Interview with Beatriz Ledesma: Art as Collective Consciousness

Art therapist and oil painter Beatriz Ledesma works out of her studio at the Fine Arts Building (FAB) on Michigan Avenue. She describes her work as the “manifestation of the internal world that is sometimes between reality and fantasy, the conscious and the subconscious.” Working with patients part of the week, Ledesma relishes the time she is able to focus on her paintings to explore the depths of the unknown, tempting us to open a door into a new realm of imaginative color schemes and opulent visions.

Studio Door
Beatriz Ledesma’s Studio Door.
Original artwork photo credit Mary Dritchell.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about your background and how it relates to what you are doing now?

Beatriz Ledesma (BL): I come from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Latin America, a very surrealist culture — the world of the spirit and the world of the needy are combined together in a dance of survival. I paint because that's what I need to do. This is who I am. However, I don't paint full time. I enjoy helping others to heal their psychological and emotional wounds, so I developed another aspect of myself in art therapy — I can continue being true to my work and still fulfill my financial needs. I come from a background where people have two or three careers, and all of them are artists, but their art is related to what they do in life. To have several professional aspects of the self developing at the same time makes sense to me.

I came to the U.S. in asylum in 1981, at the tail end of the social-political repression that was going on in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, I was an educator, an elementary and high school teacher. When I came here, I thought, “What can I do to be on my own, pay my bills and still do what I love?” First it had to be art, no doubt about that. That's when I got involved with the art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute. I paint on Fridays and weekends, and the other three days, I see patients. I use my studio space as an office as well as a gallery during open studios (every second Friday the artists in the Fine Arts Building open their studios to the public).

Winged Dog Overseeing the Ritual
#4 Winged Dog Overseeing the Ritual.
Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: How do you prepare yourself before you actually paint?

BL: Usually I get an espresso from Café Bacci. I always have music playing in the background. The latest music is from my Kundalini yoga class (meditative music). (I wonder if there is connection between the music I'm listening to in the background and what or how I paint.) With the music on, I begin creating the space where I'm going to work. I work on the table, easel, or on the wall, and sometimes on the floor; laying out the materials is kind of an organic process. If I want to be disturbed, I leave the door a little bit open. Sometimes friends or other FAB artists come in during the week, and sometimes musicians drop by. There's a musician next door who plays classical music on the piano like an angel. When I know that he's around, I open the door so I can listen better and have him as my background music. I usually applaud when he finishes. What a treat!

Initiative Series
Ongoing New Series on Initiative. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Before you start a piece, do you already have something in mind? How do you determine what to paint and how do you develop your painting?

BL: Sometimes I do, but most of the time I don't have anything specific in mind. I'm working on a series right now that's not baptized. I've finished 6 small paintings so far. Let me tell you a story to explain my process.

In the early 1990s, I visited a friend who lived in Lindenhurst (suburb of Chicago). I found a beautiful branch in the forest, and I decided I was going to take the branch with me and put it on my altar, where I do rituals — burning candles, talking to my ancestors, and so on. I took the branch and did a drawing. Then one night, several years later, I started dreaming about this branch. (When I start to dream about these objects, I know that a painting is ready to be born.) So the next morning, I looked for the original sketch of the branch. I started doing more sketches on it and from there I started painting on canvas and wood. And that's how the whole process starts to unfold.

Original Drawing 2001
Original Drawing of Branch. Courtesy of the artist.

At this point in this painting, as you will see, it's not the branch any more. It's becoming something else. As I look at it, I think it's a mystical space to be in. I began thinking about initiative — that it comes from stillness. It's like the stillness before the storm. Something is going to move forward but not yet. I began with the real branch, and the entire process of working with it is allowing me to reflect on the theme of initiative and its meaning. I usually work on a series, and I continue working until the energy is complete

ArtStyle: Do you work on a series sequentially?

BL: Simultaneously. You'll notice that there's a face developing in this painting (in the initiative series). Not only a face, but a lizard has appeared. I'm just going to play with it, and it's just a matter of continuing with the process. Whatever comes, comes.

Mermaid Series
Ongoing The Dance of the Mermaid Series. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: What is the series The Dance of the Mermaid?

BL: The mermaid is a mystical animal, symbol of power, of the unconscious, who lives in the sea, in the unknown. What is interesting to me in this series is that the mermaid is me and the “other.” Actually what I've been thinking about is the impact of the “other” on oneself — what happens when I'm with a patient, for example, and the impact that the patient has upon me and upon what is going on in the room between us therapeutically.

The mermaid series came out after a very moving session with a patient. When she left, I found myself thinking about the mermaid. So I began drawing. What is behind this series is the reflection on how two people interact. What happens with what we don't see, with what is not spoken. We could discuss the collective unconscious that Jung talked about. We could discuss free association that Freud talked about. I am fascinated by the movement of the unknown, the movement of the unconscious, and it's such a privilege to see it happening day after day here with my patients. Sometimes it happens that I paint something or bring out an old painting or do a sketch, and a patient comes and says, “You know it's strange. Two days ago I had a dream like that.” And they had never seen that particular artwork in my studio before. It's that interaction of energies that I'm fascinated by.

In Between Spaces
#5 In Between Spaces. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Do you feel that the art helps you to work out some of the patients' problems or your understanding of what's going on in their minds? As an art therapist, how do you use art to help your patients?

BL: I don't think that my art work is in any way a path to work my patients' problems. (I have enough of my own to work on.) However, it does become a path to reflect on certain ideas that may be a general theme with my patients. We are all interconnected after all. Art is a tool to access your unconscious, but you have to be ready for it. You have to be open enough to explore the mind.

When the patients do art, they do it here in the studio. Sometimes we talk about it (“processing”) after they're done. Sometimes there are sessions of only working. They tell me what function they want me to perform, whether they want me to be seated, to look or not to look at them, to talk to them or not to talk at all, to see them working or not. Here we are not talking about the final product as being the most important thing. It's the pure expression of whatever they are consciously or subconsciously working through art materials. The discussion of their art work is actually a way to talk about themselves but at a distance. I'm helping them in the sense that they are able to communicate something that they couldn't express in words.

Bird's Dream
Bird’s Dream. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: I noticed that you call your work surreal. How would you describe the elements of your work?

BL: Surreal in terms of the colors, the light and the world of the imagination. The image suggests the color to me. I seem to be drawn to earthy colors for some reason.

The light is indicative of my work. Someone said, “There's always the light in your work. What is it about the light?” I said, “Without the light, I wouldn't be able to see you, physically and in other ways.” Light is what gives meaning to everything in this world.

ArtStyle: What are your plans for the future?”

BL: I am preparing work for a show at the College of New Rochelle in NY at the end of September. In addition, I may have a solo show at Beacon Gallery here in town some time next year, and I will have a solo show in Curitiba, Brazil, in September next year, which is a very exciting proposition for me.

I will also be looking for space to show my latest series on Initiative and The Dance of the Mermaids, both of which I intend to complete by the end of the year. I am also continuing to work towards the completion of two previous ongoing series Personal Belongings and Windows (Windows was recently shown at Ossia Gallery in a two-person show earlier this year).

I began writing short stories last year, mostly biographical in nature, and I continue to write about art as healing. So, I expect to be writing even more as time progresses. And I foresee more drawings coming to life.

Most important though, I will continue living my life as passionately and as intensely as I have done until this moment, as if there was no tomorrow. I will continue to follow the bliss of my spirit and to move at the rhythm of my heart.

For more of Beatriz Ledesma's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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