A Park, a Studio, a Home
By Dominique Suberville
The name of the city of Monterrey carries with it certain connotations that describe two great aspects of it; aspects that paint immediate images in one’s mind. On one hand, its scenic aspect; its beautiful mountains that form part of Sierra Madre Oriental which surrounds the city which sits in a valley between them. On the other, its industrial and business history which is based in its raw materials.
La Huasteca park, a canyon of high mountainous walls that surround the distinguished Santa Catarina River which crosses the city east to west, has become a mecca for artists whose primary material is rock and steel. Desolate and impressive in its size, this ecological park not only offers the necessary space to create, but also a scene that forces one to contemplate the power and force of the natural world. Within this scene one can find artist Paula Cortazar’s studio.
In a studio with two beds that she shares with another artist, Cortazar spends most of her time at La Huasteca, away from the noise and distractions of the city. This location has not only become the place where she produces but also the very material with which she makes her work. Creating pieces that look to encourage the communication between nature and man, it’s no coincidence that Cortazar would call this place home.
Dominique Suberville: Most artistic practices take two elements into account: One, the themes we look to take on and explore; and two, the materials we use to do so. Can you tell us about how you landed on drawing and the materials you use to work through uncovering a graphic language/code?
Paula Cortazar: During college, I worked with various materials. Before then, I took several painting courses; more academic ones where you’re copying the figurative. Observation changes everything when you’re painting; abstract shapes, strokes. It’s something that changed once I was in college; it was very intuitive. I began drawing lines by basing them on finger prints and all the sculpture I was doing had a very organic shape. My interest in this slowly began to grow.
During the exchange program, I had a very introspective process. For example, I have a diary in which I write in every day in a very abstract manner. From there, I began doing drawing exercise but also mixing drawing and photography. During my time at Lyon, I began a series of drawings with wrinkled paper and this took me to sculpture.
With the wrinkled paper series, I began drawing upon the foldings; finding drawings in the material. It’s when I began relating it to the landscape of Monterrey. I visited the quarry which had always caught my attention; in this area, the inside of the mountains is revealed. With erosion one can see the natural color of the rock. It was then that I began to collect stones and started drawing on them. It was later when I was with Jorge Elizondo, who has his studio here at La Huasteca, that I started working on sculpture and experimenting with stone engraving; a whole world opened up to me. Since then I’ve been going back and forth looking for distinct ways of working, like with wood.
Now that I’m at La Huasteca, I’ve started to work with river stones because it’s almost inevitable to use the material that I find here in my surroundings. During walks and wanderings, I find round stones, almost perfect ones. I started to collect and use these and I realized they’re quite different, one from the other. I’m now doing these exercises and no longer try to follow a certain pattern within the stone, rather I try to talk about how they arrived from these different parts of the river and came together in one single spot.
I was also inspired by the petroglyphs you find in the mines, formed thousands of years ago. They have shapes that really speak to the landscape, or the area that surrounded them; of the solstice, of summer. They’re engravings that are placed in that specific place for a reason.
DS: Your artistic practice plays with various elements including drawing, sculpture, and installation. Where do you find the difference between sculpture and drawing within your pieces considering the technique has elements that can belong to one or the other?
PC: It can be quite complicated, maybe even confusing. For example. this piece made of wood is drawing on a two-dimensional surface, therefore I classify it as a drawing. The drawing I do on sculpture, I work it in a specific manner. The stone engraving series on limestone and marble, I work it according to its natural shape; I lightly model it, so that I consider it to be sculpture. There was a moment I thought, “No, that’s drawing,” but thinking about it objectively, I think it’s not.
DS: What is the process like when looking to work with material that comes from nature? Particularly rock which is a common element in your practice.
PC: I do take their shape into account. For wood, that they should have a lot of movement or patterns that are readily visible. That they stand out. When it comes to rock, for example the river stones, I make sure that they aren’t too scraped. This one for example; it’s browner with ocher tones. This kind of stone is harder than others so it maintains its round shape. It’s obviously scuffed up and fractured but it softens with time.
I noticed others get fractures more easily; they’re more fragile. It makes it harder to find finer lines. I also don’t like discarding possibilities. There are times I find, due to being rushed or for other reasons, stones covered in dirt and I have no time to clean them. There was a case where I found a muddied rock and I thought, “Fine, I’ll take it.” It seemed to have a definite shape and when I actually cleaned it, I noticed a side of it had orange crystals, quite beautiful. Since then I’ve decided to not close myself off to possibilities. There are times I grab rocks that don’t really catch my attention but the moment you start working on it, something always comes out of it. Of course sometimes this doesn’t always work out.
DS: Is it fair to say that you always start with the material and then you develop the piece?
PC: Yes. I used to take more time through the selection process in order to find the perfect stone; one that wouldn’t have any scratches on it, that it wouldn’t be fractured. When it’s recently fractured, its shape is very defined, it has its natural tone. When It’s been roughed up, it starts softening and the scratches are more noticeable. I would be looking for a cleaner looking stone, one single tone. With scuffed up stones, when you begin engraving, you can’t really see much of the work so it didn’t really work for what I had in mind. But it was also then that I discovered sandblasting; you can use a seal which darkens the stones and at the moment of engraving, it stands out. It compensates for it.
DS: Your drawings have a repetition that is found within nature like the one in mineral stone, the mountains, plants, and so forth. Is there something about repetition and the reason you do it which extends to a personal level?
PC: Yes, it is very repetitive but I’m also working under the idea that they’re quite similar. At the same time, they’re quite unique because every rock and stone is different.
DS: I’m not really inquiring about the individual pieces, per se, but rather the idea of repetition within each piece. I wonder if the act of repeating through drawing is purely for graphic reasons or if there is a meaning behind that for you?
