outside a small college town in New York, Rachel Mendez came to
Portland after getting her MFA in Baltimore where it was
too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. After reading
in a Baltimore newspaper that Portland and Seattle had cheap rent
and cool, rainy weather, she gave away most of her possessions and
drove cross country in a van with her dog, Chupo, intending to stay
two years and then try New Mexico. That was in 1989; she's still
here (and also well into a second year of writing essays for nwdrizzle.com).
Ways and means
When Rachel Mendez adds symbols to her paintings, she always knows
exactly what they mean to her, but she doesn't always want the meaning
to be obvious to those who view her work.
For example, in her recent triptych, a woman, referred to as "the
artist," is smoking a cigar. The cigar is a phallic symbol,
and the fact that she has it in her mouth invokes a sexual act.
"However, she is smoking the cigar, suggesting that she has
power over the phallus," Rachel said. "A phallus is also
a symbol of male potency, which I translate as power. The woman
in this painting is an artist, a role more traditionally allowed
to men, and she is burning and inhaling a phallic symbol
thus, she is internalizing male power."
That is only one layer of symbolism that went through Rachel's
head as she painted. There were many other threads as well, having
to do with the self-destructive impulse, independence and images
of the stogie-smoking Winston Churchill.
"Of course," she said, "sometimes a cigar is just
"A portrait of the artist, her lover and their love child,"
For Rachel there is an important distinction between pictorial
symbolism that means nothing and symbolism that, while meaningful,
"The symbolism in my paintings has meaning, but it is not
readily apparent to the viewer," she said. "Maybe the
viewer can guess at what is taking place, as I guessed at what was
happening in the French Tintin comics I read as a kid. Or maybe
the viewer will just enjoy the image on a superficial level."
Wax and wain
Rachel sandwiches thin coats of oil paint between layers of melted
beeswax and fuses each layer with a torch. When the heat hits the
oil paint, a carefully laid-out line will sometimes melt into abstraction
and has to be repainted.
"This process, although frustrating, introduces an element
of surprise to the work, and often spurs me on to greater creativity,
taking the painting in a direction I had not anticipated,"
she said. "I sometimes think about ditching the wax, but I'm
learning so much from having to rescue the paintings from themselves
that I think I should stick with it longer. Colors, shapes and entire
paintings take on their own lives due to the accidents of the process."
thing in the tree," 2004
Rachel painted only self-portraits for 15 years but grew tired
of that, stopped painting for a couple of years and only drew cartoons
in pencil, Sharpies and ink pen.
"During this period, I thought I was wasting time but, in the
end, when I went back to painting, the years of cartoon drawing
informed the new paintings, creating hybrid painting-cartoon images,"
she said. "This experience makes me feel like the creative
mind is purposeful and methodic, following the paths it chooses
for a reason."
As a child, Rachel loved Edward Hopper for his narrative, his blocks
of light and color, and the moods he created. Her first big influences
as an artist were the German Expressionists and the Fauves.
"I like color to be intense and shadows to be deep. Above
all, I like paintings with strong elements of narrative. Although
a still life or landscape can strike me as beautiful, I am most
captivated when an image tells a story, especially if the story
is not obvious and the symbolism a bit obtuse," she said.
"I admire a lot of the Christian-themed painting of the Italian
Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. For example, Robert Campin's
Mérode Altarpiece, which is replete with odd little symbols
a snuffed-out candle, an empty mousetrap, a clean towel.
"On one level, I don't care what the symbols mean. It is clear
that they are presented with intention and I'm engaged in wondering
about the possible meanings. If I want to learn what the symbols
mean in art history, this knowledge adds another layer of appreciation
to the painting."
can, lightbulb and Shroud of Turin," 2005
Rachel has been influenced by many artists, but also by images
in the Catholic religion of her father, her mother's years of interest
in Hindu-based religions and the symbolism of other religious or
spiritual practices, such as the Tarot or totemic characters.
"I am not a spiritual or religious person in any way, but
find the rich language of traditional symbols a fun playground to
explore," she said. "And Philip Guston is my hero because
he left the lofty world of abstract expressionism and returned to
the figurative and, not only that, dared to make his figures and
"I think he is a quiet revolutionary in the world of art."
Call of the wild
Rachel liked growing up in dairy-farm country the snow, the
brook behind the house but she was also lonely. The children
who lived nearby thought her family strange because her parents
were divorced and they had lots of books.
