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.”

Humberto Werneck is a Brazilian journalist, chronicler, storyteller, and writer.