Francisco Toledo, Oaxaqueño Extraordinaire

This brief piece in the NY Times doesn’t begin to describe the impact of Francisco Toledo. But it’s a very modest start. I woke up this morning, thinking of all the institutions he created in Oaxaca that were foundational for me, in my formation as an artist.

That world-class, free, and open-to-the-public-7-days-a-week art library I went to to study, when I was running up against my limitations in training, in the human form, in imagination? That was started by Toledo, in a house he owned on the Alcalá, and funded and supported by him. The Gardín Etnobotánico next to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo? Toledo. That extraordinary art school in Vista Hermosa/San Agustín Etla—which I have yet to see, but once dreamed of attending—? Toledo.

I wonder what will happen to all of those institutions and many more, now that the force behind them is gone. Mexico, Oaxaca, like everywhere, is subject to the whims and agendas of those with money. Doubtless there will be those with an agenda to absorb and transform those institutions into their own image. Or those glad to shut them down, now that the vitality that was Toledo is gone.

His art, his social activism, his political and civic voice are a powerful component of my image of Oaxaca. Toledo and his art had a presence, a piercing immediacy and fearlessness, a moral and existential compass that was unique to him, and that I admired deeply.

My most compelling memory of him is a personal one—a moment that meant a lot to me, and absolutely nothing to the rest of the universe.

It was at the end of my first year in Oaxaca, when I’d created the six or seven paintings that were the Virgin series, which I think I called Myth and the Divine Feminine then. I was beginning to imagine showing them, taking them into the world, outside of my house. I had once run into an established artist from Oaxaca in the street, and upon introduction, he handed me a little flip book of 4×6” photos of his most recent series of paintings. So I thought that was how it was done in Oaxaca.

I got a friend to photograph my pieces, and I had 4×6” prints made, and put them in a little flip book, and included beautiful title pages for each, and pages with my name and contact information on hand-made Oaxacan paper, and I took them to a gallery. Really, the only one I knew—and this shows you how naive I was, because it was the gallery in Oaxaca—I took them to Toledo’s gallery; Willie Olguin’s gallery.

I didn’t make it in the door.

Some of you from my acting years know I had a full-blown, hyperventilation-prone phobia of auditioning. I cannot even begin to describe the act of will, and the hard, moment-by-moment labor it took to get myself through an audition, which, unfortunately, before people know your work, is pretty much the only way to get started. And I did, unbelievably enough, manage to hold my shit together enough, enough times, to get work by way of auditioning. And once I was in the reading stage, I was better. Once I was on stage, I was me. I was good. The actual work begot other work, and thankfully, I didn’t have to audition as much.

I think one of the most attractive things to me about painting/plastic art, early on, one of the most liberating, was that I could let the artwork make the introductions. I didn’t have to be there in the flesh, dancing like a monkey, trying not to hyperventilate—doing the one thing I did not do well—in order for people to consider my work. I could let the images do the talking.

So in this case, all I had to do was take the images in the door and drop them off. I made it to the street in front of the gallery, around the corner on the south side of Santo Domingo… I stood at the plaza steps across the way, looking at the entrance to the gallery patio, trying to compose in my head what I was going to say, practicing in Spanish…

And I couldn’t do it. The old fear came back with a vengeance.

I did all my old actor tricks. I shook it out. I did controlled, counted breaths, evening out the inhale and the exhale. I walked up and down, humming, using enough breath to get a buzz—therefore forcing enough oxygen through my system to keep it functioning—lightly bouncing as I walked to drop out the tension. I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know how many times I cycled through my audition prep routine. Then I would collapse onto the ancient stone church steps like bubble wrap deflating. I would hold my precious little book to my ribs, my arms wrapped around myself, embarrassed, so goddamned annoyed with and tired of myself. And still utterly unable to grab the tits and get up and walk in that door with my little book of paintings.

I remember it being hot. I remember having dressed carefully, seriously. I remember knowing I would look American, but wanted to somehow make clear that I was not the American typically seen in Oaxaca—not wealthy, exclusively educated, entitled, or on vacation, but working class, smart, self-educated and determined…though I cannot now tell you what the hell I wore to say all that. I never manage to say all that in my own culture, so how tf did I think I was going to say that in someone else’s? No wonder I was crushed by the mandate I was putting on myself.

I don’t know how long I paced and collapsed and argued with and rebuilt myself there in the sun—in my memory, it was an excruciating, humiliatingly long time. I just know that, at one point, I was sitting on the steps, my elbows on my knees, my precious book of paintings in both my hands, my head hanging, deep in the conversation I was having with myself, and I raised my head to look at my goal, at the cool, welcoming patio leading into the gallery…

And there was Toledo, standing in the doorway. Looking right at me. And I know this sounds self-important or deluded, but I know it’s true: I am absolutely certain that he knew exactly what I was doing there.

He said nothing and I said nothing. There was the distance of the street between us. It was not intimate. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. But he stood absolutely still, and he looked me directly, unwaveringly in the eye. I had observed him around town, and had seen that he could have a bright, piercing way of looking. And here it was, directed at me.

He wasn’t shaming me. He wasn’t comforting me. He was just witnessing.

And I did not look away. In a way, it was a naked, mortal moment for me. But I looked back at him, right from the middle of that crappy moment, knowing I was looking at someone who knew exactly what it was. And that directness gave me comfort. It simply was. It was part of the condition of having made something precious. It will always be this way, to some degree. And there was the old man, the master, looking that simple fact at me.

I don’t remember how the look was broken, who turned away first. I have no idea what happened immediately after. I know that I didn’t go in the gallery that day. I don’t remember my logic beyond some understanding that it was ok to go home, to lay to rest that mad energy, and come back another day, when the beast had slept it off.

I did find the courage another day. The beautiful, exquisitely dressed woman at the desk told me with lightly tinged politeness that requests to submit to the gallery were to be made via the internet according to the formal portfolio requirements stated there…she did not say, but the slightly pursed politeness implied: like every other serious gallery on the planet.

I don’t remember if I ever submitted to them. Another gallery expressed interest, and, after a couple of years in the US making uninvited submissions, I came to understand exactly how I and my precious paintings fit into that system. And I, thankfully, stopped, for the most part, putting energy into chasing after a system not made for me, and put it into more fruitful approaches.

But I never forgot that look across the street from Toledo. I don’t imagine he even saw the person whose eyes he was looking into—he probably wouldn’t have been able to point me out the next day if someone had said to him, “Who was that distraught woman you saw on the street yesterday?”, and I was right in front of him—I think he just recognized that look in my eyes.

And was present for it. I just happened to be the 43-year-old child artist attached to that look.

eternity for a being of light. buen journey.