The Austin Chronicle

Believing in Beauty

The Heart in the Art of Connie Arismendi

By Mary Jane Garza, December 10, 1999, Arts

Artist Connie Arismendi remembers as a little girl watching her mother sew all the time. Yards and yards of beautiful cotton and shiny satin material were turned into exquisite dresses for Connie to wear -- dresses for school, gowns for special occasions -- and the Arismendi house was filled with the curtains and bedspreads and furniture coverings that her mother designed and made. "My mother would completely decorate our house with all the lovely things she created," explains Arismendi as we chat one Friday morning at her South Austin studio. Those creations left an indelible impression on the young artist-to-be and later became a source for her work. Often tagging along with her mother when she went to the fabric store, the young Arismendi would become mesmerized by the shimmering fabrics all neatly rolled up in bolts and would just stand there, looking at them all. "These sheers and the velvets that I use are from my mother," Arismendi says as she touches the draped chiffon that's part of a work-in-progress dedicated to her mother. "It's totally my mother's influence; she made our home beautiful. Here is her beauty -- that was her gift to me. And she could be very fierce. She was a very strong woman, so I would never enter into any kind of competition with her. I would sew a little bit, but I never really wanted to do it all. How could I compete?"

These days, Arismendi works with fabric not as a way finally to compete with her mother but to pay tribute to her. For several years now, fabric has been a key element in her mixed media installations, pieces inspired by her mother and Mexican home altars. Arismendi draws on the material -- figuratively and literally -- and uses the sense of sacred space in traditional altars as a springboard to convey her spirituality, her emotions, and her experiences as a woman. Her works become visualizations of her prayers: her hopes and dreams, as well as those of people close to her and situations around her. In "Ascent of Memory," her current exhibition and the final show for Galeria Sin Fronteras, several of her smaller mixed media pieces reveal this aspect of her art. The title piece, with its delicate pencil drawing on sheer fabric of two lovers -- an image taken from old Mexican postcards -- is Arismendi's homage to her parents and the wedding pictures of them she never had. It's also a way of uniting them; her mother has passed away and her father still misses her very much.

Arismendi has been drawing on fabric for the last six years and has become increasingly more comfortable with the technique. Carefully stretching the material over a wall, the artist places an India ink drawing of the image she wants to use underneath the material as a guide. The tricky part of using sheer fabrics to sketch on is that nothing can be erased. These drawings are testament to Arismendi's excellent and beautiful draftsmanship. In "Ascent of Memory," she also has several small sketches and prints done on papyrus. The finely woven translucent paper also has a look of fabric and that was part of Arismendi's attraction to it.

The drawings -- of organ parts or bodies, superimposed with other figures, faces, or objects -- began to remind her of milagros, the small metal organ and body part charms used in extensively in Mexico and Central America, in response to prayers answered. A large heart with a bent male figure inside of it, titled Captive, tells of the pain of unexpressed love. In the gallery statement, Arismendi states how "these delicate images ... are remarkably tender and reference Biblical images without being illustrative. Instead, the images of struggle become universal." Arismendi makes good use of layering, not only draping fabrics over objects, but painting over patterned fabric to add or delete images. The fascinating coloring of her large painting La Sirena, done on patterned fabric, submerges the mermaid in a deep cool sea, revealing only her sensuous bright red tail.

Arismendi's work, subtle yet powerful, also makes use of everyday objects that are turned into clever metaphors, as in Tu y Yo, in which a sugar and creamer set are placed on a small altar draped with sheer fabric to symbolize unity and pairing as in a marriage. Recently, Arismendi had been collecting objects that go together in pairs. She collects a lot of things, using them both as resources and playing with them to see what response they bring to her.

Finding a response is fundamental to the artist's approach; all of Arismendi's work is intuitive. She doesn't begin with a conceptual construct, but rather with an object or material and her attraction to it. Delving deep into her psyche, she goes on a quest to find the reason for the attraction. "My work is not anthropological. It's not sociological," Arismendi explains. "That's not who I am. It doesn't come from the outside; it comes from the inside. Like, "Okay, I have this idea and I'm going to make the work to fit that idea' -- that's not how I begin. I begin in my sketchbook, and there are certain things that I find I'm attracted to, like this candle of a young woman. I saw it at Tesoros, and it was for an altar or maybe a quincequiera. I bought it and I want to do something with this. But what is it? I look at the usefulness of the image and her pose -- virgin-like." Making a mold to cast a browner version of the candle, Arismendi places the waxen image on a tiny altar over a large circular design painted directly on the wall, as if the monita is watching over her universe.

