Interview with Candida Alvarez: Mapping Interventions

In 1953, a young Celia Gonzalez boarded a plane in Puerto Rico, escorted by her distant cousin Maximino Alvarez, to stay with her cousin who had helped her secure a factory job in NYC. At that time, young women could not travel alone, so she was entrusted to her cousin (since he had been a soldier in the Korean War and could speak English). His parents, Celedoina and Pedro Alvarez were already residents in Brooklyn. Although Celia and Maximino were related, they were strangers to each other, but that historic plane ride led to a marriage. Like Maximino's parents, they settled in Brooklyn and started a family. All three of their children were born in February. The middle child was Candida Alvarez. Maximino landed a job working in the mail room at Cumberland Hospital, which was within walking distance from where they lived. In time, he became manager.

Alvarez Family
Young Alvarez family in the 1950s. Candida on the far right.
Courtesy of the artist.

We grew up in the Farragut Housing Projects located on Bridge Street in downtown Brooklyn close to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. We lived on the top floor, the 14th floor. It was a long apartment with two bedrooms. My brother slept in the living room. I shared a room with my sister. My father worked several jobs to put us through private school. I spoke Spanish until I started school. My mother always spoke to us in Spanish. Once I started school, there were very few friends who could speak Spanish, so I became more fluent in English.

ArtStyle: How do you trace your roots? What is your relationship to Puerto Rico where your parents live now and you never lived, versus Brooklyn where you grew up and they don't live any more?

Candida Alvarez (CA): I first went to Puerto Rico when I was in my 20s with two school friends who were also Puerto Ricans raised in New York. We stayed in San Juan because I did’nt know my relatives there that well. That included my abuelo (grandfather) who had remarried and I had never met. They all lived in Ponce in the southern part of the Island. It’s the second largest city after San Juan. What I remember from Puerto Rico from that time was the heat and how green everything was. When I stepped out of the plane, the air was hot and heavy. It was like being inside of an oven. The beach water was turquoise and so clear I could see my feet. It was lovely.

My parents moved back to Puerto Rico in the early 1990s shortly after my son was born. It was their dream to move back and build a home there. They were both raised in the same vicinity with lots of mango trees.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista. 2002. Acrylic on linen, 77″ x 63″. Courtesy of the artist.

ArtStyle: Where is home for you now?

CA: Home is where my son is.

ArtStyle: Where or how does Chicago fit in? Do you have roots here?

CA: When I lived in Brooklyn, I came to Chicago regularly to visit friends, family and to visit the art fairs. I never dreamed it would be home for me. However, I applied for a teaching job at the Art Institute in 1998 and got it. Now, I am a tenured professor in the Painting and Drawing Department. This is home for now.

ArtStyle: Now let us talk about Candida Alvarez the artist. Any thoughts on what led you into this field?

CA: I loved the solitude it required. I was always a keen observer of everyday life and somehow that fed me. I was always a great problem solver, and making art was a wonderful way to engage in a conversation that has lasted over 30 years.

Tarble Intervention
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

Tossing Pennies
Mapping New Territories
Fireflies in an Open Field
In the Dark

(for Sol LeWitt)

A Painting and Drawing Intervention by Candida Alvarez

Artstyle: You call your new show at the Tarble Arts Center A Painting and Drawing Intervention. What is the difference between intervention and installation in your view?

CA: This is an intervention because I initiated an occurrence between Sol LeWitt's drawing and the actual architecture / design of the gallery. It was this mediation that prompted the resultant exhibition. I was not installing anything. I was creating and thinking through to a response.

ArtStyle: What types of materials are used to create the interventions?

CA: Materials used for different parts of the exhibit include paper, embroidery floss, fabric, flashe paint, pencil, digital projection, and charting tape.

ArtStyle: The title of your show includes the name of Sol LeWitt. What kind of relationship did you have with him that explains bringing him into your work?

CA: Last February I gave a lecture at the Tarble Arts Center and then was invited by Mike Watts, the director, to create an exhibition of paintings on the wall. And then on April 8, 2007, Sol LeWitt died. I first met him at the Addison Gallery of American Art in the 1990s when my former husband, Dawoud Bey, and I were artists in residence. Sol was in the midst of preparing for a solo show of painted drawings, and his team of assistants and volunteer students were there. I loved watching his work get made.

