José Freitascruz and I go back quite a few years when I first started blogging for www.absolutearts.com. He would often leave nice insightful comments. Well, here we are several years later and we’re chatting about his work. He’s a powerful abstract expressionist artist http://www.freitascruzart.com/ who has an equally poignant world view which greatly informs his work…
“… There’s this increasing feeling that I belong nowhere – that I’m a stranger even in my own country where I wasn’t even born and lived less than a third of my life – but at the same time, I feel at home everywhere ...”
MICHAEL: Hey Jose, I feel that while looking at your work, I'm seeing the inner workings of your mind. I also see emotion in those abstracts. Would you say your work is more intellectual, emotional or spiritual? What's the inspiration behind it?
JOSE: Michael, Hi! Great to be talking with you. That’s a toughie. The quick and simple answer would be that it’s more emotional. I’ve always been more interested in understanding and capturing my feelings when faced with something or what a particular landscape or event evokes and provokes, rather than replicating in some way the thing itself. But having said that, I would like to think that there is a balance of all three. The spiritual element is definitely always there, though not in a religious sense or the preaching of any belief - really more in the sense of understanding my/our place within the big picture. The intellectual element was more present in earlier years perhaps, when my insecurity led me to always find a justification or a storyline for what I was painting. However, more and more, I find myself letting go and simply enjoying the process and seeing where it takes me. The inspiration is undeniably my travels, the nomadic life I have had since I was a child, the world as I see it and feel it and my attempts to find my place.
MICHAEL: Nomadic life? That sounds glamorous. Where have you been? How has travel shaped you as a person? What has travel taught you?
JOSE: My dad was a diplomat. I guess most people would see it as glamorous and there is some truth to that of course, plus there are many positive qualities you develop when jumping from country to country and from culture to culture. But for a child growing up, the other side of the coin can be daunting. Constant change and starting over from scratch just when you reach the point where you’re about to bask in the light at the end of the tunnel; unlearning and relearning the dos and don’ts, the languages, the renewed feeling of helplessness and humiliation at each new school, the making of new friends only to lose them. It was actually more striving to stay afloat than fun and games, but somehow you discover you come equipped to deal with what comes your way and you just get on with life ASAP. You learn resilience, humility, the realization that compromise is not necessarily a bad thing, that you need to shed some of the old to make way for the new and for my part, I became hooked on discovering as much of the planet as I possibly can - a real addiction.
MICHAEL: So where did you live during your childhood?
JOSE: My childhood was scattered all over southern and eastern Africa with an in-between spell in New York where I first learned English. Adolescence was Europe with a year as an exchange student in the U.S. again, where I first started to paint at the age of 18. University started out in Brussels and ended in Portugal where I painted more than I studied and dropped out of law school after being told that a part-time job I had with a law firm in London would not help my grades. That’s when I took the plunge, changed the course of my life, reviewed my needs and priorities and decided to try to make it as an artist. I even took care of marrying a girl who had nothing to do with the foreign service and who was happy to stay in Portugal, until one day, in a twist of fate years later, she was offered a job in the foreign service and off we went to Berlin, followed by a series of Asian postings before returning to Germany last year. My addiction is pretty much alive once again.
MICHAEL: Wow, you really have gotten around.
JOSE: How did this shape who I am or what has it taught me? I wouldn’t even know where to start. For a long time, I believed I had learned nothing useful other than getting on with life ASAP. And for a long time, I didn’t even give it much thought. The fulfillment of being able to live from my painting was enough to keep me going. But lately, I’ve been giving it more thought. There’s this increasing feeling that I belong nowhere – that I’m a stranger even in my own country where I wasn’t even born and lived less than a third of my life – but at the same time, I feel at home everywhere. Now Here. That’s what I cherish most, I guess, the ability to adapt and to make the most of things no matter what.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. And so, when and how did you become an artist? How has travel influenced and inspired your work?
JOSE: I started to paint around 1976. I was an exchange student at the time and was friends with the art teacher at school, Ed Nowak. He would sometimes ask me to join his class in my free periods and we'd talk philosophy and politics back home where there had been a revolution. That's where I caught the “bug.” I painted things from memory, mostly landscapes. I remember doing a desert scene and one of the River Seine with Notre Dame in the background. But it wasn't serious and I never dreamt of becoming an artist. And then, there was this exhibition I went to – several times – by René Magritte in Brussels that completely set me off the tracks. Yet the train didn't derail until 1985 when it became clear to me that neither law nor diplomacy were for me and all I had to fall back on were these paintings I had accumulated over the years and everybody seemed to want. I took part in a collective show and sold every single one and thought to myself, “Well, I guess this could work.” I started visiting artists I met in their studios, picking up a few things here and there. I knew I didn't want an art degree. I wanted to be self-taught with the advice of artists I looked up to.
