A palm tree leans outward by a pool where the water ripples in concentric circles, as though a fish has just jumped and gone under. Stippled light and dark fall around it — like a heavy warm rain or shadows on a cliff face.
They are carved in wood. It’s a broad circle of trunk from an old tree, weathered smooth, and the sides have grown a fantastic landscape — tall smooth boulders, flowers as tall as trees and trees ribbed and fluted like mushrooms. They are drawn light on dark, as though the forest is gleaming by moonlight.
Gloria Calderon Saenz has come to the Berkshires to find space and time for her art, paintings and drawings, and most of all, woodcuts and woodblock prints. On a late summer day, she walks through her studio on the top floor of a house on the hill. It’s a warm place with a tiled walkway open to the light, and the rooms are bright with painted walls and the colors of her own prints and paintings.
From high enough here (though it might take wings), she could look out away over the canopy of the trees, toward River Street and the northwest corner of town, toward the communal bread oven and wildflower meadow, the comunity gardens and young fruit trees near the UNO community center, the newly built performance space at the Porches Inn, and the Hoosac River, where it runs through Mass MoCA.
She moved here to North Adams from Boston five years ago. Born in Colombia, she has lived in Venzuela and France, and in the U.S. for many years. And the rivers and landscapes of the northern Appalachian mountains and South America often run through her work.
She carves the wood blocks for her prints by hand, she said, and she makes the prints by hand. With a range of fine tools she can cut into wood in strokes of different widths, light as cross-hatch, a pen or a brush, or broader to give texture or suggest a glimmer of light.
A painting like a river valley seen from above has inspired film and dance choreography, she said, with the movement of the water and dense patterns and shadows of leaves.
“It becomes abstract,” she said, “… when you fly over a tropical forest you can see the way certain things grow. … It’s carved, and the color is acrylic, but I use the color very liquid, almost like a watercolor, so that’s why you can see the grain of the wood.”
An original print can become as individual and detailed as a painting, she said, as she returns to it and adds to it, overlapping washes of color. With some prints she can make more copies, to bring to informal events and comunity festivals like the Williamstown Summer Sunday on September 19, in ArtWeek Berkshires. She is trying to move more in that direction, she said, because it’s easier to share that work, in a way.
“Some of my prints that are in color are what’s called reduction woodcuts,” she said, “so with the block I do different colors. But as I go the block gets carved more and more.
“… So I need to decide from the beginning, let’s say I’m going to do 10 copies, and that would be an edition of just 10. So let’s say I print the yellow first, then I carve more in my block. I print let’s say red or the next color … in general the lightest color first and then the darker after. But at some point the block is not printable any more.”
Fantasy in the landscape
In her hands a natural scene can shift lightly with elements of fantasy or spirit, as snow becomes shapes playing around a waterfall. Her scenes can move fluidly between realistic and abstract — real and fantastic. She feels an element in her work, she said, mythic, magical … sacred.
“The more I do, the more I am simplifying in a way,” she said. “I am doing things that are less literally the way they are, giving myself more freedom. Because now that everyone has an iPhone and everyone can make amazing photos, I think the role of an artist is different. We need to do more interpretation … instead of description.”
Fantasy comes from observation, she said. She will often begin with a photograph or a sketch, because woodcuts and prints are not forms she can practice in place, out in the open air. And then she will transform the image and deepen it.
“We are able to create forms that look alive even though they don’t exist,” she said.
An element of magic or fantasy can draw the eye and hold attention and give someone a way into the work, so they feel the mass and force and dimension of a waterfall — not only see it — they feel the weight of it, smell the earth after the rain and hear the water, and they know how it could feel to stand at the end of the trail halfway up, with the water cascading from lip to lip hundreds of feet above them and falling away hundreds of feet more below.
“Exactly,” she said, “ (you can) put this emphasis on certain things. I also notice that many people nowadays works with photographs. Artists have been doing that forever, but … when an artist does that he or she will always put the emphasis on something. So there’s nothing wrong with starting with a photograph or a place or something that really talks to us, but at some point you have to let go.”
She stands looking at a print inspired by a waterfall in Venuezela, and the trees on the hillside transform into ghosts.
“I love thinking that there are spirits in the trees, in the mountains,” she said. “Here too you can almost feel the presence of those spirits.”
For her the wood in this panel translates the energy of water, in its grain and texture.
“Think about how connected the forest is with water. (It’s) why we have this beautiful forest on the east coast, because we have tons of rain. We won’t have these beautiful forests without tons of water. It’s the cycle.”
“… I painted the whole wood (panel) black and then I did the sketch in chalk, so that the chalk can be removed,” she said “… It’s a lot of time-consuming work. paying attention to the value, the areas of light, but (it’s) also doing something you can almost never have in a photo — paying attention to these details of the moss, like looking around if you were there, looking at the lichens … This is rock, but the shades, which were competely blurry in the photograph, I transformed … again, these ghosts are there.”
Some of her work can feel like a dreamscape, she said. In the hallway below, in a print near the door, a woman paddles a canoe on a river vivid with reflected color. The scene feels both real and abstract to her in its color and texture, and it holds more of her life and feeling.
“This painting went through different phases too,” she said. “This is one of these paintings that I’ve been transforming and transforming, so that’s why the marks look a little random in places, but at the same time it became it’s own story.
