Interpretations of Dreams
Alba Páramo is a visual artist from Guadalajara, Mexico. Since moving to New York in 2010, she has completed certification with the Art Students League of New York and more recently she has been studying at the Tibetan Art Studio under the direction of director and founder Tibetan master Pema Rinzin.
Páramo’s paintings are bold and striking, and her prints are intricate and meditative. Her works are imaginative and rich with symbols, though often mysterious and resistant to any singular reading. Páramo has described her artworks as, “interpretations of dreams about love, nature and the sacred connections between animals and human beings.” Her mesmerizing prints like Saigas and When the Boa Brought Me Pearls elevate the beauty of natural life and invite limitless curiosity.
I spoke Ms. Páramo about her origins as an artist and the multitude of influences that have cultivated her as an artist.
I’d like to start by saying I truly enjoyed looking through you work. Your prints have amazing texture and depth, and, like your paintings, they feature striking contour lines. Has your background as a painter formed your printmaking style or technique?
I began studying painting in Mexico. I was a ballet dancer until the age of twenty, but always painted on the side. Then I decided to become a full time painter and I began studying painting in Mexico with several talented artists including Daniel Kent, an incredible painter. He told me that he thought my line was strong and that I would be a good printmaker. Daniel also told me that you either have to be a really good painter or a really good printmaker, because they both require a lot of time. Especially printmaking, because you cannot make a mistake. You really need to learn to master the technique. So if my printmaking is influenced by my painting, I would say mostly in the composition, not in the technique.
I have always been a very clean and neat painter, I’m not messy with my work or even with myself - not like the typical image you may have as a painter all covered in paint. Actually, I had a printmaking professor in Mexico who would tell us eighty percent of your grade in this class is going to be your presentation, because a printermaker needs to be super neat and clean, so come dressed in your best clothes and you shouldn’t have a single spot on you after class. So I learned like that. At the beginning I used to hate it, but I followed his rules, then when I came to New York I was really neat as a painter, and that helped me in printmaking as well. I would say that studying Tibetan art has influenced my printmaking far more than painting has.
What attracts you to Tibetan art, and what inspiration do you take from it?
When I began looking at Tibetan art, I felt deep and important connection that I was looking for in my line, because my art tends to be flat. Some figures can have volume, but I think it’s mostly flat. I was struggling at the beginning with my painting being flat because at the Art Students League, they teach you the traditional European painting techniques - painting still lifes, working with a live model, perspective, volume, etcetera. Then when I began studying Tibetan art it opened me up to another type of drawing and process that I feel more connected to. I think it’s thanks to Tibetan art that my printmaking has flourished. You can really see the change in my line and in the composition from my earlier prints. Tibetan art is a strict discipline, the classes are eight hours long so it’s like a whole meditation. That’s what really made my printmaking go forward and flourish.
Many of your works depict connections between humans and nature, some of them remind me of myths or parables. Do you borrow symbolism or elements of composition from Tibetan art?
The objects, animals, or even composition in my art don’t necessarily borrow meaning from Tibetan art. Though some mudra, gestures of the hand, do carry a symbolic meaning. For example in Saigas, there is the saiga looking at himself in the mirror and there’s a hand coming out from the plant behind him. It’s a mudra that means protection. Here it means protection to an endangered species that’s about to vanish. But then in another case from the same piece, the cat with golden orbs does not necessarily mean anything to someone who’s familiar with Tibetan art symbolism but it is significant to me. I prefer for the audience of my paintings to make their own interpretations. Maybe I will ruin your whole interpretation of this print, but for me the gold and jewelry as well as the mudra represent the sacred connection between humans beings and animals in nature, which unfortunately has been lost - and especially in these times where we’re facing the sixth mass extinction of species. I represent one of the most endangered species in this print, and then use a mudra that means protection to suggest humans can protect them if we want to. Some people might say animals are a second priority to them, but I want to elevate the status of animals to the same as people. By adding jewelry in the composition I also intend to show the preciousness of animals in this life and that humans don’t necessarily have to stop living a city life, driving a car, or buying a nice piece of clothing by representing a luxury object, in this case a jewel.
