Meet the Artist: Isabel De Obaldía

Corning Museum of Glass, December 22, 2009

Tina Oldknow:  Hello everyone, good evening and welcome back after everyone’s been gone on tours and all kinds of things. I hope that our seminarians enjoyed the various tours that we offered.  I am very pleased to introduce you to the 2009 Rakow Commission artist who is Isabel De Obaldía from Panama City, Panama.  Isabel has come a long way to be with us tonight, and she has brought her husband, Horacio Icaza, and her son, Pedro Icaza, with her.

Isabel will discuss her painting and her work in glass sculpture as well as the new sculpture, Rey del Cenote, that she made for the Museum's Rakow Commission. 

I nominated Isabel for the Rakow Commission for several reasons.  I have been interested in her glass sculpture since I first met her, in 1996, at Pilchuck, and I have been watching her art evolve in an impressive way since then.  In 2008, her show at Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art in New York City – titled “Unearthed” – completely threw me.  I saw that Isabel had made a major and powerful step forward in her work, in %%scale%%, presence, and meaning.  I was captivated by her interest in the ancient art of indigenous Central and South American cultures, which provided a refreshing counterpoint to the Euro-American emphasis of the Museum’s contemporary collection.  Finally, I wanted to diversify the roster of Rakow Commission artists to include more people doing significant work in glass from parts of the world that are un- or under-represented in the Museum’s collection. 

Isabel’s distinctive sand-cast sculptures draw on ancient and tribal art.  Her large, totemic animals, which she colors with glass powders and engraves with raw cuts and gashes, have a powerful, almost shamanic presence.  In this picture, which was taken last August, Isabel is cutting the crocodile with a large saw.  The title of her Rakow Commission, Rey del Cenote, refers to the crocodile as the king of the cenote, which is a deep, natural well.  In ancient times, sacrifices to the gods often took place at a cenote. 

Isabel was trained as a painter.  Her work reflects that of a long line of modern “primitive” painters, from Paul Gauguin to Diego Rivera, who explored the art of ancient and tribal cultures.  Her paintings and sculptures incorporate symbols and ideas from ancient Panamanian, Colombian, and Costa Rican art.  The thin, stafflike form of her crocodile, for example, alludes to the partly submerged body of the crocodile in water, as well as to the ceremonial batons used by a number of indigenous peoples of Panama.  The weathered-looking surface of the sculpture gives it an air of antiquity.

I love this quote about Isabel’s work, which is by the Latin American art historian Susan Aberth.  This is from the catalogue of Isabel’s exhibition last year at Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art.

Massive and even aggressive, De Obaldía’s sculptures immediately bypass any stereotypical notions of glass as a precious or fragile medium.  Emissaries from the amoral realm of nature, their presence is fierce and confrontational, and yet also poignant and mesmerizingly beautiful.

Isabel was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and she was raised in Panama by French and Panamanian parents.  She studied architecture at the University of Panama and drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before receiving a B.F.A. in graphic design and cinematography from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, in 1979.  Isabel continued her studies in art at the Art Students League in New York City in 1982.  In 1987, she began to work with glass at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, where she studied engraving and glass casting for over a decade.  Isabel has held solo gallery exhibitions regularly since 1977, and she has participated in group exhibitions worldwide.

Please welcome Isabel De Obaldía.

Isabel De Obaldía: Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I started as a painter and I would paint landscapes, my family. The more I painted. . . I was working with oils and I was doing a lot of transparency, and I became very interested in Art Deco glass, Art Nouveau, Daum, Gallé.

So, I went to Pilchuck Glass School for the first time in 1987, and I took a glassblowing course. I realized then that to do glassblowing you need a team, hot shop, and at the time in Panama we had the problem with the dictatorship of [Manuel] Noriega, so I was. . . I completely. . . I didn’t think about glass for a while. I was concentrating on my painting, but then I received a catalog and I saw that Jiří Harcuba was teaching engraving, and since I. . . I knew at that [time] I could do some engraving on glass, so I took a course with him.  And I learned a lot of engraving with wheels, and the different techniques, and I very, I fell in love with the ability of being able to enamel and engrave on glass. But most of these were decorative pieces, they were vessels, and again, it was a difficult time for me to really concentrate on what I wanted to do with glass.  I was more involved with what was going on with my country and. . . most of my painting reflected the violence that was going on, not the decorative pieces that. . . of glass.