JOSE: I decided early on that landscapes and the things I'd seen on my travels were my main input. I enjoyed creating a sort of “refuge” or “icon” for myself using the information I collected in notebooks. I discovered, too, that these refuges were not exclusively mine and that others were drawn to them and were eager to have them. The 80's and 90's were good years. Over time, the landscapes turned inward, they stopped being representational or even figurative and became more and more abstract. This inward shift revealed new trails and I traveled often to India and the Tibetan plateau for inspiration and to expose myself to new ideas and possibilities, especially for a better understanding of our inner dimensions and workings.
MICHAEL: It's interesting that you didn't go into diplomacy given all of your travels. However, do you think diplomacy plays a role at all in your work?
JOSE: It was a long struggle with myself and there was some measure of defiance, not so much of my parents who never really pushed me into following in my father’s footsteps, but defiance of fate. I had this uneasy feeling that I wasn’t really in control, that things happened in life despite myself. What do you do when everything has been given you and you know the path you’re on is safe and rewarding and then you find this other door that leads down another path, unknown and exciting? Many people tried to convince me that it was possible to do both, but in either case, I would have never been happy with 50%. Painting was not a hobby, I needed the full 100%. I wanted to be an artist even if it meant having to look for a job doing other things at those times when the paintings didn’t pay the bills.
I cut with the path of diplomacy altogether. The last thing I wanted to become was one of those diplomat’s children who believe they have a say in things because they’d lived the life. Even now that my wife is in the service I am reserved and perfectly happy to take the back seat. Obviously I have opinions and I may voice them now and again privately, but never in public. My work is in the studio and when I am not in the studio, my life and my mind are completely absorbed in art, either in making it, researching for it or working to make it seen.
MICHAEL: But do you see a link between diplomacy and your work?
JOSE: It’s interesting that you should ask me if diplomacy plays a role in it at all. I thought not. The method and the process in art are completely different – there has to be flow and not restraint. Rules have to be broken, things pushed beyond their limits; there ought to be no compromise and the end result should ultimately be of interest and utility to the artist alone. If others see utility and find interest in the work – that’s an altogether different matter, which should not concern the artist and only reveals that they are both on a similar wavelength. No diplomatic negotiation would ever survive such an approach. But not so long ago, a French diplomat told me that diplomats and artists belong together, that we are of the same stock so to speak, that in days gone by, they frequented the same cafes, the same circles and were keen to be seen mingling at parties. And then there is no escaping the fact that at the end of the day, when trade agreements and balance of payments have had their day, art, culture and science remain a nation’s greatest wealth. They’re a mirror of our achievements projected unto eternity. So I guess, yes, when I am at an opening of my work, a part of me is remotely mindful that I represent my country in some small measure.
MICHAEL: Where do you call home now? What's it like there? Do your surroundings inspire your work or do you create independently of your environment?
JOSE: I’ll answer that last question first. Things overlap. My surroundings inspire me and there are things that I am able to complete while I am there but there are also projects that are carried over from one place to another. They then branch out, some still belonging to the previous place I lived and others becoming something else, just as I become something else.
Home? Home is a constantly shifting concept for me. As we speak, I am living in Germany where my wife is from. We moved here from Laos a few months back. I consider myself Portuguese, but I’m not sure I feel at home there, not at the moment. So much changes while I am away, there are too many things I am not a part of and find difficult to relate to as much as I try hard to. That awkward feeling that I’m a foreigner in my own country never leaves me. I was fortunate to be there at crucial times growing up to get the necessary input to make me want to claim that I am a Portuguese artist, and the first 15 years of my career were there, but I am not so certain that galleries, curators, critics or institutions see me as such or are able to fit me into their “boxes.”
MICHAEL: Believe me, I understand.
JOSE: My wife and I left Portugal in 2000 when we started to sense an economic crisis was looming and just as I thought things could have taken off. But they didn’t, the system didn’t respond the way I had hoped and I left without having a gallery willing to represent me. I cut the umbilical cord and moved on without any qualms or worries. I’m stubborn as a mule in that sense, a hopeless optimist. I know that if I never give up, eventually something good will come out of just simply getting on with my work. And much good has come out of it, more good, I think, than if we had stayed. Obviously, sales have never been what they were back in the 80’s and 90’s, but I’ve managed to stay afloat (in great part thanks to the miracle of the internet) and to get my work seen in places I had never dreamed of showing – Malaysia/Brunei, Japan, Taipeh, Laos – and now I am working on leaving the bulk of the 200 or so paintings I carry around with me with a gallery here in Germany before we move on again. I do have plans to move to Portugal and finish up the work of becoming visible there again at some later stage, but right now I’m in, “No Man’s Land,” working on my series: “Landscapes From Nowhere Land.”
