Whenever I am looking for an art oasis here in San Francisco, I try to plan a visit to the live-work space of Silvia Poloto.  With Silvia, the line dividing her life poloto in studio 6from her art is definitely blurred.  She lives in a space where she is completely surrounded by her art – works both finished and in progress.  Her life permeates her art and it is, in turn, permeated by it.  She told me that she cannot imagine living in a space where she could not immediately access her paintings at any time.  It is not that she needs to be constantly working; but, ideas for work can come to her at any time and she loves being able to walk into her adjacent studio when that happens.

On one memorable Sunday afternoon, more than a dozen intrepid art trekkers made their way to her Mission loft.  There we sat around drinking fine wine and nibbling on artisan cheeses, while Silvia held court. Silvia is a great story-teller and her story is both inspiring and moving.  Raised in Brazil, she was born into a family and a society that was not particularly supportive of any artistic ambitions.  For her parents, the academic achievements of her brothers, leading to careers in engineering, were praise-worthy. So, intensely competitive by nature, she focused on academics.  She entered the best engineering schools; became a sales engineer; and went on to get an MBA – all to prove to everyone that she was as good as or better than her brothers.  Becoming an artist was not an option – not even a dream.

Then, love entered the picture and everything changed. Everything became possible.  She metObservationsGreen1 her Irish husband on a beach in Brazil.  After a whirlwind romance, they married.  Billy won the Irish “U.S. green card” lottery and off they went to live in the United States.  Three months after moving here to San Francisco, and without the familial and societal pressures, Silvia decided that she had become an engineer for all the wrong reasons; and she quit.  She took some metal-working classes at City College of San Francisco and started making sculpture.  She actually worked as a welder for a short time. But her art quickly gained traction.  Her art professors recognized her talent and encouraged her.  She got a merit scholarship to the Art Institute, but dropped out quickly because she needed to focus on actually making art to meet the demand. Galleries started representing her.  Art consultants sought her out.  When she stopped making sculpture and turned to painting, they all came along for the ride.  It was, in many ways, a charmed life.  Then, tragically, her husband, who was both her best friend and an important partner in her career, became seriously ill.  In early 2009, she lost him to cancer.  On that visit to her studio, he was omni-present in both a large series of photographs and in a funerary art piece she created.  It has been incredibly challenging, but we all got a sense of just how strong, just how determined Silvia is.

PolotoCrushStudies47x47 Silvia has worked in sculpture, photography and video, in addition to painting.  And all of these make their way into her artistic process.  With photography and sculpture, the idea usually comes first.  These are what she calls “thinking pieces”.  She has a vision and she sets out to realize the vision in the work.  However, she pointed out that “there is a space of not thinking, even in the thinking pieces”.  With painting, it is more overtly “not thinking”.  Her goal is to allow her sub-conscious to direct the pieces.  The works are not really planned out in advance.  These are what she calls “intuitive pieces”.  They develop naturally.  I asked her a question that I often ask abstract artists:  “How do you know when it is done?”  In her inimitable style, she stated with absolute confidence that “I always know when it is done; it is very clear”.  She realizes that other abstract artists have a hard time knowing when to stop.  They hang paintings on the wall for weeks to be certain that the work does not need something else.  But for her, there is clarity and certainty.  When a work is done, it is done.  In both art and life, she is striding forward confidently.

Personally, I was first drawn to Silvia’s work when I encountered two mixed media pieces featuring pigs.   The pieces were “in progress” at Trillium, a local printer for artists and they were very complex.  Plexiglas boxes had been built and filled with painted panels, sculptural insets and toy pigs.  The works explore the human condition, with the pigs playing the leading role of the humans.  In one of my favorite works:  “Reverence”, the pigs hanging from meat hooks have a certain medieval quality of religiosity.  The works were both engaging and disturbing.  Two of this series of works are in Silvia’s collection and I frequently revisit them.

The “Pigs” series was a progression from an earlier series from 2004, “Unresolved”.  This was the first series where Silvia technically brought together her sculpture, her photography and her painting.  The works here were less ambiguous.  Titles for the works, such as “Betrayal” and “Vows”, were very much descriptive of the subject matter.  With “Pigs”, there was much more room for the viewer to bring their perspective to the work.  Even for Silvia, who lives with the “Pigs” in her bedroom, her evolving experiences have changed the meaning of the works for her, as well.  These are works that do not sit still.  They morph.

