Lessons in Simplicity
What are these two doing here together?
Except for the art they both dedicate themselves to, woodcut printing, they have very little in common. About to turn fifty years old, J. Miguel, the Pernambucan José Miguel da Silva, lives and works in Bezerros, a city of 60,000 inhabitants one hundred kilometers from Recife, and what he produces is usually classified as popular art, inhabited by themes and characters from folklore and the Brazilian Northeast. Fabricio Lopez, on the other hand, barely into his thirties, lives in the much more cosmopolitan axis of São Paulo and Santos, his hometown. And, although he does not feel comfortable with the label, he is generally seen as an erudite artist, and not strictly because of the university degrees on his resume. J. Miguel carves small images on wood, sometimes limited to the 16 x 11.5 cm of a cordel leaflet. Fabrício, on the other hand, an engraver who comes from painting and set design, is increasingly spreading out into large formats, such as the 2.20 x 4.80 m of one of his works in this exhibition.
If they are together here, it is precisely because of their differences – so that, placed side by side, between the work of one and the other, proximities may be sought.
In this proposal for dialogue, we started from scratch: the two artists did not know each other until the end of January this year, when, with a view to a possible joint show, a first contact between them was arranged. It was easier for Fabricio to go to J. Miguel in Bezerros than for him to go down to Santos, to the large studio that his young colleague keeps in the above a shop in an old building in Valongo, the neighborhood where the city was born 464 years ago. He had an idea that would broaden the scope and reach of the exhibition: initially imagined as a juxtaposition of two universes, the popular and the erudite, Fabricio wanted there to be a bridge between them, in the form of woodcuts created by four hands.
It was this ambition that occupied the two artists for six days, during which they worked from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon, sitting at a long table in the Casa de Cultura Serra Negra, in Bezerros, on the side of the BR-232 road, which connects Recife to Parnamirim. It is not exactly a studio, but rather an old print shop, set up in 1986 by J. Miguel’s stepfather, José Francisco Borges (1935), a.k.a. J. Borges, the founder and central figure in a veritable dynasty of woodcutters – and the person primarily responsible for turning Bezerros into an important center for the production of popular art. Today, the ugly ground floor house is more a shop than a studio, under the care of the artist sons of the old Borges, who hardly appears there, withdrawn, but still active – a few hundred meters ahead, on the edge of the same road, at a memorial that bears his name.
Fabricio arrived in Bezerros encouraged by the possibility that the joint experience might contribute to blurring the boundaries between the popular and the erudite – boundaries that, for him, are “imagined, created”. In his opinion, “there are images that work and images that don’t work; there are original images, which come from a creative impulse, and there are mechanical images”. For the young artist and professor, “it is in the image that the thing is settled”.
If for him those borders are something at least debatable, on the other hand it was not the case of trying to ignore the differences between his work and J. Miguel’s, and, even more, between the creation processes of one and the other. It would imply, of course, that each one would go a little off their usual track – a shift that, Fabricio thought, could be very positive, in the stimulating “unease” that sometimes arises from “adverse situations”.
Although confident, Fabrício soon realized that there were difficulties ahead. To begin with, J. Miguel was not exactly thrilled with the possibility of producing woodcuts four-handed. In the solid school of J. Borges, this is not how one works. In fact, everything was different between him and the newly arrived young man from the south of the country, from the repertoire to the paper used for printing. Among Bezerros engravers only sulfite is used – nothing to do with the sophisticated alternatives Fabricio brought with him in his luggage, the Fabriano Rosaspina, made of cotton, and the variations of kozo, Japanese paper made from the long fibers of a bush. Neither of them, J. Miguel learned right away, were suitable for the printing method used in Bezerros, where, instead of a press, a wooden spoon and a crude and ingenious “carrinho”, as the instrument was named, are used.
And that was not all. In the local customs, the colors of a woodcut never overlap, they are always juxtaposed. That is what J. Miguel learned from watching his stepfather work, and that is how, at the age of ten, he first carved wood to create woodcuts. Or even before, recalls old Borges, who remembers Miguel at the age of five scratching images into the surface of scraps picked up from the floor of his father’s studio. That was his school, and that was his luck, to grow up in the shadow of a master – which, as we know, was done without the benefit of any such shadow, in his twenties, in the most helpless self-education, due to the need to illustrate cordéis to earn a living. “I entered art in the dark”, J. Borges usually says – and, to prove that he is not exaggerating, he tells a story: having already traveled a long way, he didn’t even know that his art was called woodcut printing (‘xilogravura’); he had to look it up in the dictionary when he heard the word for the first time.
Everything he knows, J. Miguel learned from his stepfather, of whom, now almost fifty years old, with a modesty that is not to be taken too seriously, he still calls himself “apprentice”. And, having learned from him, he has never put color over color.
Fabricio Lopez, on the other hand, is not going to go that way; he is fond of building the image through successive layers of color, which add up as well as cancel each other out. For him, there is in this a bit of playfulness, even a kind of ludic stamp, sometimes guided not by the pretension of reaching a certain place, but by a taste for adventure. As for the eventual intervention of other people’s hands in his work, he thinks this can even be welcome. He says that it has often happened that he creates together with other young artists, in collective projects he has participated in since he was very young, such as Espaço Coringa, in São Paulo, which was essential in his education. It is something he encourages, for instance, at the Instituto Acaia, also in São Paulo, where he runs a woodcut and wood engraving workshop. Fabrício is convinced that in this way one can reinforce individuality and, at the same time, foster a well-dosed dilution of the author.
“What can be born from the coming together of the two of us?” he inquires. “What can be born from something that is not only mine or only yours, but that is a constitutive part of what we both are creating?” The discussion is even didactic, he argues, in that it helps the artist to “build a work that is healthy, that is not imprisoned in itself.” Fabricio explains: “It helps you to know when you are diving alone, when you are able to go deep down and collect that most precious shell and, already half out of air, bring it to the surface, and when, on the contrary, you depend on the other to solve problems that you would not be able to solve by yourself. This doing together, says Fabricio, “is very important in creation, also in order not to create strongholds of the ego.
It is not easy, as he himself could see once again during those days in Bezerros – during which, incidentally, there was no lack of obstacles to overcome. One of them, of a practical nature, was to obtain material for carving. After a lot of walking around the city, all that could be found were pieces of piquiriá, an ungrateful wood with tough flesh, and which, moreover, was not completely dry. Very different from the cinnamon laurel with which J. Miguel is so familiar, and even more different from the incomparable umburana, or imburana, which is soft and cooperative. But what we had was piquiriá, and with it the two artists set to work, and little by little the work got under way. “I’ll make a background,” Fabrício suggested at one end of the table, “and you make an image to go on top of mine, in the foreground.” The risk, he recalls, was that images of such a distinct nature as to be incompatible would be born from this, “like water and oil.”
But no: over Fabricio’s red flower, J. Miguel’s hummingbird landed gently, in what is perhaps the most successful of the four woodcuts they created in Bezerros. “It had to be a hummingbird to make it work,” rejoiced J. Miguel, finally embarking on the adventure that had initially left him on his backside, and that for Fabricio Lopez was no less rewarding. “The thing is a bit of a mix,” he summarizes, “but they are lessons in simplicity really: to see how the other understands and does something that you also like to do so much.”