AFA: With well over 50 exhibitions including in museums, being extensively published, and extensive collections, how do you reflect on your artistic career?
Maria Mijares: Artists shape their careers by making choices along the way. External influences impact those choices and create a highly unique story. In earlier times, when commercialism wasn’t quite so glaring, it was possible to stay focused on the work and remain oblivious to the idea of selling. Those outside of the art world may have measured artistic success with a monetary ruler, but as long as opportunities seemed to present themselves, I was satisfied with unpaid accomplishments. The momentum bred a kind of disconnect in me regarding art and money—a separation I believed could only be healthy for the art. I was taken entirely by surprise, however, when in a divorce trial I was cross-examined for two grueling days regarding my relationship to my work. I had never viewed my paintings as marketplace objects whose value was subject to equitable distribution—but, everyone else did. Half of my work— or its insurance value — was up for grabs. The judge's 23-page opinion concluded, "The court strongly suspects that her commitment to art is total and sincere…” But that I should rethink my position. As if possible. I kept my paintings, lost everything else, and left for my onewoman exhibition at Museo de Arte Moderno y Contemporaneo in Santander, Spain. At the airport my work was confiscated by customs for twenty days. I finally learned the reason. A percentage of the paintings value was required as a tax deposit in the event I were to sell paintings. I promised not to sell any paintings and agreed to have custom officials inventory my work and wax seal my crates shut upon leaving. Fighting sovereignties for the possession of my work resulted in many long years before I could loosen my grip on my canvases. These events greatly impacted my artistic career.
My work is loaded with conceptually lived-out narrative and is labor intensive. At the end I need meaningful conclusions to every story. When a painting is purchased by a buyer for whom a particular work has significant relevance, I consider the circle beautifully complete. Buyers enter my life narrative and star in new chapters. We are connected by both the power of the work and the content uniting us.
Writing has always informed my visual direction. Organizing the willy-nilly confetti of experience onto a page structures the thought process and leads me more consciously in the direction I was heading anyway.
I began to realize that my work is often about attaining or earning access—by going out on the crumbling rooftop or ship, into unsafe hoods, by seeking acceptance in ‘boys’ clubs’— to energize myself and to take the viewer where they otherwise could not go.
Though my contemporary realist paintings have a decorative appeal, I’ve wanted my work to DO something more. To this end I’ve been testing the power of my Art to move and inspire varied audiences—alzheimer patients, caregivers, cancer patients, students, poets, the Catholic hierarchy, art historians, and the public at-large.
Reflecting on my artistic career I think less about my CV than the joyfulness of the rich life that ART creates for me.
AFA: Your paintings tend to have an iron-face realism, how did you develop the technical skill and eye to harness such dispositions?
Maria Mijares: My style developed via an intuitive road, rather than a technical one. My work began with an unconscious intent to understand and hold onto personal experience.
I was born in NYC, but then lived in Spain traveling back and forth and around Spain, France and Portugal until I was eight years old. These experiences were inexplicable on the urban New Jersey playground in the 1950s when few people had traveled abroad. Living in a world anchored by visual information, I may have developed a heightened visual awareness where language failed me. I was pretty much lost on both sides of the Atlantic. Close observation of details made up the big picture. Compelled to narrate, I would paint a world I could understand and live in— full of color, balance and harmony.
Formally, I view reality as a collection of abstract shapes. Once representation is reasonably established, I start over looking for the grace of each mark, translating realism into a compilation of poetic vignettes. I call the results ‘psychedelic precision.’ I am balancing the attributes of each shape, pushing truth to the edge—just short of falling off. Rocking between accuracy and playfulness, I’m hoping for the ‘real’ picture.
AFA: Your paintings tend to focus on multiple sentry objects interacting with an environment. What is the relationship?
Maria Mijares: My earliest paintings focused on the man-made world where man did not appear. In 1976 I was writing: “Human beings are not solid and permanent as a cup, or a piece of wood. They are free and changing. How can they ever be pinned down and represented? I represent humans one way, and the objects of their situation in another. Objects may be known. I render them with care and detail. The human cannot be known, and must be abstracted. I want everything to be a solid object. I paint buildings. Bricks are heavy, really heavy. The isolated building becomes a kind of inner self.”