MICHAEL: You know Jose, I think that we're somewhat connected by a shared philosophy. The WORLD is our home. People who don't put geographic or psychological limits on themselves often feel lonely because most people DO put limits on themselves and they WANT to limit everyone else because that's the way they think things should be. However, I say that life it too short for that. Why not explore? Every downside has an upside and vice versa. I think that this is the art of life? No?
JOSE: I do agree, Michael, the World is our home. It is an amazing place and life is indeed too short to get to know it all. To limit oneself, especially in this day and age when the internet, communications and knowledge of our surroundings have (or should have) expanded our possibilities and our understanding of our position relative to the Universe, seems a shame, almost a sin. Although many, perhaps, would argue that the opposite is true, that eating of the Tree of Knowledge is the primordial sin. Maybe what little is left of the diplomat in me helps me to understand and withstand this desire others have for us to conform and fit in to their limited world view. But I try to stay humble and non-judgmental. Not everyone has had the opportunities I was given to face and overcome my fears and to learn to understand and love the diversity that the world has to offer - and to go beyond the superficial differences and experience to what brings us all together (and could bring us closer) at a deeper level of our shared humanity. But as you say, it is a solitary endeavour. It’s something you cannot impose on others and it can feel a bit lonely at times.
MICHAEL: Back to your work. Your paintings really make me think about those Rorschach tests that we're supposed to look at so that psychiatrists can figure out what's in our minds and thoughts. Do you see them this way?
JOSE: If my paintings come across that way, I guess I have achieved some measure of what I set out to do. My relationship to painting and art in general has always been one of entering into a dialogue with the object and seeing what it reveals, of itself, about the artist and what he wants to tell us, but also of me. Call them Rorshachs, mandalas, icons, whatever you will, I like the idea of them being a refuge wherein you can allow yourself to get lost in order to rediscover yourself again.
For a long time in the 90’s, my paintings were unashamedly mandalas and even titled as such. There is no claim to originality there; Klee worked the theme, as did C.G. Jung and many, many others. For me, it was an important process I felt I had to go through. When an artist works, I have this romantic notion that he travels to his deepest and sometimes darkest reaches and returns to tell us something about the journey. A painting or work of art is meaningful and acquires value when the “mapping” of the journey becomes meaningful to others. T he rest, the market value, pales in comparison to this.
MICHAEL: Isn't it interesting how much a hold that deceased, famous artists still have on people today? What's it going to take for the general public to realize that there are SO many gifted, living artists like you out there? What needs to be done to inform the public about contemporary art and expand the audience?
JOSE: I think it all boils down to exposure and the kinds of impressions you are exposed to from as early an age as possible. If you think about it, the hold the great masters and artists of the past have over us isn’t so much due to the mechanisms of the art market but rather the inherent qualities we naturally respond to and how much exposure we have had to them. In the past such impressions were only (or more readily) accessible to the more affluent elements of society, but things have changed for the better. This has been true in the past 50 years and especially in the last 15 with the advent of the internet and smart phone technology.
Obviously art isn’t meant to be seen or experienced on a screen, but the impression still passes, interest is aroused, curiosity grows, many are led to discover new interests, be it in a passive way and the desire to be in the proximity of such things, or in a more active way and the awakening and acceptance and confidence in their own creativity. Education, schools, should play a much larger role in promoting this exposure from a tender age. I don’t know how things stand in the United States, but in Europe the focus is exclusively on academic achievement. There is very little or no space for the creative dimension and the possibility of a more harmonious development of children and future. A change won’t happen overnight, but investing in the promotion of the arts would certainly be a step in the right direction – not everyone will become an artist, but creativity is an asset in any field or endeavour.
JOSE: And then there is the unfavorable, limiting, crippling action of the investment and fame-driven art market, which caters more to investors than to true art-loving collectors and promotes only the artists they believe may be the “Next Big Thing.” It’s a situation that all too often leads to artists losing their connection with their deeper selves and to create things that scream out for attention, but have little substance. Here too I think the internet is having a beneficial effect.
