Roda Viva (Wheel of Life), 2019

Roda Viva, 2019. Cardboard, acrylic paint, charcoal, paper, glue and tape, 90 x 360 in.

Roda Viva (Wheel of Life) is a mixed media installation about uncertainty and impermanence, with imagery and themes inspired by the song Roda Viva by Chico Buarque. Made with charcoal and acrylic paint on 400 pieces of cardboard, the work was temporarily installed on a 30 foot wall using paper and masking tape.

Listen to Roda Viva on Spotify

Roda Viva was composed and performed by Chico Buarque, a Brazilian singer, composer, playwright and writer. Much of his work includes social, economic and cultural commentary, particularly on Brazil. Buarque’s Roda Viva refers to the “wheel of life” which forever turns, creating turmoil and carrying life’s ambitions and accomplishments away.

Buarque composed the song in 1966 as commentary on the dictatorship in Brazil, with the “wheel of life” serving as a metaphor for the authoritarian regime that deprived working-class Brazilians of their dreams of freedom and democracy. While many of the allusions to politics and personal expression are relevant to the time the song was composed, the themes are just as relevant today considering the political turmoil in Brazil and throughout the world, and the environmental and climate crises humanity is facing.

Before I began studying the lyrics, I became obsessed with the elaborate harmonies of Roda Viva and how Buarque constructed the catchy melody throughout the song, I eventually realized the song was about much more than I thought, with serious commentary on the struggle between human desire and longing and how forces outside our control can upend our lives, and felt inspired to incorporate those themes into my own work.

Four panels

As it was installed, the Roda Viva mural is composed of four interconnected panels that are inspired by themes from the verses of the song: Destino (Destiny), A Baiana, A Roseira (The Rosebush) and Saudades (Longing).

The four panels of Roda Viva: Destino (Destiny), A Baiana, A Roseira (The Rosebush) and Saudades (Longing).

Destino (Destiny)

Tem dias que a gente se sente
Como quem partiu ou morreu
A gente estancou de repente
Ou foi o mundo então que cresceu?

A gente quer ter voz ativa
No nosso destino mandar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega o destino pra lá
There are days that we feel
Like those who went away or died
Did we suddenly stop
Or was it the world that grew?

We want to have a say
Make our own destiny
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries destiny away
Destino (Roda Viva), 2019. Cardboard, acrylic paint, charcoal, paper, glue and tape, 90 x 90 in.

In the first verse, Buarque sings about the human desire to control our destiny and create change in our lives, but the world changes and grows and our destiny is lost, making us feel like we’ve been left behind and struggled for nothing.

Detail of Destino

In this frame of the work, the figure pulls against a force that is out of view, making it unclear if progress is possible and what is to be gained. On the ground are notebooks representing a life of introspection and documentation, but now underfoot, easily lost and forgotten.

The rope is a continuous thread throughout the work, symbolizing the path our lives take and how that path surrounds and carries us a long even as we try to control it. The background of each panel also features cardboard “tiles” with designs inspired by “azulejos,” a ceramic tile decorative art common in Brazil. The designs in Destino are divided in thirds and represent an abstract landscape, with patterns representing earth, water and sky.

A Baiana

A roda da saia, a mulata
Não quer mais rodar, não senhor
Não posso fazer serenata
A roda de samba acabou
The turn of the skirt, the mulata
Doesn’t want to turn any more, no sir
I am not able to serenade
The samba circle has ended
A Baiana (Roda Viva), 2019. Cardboard, acrylic paint, charcoal, paper, glue and tape, 90 x 90 in.

The second panel is inspired by the second verse of Roda Viva, about the dancers and musicians who have been silenced, the samba ended. Under the dictatorship, speech was restricted and dissidents jailed and tortured.

Throughout Roda Viva, Buarque uses metaphors and allusions to Brazilian culture to express his views and subvert the limits on self-expression and was a victim of repression when his play, also called Roda Viva and featuring the song, was violently attacked by a paramilitary group that supported the dictatorship,

A Baiana, detail

In this panel, the Baiana (literally, a woman from the Brazilian state of Baia) wears a traditional white dress, featuring a hooped skirt, a shirt embellished with lace and embroidery, a shawl, and an oja, a cloth tied around the head. The clothes have spiritual significance and the skirt, or axó, represents the Baiana’s status in Bahian culture. A contingent of dancing Baianas are a main feature in parades during carnaval, with the traditional white clothing transformed into elaborate costumes in brilliant colors.

A Roseira (The Rosebush)

Faz tempo que a gente cultiva
A mais linda roseira que há
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a roseira pra lá
For such a long time we cultivate
The most beautiful rose bush there is
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the rosebush away
A Roseira (Roda Viva), 2019. Cardboard, acrylic paint, charcoal, paper, glue and tape, 90 x 90 in.

In the third verse, Buarque sings about cultivating a rose bush, but with the passage of time, even the most beautiful bush will burn and and be carried away. No matter what we accomplish in life, it too passes.