Arismendi doesn't want her artworks to be visual narratives; instead, she seeks an emotional response from viewers, a subliminal connection to objects that they too may have in the recesses of their memories. For example, the lead-colored teardrop shapes that she made hundreds of -- Arismendi knew that she wanted to make a six-foot circle of the drops but didn't quite know what the piece was about when she started making them. Well, they are tears, but not just any tears. To her, they became the tears from Spirit that let her mother live just a few more hours until Arismendi could drive down to Corpus Christi and say goodbye. The piece, Mas Tiempo Por Favor, turned into an homage to her mother. "It's my ofrenda," says the artist. "A way to say "thanks.' When people see it, they really respond to it: "Oh, it's so beautiful, it gives me this feeling.' So that is the connection I'm talking about: why I am attracted to it. Then I learn about myself. That's what keeps me coming back to the studio. I trust my intuition. I fought it for so many years because I thought that's not the way, [that's not] how you learned how to make art. I have confidence that I am going to be able to express something. If it's not successful, then you start dealing with formal issues -- all the technical part of making art."

Arismendi's father, who is Filipino, and her mother, who is Mexican, lived all over the United States before settling in Corpus Christi. Wanting very much to assimilate, like many others of their generation, her parents discouraged Connie from speaking Spanish and being too close to the two cultures. But the young Arismendi felt disconnected from the other Latino kids she knew in public school. Finally, during college, Arismendi discovered retablos and milagros, and decided to take back the cultures that had been denied her. The devotional paintings and charms were an instant inspiration, since she had always wanted to work with small objects and images used for private devotion.

A pivotal point in Arismendi's career as an artist came in 1980, when she saw an exhibit of work by Chicana artist Carmen Lomas Garza in San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. In the museum room filled with Garza's paintings of visual narratives of her childhood in South Texas, Arismendi for the first time saw art in a museum that reflected her culture, that she could relate to in an immediate and intimate manner. It had a profound impact on her.

But even more important for Arismendi than the paintings was a small altar that Garza had constructed to Don Pedrito Jaramillo, a famous curandero who lived in Falfurrias, Texas, at the turn of the century. It was the kind of shrine and image of rituals that her mother didn't talk about but that she knew was there somewhere, part of the culture. "When I look in the mirror, I'm not white, and I needed that information to help me find who I was. Through my work, I discovered who I am," says Arismendi. "And that changes because we grow as individuals. I am a woman, I'm a Latina, a Filipino, a wife, a friend, a daughter. I love, I have hopes, I have dreams. I am not one thing; I'm not just a Chicana, I am a woman artist. What I want people to see is that I've lived and I've loved. This is my life, and I share it and I have the same experiences as you or anyone else and feel that we're connected."

Right after the opening of the Galeria exhibit, Arismendi was off to Corpus Christi to do a Dia de los Muertos installation at the Art Museum of South Texas. She had shown in Corpus Christi before and was very pleased about the prospect of showing there again. The first time she exhibited at the museum, her parents went to see it. Her mother was able to see what a big influence she had been in her daughter's life and the results of the encouragement she gave her when Connie started showing a talent for drawing at age eight. When Arismendi spoke at DelMar College in Corpus Christi, the event was publicized in the news and her father went to hear her speak. His action was touching for Connie because she knew that he had never wanted her to be an artist. However, when he saw that her work had value for other people, he too understood that it had value and began to look at it differently.

For the current piece, Arismendi had created dozens of the wax monitas and was filling a huge circle in the wall with them that was also going to be dispersed with about 300 or 400 of the leaden drops. On the floor underneath the circle was a large glass bowl, in which the artist was going to place plants -- many of her pieces use plants, to show not only the cycle of life but the frailty of it -- with a ribbon inscribed with a prayer she wrote draped somehow over them. The piece was for jovencitas -- very young women -- all of it inspired by a young woman she is very close to who expressed suicidal thoughts during a bout with depression.

Writing seems a natural outgrowth of Arismendi's work, and snippets of it are appearing more and more frequently in her pieces. I asked her about the prayer for that was going to be inscribed on the ribbon. It's a prayer of hope, she replied smiling: "Believe in love. Believe in mercy. Believe in beauty and you will find the grace of God." "I think an artist is like a funnel," Arismendi says. "Through that funnel go all of these experiences and you have all these materials that you have access to and you have technique. And then it comes out through here, through the heart." Believe. Always. end story

"Ascent of Memory" is on display through Friday, Dec. 24, at Galeria Sin Fronteras, 1701 Guadalupe. Call 478-9448 .

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