Can you tell me about your relationship with pre-Columbian art?
I lived in Mexico until I was twenty years old, and my mom taught me since I was a little girl to be proud of my country and proud of my culture because it’s so rich. From a young age she had me read all these books about the Mayans, Aztecs, and all the other pre-Columbian cultures.
I have always had a fascination with the symbol of the snake. You can tell from looking at my work; it’s covered in snakes! When I started studying Tibetan art I noticed how the snake was a recurring theme, and learned it has similar connotations in pre-Columbian art. One of the most important ancient Mesoamerican gods was Quetzalcoatl, a snake with feathers. In one of the tales in pre-Columbian mythology it is said he was born from a virgin that swallowed an emerald. For the Mayans the visions of a giant serpent served as a gateway to the spirit realm. Of course, in Mexico and the rest of the world most people are afraid of snakes. But growing up visiting the ranch of my family in Colima, deep into the country, when we would see a water snake or a rattlesnake it meant the crops were healthy, that the land was healthy, that it was raining as it should rain. And it’s kind of the same in Tibet.
I began digging into what the snake meant in Tibetan art and culture, and it’s also a symbol of fertility, rebirth and protection as well as an important god called Naga who was a of mythical semidivine representation, half human and half cobra. They are a strong, handsome species who can assume either wholly human or wholly serpentine form and are potentially dangerous but often beneficial to humans.. The snake is also the guardian of the Himalayan mountains, and if the snakes were present then the mountains and rivers were healthy. I believe that those two cultures are parallel in time. Their symbols have strong and coincidental connections. I like that about both cultures.
Your works that feature snakes are among my favorites. In particular two stand out, When the Boa Brought Me Pearls and Fortune Presents Gifts Not as According to the Book. To me, these pieces show both sides of the snake as a friend to humans or as a potential threat. Could you tell me about the meaning of the snakes in these works?
It’s funny, that’s a question I am asked often. The snake is not well received for many people! I actually did Fortune while listening to a song with that title. I wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics, but then I saw the title and it seemed to fit perfectly. It's about a man falling into the abyss, like water, and for me the snake is helping him, but is also looking at him as if to ask: what are you?
In my prints and paintings snakes are always good, I never intend to draw a bad snake. But I like how people have different interpretations of it. As you said, for you Fortune shows the negative side of the snake. In the other one, in Pearls, many people have seen it as the snake sleeping with the girl. The snake is covered in jewelry that she’s brought to the girl, who is sleeping, and the snake is waking her up. The type of jewelry you see in the print is from the 19th century; they would produce a painting of your lovers’ eye and then decorate it with pearls or with gold. If it was your husband or wife, it could be sown into your coat, but if it was an affair or prohibited love you would wear it underneath your coat. So for me, it implies this girl has many loves - some of them are falling to the river and this snake is calming her about it, and she’s bring more pearls to her suggesting the possibility of new love or new life.
Basically, the snake is always good in my work. Some may find it threatening, but at the same time it’s fascinating. When I was working on another print that include snakes, Night Buffalo, my studio mates at the Art Students League debated whether this print was about fertility and sexuality or the sacred connection of womanhood as they are taking care of a the buffalo. It’s funny, most of the men saw this print as very sexual, and most of the women saw it as something more tender and sacred - maybe erotic, but not sexual. There’s a big difference. Some people were seeing this print as symbolism from some great myth. But it has nothing to do with myths, not even a Mexican one, it’s just my own. A Japanese woman saw the white snake that you see in Night Buffalo and informed me that in Japan white snakes are associated with divinity and good fortune.
What can you tell me about your work with Sea Legacy and Space for Giants?
