BY SAM DESTEFANO
It’s been said that the art of Paula Gasparini-Santos takes hard emotions and transforms them into peace. It is personal, and human, which speaks volumes at this place in time. We had the opportunity to learn more about her history and process.
Being a self-taught artist, can you tell us about how this journey began and what your inspirations were from the beginning?
As a kid I was lucky to be surrounded by really talented artists in my family. My great aunt was a sculptor and would let me play with charcoal in her studio, my grandfather was a drawer, and I would sit and watch him create masterpieces using BIC pens and colored pencils. My mom was always making jewelry or painting or making hand made craft gifts for people. I have always sought creativity and luckily it was a trait that was encouraged in the entirety of my family lineage. I always scribbled, drew tattoos on my body, journaled and wrote stories. But I only really began exploring art formally or consciously conceptualizing art when I was in college studying psychology. I discovered Art Therapy as a field and began to explore art as a way to get to know myself better, and really that’s how my painting began. Previously I used to only make sculptures with ceramics or mixed media, but when I began using the color palette that painting had to offer and became curious about the hidden emotional world of art, I never stopped painting and never turned back from painting as a medium. I would say that although I never took painting as a formal academic course, once I was intrigued by the tie between art and mental health, I began to independently study the works of Basquiat, Picasso, Francesco Clemente, Frida. I was drawn to raw artist, and their art that told a story or moved something in me—so I didn’t pay too much attention to technique but rather the process of emotionally showing up on a canvas.
Similarly to the first answer, I think my art journey is entirely the same as my art therapy journey—because art and mental health doesn’t exist as separate for me. I love expression, and I find that the cathartic, the chaotic discharge, the sublimation, the process of uncovering an image, is all so involved with the process of self-discovery and personal development. I would say that there isn’t a single painting I have painted that isn’t packed with what is personal, meaningful, painful, or emotional inside of me. My canvas is the container for everything, so as I change it changes. My figures are sometimes bathed in tears, when my life is filled with grief, sometimes flowers surround the background when I feel rejuvenated, figures embrace when I’m in love, they fall apart when I feel hurt. They change as I do, and I find them all beautiful and so in a way—art therapy taught me how to love every process of humanity I endure.
You’ve said that your “colors pair with one another to resemble the colorful lyrical heritage” of your home country of Brazil. Can you tell us more about how Brazil has influenced your art?
Brazilian culture to me is vibrancy, aliveness, rawness, being exposed, loud, yet intuitive, and gentle. My culture influences my art greatly, as my culture taught me not to fear being bold. As a Brazilian woman I was taught that to have fire in me, to speak my mind, to share my voice is a beautiful thing—and my art never shies away from used loud colors, being busy to the eye, being covered in words no matter how hard it is to say some of the things I share through my poetry. Being Brazilian is something I’m proud of being, and I often reflect on what it means to be Latina. To me, I love the romanticism that runs through my blood, I love the warmth my country taught me that keeps me close to everyone I meet, I love the laughter out of place I see in my home, where no matter your external circumstances, there is always some reason to smile. Being Latina makes me feel strong and in that strength I am not afraid to share who I am with the world. My art acts similarly: it strengthens me and shares itself with others.
I mentioned in answer to the first question, my curiosity for art led to the curiosity towards the marriage between art and psychology. From that passion I closely studied the works of what some called “mentally disturbed artists,” from there I learned about Basquiat, Goya, Picasso. Observing their art frequently I began to experiment with similar strokes and found that the most freeing of them all was a blend of abstract, figurative work, graffiti, expressionism. I’m not academically trained as an artist, I don’t bare many artistic talents as related to technique, but I am full of creativity, I see colors well, and primitive more infantile figures lend themselves well to my bold palette and give me just what I need to feel my expressions externalized.
You have been noted as saying you enjoy working with acrylics due to the pace it sets because it is fast drying. For all of us wanna-be art nerds, in general, what is your process and how did you arrive at it?
Oooh, I love this question because the process is my favorite thing about my art, I am actually often detached to the final images themselves but when I’m creating, I am so in love. I usually start by just going to my wall of colors and seeing which colors I’m drawn to in the moment. I usually pick out 5, very spontaneously but also intuitively listening to what’s calling to me. I put a canvas in front of me, often larger feels best for me, and I kinda just go for it. I blast music sometimes, sometimes I do it in dead silence, I just move the brush around, sometimes use my hand, sometimes the paint can itself or a knife or another canvas. I play mostly, it feels like a dance between the materials and myself. I do this creating layers, a few background layers until I feel satisfied with the palette on the canvas, and then I usually sit back, sit with the piece and see if figures emerge, almost like looking at clouds in the sky and making out things, almost like sitting in psychoanalysis and just letting the subconscious emerge. What I see I pull out with sharper lines. Sometimes I love it right away, I usually don’t love a specific aesthetic, I usually love the piece if it resonates with my current inner world. The question is always when to end the layers, and the only thing I’ve been able to deduce is that I usually stop when externally what is shown is congruent with internally what is felt. I leave that image as the final painting.
As a part of your process you “create images without regret or restraint” and you continually “paint over them.” While, you “value your paintings” you say you “let go of the permanence of images and instead recognize that it is the process of expression that remains with you.” This is a very modern idea and reminds us of artists like Jackson Pollock. How does this concept work for you and why is it such an important part of your process?
As I described my process above, in my eyes the process is the art. Art in the broadest sense is a form of communication, an activity that is done by someone with a communicative purpose—to me my process (the art) communicates to me the things I still don’t know or see in myself. When I think of art, I think of the communication between me and my creation—how I listen to it, what it says to me, how it shapes me as I create it, how dichotomously I want to control the image and yet allow the image to be in charge. It’s interesting that I wouldn’t call this a modern idea behind art, I would say it’s instinctual, more primitive in that it’s almost ceremonial, the process is an unfolding—it’s not rigid, modern or conceptualized and manipulated.
Your art has a really powerful way of asking the viewer questions both literally and figuratively. How do you see the importance of this relationship?
I would say the best I can do to easily sum up my role and my goal in my art is that I am invested in learning about the human experience through my own deep self-reflection. I am committed to sharing what I learn with others through the form of questioning because after all my art asks of me to remain curious and that is how I have learned. This learning is why I value art—so as an artist I place a lot of value in hoping that my viewers engage in a curiosity within themselves and that this initiates an entire unfolding within them.
I would love to imagine that my art can repair society. And maybe that isn’t a far-fetched idea if framed from the perspective that I hold as a therapist that all change begins from within. So if my art is even just healing me and helping me align with wholeness within myself, then in part I am showing up better for others and that in itself can have a ripple effect. In my career as a trauma therapist, I primarily sit with the stories of pain in the world, and I do see that it is through openness and questioning that we are able to liberate ourselves from old narratives that no longer serve us, from limiting beliefs within ourselves, from coping mechanisms that now hinder us. As I reflect I see the whole process of my art making as similar to that journey I help my clients walk, where we begin with the intention of showing up fully, of becoming aware of what is within us, to pausing and reflecting, and to knowing we get to decide what shows up on the final canvas.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m working on a self-help book with a working title of “Let Go, Create You.” I am and always will be making art, some will be in the walls of BMOCA for the show opening Feb 11th “From This Day Forward.” In March I complete a project I committed to at the start of quarantine which was to write one poem every day for a year, and I may do something with that, or maybe those poems will end up on canvas. And I’ll continuously be committed to supporting my community through mental health, podcasts, writings, and conversations.
Thank you for sharing your work with us, Paula. To view her entire collection, visit http://paulagasparini-santos.com