Following Your Bliss: An Homage to Beatriz Milhazes

In September of 1998, having just completed a M.F.A. in Painting at Clemson University, I looked towards my future with high hopes of a stellar job offer validating the dedication and hard work I had committed to my graduate career. Instead, what faced me was a sizable stack of rejection letters from schools across America, leaving me with no prospects in site. Feeling rejected and not knowing what my next step would be or how I should move forward, I accepted the offer from a kind, west coast friend who took pity on me and invited me to live with her. With a somewhat beleaguered spirit, I took a leap of faith, packed up my Volvo wagon and made the move to Portland, Oregon.

Having arrived in “The Rose City”, I brought with me notions of art concepts that I concluded, if practiced effectively, would guide me towards a successful career in the fine arts. Within a year of my arrival, I secured a position at Portland Community College teaching art. I had become the professor imparting to students art theories I had spent years studying. Together, we meditated on color and form. We considered principles of structure, expression and hierarchy. We speculated on factors of balance as well as figure and ground. Through teaching the essential principles of art, I had the opportunity to assist others in viewing and creating with new eyes, as I endeavored to do the same for myself. Nevertheless, I felt something was missing. While my college experience had instilled in me the practice of constructing a thesis, an idea, a reason and a why behind my art, these heady academic principles fed into my work & turned my approach to art into something serious and not altogether pleasant. The end result was that I had lost the joy in creating, which had initially propelled me to make art in the first place.

For five years, I was stuck in a mindset I couldn’t shake. I felt restless with my work and process. At the time, Portland’s art scene was anemic, and in addition, the whole nation was experiencing a rise in technology, which led to a focus on art that included video, performance or digitization. I would thumb through issues of the latest and best art magazines, but seemingly nobody was interested in painting anymore. I was left feeling hungry for what the larger art community could share with me, and, if there were any painters left out there in the world, to understand what their experiences and processes were.

In 2003, as I had done for many years, I journeyed to the diagonally opposite end of the country to attend Art Basel in Miami. It was there that I stumbled upon a book that would open my eyes. In Phaidon’s recently published Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting, I unearthed a resource that gave voice to painters and their works- not from a critic’s point of view, but from the painters themselves. It was in that first edition of Vitamin P, that I discovered Beatriz Milhazes.

A native of Brazil, Milhazes’ works immediately compelled me with an energy that seemed to explode off the canvas. Using vibrant colors including oranges, fuchsias and golds and working with unconventional materials like plastic, Milhazes’ patterning in her collages made reference to the decorative arts and reflected her understanding of European traditions while jubilantly celebrating her Brazilian heritage through a modern lens. I wished to imbue my pieces with a similar liveliness.

My art education had trained me to commit to an idea and push it to its limits to understand it better. I, therefore, spent the next two years delving into pieces highly influenced by the bold color and energy I discovered in the collages of Milhazes. Through that process, I began to research the curious ways paints were changing, and eventually discovered that the work I wished to achieve was more about surface than about color. It was at that point, I decided to get rid of pigments altogether and began to work strictly in white in an effort to understand my materials and their possibilities and physical limitations better. To my delighted surprise, I realized I could braid, weave, sculpt, and mold with paint, which led me to develop my current body of work. Though her influence may not be immediately apparent to an observer looking at the pieces I am creating now, Beatriz Milhazes awakened in me that elusive element that had been missing in my practice. It was Milhazes who cemented the idea for me that, while an art education can shape an artist’s critical eye and provide context for her work, art itself cannot have life breathed into it until the artist gives herself permission to have fun and follow her bliss.