Detail of Roseira

In this frame of the mural, two rose bushes are intertwined, one alive with blooms and the other dry and dead, representing the interconnectedness and interdependencies of life and death. 

Saudades (Longing)

No peito a saudade cativa
Faz força pro tempo parar
Mas eis que chega a roda-viva
E carrega a saudade pra lá
In our hearts our longing is captured
Pushing hard to stop time
But then arrives the wheel of life
And carries the longing away
Saudades (Roda Viva), 2019. Cardboard, acrylic paint, charcoal, paper, glue and tape, 90 x 90 in.

In the final verse, Buarque sings about saudades, a word in Portuguese that doesn’t have an exact translation in English, but speaks of longing we have for all that has past in our lives. We cling to our past, trying to stop time, but once again life turns and our longing too is lost.

Detail of Saudades (the bee-eater)

The figure in this panel is distracted by the past but continues walking forward, nearing the end of rope, a lifetime complete. The figure is accompanied by a bird, a European bee-eater, which pursues its’ prey, representing a longing for nature and the end of nature as we know it.

Cartography

Cartography, 2010-2016. Mixed media, 96″ x 300″ in. more or less

Cartography began as a continuation of my ongoing themes, combining map imagery with wrestlers, symbolizing how human conflict has effectively reshaped the earth in our image and to accommodate us.

When I conceived of the piece, I wanted to work large but was not in a location where I could purchase and transport large canvases, so I made the work from small pieces of cardboard I found in the street, each scrap additing it’s own aesthetic and history to the piece. Working modularly and with “recycled” materials also freed me up to be less precious about the work, allowing me to explore themes and styles in a way that I resisted previously. As another bene t, I could choose to work inany size I wanted and to con- tinue to grow the piece in any direction.

I’ve worked on sections of Cartography since 2000 and most recently combined very large and previously unrelated portions into a mural installation, pictured above.

Do Do Do

Do Do Do
Do Do Do, 2005. Mixed media (colored paper, oil marker), size variable.

I wish I could tell you that the production of this work was not the result of obsessive rumination, but… The “tasks” I captured on these hand-crafted “Post-its” were internal imperatives, bottled up as I prepared for a one-person show in 2005. I had also just completed a mixed media workshop, allowing myself to stretch beyond representative painting and drawing into works that could more directly and quickly communicate my feelings. As I prepared my exhaustive “to do” list for the show, I started to question my motivations for creating art and my need to express myself, and these notes to myself took on a life of their own.

Do Do DoI chose paper and colors carefully to provide a degree of separation from literal sticky notes. I also wanted the work to read on a couple of levels, as an abstract work from across the distance but revealing an entirely different layer of meaning when viewed close up, with word play and inversion of clichés to disrupt the viewer’s expectations.

I showed this work for one week, then took it down and stuck in a Ziplock bag for 10 years. Last year, I decided it was time to recreate it and was surprised that I still find it both amusing and compelling. Many of the sentiments I captured were genuine and still resonate with me, representing my hopes, insecurities and under-realizable dreams as an artist and as person trying to create meaningful life while conforming to societal expectations of acceptable and admirable behavior.

Zoom in

 

Cartography series

In 2007, I was visiting South Africa and participated in an art program that began with three weeks in cultural immersion in and around Cape Town, including hiking to see rock painting of the San people, touring the townships and Robbin Island and the visiting with contemporary local artists, followed by a week of studio time. Except for a small kit of supplies the participating artists brought from home, we were instructed to use materials at hand and work on themes that had emerged from our experiences.

While South Africa’s history has many parallels to the United States, the differences, including the legacy of apartheid, are astounding and sometimes difficult to process. But from a place where there has been so much recent violence and pain, there is inspiration in the natural beauty of the land and resilience of the people. In addition to the important cultural institutions we visited, the markets of Cape Town are filled with the art of many African peoples and I was struck how they embrace the use of recycled modern materials, transforming them by exploiting their aesthetic and constructive qualities.

When I decided to begin some drawings, cardboard seemed like a natural choice because of it’s abundance and practical beauty. I was also attracted to the idea of constructing a large work out of many small pieces and that I could then pack up and bring home. The series, which began with an image of an African wrestler in an abstracted map-based landscape, continues to evolve as I slowly refine the conceptual use of the cardboard. Each drawing visually links with the next, creating a progression of interconnected of images that has the potential to become a mural of enormous size that may never actually be presented in it’s entirety.

The “Rearranged World” series

Rearranded World: The Seas 2I found printer trays from an old Chinese printing press in a junk shop in Sonoma County in 2006. Actually, the 15 trays were stacked in the grass in the back yard of the shop, next to discarded sinks and storm windows. I was intrigued by the both the mystery of their origins and the beauty of their weathered patina. They were hand-made in a fairly simple fashion with strips of wood nailed together with a press board backing. Between the strips of wood, pieces of sheet metal had been carefully cut and inserted, providing cubby holes for the lead type used in letterpress printing. Though only a few of the tiny leads remained, the labels representing each of the Chinese characters were still fixed to the surface of each tray.

