In the midst of a pandemic, as we are stuck inside our homes, art is a perfect antidote. It allows us to be armchair travelers to worlds saturated with color, light, and beauty. It has the potential to revive our ailing spirit and plunge our visual sense, which is growing so accustomed to the austerity of four walls around us, into a faraway place infused with vitality and imagination. It’s almost as if art is able to take hold of our stiff, atrophying sense of vision, douse it with enlivening creative juices, and wring it out, making it pliable and ripe for the miracle of sight again. So pour yourself a glass of Malbec, search Spotify for the tango La Cumparsita, sit back on that magical winged armchair, and soar with me to the other side of the Equator.
We’re going to a narrow but longitudinally impressive nation that is home to one of the most sophisticated cities of the world, where you can sit at a parrilla and eat the best grass-fed beef in the world (bife de chorizo), and indulge in wine straight from the well-known vineyards of the Mendoza region. It’s the birthplace of tango, easily seen in the color-soaked shacks in the area of La Boca. It’s a land graced by the presence of the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the most easily accessible and active glaciers in the world, where a visitor can view its thunderous calving at close range. On its southern end is Ushuaia, the southernmost city of the world, which serves as a port for boats traversing the Beagle channel to Antarctica. To the west are the awe-inspiring, otherworldly peaks of the Fitz Roy Range, touted to have some of the best hiking in the world. It’s obviously a land of superlatives. But it’s not just that. It’s a place full of down-to-earth, boisterous, spirited people, a place where dinner is routinely eaten at 10 pm every night in restaurants the decibels of which could crack an eardrum. And it’s a place filled with passion, hot tempers, and argument, as well as a long history of economic crises and political instability. Of course, this place is Argentina.
Dora Ficher’s art not only beautifully portrays her birthplace in Argentina but opens up our deprived visual sense to the color, music, and passion of this world. She’s not advertising the beauty of this country, though that certainly comes through, but harnessing her own childhood memories. The joyful, colorful spirit of Argentina, and her luminous interpretation of life, is particularly captured in her works on paper. The Fiddler portrays her grandparents’ home in Mar Del Plata, a seaside resort near Buenos Aires. On top of the house sits her father, who was an accomplished, charismatic violinist, playing notes that seem to float like patches of clouds against a vivid blue sky and swirl around the feet of tango dancers in the street. There are other people sitting on the roof, playing instruments, and perhaps soaking up the sparkling surroundings. The brilliant, vivid colors catapult us into this surreal world, a world that captures the powerful, though patchy visual imagery of childhood memories. As Ficher states: “In my early years I created a series of works called Hiraeth. Hiraeth is homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.” The notion of Hiraeth, the title of Ficher’s exhibition at the Embassy of Argentina in Washington, D.C. in 2015, is a theme that seems to inform many of her works. Allegro and Tango similarly capture the vividness, spirit, and musical overlays of a place and time in the distant past. These works, along with others, seems to embody that sense of nostalgia, perhaps an idealized place of youth, frozen in time, never to be again.
Ficher’s use of the encaustic technique for much of her work parallels her interest in excavating and preserving past memories of a faraway birthplace. Encaustic is melted beeswax combined with pigment. As Ficher states: “I work slowly and deliberately building up the fragrant layers of warm sticky wax using a blowtorch to fuse each layer. I incorporate collage materials in the wax – sometimes visible, other times not. Autobiographical stories are encased inside the waxy pigment. The layers of narrative and paint parallel the layers and complexity of life.” Encaustic monotypes are one-of-a-kind prints made from wax paintings done on a heated plate (a hot box), then transferred onto paper. The use of pigmented wax paint allows for the creation of multiple layers, adding depth and complexity. Many of her encaustic works have old photos, letters, or other mementos signifying a particular time in her life, folded among the layers. She works intuitively, having only a general idea of the theme but lets her imagination and instinct carry the process. “The encaustic monotype process requires me to surrender, use tools that often result in unpredictable outcomes, and forces me to stretch and grow as an artist.” As such, the encaustic technique in Ficher’s hand is almost like both excavating old memories and creatively expressing them while building new ones by virtue of the technique of spontaneously unfolding, at times obscured layers and complexity. Coastal View (mixed media, encaustic, collage, and oil stick) is inspired by long-ago memories of the resort in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, where Ficher spent many happy childhood summers. It seems to convey a deep fog, with glimmers of light in the distance, perhaps a sunrise or the misty lights of a city. There are swirls of paint, perhaps conveying haziness of memory, perhaps obfuscation by the layers of time, perhaps merely the result of this unpredictable technique, that adds texture and mystery to the piece. Some, but not all, of her encaustic pieces have jewels of memory tucked inside, sometimes hidden and sometimes displayed; the randomness and uneven visibility of their placement perhaps mirror the inconstancy of childhood memory itself.
Ficher’s memories of immigration from Argentina was she was ten sparked a recent series of works capturing her own personal immigration journey. She not only paints her own experiences but also elicits other people’s experiences moving to another country, as she is interested in the concept of immigration. She describes her own immigration journey as one of both loss and opportunity, two sides of the same coin signifying monumental, life altering change. As an immigrant child, she states; “I never felt I belonged here or there,” a common refrain among immigrant children. Her memories are vague, but she has pieced together experiences mostly from stories. Journey (encaustic, collage, oil pigments on panel), which was selected for a show reflecting the theme “Anything But Flat” conveys her arrival by ship with her family to New Orleans. The brazen primary blocks of color, perhaps depicting the hull of the ship and the buildings in the background, are like the fragmented, incomplete, layered memories of our childhood. There is also what appears to be a black and yellow gangplank against the blue sky and sea. In this case, these shapes and colors are representative of arrival to a new world. The painting itself is certainly not flat, again made in layers. Like an archeological excavation, we are enticed to wonder about what might be hidden under the layers of paint and wax. Perhaps there are no jewel-like souvenirs here, and like the capriciousness of memory, we find only layers made heavy with time, allowing us just fragmented but unexpectedly powerful childhood images.
There is no question that Ficher’s work powerfully evokes the notion of childhood memory, whether it’s a scene from a grandparents’ home or travels on a ship spanning continents to arrive at a new home. Light-filled, joyous, colorful memories from Argentina spill onto the page in multiple mediums, in layers, and encompass the full complexity of memory itself. They are about a place far on the other side of the world, a place that by virtue of being a birthplace, the crux of family culture, and a place of beautiful happy memories, has shaped identity. Like the tenacity of its people, it’s a place that seems to refuse to let go. I know, because this place is in my blood, too. More than simply being a chronicle of memories of a culture or of a place of unparalleled beauty, this artwork is about the people and family and love that inhabit those memories. It’s about the textured, time worn layers that have shaped a life. And as I sit back on my magical winged armchair, I realize that this has been quite an eye-opening trip, filled with richness, wisdom, and a newfound appreciation for my own family roots in Argentina. It inspires me to explore my own memories of childhood immigration, albeit from another land. In the meantime, I’ve developed a mysterious hankering for a bife de chorizo and a dulce de leche dessert to go with my Malbec. Do you think that could be delivered? Fat chance. I’ll have to make do with my magical winged armchair and the power of art.