train rushes by. This documentary is an intimate approach, a personal diary that draws a border between the life they were given and the life they chose. In a world where all hope seems lost, the Patronas breathe life into a human value that seems to be fading with each day: love for one another.

All of Me's festival pedigree includes awards for Best Movie, México Primero at Los Cabos International Film Festival; Best Documentary and Audience Award at Mostra de Cinema Latinoamericà de Catalunya, Lleida; Telesur Best Documentary and Jury Special Mention at Festival de Cine Pobre de Gibara, Cuba, among others.

Arturo González Villaseñor is from Mexico City and studied Social Communication at the UAM-Xochimilco. In 2013, he founded Acanto Films, a production company for films and artistic events. At the moment, he writes film reviews for the magazine Revista Proceso. His first film All of Me participated in over 60 film festivals around the world including the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), DocsDF, Guanajuato International Film Festival, among others. Iñaki Fdez. de Retana seized the opportunity to talk with Villaseñor during the film's April 2015 screening at SFIFF.

Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, Director Arturo González Villaseñor and Director of Photography Antonio Mecalco will be present for a Q&A on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and August 6 after the 7:00PM shows.

The art exhibit "Mujeres Luz", a painting series by Claudio Talavera-Ballón inspired by the film, opens August 5 at 518 Valencia Street (The Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics) in conjunction with All of Me's opening reception with the filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests. "Mujeres Luz" will then move to the Galería de la Raza on Thursday, August 11 for All of Me's Closing Reception with filmmakers and Patrona Lupe as special guests.

A Panel Discussion moderated by radio host and producer Chelis López (Radio Bilingue & KPOO) with Patrona Guadalupe González Herrera, director of photography Antonio Mecalco and Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of Carecen SF, will take place after the 7:00PM Galería screening on Wednesday, August 10.

"Mujeres Luz" is an art exhibit dedicated to Las Patronas and migrants who travel on La Bestia inspired by the film All of Me (Llevate mis Amores). When Talavera-Ballón saw the movie at the San Francisco Film Festival last year, he was so moved that he traveled to Veracruz, Mexico to meet and paint these incredible women. Claudio and I took time during my last visit to San Francisco to sit down to talk about his development as an artist and the genesis of the "Mujeres Luz" series.

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Claudio Talavera-Ballón is a Peruvian-born painter based in San Francisco, California. His work highlights the lives and struggles of farm workers, indigenous people and immigrants throughout Latin America and the U.S. He has exhibited in museums, universities and embassies internationally and in the U.S, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cusco and the Peruvian Embassy in Washington DC. He has been selected for the SF Arts Commission 2015-2016 Artist Pool, has participated in Friday Nights at the de Young Museum and is currently a member of ArtSpan Open Studios committee.

Hailing from Arequipa, Peru, one can only describe Claudio Talavera-Ballón as blessed. Most of the cities in Peru are named in Quechua, usually as a description of the place, and Arequipa comes from the Quechua words ari (which means volcano) and qhipaya (which means valley), so Arequipa refers to the valley at the base of a nearby volcano. Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes. It's in the mountains, an hour and a half from the coast.

As Claudio was growing up in Arequipa, everyone around him wanted to grow up to be managers, economists, and anyone who wanted to make art was considered a devil. He couldn't stand the social judgment and pressure. Every time he told someone he was a painter, they would respond, "You don't work?" His family was the same way.

When he was six years old, his mother took him to visit his grandparents. His mother worked in the afternoons so when he got home from school he was left to run free in the nearby fields and to visit the river. He'd return to his home fifteen minutes before his mother was scheduled to return from work, and would start in on his homework. His mother noticed, of course, that he couldn't have possibly spent all afternoon working on homework and realized he was doing something else inbetween school and her coming home.

One time he went out to play in the countryside, crossed the river, had a conversation with a farmer, and played with a dog and played with a cow. But this time when he returned home, his mother was waiting for him. She asked him where he had been. He told her, "Well, I have been in the country." She asked, "All afternoon you've been in the country? In the fields, all afternoon?" Yes, he answered. "Okay," she said, "what did you learn?" "Learn?" he responded, "I go to the school to learn. I don't learn in my free time so I don't know what you mean." She continued, "So you passed all afternoon in the country, in the fields, you crossed the river twice, you played with a dog, you played with a cow, you talked with a farmer, and you didn't learn anything?" He said, "No. I didn't learn anything." His mother said, "Okay, then let's try something. Tomorrow when you get home from school and go out to play in the fields, cross the river twice, look for the dog, look for the cow, look for the farmer. Duplicate everything you did today but this time learn something. And if you don't want to learn anything, then you have to paint what you see."

