Solitude, in Service of Others ; at a Retreat in Mexico, Artists Are Asked to Work with the Local Community

By Burnett, Victoria | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Solitude, in Service of Others ; at a Retreat in Mexico, Artists Are Asked to Work with the Local Community


Burnett, Victoria, International New York Times


The Casa Wabi Foundation, a retreat in Mexico, asks artists in residence to work with the local community.

In a dusty patio shaded by a corrugated iron roof, the Mexican artist Galia Eibenschutz stood in a circle of giggling 8- and 9- year-olds who swayed on their heels with their eyes closed. "Imagine roots growing from the soles of your feet," she said. "Now, a branch shoots from your head."

Ms. Eibenschutz, 44, whose work focuses on the relationship between movement and drawing, then gave out crayons and big sheets of paper, and the children drew the trees they had envisioned: parota, soursop, almond and mango.

Then Ms. Eibenschutz drove 10 minutes to the Casa Wabi Foundation, a magnificently spare artists' residence designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando that sits on this wild stretch of the Oaxacan coast, about 20 miles northwest of Puerto Escondido. She spent the afternoon sketching nopal and chaca trees outside her room. "I felt that those kids really needed to draw," she said. "But then, they have so, so many needs."

Casa Wabi, founded in October by Bosco Sodi, a New York-based Mexican artist, is part retreat, part community arts program -- an effort, Mr. Sodi said, to give something back to the country where he grew up. In return for the chance to work without distractions and within earshot of the pounding Pacific -- there is no cellphone signal and the house is a half-mile down a dirt road -- Mr. Sodi and Patricia Martin, Casa Wabi's director, ask residents to organize art projects with local villages.

For children "who have had no contact with the arts, it can be life-changing to see another way of understanding the world," Mr. Sodi said.

In his work, Mr. Sodi uses mixtures of sawdust, pigment, natural fibers and glue to create huge canvases that look like brightly hued baked earth. One of his works sold at Sotheby's last year for more than $100,000. But he lost months of work in 2012 when his studio in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., was flooded by Hurricane Sandy.

His ambition, it seems, is as outsized as his canvases. Mr. Sodi bought the foundation's 66-acre plot in 2006, he said, and courted Mr. Ando by fax for a couple of years before they were introduced. Mr. Sodi paid for the construction, borrowing money, he said, "from my mother, my friends, my gallery." He acknowledged that building an ultramodern arts center in one of Mexico's poorest regions was a gamble.

"There are a lot of people who thought I was crazy," he said. "But to change things in this world you have to be crazy."

He also bemoaned what he called a "lack of social commitment" among successful artists.

"Everyone gives a painting now and then to charity -- that's a simple thing to do," he said. "The difficult thing to do is to create a project that makes the world better -- in my case, Mexico."

The foundation, named for the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi, which embraces impermanence and imperfection, is a minimalist complex of concrete and soaring thatch that stretches along a 360-yard wall. The wall connects the artists' quarters, the living room, an 8,000- square-foot gallery graced with a mural by the French artist Daniel Buren, and Mr. Sodi's studio. There is an observatory, a concrete ellipse with a wooden bench for gazing at the sky.

The house -- whose few adornments include a pair of antlers by the sculptor Michael Joo and a piece of crimson-glazed volcanic rock by Mr. Sodi -- is a powerful lure that has drawn writers, sculptors and musicians for residencies lasting from 15 days to three months. The residencies, by invitation only, are booked through next spring.

By day, the artists spread out around the house to work or to discuss their activities with Genaro Guevara Cortina, an anthropologist employed full time by the foundation. They gather for meals at a 30-foot table made from a single piece of wood.

While Ms. Eibenschutz taught her workshop, Tony Orrico, 34, a performance artist and former dancer from Chicago, and Alex de la Pena, a video artist, shot "Suspension Field," a short video in which Mr. …

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