I traveled to Mexico in the fall of 2009 because of a photo I’d seen in a book on Mexican muralists. It was a mural, painted by Diego Rivera, in the chapel at the University of Chapingo outside of Mexico City. The painting was a nude, lying seductively on the earth, holding a small plant, surrounded by the bluest sky imaginable. I turned the pages of the book, and learned Rivera had filled this chapel with nude women rising through fire, swimming through water, gestating as seeds. I’d never seen anything like it. I had to go.
It was not simple. The University of Chapingo is about two hours east of Mexico City. I arrived after a long subway trip, followed by a harrowing ride in a little white minivan with no windows or shocks. The chapel was closed, and I was told to wait. The only person who had the key–I learned after the first hour of waiting–was teaching on another campus and wouldn’t be back that day. The only remaining person who might be able to help was the waitress in the university café who was doing the job of three: making the food, waiting tables, and taking the money. Two and a half hours and a few coffees later, I was told a student could let me in. I breathed a sigh of relief.
The University is located in a centuries-old hacienda that was reclaimed for the People during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. Rivera was hired to commemorate the agrarian revolution throughout the administration buildings and in the former hacienda chapel. I waited outside while the door to the chapel was opened. The sanctuary was small, dimly lit, filled with murals of worker’s struggles, martyrs buried beneath fields of corn and, above the altar, the most magnificent woman harnessing the forces of nature. I then turned around and there was the painting of the woman, as “Sleeping Earth”, that had first drawn me to this journey. I had never seen anything like it in a chapel. It was too beautiful for words.
I felt I had to explore why this painting, this symbol, meant so much to me. Upon my return home, I decided to sculpt her out of paper mache. By touching and shaping her, I could pay attention to what might be trying to speak to me. I put the photo of her image on my work table. I made the flour and water mix and crumpled the paper. Slowly, with wire, paper, and tape, a woman’s body formed. I bought a new Dremmel sander to smooth her skin. I spent hours painting her lips.
I learned that the Italian photographer Tina Modotti had posed for this Rivera mural before becoming the official photographer of the Mexican muralist movement. I was familiar with some of her photographs of peasants, and of course, her delirious bouquet of white roses, but I wanted to learn more. I first read a biography, Tinisima by Elena-Poniatowska and then read a second. I was struck by the tragedy of her life: she had traveled to Mexico, drawn to the art and politics post-revolution, with her lover Edward Weston. She gained fame for her intimate portraits of rough hands holding a shovel, and fields of sombreros marching on the capital. She ultimately joined the Communist Party and found her way to the Soviet Union. There, she gave up her art to go underground as an agent for the revolution. She died young, and mysteriously–in the back of a taxi cab–never touching her camera again.
Tina’s story led me to my own question: How can I bring my art into my political work? What is lost if I don’t? Tina was unable to do both. But, as I learned more, her choice began to seem less tragic, and more complex.
A friend calls, she’s found a prayer stand at a local salvage yard. She thinks I might like it. I wander through the aisles looking for something I’ve never seen before–what is a prayer stand anyway? No luck, so I head for the door. The hint of red catches my eye. It is the red pillow on the base of what must be the prayer stand. My friend was right: I pay my $30 and leave with the stand under my arm. Once at home, I lay the sculpture of Tina on the top, in the place where a candle or prayer book might stand. She fits perfectly. The stand, though, is a little worse for the wear: the varnish is peeling, the red vinyl pillow shows mold. I strip off the dark stain, sand it, then rinse it in Japanese black ink. I cut a pillow to size, encase it in velvet, and attach it into the base.
A new question forms, what is the connection between this nude woman and prayer? On first review, the answer might be because I first saw her image in a chapel. But, that’s not really it. I begin interviewing everyone I know, asking, “What is prayer?” Their answers surprise me: “Prayer is a call and response…a dialogue… Prayer is listening…It is surrender.” I read an academic book on prayer which helps not at all, then turn to the poets: first Rilke and then Mary Oliver, “…I don’t actually know what prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…how to kneel down in the grass…”*
I too, know nothing of prayer, but, I do know something about grass, and the connection I feel to something larger than me when I am in nature. I also have felt something like surrender. An idea forms: I could make grass out of paper mache, and place it right where one would kneel on the prayer stand. I laugh–it seems a little preposterous, but I give it a try. The dozen or so grass fronds take hours and hours to make. Finally, though, I am ready to paint. I finish and tie them to the stand.
The piece is almost done. But still I wonder, what is Tina’s message to me? I return to Mary Oliver’s poem for answers, but find only questions, “…Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?”
The hint of something, maybe a prayer forms. I fall on my knees, and listen.
*Mary Oliver, The Summer Day