He had already started painting when he was really young so his mother knew that—even though he was just a child—he had talent. So he did what she said and returned to the field and began drawing what he was seeing. He frequently walked with his mother in the countryside through the fields. They traveled a lot. And when they came back each night, his mother would encourage him to draw what he had seen during the day. So he started drawing mountains and people. He began drawing in the spirit of play; it was a game for him.

He started studying graphic design when he was 19. At that time computers weren't yet used for graphic design. He learned everything by hand. Once, after finishing his homework, he turned off the light to get some sleep and realized it was already morning and the sun was coming up. So he had to jump in the shower and get ready for the next day of school. It was really hard. He carried on like this for three years. In his third year, and all in one year, he was taught various techniques of painting: oil, water color, charcoal, air brush, pastel. The moment he started to paint, he realized how much he really loved it and that it was for him.

His parents had divorced when Claudio was two years old. He began asking his mother about his father's whereabouts? But his mother didn't know. She responded instead by telling him stories about a Peruvian painter, Luis Palao Berastain, who had been a boyfriend of her's when she was younger. So when he asked about his father, she answered that she didn't know where he was, but there was this painter in Cusco who painted indigenous people. So he began to ask less about his father, and more about this painter from Cusco. He lived all his life, in fact, with his mother's stories of this painter ever in the background; like an inherited ancestor, an antepasado. Palao came up frequently in conversation because he was a famous watercolorist who had been born in Arequipa. He had acquired a reputation as overly emotional and ill-tempered with a bad humor. When people would visit and knock on the door, he would open and tell them gruffly, "I'm not here" and close the door. He became known as a misanthropic hermit.

Once when he was older, 21, Claudio was walking around Arequipa and spotted Palao in the street. Claudio realized it was his opportunity to finally meet him. So he walked up to him and presented himself as his mother Gabby's son. "Oh really?" Palao enthused, "You are Gabby's son?" They struck a swift friendship in the moment. They walked around together and talked about art. Palao asked him what he did in life and Claudio revealed that he wanted to paint; that he had finished his degree in graphic design, but didn't know how to proceed. Palao asked after his mother and Claudio told him that she had been really sick but that she would love to see him if he had time. So they exchanged phone numbers. One year later his phone rang and it was Palao asking if he could stop by for a visit. Palao talked with his mother, they cried some, and after two or three hours he said to Claudio, "I want to look at your work. Show me your work." So Claudio showed him a few pieces he had painted at the Institute.

After seeing his drawings, Palao told him he was off to a good start but that he needed to go to art school, but Claudio protested that he didn't want to go to art school because he didn't believe in it. Respecting his point of view, Palao then offered: "Do you want to return to Calca with me?" Palao lived in Calca, which was about an hour and a half outside of Cusco. Claudio asked, "What for?" "To be my student," Palao asserted. For Claudio it was as if Picasso had asked him to be his student. He said yes. At the time, he was working as a drawing teacher at two institutes, and had 42 clients as a graphic designer, so he began disengaging from his clients, insuring his accounts were clear, and then he moved to Calca, where he began to study painting with Palao, now his master.

The first day that he went to his teacher's home, Palao told him: "These are the rules. We serve breakfast at 8:30 in the morning. If you want to have breakfast, come at 8:00 in the morning. At 9:00, you have to go outside and study the light. You have to try to paint the same image during the day as an exercise. At 12:00 we serve lunch and, so, if you want lunch, come at 12:00 and show me your watercolors. If your watercolors are good, you can have lunch; but, if they're not good, you don't get lunch. Lunch is served until 2:00 in the afternoon. At 2:00 you have to go back outside to paint the afternoon light. At 5:00, we serve light snacks. If you want to have snacks at 5:00, show up with a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have snacks. Then it's back outside at 5:30 to paint the sunset. At 7:00, dinner is served. If you want to have dinner, you have to have a painting. If you don't have a painting, you won't have dinner. After the dinner maybe, maybe, we'll want to paint something together." That schedule (buttressed by dining rules) was how Palao and Claudio worked together for years.

He studied four years with Palao, although "studying" would stretch the term. He simply practiced his art. Adhering to Picasso's celebrated statement that "painting is 90% work and 10% inspiration", Claudio learned from Palao how to live as a painter; how to wake up every morning as a painter. Everyone knows a painter doesn't earn much money so Claudio learned from Palao how to live as an artist on limited means; how to let go of things, expenses, that weren't really necessary. Truthfully, Palao taught him more about how to live as an artist in the world than about painting in particular. He taught him not to be afraid of the blank paper because a little fear always surfaces when the artist faces blank paper. Palao taught him that fear does not exist in the paper itself, or in art itself. Fear resides in the artist and must be tempered.