These ideas stuck with me. ‘People’ did enter my realm of attention, though the figure was still in contrast with its environment. One night in a dream figures moved in like silhouettes. I saw that even with limited information an individual could be known—not as a black hole in a painted environment, but as a real presence. With very little detail the gesture was revealing. Once the human figure had made its debut into my work I had to consider WHOM I would paint. My father, strangers in a vibrant ambiance, men engaged in something. I sought situations. After a year of fumbling through a variety of ‘Men at Work’ scenarios I arrived by chance at the theme I would pursue for more than twenty years.
Interested in the culture of my ancestral Spain, I was tipped off about a Spanish priest at a local church. I approached the priest with a sudden strong desire to paint about him. He didn't like the idea. For the first six months I was interrogated by his superior, persecuted, and asked to abort the first (innocent) unseen painting. Persevering I prevailed to be embraced by Bishops, presented to Cardinals, able to see the Pope in Spain, and fraternally welcomed in many an unlikely scene. I had to cultivate privileged entrée. A long way from Backstage-Bob Dylan-Days, but not so different. I was observing the parallels of the mystic art-life with the priesthood. My church paintings— though focused on specific personalities—are not portraits, but figures within a much larger framework. A very long, complicated and amazing story— a movie, really.
AFA: Why do you focus on urbanization?
Maria Mijares: When I look at nature I see a large smear of green—nice, but I cannot sustain interest as I do in the evolving man-made world of design.
When my parents and I returned from Spain to the USA we lived in an attic apartment in East Orange, New Jersey. My father worked in Newark as a mechanical designer. After the second trip, we moved into an apartment above the barbershop on the same block as before. I had taken up a gritty relationship with the concrete, racing to the traffic light on my tricycle, zooming in on the textures of the sidewalk, memorizing the shapes of melted down gum blobs, and chipped paint on sign posts—interests all apparent in my work today.
I had been unintentionally contrasting how two distinct cultures regard their structures. Structures as emotive containers—buildings and beloved ships abandoned, razed and forgotten, lend relevance to beauty and beauty to disgrace.
My paintings preserve a sweetened souvenir of a past left to decay and also, beauty that is not permitted to die. Performing a form of visual autopsy, I take reality apart to examine, interpret and then reconstruct.
I am drawn into an empty scene hollowed out by neglect. Crawling over trash into wastelands of a glorious past to paint my way out of corners, I find balance on unstable ground. I find beauty in the commonplace and even blight like Don Quixote, and then visual context becomes philosophy.
AFA: How do you feel about the distinction between having such large public works versus exhibiting in a gallery?
Maria Mijares: Architecturally integrated artwork in a permanent material is an exhibition forever and for everyone. The show doesn’t end and there’s nothing better than that! Working alone in the studio is an isolating endeavor. Collaborating with a community and design teams for the goals of public art makes me part of the REAL world. Going to ‘meetings’ and having ‘bosses’ is both novel and FUN!
While my own work enjoys every freedom, the condensed timeline and parameters of scope involved in conceptualizing a public art proposal is like a microcosm of the art process itself. I welcome the impositions as challenging exercise. A sociological component starts the process as I ask myself, ‘what does this site need?’
Public art must consider the audience—unlike the requirements of my own paintings. The art must cut through and reach a universal core across race, age, economic status, culture and time while balancing stimulating imagery of power and meaning with accessibility. In the design phase a major consideration is how the community will connect with the art for very practical reasons. Art inspired by familiar local imagery that everyone can understand tells a neighborhood that their streets and landmarks are art-worthy. The street as stage transforms a common experience into an intimate and personal narrative within what the viewer knows. We love what we own, and with ownership comes respect for the art. The art heightens respect for the neighborhood. While reflecting culture, Art has the power to impact culture by elevating community pride. Public art fulfills my wish to speak to the unintentional viewer—persons not expecting to encounter art. Unlike the street-filled visual assault of advertising, art offers respite as it doesn’t ask for anything or have anything to sell. I am presenting a unique panorama with a perceptible subtext—Peace, harmony and balance exist in REAL life. Shortly after my Bergenline Avenue Station murals were revealed I visited the site and asked a bus driver paused at the port what he thought of the murals. He recounted his first impression, “when I pulled up I said, ‘oh, wow, what have they given us here!’” He reacted to the artworks as if he’d received a gift! There’s no better ending to the story than that.