Dawoud was asked to photograph Sol, and the photo session went well, despite the fact that Sol never liked to be photographed. It was a beautiful diptych, which included Carol, his wife. Sol wanted to trade a piece with Dawoud for the photo. It was a huge drawing that he sent. That was the beginning of our friendship. From 2000 to 2004, we received Happy New Year drawings on recycled vintage postcards from Sol. In 2003, I decided to take the first postcard drawing and turn it into a black-on-black embroidered floss drawing. I named it Forward and sent it to Sol as a way to say thank you. After he died, I found out he hung it up in his library / music room and kept it in his study where he retreated every afternoon. According to his wife, Carol, he never moved it.

Tarble Installation New
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

ArtStyle: What is the story behind the reference to “Pennies and Fireflies in an Open Field”?

CA: Tossing pennies refers to an early childhood experience of watching my dad toss pennies in the air for good luck. It’s also a title for a piece I created at Yale in 1995. I was inspired when I saw Mel Bochner‘s exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery in 1995 and finding pennies all over the grad studio floors, which I picked up to use in my work. I was at Yale in the grad program at the time. I tossed pennies in the air and tracked their pathway in paintings that eventually became portraits. It was a conceptual idea of portraits overlaid with a numerical system, which used the alphabet to decipher meaning.

ArtStyle: “Mapping New Territories” is another reference in your show's title. How does that relate to Sol LeWitt and the pennies?

CA: This way of using memory to get to a conceptual system for painting was a new template for me and my work during the 1990s. This new methodology began at Yale in 1995. Before that in the middle or late 1980s, I was invested in the idea of structure. I was interested in how to get to painting from a series of smaller moves that over time would add up to something bigger. The idea that a painting was a series of actions and gestures that could be assembled to form a singular idea was compelling to me at the time. The notion of compositional structure as an expanding field of possibility became interesting to me as it moved from diptychs to triptychs to polyptychs. I was using the physical structure of medieval altar paintings as a connector to a more cinematic reading as informed by the photographs of Edward Muybridge.

Intervention 2j
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

ArtStyle: So memories of fireflies (from your exhibition title) are one of these actions or gestures?

CA: “Fireflies in an Open Field” refers to this structure. It also triggers a memory from this past summer where I was vacationing in Maine with my son, Ramon. On our first evening there, I glanced out the cottage window and there in the midst of an open field were hundreds of fireflies twinkling. I motioned to my son to have a look. We both stared in awe. It was a beautiful field of twinkling lights at dusk. I wanted the intervention at The Tarble Art Center to place me in a field of wonderment. There are three interventions which refer to this, and they are all on the front wall.

ArtStyle: How did you begin the project?

CA: I wasn’t completely sure how I was going to begin. But I knew my relationship to that space was going to change. Immediately upon entering the room I was trapped in the corners. That is where I started the intervention.

Intervention 3
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

ArtStyle: You are “In the Dark”?

CA: Yes, I brought Sol's drawings with me to the site because they gave me the courage to begin. I wanted to intervene in the space in a new way. I wasn’t interested in projecting an image and painting it like a mural. I wanted to activate all the corners of the room like a painting and then slowly discover something in the process.

ArtStyle: What did you do with his drawings? What did you discover?

CA: I discovered that I could use his drawings as a template. It was like gaining a new pair of eyes in the process. The act of projecting and tracing led to new lines, new trajectories. It gave me an opportunity to experiment.

Intervention 4
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

ArtStyle: So here you are in an unfamiliar place, the Tarble Arts Center's Gallery, equipped with your own history and holding Sol LeWitt's drawings in your hand not knowing what is going to happen?

CA: I didn’t know what the final outcome would look like, but I knew I wanted to turn this space into a laboratory of ideas to brew. Art students became available to me as volunteers and that gave my working process some transparency.

ArtStyle: Some kind of dialogue is there between the familiar and the invented?

CA: It helps me create a system of visualization. It simply tracks my thinking, capturing it as a drawing or painting. This methodology of tracking events is important since the work is not begun in an abstract vacuum. There is an internal logic that over time creates a mysterious structure. Yes, the art functions in this terrain between the familiar and the invented.

ArtStyle: As we talk now again you have just finished the project. Where did this dialogue with history and memory take you?

CA: It took me to possibility. I have a sea of ideas to shift through.

Intervention 5
Installation view. 2007. Tarble Arts Center, Eastern Illinois University.
Photo credit: Chris Kahler.

A Painting and Drawing Intervention by Candida Alvarez
November 11 – December 16, 2007
Tarble Arts Center
Eastern Illinois University

Opening Reception &
Conversation with the Artist on Sunday, November 11, 2-4 p.m.

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