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Q&A with Award Winner Maria Valle-Riestra

Poise, ink, by Maria Valle-Riestra
Poise, ink, by Maria Valle-Riestra

Working with a minimum of brush strokes and a limited palette, artist Maria Valle-Riestra translates a mood and a personality onto paper for Poise, the ink painting in the image to the left. Juror Gretchen Schermerhorn recognized Poise with a second-place award in “Small Works,” open through December 2.

In our Q&A, below, we asked her more about water media, her background in dance and science, and her upcoming exhibit down the street.

Why ink and watercolor?
Maria Valle-Riestra: Water is a huge component of the earth and of life. Ink and watercolor are water media. This relation is charged with symbolism, important to me, but does not explain why I favor ink and watercolor as my main media. There are other reasons. One of these is that in my paintings I try to achieve a sense of motion on the paper; for this I find the liquid nature of ink and watercolor very appropriate, and enjoy allowing the pigment rich liquid media do on paper what its nature commands: move, blossom, precipitate pigments, drips, etc. Oceans in motion are a main theme in my paintings and watercolor seems the natural media to use.

What do you think makes a good figure painting?
For me a good figure painting is one that draws me into it by making me imagine a physical, emotional or psychological state of the person portrayed. In my case most of the figure drawings/paintings are created from models in art open studio sessions. The initiation for any of these pieces occurs at the moment I enter the studio and meet the model of the day. The personality, body language, mood and spirit he/she projects will set the direction of my work. The pieces are a result of an inner impulse and do not depend on much premeditation or preparatory sketches. Throughout the drawing session I try to stay connected to this directing “mood” and express it with my brush and pen. I like my drawings to be somewhat anatomically proportioned, however I avoid drawing them with too much knowledge of anatomy in mind.

What’s your greatest challenge as an artist?
To develop a distinct style of my own without falling into repetition. To work consistently creating new pieces that excite me and motivate me to continue working. To not lose the awe and wonder of seeing the world beyond the obvious.

What was your first experience with art as a child?
My parents exposed to me to many forms of art at a very early age. I would accompany my mother to museums and concerts as a child and enjoy myself immensely even at a young age. The artistic world was enticing and mysterious to me. My dad was not an artist, however he would draw the most beautiful horses, birds and more and I would love to see how he built the images as if by magic. There was no better gift than coloring books and the big size Crayola box (something not easy to get at home in Lima, Perú in the early 70s) and no better plan at home than coloring in these books. However outside of the home I developed a huge passion and dedication to dance and convinced my parents to take me to dance classes every afternoon after school. I have uninterruptedly been a dancer since 8 years old.

How has your background in dance and biology influenced you?
When dancing you are constantly constructing designs and patterns in space through movement; spirals, long and short lines, circles; all of which can be executed with different qualities of time, strength, rhythm, etc. These perfectly translate into drawing and painting. The momentum of a pen line performed securely in non stop manner across a big sheet of paper is very different from small weak squiggles, a forceful brush stroke or a light and suspended one have different qualities on paper as they do in a dance. The choice of one or another depends on what I want at the moment of execution. Dance also creates scenes, atmospheres, little stories on stage and this “theatricality” I try to carry into my paintings too. Regarding my past in the biology field I have to say that I had wondrous visual experiences while looking through microscopes. Images of amazing beauty hidden from the regular eye there to discover. As a scientist you learn to interpret the images you are seeing, there are many layers of focus and bringing out what is important for clarity and meaning is fascinating. When looking at my subject matter for my paintings, I try to focus on something in particular that conveys some kind of meaning. Also I like to have particular places on the page with multiple layers and life of their own.

Maria's Evolution Walk in watercolor from the May 2012 "Bedtime Stories" exhibit.
Maria’s Evolution Walk in watercolor from the May 2012 “Bedtime Stories” exhibit.

Are there any artists in particular who have influenced you?
Many artists have influenced me. For figure paintings: Egon Schiele (my favorite), Lucien Freud, Oswaldo Guayasamin (for his expressive hands), Frida Kahlo (for her personal storytelling), Marlene Dumas. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse’s contour figure drawings. Land and Seascapes: Katsushika Hokusai, Milton Avery, Georgia O’Keefe, Lawrence Goldsmith among others. I also want to mention Jackie Saunders and Steve Fleming, both artists who were very important teachers in my development as a visual artist.

What are you working on now?
Right now I am very busy preparing for an upcoming solo exhibit titled HOMBRES that will be on display at Artspace 109 (109 North Fairfax Street, 3rd Floor, in Alexandria) from December 5, 2013 to January 5, 2014. The opening reception is December 12 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm and everybody is welcome. Twenty-five watercolor paintings focused on the male nude figure will be on display.

On the creative side, I religiously work every Monday in the Open Life figure drawing sessions at The Art League. This keeps up my practice and discipline of drawing from live models. Apart from this I have ongoing projects for other paintings that I work in my improvised studio at home. I have what I call a thematic series of paintings which I go back and forth, among which the strongest is the ocean.

Surf, waves and the zone of clash between land and water are among my main themes. Trying to capture and translate the essence of the power of oceans or rivers on a piece of paper is challenging and a work in progress. Trees encompass another series, these I approach more in the way I do figures, as characters of their own, but with more liberty of distorting and telling multiple stories in each branch. Finally I have a series of more autobiographical paintings “My stories” were I represent myself in action as main character. These self paintings I paint less often because it drives me a bit crazy to focus so much on my own internal psychology.

In all my works I look for places of tension and places of release, two opposite emotional and physical states that are of interest to me.

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