For almost a year, the trays sat in my studio–I knew I wanted to do something with them but wasn’t sure what. I had recently begun working with mixed media and using and found images, but the trays represented a unique challenge because of their abstract quality. However I intervened, I didn’t want to overwhelm or hide the beauty of the trays and wanted to transform them in some way that was conceptually and aesthetically meaningful. I began by inserting tiny objects either found from nature or from my studio into the tiny slots, much as larger printer trays for English type are used as curio shadow boxes by hobbyists.

Concerned about the kitschy reference,  I thought about trying to make an arrangement of objects that could define a larger composition, using the holes as picture elements. I tried black and white drawing paper folded and fitted into the slots as “pixels.” Unhappy with the result, next I tried higher quality paper  that could be curled into the slots instead of folded, which created the illusion of tiny colorful discs. Pleased with the direction, I started slicing up old calendars featuring Van Gogh and Gaughin prints into tiny strips. While the use of the paper felt right, the resulting compositions of color-paper strips were either random, non-discript or contrived, consistently overwhelming the trays instead of complementing them.

I had recently been to the Friends of the San Francisco Library’s annual book sale, where I found a selection of incredible atlases for $1 and $2, each with maps that I was attracted to because of their distinctive visual language of lines, colors and typography to represent a particular view of the world. I found a beautiful map of the world’s sea floors from an old Reader’s Digest atlas. The maps in themselves had a strong visual quality with aquamarine blue for the oceans and tans, browns and oranges for the land. As I worked on the first work of what would become the Rearranged World series, I wanted to maintain the beauty of the maps even as I destroyed them. I  found the best way to keep the qualities that attracted me was to organize the strips by color and make simple compositions that could maximize the contrast between the areas, resulting in a minimalist composition of concentric rectangles, with blue in the center, surrounded by a white rectangle to clearly divide the aqua from another, larger tan rectangle.

Pleased with the results of the latest effort, I started another to complement. I didn’t want to merely repeat the same pattern and, as I filled the little slots with curls of paper, recognized that leaving some of the slots empty could also be used as a way of adding contrast and variety to the texture. In the end, I completed three pieces which now work as a set.

In 2008 I participated in an show at the Thoreau Center with an environmental theme called  “The Water Project” and included the three new works. As I struggled with the titles, I began to recognize some of the symbolic qualities of the works, as an expression of humanity’s rearranging of the world and how that impacts everything, including the seas, so I settled on the title Rearrange World: The Seas, with the idea that additional works in the same theme would follow.

I didn’t immediately complete the rest of the Rearranged World type tray pieces by using maps. I struggled to understand what made The Seas work while the earlier pieces using simple colored paper and snippets of calendars had not. It wasn’t the use of maps in particular or the composition of shapes but rather a combination of those elements along with the striking texture created by the curls of paper and the empty slots in relationship with the wood and tiny paper labels of the trays. What I enjoy the most about the works in this series is that they can be perceived differently depending on the distance of the viewer. From farther away, they read as works of minimal abstract and rich texture, but up close, new levels of detail and information emerge.

Rearranged World: Frontier

A print featuring illustrations of 32 wrestling poses caught my eye at a flea market. The original cross-hatch drawings are beautiful in their own right, with amazing details and exquisite compositional qualities. Looking closely at the figures, the images show the amount of pressure in their hands when they grasp each other or are touching the ground.

I reproduced the images on topographical maps of the Alaskan wilderness, which I chose based on the variety of textures and shapes that provide a “landscape” for the figures to inhabit.

Rearranged World: Pacific Rim

Rearranged World: Pacific Rim 2

Title: Rearranged World: Pacific Rim | Medium: mixed media | Dimensions: 15 x 18 x 1"

The works reference, in part, how the Earth is rearranging itself despite us.

The type trays that are the bases for many of the works in the Rearranged World series are not identical. The trays for Pacific Rim are the smallest, have fewer, larger slots and were in the worst condition as many of the metal dividers that separate the slots are loose or missing. For that reason, I created works out of them last which felt like an afterthought. They are not as visually strong as the others and the diagonals actually pin down the works rather than energizing them.

I ended up dismantling these two pieces and re-purposed the trays for another couple of works, which is the advantage of working with found objects–I can take them apart and make them into something else.

 

Rearranged World: Quattro Stagioni

Rearranged World: Quatrro Stagioni 3

The theme for Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) was inspired by an atlas I found at a used book sale that had particularly colorful maps with hues beyond earth standard pastels or earth tones. These maps use a bright colors to indicate changes in elevation which I arranged in impressionistic shapes of similar hue.

The title Quattro Stagioni refers both to the colors evoking the passing of the seasons and the shapes in the composition.

Rearranged World: At War

A reference to conflict and struggle, I used maps of expeditions and battles that played out across Europe and the Middle East during World War 1. The wrestlers, in hues representing opposing states, stand in for the warriors as the world battled over land conquered and rearranged many times over.