"'Have you read all those books?' they always asked,"
she said. "Sometimes I played with the Baptist girls down the
road but they tried to convert me, telling me I'd go to hell if
I didn't accept Jesus into my heart."
With no computer and one small black-and-white TV that got one
channel with bad reception, Rachel had plenty of time to stare at
book illustrations like Garth Williams's "Mister Dog"
or "The Little Fur Family," the original Babar books with
the cursive writing she could barely read and William Pene Du Bois's
books about Otto, the giant dog. Later she discovered Pierre Probst's
Caroline and her little animal friends.
"Now I use animals in a lot of my paintings and I think it
must have come from these influences," she said. "I don't
know why we teach children to anthropomorphize animals. It doesn't
seem like it would prepare us to live in the wild. In a similar
vein, I was influenced by the Yoga Ashram my mother took us to,
where I'd look at images of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god and
Hanuman, the monkey god."
with stolen German Expressionist landscape," 2005
Fascinated by the Tintin comics she saw only when visiting a family
that owned the books in French, a language she could not read, Rachel
studied the little pictures as if they held the clues to all knowledge.
"In my work now, I leave some symbolism purposely vague because
I want people to have to stare at them and try to decipher the meaning,"
Creativity runs in Rachel's family and was always encouraged and
praised. While growing up, Rachel wrote stories, drew pictures and
took piano lessons.
"I took lessons for eight years but never really learned to
play because my teacher, a fascinating old lady who painted, drew,
played piano beautifully and made amazing hooked rugs, encouraged
me to write little songs for the piano rather than learn scales
or play sheet music," Rachel said. "She would record my
compositions on reel-to-reel tapes, and I would give the songs names.
Sometimes I'd lie on the Persian rugs in her tiny apartment and
draw pictures for my entire piano lesson."
The reproductions Rachel's father had in his house are as familiar
to her as Saturday morning cartoons: "St. Martin and the Beggar"
by El Greco, Picasso's portrait of a mother nursing an infant.
"My uncle was a painter and I often lay on the couch looking
at his abstract paintings, finding in them fish tanks or landscapes,
which was, of course, the wrong way to look at them," she said.
Rachel's sister is a photographer, her late brother played music
and wrote and her stepfather is a full-time artist who works with
"My mother is a writer and I think she wanted each of us to
be little geniuses in one way or another."
"While I was growing up, many of my mother's friends were
artists, writers and intellectuals. I never got the message, as
so many do, that being an artist is a waste of time or an untenable
profession. I figured that one out on my own," she said.
"My mother always encouraged my artwork, even to a fault.
Sometimes I've felt, uncharitably, that I got too much encouragement
from her, that she was so lavish with the praise that I got complacent
or didn't believe her praise because I knew it was exorbitant.
"Still, I was lucky that she was so positive with me,"
she said. "When I went off to art school, her only fear was
that I'd run away to Paris with a gay man, like the daughter of
some friends of hers."
Something to say
Rachel took art classes in high school and thought highly of her
abilities to write, act, take photos and paint.
"I was lucky, I suppose, to think so highly of myself,"
she said. "But perhaps I could've believed in myself a bit
less and worked a lot harder."
For Rachel, art was all about the expression, not the practice.
She had nothing but scorn for the students with fantastic technique
and nothing much to say. Now, she tries to balance technique with
expression and acknowledges that she has a lot to learn.
"I enjoy learning now," she said. "I went off to
art school, but was offended by the requirements of the foundation
year. I wasn't able to express enough, I thought. I had a couple
of great teachers, but left after my first semester to attend a
tiny college in Vermont so I could design my own double major in
poetry and painting."
Rachel got a lot of flack from teachers who insisted she choose
writing or painting. At the time, she couldn't find an MFA program
that was interdisciplinary, so she chose painting and got her MFA
in painting from Maryland Institute, College of Art.
"My time there was fantastic," she said, "because
all I did was paint and I saw my skills develop rapidly. People
ask me if it is worth it to get an MFA, and I think the value is
in considering yourself a professional for that period of time,
and taking yourself seriously enough to work hard."
Rachel makes art because it is fun, difficult and challenging. Nothing
engages her mind the way painting does, even when it's not going
well. And nothing makes her feel as good as when painting is going
"I get depressed if I don't paint or draw," she said.
"Life seems empty. Maybe it's the same need for me as the need
some people have to go to church or play golf or drink heavily.
Maybe we all just need something that defines us or occupies us.
"I used to be really concerned with being a successful painter,
but now I'm just glad that I am able to paint and I really like
what I'm making. Each session in the studio has a surprise ending."