Slowly but surely platforms are appearing that allow artists to have greater control of what they wish to create and to make his work visible to a growing audience that is becoming more and more confident of its own choices, independent of galleries, curators and critics. I am somehow confident that in the long run, this parallel activity, which is enabling many artists to keep their heads above the water, will eventually lead to changes in what we call the “Art Market” and make it more democratic, lively and rich. The art market mentality, the culture of fame and this fixation that you have to be a part of it and that only what it shows is of any real value is something that we have to learn to let go of so as to be able to look at the richness that you point at, Michael, and in which I am flattered to find myself included by you.
MICHAEL: Given all of that, how do you think mobile technology is affecting the audience for art? I mean, half the time these days, during my art trips in galleries and museums, I see people looking at their cell phones.
JOSE: It’s all in the way you decide to use it, really. I believe the more access you have to information you need and want - it’s a good thing. Personally, I’ve only gotten a smart phone recently. At first, I found it annoying – too many unnecessary gadgets and distractions, too much in-touchness, loss of privacy and of sense of space and time, but then I learned how to switch off notifications, delete or hide unwanted applications, mold it to my needs and my rhythm and I find that it is a very welcome tool. I’m not sure how it affects the audience, but if I meet someone at an art fair or gallery, hand them my card and know that they can access my site on the spot and learn more about my work, that alone makes a world of difference. Visibility is the key. It is no longer achieved exclusively through the narrow filter of galleries. It’s really up to the artist to make his online presence as appealing, wide-ranging and informative as possible to attract the attention of the public, of collectors and galleries who might be scouting for something new, and create more opportunities for sales and growth.
MICHAEL: Do you see any differences in how Europeans view contemporary art compared to Americans?
JOSE: I have to confess that I am not very familiar with how things are in the U.S., and I fear that I may have also lost touch with things in Europe having lived the past 15 years in Asia. One of the things that struck me in Europe when I left was how the idea that “painting was dead” was in everyone’s mouth and how there seemed to be a fear and almost shunning of colour.
It was, I think, the height of the conceptual era. Gray was the norm, as was shock (well beyond awakening), silliness (well beyond humour), and the need for a message was more readily acceptable to the establishment, even if meaningless and bewildering. It was a time when it was dangerous for your aspirations as an artist to even mention that you busied yourself with, and hoped to achieve, transcendence - something that lifted one up as opposed to dragging things down even further.
MICHAEL: I hear ya.
JOSE: In Asia, especially in Malaysia and Japan, I discovered with great relief that painting was pretty much alive, that it was OK to want to create things that touch others in meaningful ways and not to simply go for the surprise effect, regardless of content. Whether this will spill back into the West in the years to come is still to be seen, but at least I feel more confident about traveling down that road.
MICHAEL: Finally Jose, Most people on the face of the earth may not even visit an art gallery let alone buy art. Contemporary art isn't curing cancer or ending homelessness so what's the point of it?
JOSE: I believe strongly in a holistic approach to healing. Art does help in the process contrary to popular belief. Terminal and advanced cases of certain diseases may require other, more incisive measures which can never be ruled out, but the effects of art should not be downplayed.
Public hospitals here in Germany have art in all the rooms, in waiting areas and along the corridors, it was a very pleasant surprise. Maybe there haven’t been sufficient studies yet to get the message through, but I believe that in the developed world (let’s face it, it is a luxury only the developed world can afford) we are slowly getting there.
I have no doubt that exposure to art and a greater awakening to (and acceptance of) our creative nature would work wonders. And by this, I don’t mean that we should all become artists, creativity manifests itself and is required in all areas of life, but society and the way we are brought up stifles this dimension within us at a very early stage and forces us to conform to rigid models. This is the cause of many tensions and imbalances, which eventually trigger disease, but equally stand in the way of recovery.
And so, in answer to the first part of your question, maybe art should be made more public. Galleries and museums have their function and are necessary, but art shouldn’t “live” exclusively within their walls. It should be on people’s paths to work, in the underground stations like in Moscow, and Brussels and Lisbon and it should be out in the streets, in shopping malls like in Japan. In Norway, for instance, all publicly-funded buildings must incorporate a work by a Norwegian artist. This and a greater focus on art education and creativity could perhaps help shape a more balanced environment. It could also make people consider how their everyday life is enriched by the abundance of public art and ask themselves other questions than the ones they usually worry themselves about. They could escape the quagmire they feel their life has become and, who knows, even consider entering a gallery on their way home or click more eagerly on that “send” button to finalize the purchase of a painting they saw online.
MICHAEL: Thanks Jose. Cool chat.
JOSE: It is I who thanks you, Michael. I’m honored that you have asked and thrilled to have had this chat. Your questions made me think of many aspects of my trade I don't always think about.
Check out José Freitascruz at http://www.freitascruzart.com/.