Palao's relationship with Claudio was as a paternal mentor, compensating for Claudio's poor relationship with his father. Palao never criticized his work; he mainly expressed interest in seeing it. Palao himself painted indigenous people, granting them credibility, dignity and sovereignty. His portraiture influenced Claudio's portraiture.

Claudio moved to Cusco partly to get away from the social constrictions of Arequipa and partly to be with Palao; but, even under Palao's guidance, even as he became centered as an artist, Claudio was still not receiving the support he needed to make a go of it in Cusco. But ever since realizing that he wanted to live his life as an artist, Claudio began learning how to make a living to support his love for art. For a long while he made tourist maps for one of Peru's most-visited tourist destination, the Colca Canyon. He was paid good money for those. He decided to move to Calca, which was only four hours away from Arequipa, where the cost of living was so low that he didn't need a lot of money to live comfortably. He could return to Arequipa whenever he needed to earn money and he would earn just enough to last him a year or a year and a half in Calca. When he was in Calca, he would paint all day long.

Musing on how loneliness was often deemed dangerous in society, Claudio didn't understand the fear of loneliness because being alone was the best thing that ever happened to him. For him, being alone was the only time he had to think about himself, what his goals were, and what he was doing on the planet. It was by being alone in Calca, undistracted, focusing on his thoughts and fears, that Claudio learned to confront and conquer them.

The first day he arrived in Calca, after organizing his home, he went to the main square near the cathedral and began sketching the church. He started at 8:30 in the morning, and then at 2:00 in the afternoon a child offered him a plate of food sent by his mother who had noticed that Claudio had been working since 8:30 in the morning without taking any time to eat. At that moment he immediately realized the difference between Arequipa and Calca. While he was living in Arequipa, he took a trip to Australia, and was surprised that it wasn't as much of a cultural shock as he had expected; whereas, when he moved to Cusco, which was in the same country and only a few hours away, he felt a dramatic change. He grew closer to his own soul and the soul of the people he wanted to paint.

The woman who had sent him the food became like a mother to him. She, in a sense, adopted him. When he finally met her, she asked him, "What do you do for a living?" He answered shyly, "I'm an artist." He was reluctant to answer because in Arequipa every time he answered he was an artist, all the girls would say, "You don't work?! You have to think about working. Art is very nice, but....." But this woman—when he revealed he was an artist—responded, "Really? You're an artist?!" "I'm trying to be," he said. "Well then," she said, "here is the refrigerator. When you're hungry, come and get food out of the refrigerator. Take anything that you need because I know the life of an artist, and they're often hungry and cold." She offered her home as his own if ever he was cold and / or hungry. She offered food and blankets. There were even many times when he was in his own home at 8:00 in the morning and there would be a knock on the door. He would open it and there would be this woman offering half of the jam she had just bought in Cusco for her children. He would protest but she would insist, "Take it. You don't have any, so take it."

After living for a while in Calca, he came to realize that—though it was a beautiful affordable place where he could create his art—life, the outside world and its opportunities, was passing him by. He didn't want to become 50 years old living his whole life in Calca. So he relocated to Cusco. More accurately, for two years he shifted between Calca, Cusco, Arequipa and the Colca Canyon. When his mother passed away, he moved full-time to Cusco, where he began to have exhibitions of his work, with one opportunity dovetailing into the next. But eventually he became bored with Cusco and moved to Lima, where he lived for three different stays. He never liked Lima; it was not a beautiful city. But he was able to stay there for a year and a half during an exhibition of his paintings. He earned money as a teacher and rented a house cheap for $50. It was going to be demolished and his rent was reduced because he served as something of a watchman for the property.

Eventually the owners gave him one day's notice to leave so they could demolish the house. He didn't have any money—Lima was very expensive—and he didn't have any place to go. So he phoned friends in Cusco who encouraged him to move there, which he did the next day, passing en route through Arequipa on the bus. He had his paintings, and sold five of them to a collector in Arequipa, which at the time was a lot of money for him. It allowed him to rent a home in Cusco where he was invited to exhibit in their beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art. It was at that exhibit that he met his creative partner-to-be, Mariela.

Mariela was supposed to have gone on a tour to the Sacred Valley, but it was the tail end of her trip and she was suffering from a mixture of altitude sickness and food poisoning. She had fainted and cut her head, requiring stitches. She opted out of the tour and decided to visit the museum to lift her spirits with art. She was deciding which gallery to visit when she spotted Claudio's name—Talavera-Ballón—and its musicality lodged in her mind. She found herself rehearsing his name over and over. It was as if the name had called to her. She wondered idly if Talavera was a first name?