So, people did not really understand the little, small objects I was doing that were so precious while I was making these huge aggressive violent paintings. And all the turmoil and everything that was going on was very much desperation, not thinking [about] glass, thinking more of the situation. Then, we got out of Noriega and all that period, and I had a show at the museum in Panama in 1993, where I showed all the things.  Because people knew me as a painter, but they hadn’t really seen. . . my small objects, as I call them. So I had a show where I showed these small precious things that were vessels, engraved. And [consciously] I was using. . .  images from my paintings to decorate on the glass pieces. Some pieces were blown for me and so I was able to engrave on them. I had a lathe. I did acquire a lathe, so I was engraving at home.

And the more I worked with glass. . . I mean, the more I worked on my big paintings and worked on my small glass. . . I became more and more fascinated with glass, but I wanted to go into a sculptural skill. At this. . . I had no training for that, so Pilchuck always sent me the catalogs for summer sessions, and there was a summer session given by Gene Koss, that seemed to me to be a perfect introduction to glass casting, because he taught us how to do very fast. . . in two weeks, it was just a very fast orientation to the different techniques of casting. He had gizmos and we worked with wooden molds, and graphite molds, and plaster molds and sand casting.

So, I did do. . .  my first piece that -- at the moment I did not realize would be important for me -- was sand-cast and it was a metate.  Which, oh wow, I thought, okay, this is something that has a relationship to my painting, has a relationship to my culture, and I can really identify now, I can really work with this idea.  And I really loved the casting process. Casting and the three dimensionality of being able to work with the glass.  And I always draw my ideas before. . . 

So, I had my. . . then, I acquired a kiln and I was able to do, obviously not hot casting at home, but I was doing, I started experimenting with kiln casting.  The technique is  fairly difficult, so I did small pieces, started with small pieces.  Always the small pieces I like to work on them after [with] engraving. And I started a series that I called the warriors, guerreros. Some of them are sand-cast, like in this case, and these are kiln-cast. Very deep engraving.

This is the way I work at home. I start out with a clay mold, a clay prototype that I make. I use sand. . . you do, you make a plaster-silica mold. . . I use sand from our beach house.  And I make the mold. I use . . . my technique is fairly simple, and the annealing process is hard enough, but I use just regular ceramic kilns.  Then the piece comes out, it is one mold. I break down the mold, and this is the finished piece. For the whole process before it, there is a lot of cold working. I do, I like to work with open face molds because I am able to control where I put the color in.  Again, it comes out very messed up, messy. And this is the finished piece [with] very deep engraving. It’s a small and light enough piece that I was able to use my. . . this is another example of deep, a lot of engraving. This is my favorite tool in my cold shop: my engraving lathe. Here I am doing cutting, deeper engraving, again using the metate as reference. 

I saw that. . . I kept on receiving Pilchuck [catalogs], and going back to Pilchuck, and Jiří [Harcuba] had not gone back to Pilchuck in 10 years, and when I saw that he was going to teach a course, I said I am going to go back.  Because I wanted to learn how to dress the stone wheels, and dress the copper wheels, that is really difficult to do, and he is a very generous, wonderful man. He wakes up very early in the morning, I do too. We meet in the cold shop, and then he would teach us, you know, we are going to learn today how to dress the stone wheel, and then the next morning, we are going to learn how to dress the copper wheel. Then, the third morning he says, you know what, you really . . . I’m doing this because somebody here asked me to teach that, but the truth is that now there are these diamond wheels that you do not have to do any dressing, you don’t have to waste time dressing the wheels, you just work and work. So he said, go back home, you know, get some bigger diamond wheels and just work with those. That’s what I did. So this is now, as you can tell, this is a bigger diamond wheel, and I do deeper cuttings.

I started my series of torsos. . . now more of the engraving. I work a lot. . . I started introducing metals like copper, copper and silver foil. This is copper outside and copper inside the glass, so that when I cut, you can see through the transparency, you can see the copper. This is just a one shot engraving on the sand-cast piece. The more I became more comfortable with both the technique of the casting and the engraving, I was thinking about lighting and installation and scale. So, I made a small model of this, thinking, how can I light and work with all my images, putting it together, and making them bigger.

This is a plaster mold, almost life size, and this is the way I prepare the molds. . . and put them in . . . for sand casting.  This is hot pouring. This is the finished piece out of the annealer. This is an installation that I did with Mary-Anne Martin at Art Basel in Miami Beach in 2002. And this, then, the pieces that are coming are all kiln-cast. I had a show with her of the big torsos. These are fairly big, they are all almost life-size, and made of components. And for these, since they are bigger, obviously I have to use bigger hand-held tools because obviously I can’t carry the piece I have to work on.  And at some point, I do finish off the details with a Dremel, so that I have these huge pieces and a very small tool that I work with.