Sea Legacy is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the ocean and its wildlife. Before I wanted to become a dancer, I wanted to be a marine biologist. This has always been a passion for me - the ocean, dolphins and whales. I met Cristina Mittermeier, one of the organization’s founders, at the Paul Nicklen gallery in Soho and then when I was planning my recent solo show I decided to donate some of the proceeds to Sea Legacy. I chose to support Sea Legacy because I know that I’m not giving away money to someone random or a nonprofit that doesn’t manage the money well. And because I believe that one of the principal things we should take care of is the ocean. In any other exhibition that I manage myself I will continue donating to charities. As for Space for Giants, a friend of mine contacted me by chance to find out if I would help recruit artists for the benefit. So I helped him get artists for the show, and then asked me to paint a sculpture to donate. It was an honor to work with them and help bring in more artists and as well to help the African and Asian elephants.
What role would you say artists play in society? Do you see your art as political?
Art is one of the most powerful tools to make people aware. But in my work I try not to make direct political statements - to paint people being deported is not how I would reach people about deportation. Rather, I can help by making donations or representing an endangered species. Recalling Saigas, many people did not even know this kind of antelope existed and that it's disappearing, but many people asked about it when they saw the work. I consider that a positive impact.
Apart from being someone who really builds relationships with other artists, it sounds as if you’re part of a community of international or immigrant artists. Would you say that there’s a community like that that you are part of in New York?
I would say yes. I met people from all over the world since I moved to NYC and I have built bonds with them, and also with my professors. In particular Charles Hinman, Mariano del Rosario, Michael Pellitieri, and Pema Rinzin; they helped me a lot.
So yes, I do think there’s a strong community, but there’s also so many art worlds. There’s a very supportive Tibetan art community, and I only know a small part of it from my class. I know many Latin artists; I was the assistant of a Colombian painter, Ana Velasco, and she opened a big world of Latin art for me that I didn’t really know in Mexico. Right now things that are being exhibited in the art world in Mexico are not the same things that are being exhibited here. For example, a friend I met in school invited me to a show at Christie’s that was all about Latin American art and I saw pieces by Mexican artists, by Latin artists, that I would have never had the opportunity to see in Mexico. Sometimes they are more appreciated here, or in a different way, or collectors that go to Mexico see their work and buy it, then the artist becomes famous, then they’re at auctions at Christie’s…
Besides being of part of a community of artists I feel strong relationships with the people I’ve worked with, I think because we are artists. I don’t think it would be the same to build that relationship on Wall Street with someone, rather than with a ceramicist or a painter that you work with. It’s a very personal work and you open yourself to that person, essentially you are doing a collaboration, or if you are their assistant, they open their studio or their home to you so I do believe it’s very personal.
You have work in a group exhibition that’s opening soon in New York. Is there a
theme for the show?
I believe most of the artists are Latin, but it does not have a specific theme. It’s a group exhibition organized by my friend and painter Rene Maynez, who has a studio at El Barrio. It's a great space. There’s so many artists that live there or have their studio there, and this huge place has its own gallery. I will be showing prints. There's going to be photography and painting, I think it will be a great interesting mix and I am looking forward to it.
Are there any other exhibitions on the horizon for you?
Yes, I was recently invited to have a solo show in Lima. The gallery is called Espacio 22. The show will open February 21, 2019 and it will be printmaking only, Some of the work I presented in my solo show in NYC will travel to Lima, plus new work.
One last question, do you currently have prints available for sale?
Yes, I have works available for purchase through the contact form on my website, at Simple Goods in Williamsburg and on Instagram. Ten percent of all sales will go to support Sea Legacy.
All art courtesy of the Alba Páramo. The top artwork is titled “ Saigas”
Alba Páramo recently had her first solo show at Simple Goods in Williamsburg, which is currently still on display. Her work will be featured in a group exhibition at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 gallery that opens Friday, August 31. She will also exhibit work at The Other Art Fair November 8-11