This was the second time Claudio had exhibited at Cusco's Museum of Contemporary Art and—after his first experience there—he had learned that in order to sell his paintings, someone had to be present at the museum to negotiate deals. Many people had asked for his paintings during his first exhibit but—because there had been no one there to effect sales—he didn't sell anything.  This time, in an effort to sell his paintings, he elected to sit in the Museum all day long. For the first week of the exhibit, he stayed in the museum from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening. He'd sit in a chair watching the people watch his paintings. That was his entire life for a week. By the time Friday came around, he had his fill and decided, "No more." It felt too much like a waste of time and he reconciled that—if he sold paintings, fine; if he didn't sell paintings, fine—but, he preferred to be home, painting.

On Monday he was organizing his home when the phone rang. It was the Museum advising that there was a woman interested in buying one of his paintings. They needed him to come down where the prospective buyer had agreed to meet him at 12:30. On the way to the museum he met a friend on the street and was delayed by conversation, making him five minutes late for his appointment. The prospective buyer had already left, saying she would be back later in the afternoon, so—hoping to sell the painting—he decided to wait for her. First, he had lunch, then returned to the museum, and after 15 minutes Mariela arrived (whereas the woman who allegedly wanted to buy the painting never showed up). It was a fortuitous encounter, meant to happen. Believing in destiny, Claudio committed himself to the notion that everything that has happened to him in his life has been for a reason, right to the current moment.

Fast forward and Claudio had found a way to live in San Francisco, where one of his first collaborations was "The Bird Song", an Art Span mural on the side of a building at the corner of Van Ness and Market. The building, soon to be demolished, was acquired by Art Span to offer studios to displaced artists and the wall to paint on until the building was scheduled to be demolished. Nearly 25 volunteers worked on "The Bird Song" but Claudio was the only one who arrived every day, working two shifts, from 9:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening, assisting Joshua Coffy, who had designed the mural. It was an amazing experience for him to collaborate on the mural with Joshua.

As his experience in San Francisco evolved, Claudio became committed to painting portraits of the Mission's "real", if beleaguered, community. When he lived in Peru, he had painted portraits of farmers and fishermen who lived in the small villages. He considered them wise, unknown people who he felt compelled to paint. When he first moved to San Francisco, he missed Peru and its people. Besides painting portraits, Claudio likewise painted houses, buildings, considering himself something of a preservationist in his effort to paint and preserve these things before irrational progress; but, much of that work had already been done in San Francisco by the time he reached the city, where several old buildings had already been restored and many more replaced by modern condos for San Francisco's increasing tech demographic.

One day he was walking in the Mission and realized that the people he had been painting in Peru might just be the same people who have migrated to the United States and were making a living in the Mission in San Francisco. He realized they could easily be the children or the grandchildren of the elders he painted in Peru, whose portraits he painted to relate their struggle, how they were farmers without land, or laborers who were segregated away from the upper classes, considered subhuman. That was part of his enthusiasm for painting them: he wanted to save them and their way of life, much as he wanted to restore old buildings. In San Francisco, he came to the weighty insight that immigrants in San Francisco faced the same social issues as people in Peru, though complicated by immigration, ICE, and displacement.

Claudio went out to meet these people on the streets of the Mission. He took photos. He realized they shared the same problems as the people he had painted back home in Peru—they didn't have work, they didn't have money, and they were always relegated to positions behind the scenes. He started to paint these people in big-size format (4'x4') because he wanted them to be seen and noticed, often utilizing an intimate focus on faces to achieve recognition. He wanted to say to the ruling classes of San Francisco: "These people are here. They're part of the system, whether you like it or not." At the time of our conversation, Claudio had already painted eleven portraits for this immigrant series.

It was the immigrant series that creatively segued into his next suite of paintings inspired by Las Patronas. He and Mariela had met Arturo González Villaseñor when his film Llevate Mis Amores (All of Me) screened at SFIFF. Claudio was deeply moved by the film and invited Arturo to look at his paintings. Arturo loved them, and he suggested to Claudio that he paint Las Patronas because—attendant to Claudio's commitment to capturing the immigrant experience in the U.S.—the sad fact was that so many of these immigrants began their journey North on the train by passing through Las Patronas. Many of them had been helped by Las Patronas. Claudio accepted the cue and traveled twice to Las Patronas where he began to paint portraits that he folded into his series on the immigrants, resulting in his current exhibition "Mujeres Luz", which—as stated above—opens August 5.

Of related interest: Hans-Maximo Musielik's photo essay of Las Patronas for Remezcla.

All of me / Llévate mis amores - English Trailer from Arturo González Villaseñor on Vimeo.
Mujeres Luz. Painting Series by Talavera-Ballón - Trailer from Izote Studio on Vimeo.

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