A look into the minds (and hearts) of today’s artists
By Cory Bilicko
How I came to meet the artist Alejandra Vernon, the first subject of this new column, is almost as interesting as the beautiful, vivid works she creates.
A few weeks ago, I was looking through a stack of pictures here at our offices that had been salvaged after our former building’s roof collapsed from the torrential January rainfall last year. One of those pieces of art, matted but not framed, shielded by a clear-plastic covering, immediately captured my attention and my imagination.
It was a striking composition of buildings that, placed side-by-side, defied the logic of perspective that’s taught in ninth-grade art classes– some of the structures looked flat, but some popped with three dimensions. The print, overall, certainly had a visual impact, but, at the same time, its creator’s acute attention to detail drew me in closer to see what eye candy it offered on an almost miniscule scale.
In love at the first sight of it, I removed it from among its artful companions and placed it near my desk. After its rightful owner, my co-worker, gave me permission to call it my own, I took it home, with eventual plans to properly frame it.
Later that night, I picked it up and admired it, wishing I knew more about the artist. Something compelled me to flip it over. On the back of the print was its title, “Downtown USA,” and a web address– avernon.com. With eagerness, I typed in the URL, and, when the page opened, I clicked on “View the Galleries” and was treated to an array of colorfully cheerful works. That initial print I’d serendipitously encountered in our office was the amuse-bouche, and this website provided the feast.
Naturally, I returned to the main page to click on “About Me” and “News,” where I began to discover the artist behind the enchanting designs. I read about her experience with breast cancer and about all the paintings she’d lost in an apartment fire. Then I emailed her to ask if she’d like to be the first artist profiled for my new column. As you can see, her answer was “yes.”
Why were parts of your childhood spent in Ecuador, Argentina and Jamaica? Just how did these locales influence your art?
My father had an adventurous nature and we (my mother, sister and brother, and me, barely a year old) found ourselves on a dairy farm in Ecuador, abounding in snakes, and a river between us and civilization (the city of Guayaquil). When I was 5, we moved to Buenos Aires, and at 10, Jamaica. The South American influence must show in my art because it’s such a big part of my life; I still resonate to the music, dance, and visual arts of Latin America.
Looking at your artwork, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on. What processes are involved in your mixed-media approach?
It’s long and complicated. It starts with the drawing. If the drawing isn’t right, the picture won’t work. The composition is the most essential part of every piece. The rest is a mixture of layers…paper, watercolor, gouache, acrylic varnish, and shellac.
How has your mixed-media collage technique evolved over the years?
I started out at 12, and the pieces were very simple. The process has been through many transformations and has gone through a radical change recently, reverting back to a simplicity in design, but with the complex layering with different media.
How challenging has it been for you as an artist to sell your work in the weak economy of the last few years?
Yes, the art market bottomed out, and many galleries representing me closed. It hasn’t been easy. One cannot lower prices to suit the market for equivalent works that others have bought, but as fate would have it, my new style is a “different animal.” They take me a lot less time to do, and I can price them accordingly. The first new pieces I’ve shown have brought sales, so maybe it’s an omen of things to come.
Do you ever experience periods of artist’s block, when you just can’t seem to produce anything? If so, how do you deal with that challenge?
The only severe block is when there is a style change, which might happen every 5 to 10 years. There’s an in-between period where the old style isn’t working, and the seed of the new hasn’t flowered yet. It’s the most horribly frustrating experience!
You’ve won numerous awards for your art over the years. How does receiving an award for your work affect the art you create thereafter, if at all?
It’s always appreciated and looks great on a résumé, but otherwise doesn’t affect me.
What were the circumstances surrounding the fire that destroyed your works?
There was a devastating fire in my apartment complex five years ago. I managed to get six pieces out, but there were dozens of others, and I also lost the records of the paintings, as well as the records of the hundreds I’ve sold over a lifetime, and I don‘t remember much about them. I have a “pre-fire” life and a “post-fire” life.
What effect did losing so many paintings have on you emotionally? Did it have a debilitating effect, or did it inspire you more?
I had to get to work immediately as I had 20 pieces to make for a Long Beach Library solo exhibit. There was no time to think about it!
How has your artwork affected your healing process since being diagnosed with breast cancer?
It has greatly affected my life. I was initially so ill I had no energy to work, and felt “at death’s door.” Then I met my brilliant oncologist, Dr. Vu Phan, and feel better than I have in years. I have so much gratitude for every day, and have an increased empathy for all living creatures. It has sensitized me in a way, and my work has gone through such a dramatic change. The pieces are simpler, more colorful, and some have a dash of humor that wasn’t there before.