“It’s almost like a self portrait of me, representing my journey. And these red marks have to do with my relationship with Colombia and all of the violence and things that are going on there that are difficult for me, like the fears — it represents the fears — but at the same time the magic and the beauty, and again the water. This blue, feeling bold … artists, we’re always bold.”
Her birth country holds some painful associations for her.
“… There’s absolutely no safety really, and especially for a single woman — for me it’s what I need, a sense of safety,” she said up in her studio, looking at portraits from recent visits there and contrasting her memories with the ease of walking in the woods here alone.
She does go back still, in the winters. Her brother has a house in the countryside, she said, and she has created a print from it with flowers blooming in the foreground, blossoms seeming as long as her forearm. They are datura plants, she said, and they are halucinagenic but beautiful.
She has warm memories too, of times with friends, nights when they would get together and read poetry and draw. Her father used to write poetry, she said. She holds a sense of storytelling in her own art, as in the portrait in the canoe.
“… This foliage becomes letters in some sense, writing — I love when drawing meets writing. Even those movements have some calligraphic (energy) for me …”
And few years ago she spent a month on the San Blas islands in Panama, meeting artists there. They are women of the Guna, Indigenous people of Colombia and Panama, and they create a traditional form of tapestry or fiber art in layers of stitched fabric in vibrant colors. These intricate quilted cloths are called Molas. And they feel like labyrinths, animals and flowers filled in with a bright maze of lines.
“I always loved this work,” Saenz said, “and I wanted to go meet these women who do this, and so I spent a month there observing how they work and talking to them and sharing, and I think that was a very revealing experience for me, because I do have some Indian blood from Colombia, so I really wanted to meet these grandmothers.”
They traditionally would have painted patterns like this on their bodies, she said. They have not worn these colors on their skin for many years now, after the weight of European colonization, but now they adorn their clothing. They will often create a symmetrical pattern, front and back, and sometimes they use sewing machines with hand-turned wheels, but only for the borders — all the inner stitching they do by hand.
She showed one with a pattern curving around a central rounded form.
“This design is supposed to represent a maraca,” she said, “because in their tradition the maraca is not only for music, but it’s also a healing thing, and to soothe the babies in the hammocks.”
She makes a soft sound, chacka-chacka, the soft music of a rattle, smooth as a gourd, shaken like rain falling. “They do healing rituals,” she said, looking closely at the geometry of the pattern. “I see here almost a woman’s womb … everything is very feminine in the work of molas.”
Some show birds and animals and fish, some symbols and abstract shapes, Saenz said, showing some she has brought home with her. And some show contemporary patterns as the artists invent their own.
“This represents a bird that is hunting a snake,” she said. She has met the woman who made it. “… And elements of the ocean, because they live in islands off the coast of Panama, so a lot of their art has to do with ocean animals, and I wonder if these labyrinthic shapes have to do with the corals, because they are surrounded by these things … and the movement of the water.”
“How beautiful they look over there. Sometimes they hang them around their huts. And they use the red — the burgundy is always there … even though they are surrounded by blue ocean, their art is in the red hues.”
For them it is a traditional artform and a way to make a living, Saenz said. In heir culture it belongs to the women, and men respect them for it, and the influence they earn through it.
“They do this first of all for themselves,” she said, “but they they sell it and they bring income to the family. And one of the wonderful parts is that the men respect the women a lot, because they do art and they bring income to the family.”
As an artist supporting herself, she respects their independence. She has found some support and companionship in the creative community here, and through Mass MoCA and their initiatives to help local artists. She is working with the museum now, she said, on a proposal for a community art project.
Along River Street, the Hoosic River runs through cement flood chutes. In one area in front of Building 4, the river is almost never full and the chutes are dry, and the walls are discolored with dirt and damp and growth.
She wants to create a mural here — simply by washing the walls with plain water.
“My proposal would be to do what they call reverse graffiti,” she said. “It’s something that has to be done with stencils. I have to create stencils that are very big, and with a power washer we can remove some of this blackish (covering) that forms on the walls.”
She imagines a female moose in silhouette and a design that might weave the patterns of the molas among the life in the river and the forests here, in the hundreds of miles of forests along the Appalachian trail.
“With the help of my brother, I collected samples of the water of the river,” she said, “and then we looked through a microscope, because my brother is a botanist, and we found all these alga, these microscopic alga in the river. So I also want to use these as inspiration for some of the panels that we are going to do in the river, and brown trout because it’s local trout. I want to to do something about wildlife.”
It may take time to ask for permission, she said, because apparently the channel doesn’t belong to the town — it belongs to the federal government, because it’s made by the army corps of engineers.
Many artists in Europe have done this kind or work, sometimes creating vast and detailed images, anywhere from a dam in Germany to the walls of the Tiber river in Rome. They haven’t put any pollutants in the water, she said. They haven’t added anything, not even soap, and they haven’t destroyed anything. What they do is artistic — it’s not like advertising. And their work persists.
“They can last, I mean 30 years,” she said, “because it takes awhile for the moss to form again, and once we have the stencils we can put (the images) back.”
“… I really have this passion for rivers and for water. … It’s a beautiful river. The water is pretty clean, even when it’s running through the channel, and the channel, even when it’s necessary, doesn’t have to be ugly.”
It could be rippling like light on water where a moose stands in the current at dawn.