Ten years later, in 2003, I had a show at the same museum in Panama, where I was able to show my bigger pieces and now my sculptural work, and sort of put them, installed them, I installed them with some of my drawings. That same year I had, I had taught at La Granja in Spain, and I had a show at the Museo de Arte del Vidrio in Madrid.  I went to La Granja as an artist in residence, and I worked on some pieces, some of them, I tried. . . They had a big kiln for doing kiln casting, so I did one big piece there. Here I was my showing at the museum with the engravings.  I finished this series, I didn’t realize it at the time obviously, but this series of figures with Mary-Anne Martin.  In her gallery, I always felt very well accompanied.

The more. . .I realize now, and then, that I was using the torso as a canvas, almost. And I took a little break. I like to do a lot of sports, and this is one of the things I do. There is a cayuco race in Panama once a year.  I did that, that year, I traveled with my sons, I went to Machu Picchu, to Mexico, came back home. Thought out my roots.

And, I decided I wanted to start. . . now, I had done all these figures without heads, and [I thought] oh, I can make heads, maybe it would be interesting! But for some reason, I wanted them to be very raw looking and I knew that this would be better if I did them with the sand  casting process. I also wanted to make them on a larger, larger scale, so I thought they should be. . . for glass, since the annealing is so long, if you make the massive sculptures, it is better. . . I thought about making it in components. And I did. . . these are all rather small pieces, but it was like an essay to start thinking of columns and how to display them, and so I had small elements to work with. And again what I like about this is the earthy, sandy, raw quality. That, although there is some cold working, but this is very subtle. And I made my first column.

I had heard about the Creative Glass Center of America in New Jersey, WheatonArts.  There is a fellowship that you can go and work for 3 months. I had always thought that I would like to go at some point, but I had no real reason or proposal or the time. This time, the time came, so I applied and I went. . .  I received it, and I went there and I worked there for 3 months in 2006, which was fantastic. The facilities are great.  It‘s very, very cold for me! So when I got there, I said, oh my God, this is like, and I’m going to stay by myself here 3 months? But they have a very good hot shop and I started working away. And I started small scale. . . . Became a little bigger, and more confident.  Had my assistants come once in a while. My little space started getting full, and fuller, and fuller.  So I was very happy. These are, like, the glass powders.

Then, the spring came and I finished, and I started packing and packing and shipping everything back to Panama, so I could do all the cold working. When I got home, my family was very, very happy! But they didn’t know that they were going to have to help me carry all these heavy, heavy things. So I. . . so I was very happy. I worked. . . and did all my cold working [at] home. I had all these. . .I still have some small pieces that I work with. And I had a show at home, at a gallery in Panama, where I could . . . I was able . . .I had the big scale. So I had the show, the show of these heads and small -- rather not so big, too big -- totem figures.

I have included some pieces that I am starting to work with as an experiment, but I realize that I really like what is happening with the mixing of shells and bones from the beach. Like here, this was all covered with shells but they went away, so just the imprint or idea of the shell has stayed there. That is there, but not there. I put in these crocodiles, just because I -- which I cold work and engrave -- and little sharks, and a different display of my heads, these are all engraved.

And I am showing now. . . I went back to Wheaton . . . they told me I could go back if I wanted to as a professional artist, to, you know, rent the space and work on a special project. So, after the show, after that, I thought, okay, I am going to try to make these pieces on a larger scale. And I spoke to them -- to the hot shop coordinator and to Hank Adams -- and I had brought an assistant, and my son, and my molds, and it was a different approach because we, I had to prepare everything in a very organized way. It was all one day of just preparing the molds beforehand, and putting them in the annealers. So we poured directly into the annealers. This was new to me and it was very exciting.  See, I am putting the colors and everything beforehand. Here is the crocodile, see, you can see the. . . And this is when, we’re all set, this took about two days preparation, the preparation of sand, the preparation of molds. We’re already. . . this became like choreography almost, directing it, and everybody had a role and it was very, very. . . it took a long time to prepare, but it goes really fast. I have a very good glassblower friend. She says, the casters, you know, you prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare; cast, cast; and then you clean, clean, clean, clean. The glassblowers, they just blow, they have fun all the time. Here are my ladlers getting ready. I have a video of this. So now, this is like ten days later, because they have to stay in the annealer. They have to obviously cool off, they come out. These are all casting, we call it Wheaton-Panama team. They go. . . back to Panama! I go back home. Play with my dogs.  Finish the pieces.

So now, these are life-size pieces that I showed, that Tina was referring to, talking [about]. . .  my show with Mary-Anne Martin last year.  The heads. The detail of the crocodile.

I will be going back home . . . I have a few puppies, so they are waiting for me. I’ll be busy when I get home. And now I’m going to, there is a video of the production, of the sand casting of these big pieces, so you can look at that, maybe.   Thank you very much.