Washington Ledesma: A Life Well Lived

Washington Ledesma: A Life Well Lived

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ledesma_vaseWashington Ledesma’s colorful ceramic pieces, joyful animal sculptures and vivid paintings are easily recognized by the prominence of eyes, the ‘mirrors of the soul.’ In a spirited and insightful dialogue, Ledesma takes us on the journey of a lifetime from Uruguay to New York City, the Caribbean to Martha’s Vineyard.

How long have you been practicing your art?
It’s been close to 50 years now. I was born and raised in Uruguay, and 26 when I started with printmaking and painting. Then a good friend of mine, Martha Peňilla, wanted to exchange one of my prints for her teaching me about ceramics. It was very exciting to get my hands on clay; it reminded me of the times I had spent as a child on an uncle’s farm where I just loved playing with the mud!

portraitWhat is your background? Did you attend art school?
Art was very accidental. As a young man I played a lot of soccer. After high school I completed a course in Phys Ed at a special training school and worked for 3 or 4 years as a physical education teacher. It so happened that a friend of mine was studying at the Fine Arts School of Montevideo and she wanted me to come with her to one of her classes for the fun of it, to see what she was doing.

I went with her, and it changed my life. I loved the freedom, the experimentation the Fine Arts School at that time offered. From a classical art school with set classes, the place had become what was known as an Open University for Art; people coming and going, intense all night discussions about life and politics and art, longhairs and hands-on experimental class sessions, open to all. No degrees, no course program, but I started with printmaking, then painting, jewelry and eventually ceramics. So yes, I hung out at the Fine Arts School, but we all experimented and taught each other, worked with recognized Masters in loose apprenticeships and had a glorious time making art.

ledesma_ark platterHow did you survive as a young artist?
I have always had to make a living from my art. For a short while in Uruguay, when I was recognized as a “coming” young artist and any work I did was immediately snapped up by collectors, this was possible. Since then I have supplemented my income by dog walking, painting in factories for fake old masters, delivering newspapers, furniture painter, etc. etc. One does what one has to do in order to survive while making art.

My first painting was a composition based on a portrait I had seen by Alexandro Obregon, and so I painted my grandmother in a rocking chair. But the first ceramic piece I made was a red clay plate. I drew on it with black pen and ink and it won First Prize in the Montevideo Book Fair in 1967 because it was something so new and different – something totally unexpected. Unfortunately, I had no clay or ceramic equipment to work on, only materials for making prints, so I continued on with printmaking and painting. My prints became well known and I was invited to join the “Engravers’ Society”. I had many special exhibits and my work traveled and was collected throughout Eastern Europe and Cuba as part of cultural exchanges between Uruguay and the Communist world.

ceramics monthly coverHow has your work evolved over time? What are your influences?
When I started to work with clay, I naturally drew on my skills as a painter and printmaker. I started by using other potters’ raw forms, not having the equipment to create my own. I started by carving the wet clay. At the time, working with clay was still quite secondary to painting and especially to printmaking. As part of a younger generation of South American artists, I was very much inspired by the work and the success of the Uruguayan painter Joaquin Torres-Garcia. His work with lines and boxes, containing ancestral symbols and incorporating memories of life and society, had drawn huge critical applause. His work spread throughout Latin America as “The School of the South”, a permanent break with European classical traditions. At the time, Torres-Garcia’s symbols and earth tones had a strong influence on me.

ledesma_personAnd what about those eyes?
Another experience from those early years working as an artist, which has influenced my work ever since, was an exhibit of Abyssinian Art which was shown in Uruguay in the early 60’s. I went back again and again to look at those eyes, and I began to understand that our knowledge of other people and of art is through that first door of entry, the eyes. I became fascinated by “Eyes as the Window to the Soul” and started to read books about the history of Iconic Art. I became passionate about Primitive Art and that interest has never left me.