PC: The drawings are quite similar between one and the other. For example. the drawing on stone in comparison to the one on wood is similar and this goes to the idea that we all come from one same origin. On a superficial level, that is very visible. Of course, on another level it’s much more complex. I’m not sure that is what you’re referring to.
DS: Well, more so on the act of drawing. The act of drawing in the way you do; making lines or dots. It may not be the case, but I was wondering if that had any personal meaning, whether it be meditative or else.
PC: Well, yes. It does require a certain level of concentration and I like that. I enjoy covering something entirely with a same element. I rarely leave any margins; I like filling an entire piece or format. I consider them a full piece by themselves, without a base. The pieces are work all through out and therefore don’t have a specific base, so they can be presented in different ways.
DS: What should the spectator be discovering, or what are you interested in them discovering, in that code or language that is found on the surface; or even in some instances, inside the materials you use?
PC: Observation. That they see the material in a new way. It’s hard but I try to invite them to put themselves in the place of the piece, the stone; to feel empathy with that which has so much connection to us. Although at first glance it may not seem that way, they have a great history. These stones have streaks because they were formed a certain way and it is part of their recorded memory. Like us; every scar, every line in the body has something to say.
DS: In your work, you speak about how everything in our surroundings is connected to us. Why is it important that the spectator contemplate these notions of man and nature?
PC: I don’t want to generalize and say that there is a lack of connection with nature. But I do like to touch upon this topic because life in the city is distracting, isn’t it? The noise, cellphones, technology, social media; it’s a virtual reality that separates us from the world we inhabit, of our space. After all, it’s a world we came up with; a system, but with a cycle. I find it important to be more conscious of that in order to have inner peace.
DS: We’re here at your studio. Can you tell us a bit about your day to day process?
PC: Yes, I try to have a normal office schedule. From ten to seven is my fixed schedule with one hour for lunch. I stuck to this schedule because of Jorge. He has workers so he’s very punctual. This worked for me after seeing how he did it in such a disciplined way and seeing him do well as an artist, when it can be so hard. I liked this way. That’s how we work here.
Often times we have helpers when there are deadlines with a lot pressure but usually I work alone. I don’t work from sketches. I like to throw myself into the material, although sometimes I do sketch. Weather can also be an issue. When it rains, I don’t use electrical tools; I don’t work outside because it’s not safe. Also, during mid-day there is a lot of wind here at La Huasteca. When it’s too cold or too hot, I work with drawing inside my studio.
I like to vary my process. I don’t like to work on one single piece until I’m done. I like to let them rest and work on another material and go from one to another. Have several going at the same time.
DS: Is there something that you think of as essential to your practice? Something you couldn’t live or produce without; be it a material, an emotion or even space related.
PC: Yes. I’m used to being here and now I feel attached to this place. I started working here in 2015 at Jorge’s studio. I was there for two years and we said to ourselves, “No, we have to stay here (La Huasteca).” Also, producing sculpture out of stone is very noisy. I don’t cut as much stone or produce all that much dust, quite honestly. Nor do I produce that much noise; but Camilo, my studio partner, does.
Jorge’s work does produce a lot of dust; as does Daniel Serna who works nearby. It’s very industrial work, like factory work. Working on stone is heavy duty, very gruff: machines, noise… In turn, for me, producing drawing over stone is quite the contrary, it’s fine work.
I’ve stayed here now. In the future, I’d like to find a piece of land and build because we’re currently renting. As long as I can work outside of the city, I’m happy.
DS: It’s interesting to me that you call drawing delicate work whilst working in stone is heavy and hard: Is there something there that you’re looking to explore?
PC: No. I like both simply for the sake of balancing. At the end of the day, my work on stone is delicate. Engraving on stone is like drawing on it. There’s a whole process to it, but it isn’t as violent as compared with other sculptors. I do think it is subtle work.
DS: How do you think about your work on stone versus what you do on paper, a very different material?
PC: I don’t really compare them. I see them as the same. I like both. Stone was really a discovery. In college, for example, I didn’t take the stone work course because it didn’t really speak to me at the time. It wasn’t until later, because of the subject, the material, that I started to know it well. I wasn’t initially interested in getting a shape out of a block. I like to comment on the material itself rather than impose an idea upon it. Seeing in that way, whether it be wood; paper, stone, or metal, it’s all the same to me.
DS: Do you plan the drawings in advance before you begin engraving?
PC: Kind of. I analyze every piece before I start; I make certain traces and I decide whether to follow through on some and leave others. Sometimes I’ll go deeper on one line and let another be more superficial. I like to play with the options the drill allows for. Every drill bit allows for different kinds of traces… I use this one on marble; it’s finer and superficial. This one allows me to go deeper in the stone…
DS: Do you consider these drawings?
PC: Yes, to me these are drawings but also, technically, they’re engravings.
DS: How do you choose the places from where to get your material? Do they have any meaning to you?
PC: When I began working with rock from the Mitras hill, yes, because the abandoned quarries caught my attention. By the time I was working with marble and mine stone, I started buying directly from providers.
Black marble is a material that has a lot of history in Monterrey; it’s called Black Monterrey. It’s very representative of the city. It’s actually a very beautiful material which is why it’s expensive; very exclusive and I was interested in it for that reason. Using stones from Mitras also makes a lot of sense in Monterrey because of Cemex, among other cement plants. It’s the raw material for a lot of construction. Using the rock from these mountains and using them in their natural shape, respecting their fracture, is in a way a manner of thanking the mountains; the stone, nature in general.
Of course there is exploitation of this material, but at the end of the day it’s a building material, like my studio, my home; the general infrastructure of the whole city.