I was very pleased to see Silvia return to this kind of artistic exploration when I recently visited her loft.  She is once again working on large assemblages.  This series is aptly titled “Private Puzzles”.  Once again, she has built elaborate frames that combine photographic, painted and sculpted elements.  However, when she started on these new works, her original thought was to print the photographic elements very large on watercolor paper.  This proved to be prohibitively expensive.  So, instead, she printed the images in sections.  She then found herself rearranging the different sections in various combinations.  It is a very physical exploration of the artistic possibilities that allows her to take images that are well-thought out, then combine her abstract sensibilities to move the sections into compositions that are built sub-consciously.

I am particularly fascinated with her work, “Family Tree # 1”.  Here Silvia has explored the “Spanish” side of her family tree – her mother’s family.  The Spanish women were formidable, dominating family life.  At the same time, they were vulnerable to physical domination and abuse by the men.  Silvia takes three separate panels and physically unites them with steel bolts.  Her grandparents and great-grandparents populate the top panel.  The ties bind the middle and subsequent generation, reaching down to Silvia’s oft-repeated and self-identifying rose.  It is serious work.  At the same time, it is humorous work.  There is a particular subject to the work.  And, there is an ambiguity to the work where the viewer can enter it and make it their own.

Silvia Poloto is represented at numerous galleries nationwide (see “contact & galleries” on her website).  In April, she will be participating in 2011 Spring Open Studios at ARC Gallery, April 1-3; and at her live-work loft, April 16-17.  She also will be participating in 2011 San Francisco Fall Open Studios this coming October, also at both locations.  And, her studio is open by appointment.

“A Place of Her Own” – The Art of Cynthia Tom

The idea for “A Place of Her Own” , Cynthia Tom’s on-going collaborative art project, really took shape about three years ago when Cynthia began showing work at the annual Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) exhibition DAy_of_the_Dead_10-06__27__webin San Francisco.  This show has traditionally been dedicated to victims of violent death in the Bay Area.  It is not, however, simply or exclusively a memorial to those who have died.  It is also about those left behind and it is about art’s power to heal.  For the exhibition, artists create installation pieces of reverence and remembrance.  Often the installations are rooms – full scale assemblages.  

It is work that Cynthia Tom is uniquely qualified to pursue.  Since childhood, she has been creating assemblages.  She was taught by her mother, also an artist, who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  Sue Tom was one of seven children of a merchant-class father who was a gambling and opium addict. Her mother had been sold to him in China and brought to San Francisco in a cargo-hold.  After her father died when she was 12, there was no money for art supplies.  With no formal training and limited resources, Sue Tom fashioned assemblages from things others had thrown away.  It was, for her, a way to re-invent her world – one that she passed on to her daughter. 

Cynthia works in a variety of media – painting, collage and sculpture.  Bright colors, texture and 3D are all characteristics of her art.  In terms of process, she starts with a single germ of an idea or an image.  Over time she builds onflying_in_the_trees_2_op_800x1208 that seed, gradually adding context and narrative to the work.  The process can be a long one and she is often working on as many as 20 pieces at a time. Her background did not provide the opportunity for formal training in an art school.  However, my guess is that this is fortunate.  The unique combination of whimsy with a serious message that is present in her best work probably would not have benefited from a BFA degree.

Her art is an exploration of personal and social issues – those in the lives of her ancestors, those in her own life and those in the broader community of women, and Asian women specifically.  The rooms that Cynthia created for the Dia De Los Muertos exhibitions were extensions of these explorations.  Like many third and fourth generation San Francisco Chinese-Americans, Cynthia Tom’s journey began years before she was born.  It began in China and ran through Angel Island on the way to San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The experiences of her grandparents and her parents, experiences that hugely influenced who she is as both an individual and an artist, were often shrouded in mystery Boxed Set Meta IVand shadows. The stories were harrowing.  Like many Chinese of their generation, her parents were reluctant to talk about them. 

In the Dia De Los Muertos rooms she had license to more fully explore those stories. The scale of the project made her think about their impact on her in new ways.  She began to question her assumptions.  Which assumptions were hers?  Which assumptions had been imposed on her by others?  She posed the question, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”  Starting with an Artist-In-Residence program at the de Young Museum (in association with the Asian American Women Artists Association) in January this year, she has created a five-year collaborative project seeking multi-faceted artistic responses to that query.

You can see Cynthia’s work at San Francisco Open Studios.  She is also a featured artist on ArtSpan’s Tour des Artistes, an exclusive tour of select artist studios this Sunday, that raises funds to support art education in San Francisco elementary schools.