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Sketch Pad

Rachel Mendez
Crashing symbols
by Kathy Anderson

aised 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 cigar."

Triptych: "A portrait of the artist, her lover and their love child," 2005

For Rachel there is an important distinction between pictorial symbolism that means nothing and symbolism that, while meaningful, goes undefined.

"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."

"The 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."

Quiet revolution
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."

"Tuna 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 images cartoony.

"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."

"Baby 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," she said.

Lessons learned
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 iron.

"Lung," 2006

"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."

"Walk," 2001

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."

Surprise ending
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 well.

"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."

E-mail Rachel at rockyshoe@earthlink.net and see more of her art on her Web site.
You can reach Kathy at kanderson138@comcast.net, and draw on other Sketch Pads.

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