Do you work by yourself or have other people assist you?
I work very quietly by myself in my studio. I paint or carve clay while soft, classical music plays in the background. Or I sit at the potters’ wheel in the basement, throwing for hours on end, totally concentrated on what I am doing. I might stand and paint simultaneously on multiple ongoing paintings, which I also may bring into my living room during the winter months and sit at night and paint. It is all very solitary, which may be why I talk a lot when I am with other people. There was a time when I thought I could speed up the process, and thus have more work to sell, by having other people work with me as helpers. It just didn’t work out that way. It became an ongoing teaching situation and we talked too much and produced less, rather than more, work.

sculpture-goldenfishCan you share with us any turning points that have influenced your life or career?
Most important, as discussed above, was accompanying a girlfriend to the Fine Art School in Montevideo – it changed my life!

Second most important was leaving for America in 1973. The political situation in Uruguay had become very dangerous for intellectuals, artists and any opposition groups to the far right dictatorship which was overtaking my country. Nightly house searches were taking place, friends arrested and not heard from again. I was appreciated as an artist, my work sold well. I had a comfortable, interesting life. But I had to leave it all behind and get out fast after some men came to my studio and started searching through my books and asking a lot of questions. I had a choice: to go to France (my city, Montevideo, at one point was considered to be the Paris of South America) or to go to America. I decided to flee to America and landed in New York. I left my family, left my art work, my books, my friends and landed in a place where I had to start all over again, from the beginning.

New York was difficult, very difficult. My English was not fluent and I lived on the little money I had been able to bring with me. I tried to connect with fellow artists working in New York. I worked odd jobs and I married a woman who took me under her wing. We had two wonderful daughters. My drawings went on T-shirts and my wife and I sold them on the streets. I later added ceramics with my drawings on them, which I sold at local craft markets. I sold hundreds of pieces, people grabbing them as I tried to unpack my boxes.

Animal EyesA Turning Point: Caribbean Color
While exhibiting on West Broadway and Prince Streets I was “discovered” by a gentleman who ran an artist colony in the Dominican Republic at Alto de Chavon. He invited me to join his group and I accepted his invitation. I was totally dazzled by the color I saw in the Caribbean, the joy, the fierceness of color, the greens, the blues, the sun! I also learned about the Taino culture there and started producing pots influenced by their art. But the main thing was the color! When I returned to New York my palette had changed, and I have been using bright, saturated colors ever since.

A Turning Point: Moving to Martha’s Vineyard
Martha’s Vineyard is a bit like the east coast of Uruguay. After a year as a Fellow at the Radcliffe Ceramics Studios in Cambridge, it felt like coming home. As a young man I walked and lived on the beaches of Punta del Este. I can do so on Martha’s Vineyard. With a studio of my own, with peace and calm, I can produce at my own pace. I learned to fish and this was an exciting new experience for me. I happily fished, found many places where a man’s soul can find peace and be at one with the universe. And so, one day, in Menemsha, I hooked this little fish. I looked at the fish and the fish looked at me, and the little fish said: “Why do you have to catch me? I want to be free, swim in the water. Why don’t you just paint me and then you’ll have me forever!” And that’s what I did. I let the little fish go and I have been painting fish ever since. In different shapes and sizes, telling the world different stories from imaginary oceans, and there are always more Washington Ledesma fish!”

fish paintingYou’ve had a successful career. Looking ahead, do you have any new goals or projects you’d like to work on?
This year I am going to be 75 years old. In my younger days I had goals of money and fame. In New York, an international art dealer once bought five plates of mine and he invited me to come to his house to see what he had done with them. I did go; my plates were placed between Picasso and Gauguin ceramics he had collected. He told me that that was where I belonged and yes, I know my plates were in the right place. But by now the satisfaction of my life is in the fact that I have provided thousands of people with a piece of mine which makes them smile, feel good for a moment when they look at a piece they own. For myself, I know that my pieces will survive after I’m gone and part of me, a most important part of me, will survive.

I still would love to have a much larger kiln, create much larger pieces than I can do now. I would love to work on much larger canvases and make much larger paintings. And I still want the time and the freedom to produce them. But most of all, I dream that some day one of my three-breasted Goddesses, symbol of fecundity, of all femaleness, of all plenty, will hang on the right wall of the north side of the new Atrium at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts – from the top to the floor, in all her glory!

Washington Ledesma has exhibited his ceramics and paintings at Paradise City Arts Festivals since 1996. Welcome him back this fall to both the Northampton and Marlborough shows!