In your own bosom you bear your heaven and earth,
And all you behold, though it appears without,
It is within, in your imagination,
Of which this world of mortality is but a shadow.”
So wrote the English visionary artist and poet William Blake of his conception that the imagination, far from being a source of fancies to be dismissed, was a means of perception of forces and realms that underpin the world apprehended by our faculty of reason and the perceptions of our various sensory organs. Via a sharpened use of his imagination, Blake claimed to be able to see powerful entities — angels, prophets and other potent beings — which he depicted in his unique art.
A similar process functions in the work of Tacoma artist Gustavo Martinez, who is currently doing a month-long, mini artist’s residence in the gallery space of the Tacoma Hilltop’s Feast Arts Center (1402 S. 11th St.). Martinez, a ceramics instructor at Green River Community College (which is known for its excellent arts program), has transformed the gallery into a workshop where he will be creating some of his series of “guardians,” large creatures made of clay. Through June 10, visitors are free to swing by the gallery and watch Martinez work and view his unforgettable creations.
Raised in California, Martinez received a bachelor of fine arts degree in spatial art, with a minor in Mexican American studies, at San Jose State University. In 2007, Martinez undertook a cosmic journey, backpacking through Southern Mexico and into Central America. He explored sacred archeological sites and visited villages where clans of indigenous potters have practiced their craft from generation after generation from a time vanishing into the mists of prehistory. At Escuela Valentine Lopez in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua, Martinez studied the ancient craft techniques.
It was also on that journey that Martinez experienced a profound realization of the sacredness and the life-giving power of water, one of the most precious and most abused gifts bestowed to us by this nurturing planet that is the source of all that we know.
Martinez went on to earn his master of fine art degree from University of Washington, Seattle. Following that there was more travel in the service of art. In rural Guatemala, Martinez worked to make ceramic water filters that local people can use as an easy and economical means to clean water for daily use. In the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania — under the aegis of La Paz International Foundation — Martinez helped build a ceramic kiln in a women’s potter village in order to foster economic independence among the rural people.
Martinez was on the AV Staff and was a student at Pilchuck Glass School. In the field of ceramics, Martinez has won awards for his teaching and his work is exhibited throughout the region. He has been part of the Green River faculty since 2012 and he also does stints at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp in Alaska.
The show at the Feast Arts Center is called “Conversations with Guardians,” a reference to the guardian figures that Martinez makes from wheel-thrown forms made of clay. (He is currently using an iron-rich, red clay called “Oregon Red.”) The figures are both anthropomorphic and animalistic. They have big mouths full of sharp teeth. They have claws, wings, dense bodies, thick skins and firm feet. Some are bird-like, some are more reptilian and others resemble animals like wolves or bears.
In conversing with Martinez, one questions whether these guardians are created by him or whether they manifest themselves to him and use his artistic and visionary powers in order to conduct themselves into existence; in a process of imaginary perception, akin to that of Blake, mentioned above.
In earlier series of works featuring strong animals and vehicles like trains (his series of trains is amazing), Martinez was conceptualizing things that have strength. The guardians began to emerge as the artist began to notice such entities in homes or temples — like the Chinese-style dogs or lions that are often seen at the entrances of homes. “I thought,” said Martinez, “of how some objects have the power to change the vibe in a space.”
Guardian figures are a visual reminder that one is entering a protected place and can put oneself at ease. “You get a feeling of being protected,” said Martinez, “once you cross the threshold. I make the guardians so that I don’t have to keep my guard up and I can open my heart.”
Two of the guardians, “Guardian de la Mente” (“Guardian of the Mind”) and “Vigilant,” thus stand sentry at the entrance of the gallery/workspace. With the space so guarded, Martinez is mentally free to open his being to the free flow of creative ideas so that he can work in a clear state of mind. The space is filled with soothing music and there are a couple of medicine songs or prayers written down on large canvases. The work space is thus transformed into a sacred space.
The idea that we are guarded by forces internal and/or external has widespread currency across many cultures. Martinez mentions the idea of our having guardian angels looking after us as an example. He also mentions benevolent beings like the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl as examples of concretions of protective energy.
Martinez views his work as a process of healing. Creation is vitality. Vitality is life. In being an artist, Martinez vitalizes himself through the act of creating. One task of the artist is to also serve as a conduit of creative vitality to others. “The more personal I get in my work,” says Martinez, “the more universal it becomes.” What is healing and vitalizing to the artist is also healing and vitalizing to others. Martinez radiates that vitality and openness in his interactions with others as well as with the animals and plants with whom we share this world.
Do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the Feast Arts Center and check out the artist in the process of creating his own show. Witness for yourself how the guardians come into being. Martinez will be in the gallery space on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is best to check in with the gallery to make sure that the doors are open. Call (360) 531-0064 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. On June 10, there will be a closing reception and gallery talk that will sum up the month-long residency project. For more on Martinez, visit gustavoarte.com. For more on Feast Arts Center, visit www.fesatarts.com or www.facebook.com/feastarts.