Interview: Cándida Alvarez

Cándida Alvarez is a painter known for vibrantly layered abstractions that dismantle and remix an array of influences that cut across pop culture, modern art, world news and personal memory. Her work is shown in museums and galleries around the world and is represented in numerous public and private collections, including The Addison Gallery of American Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and El Museo del Barrio. Cándida is a tenured Professor in the Painting and Drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has taught since 1998. She has been parenting nearly as long as she’s been making a career for herself as an artist, and her passion for both is clear.

black cherry pit, 2009. 7 x 6 feet, acrylic on canvas photo: Tom Van Eynde

black cherry pit, 2009. 7 x 6 feet, acrylic on canvas
photo: Tom Van Eynde

CR: To start, tell us a little bit about you and your son.

Candida Alvarez: Ramon Alvarez Smikle was born 23 years ago in New York City. He was the perfect baby, slept through the night, and loved to pick flowers to give to his mama. He spent his first seven months in Brooklyn, and then we all moved to Connecticut so his dad could pursue an MFA at Yale in Photography. Two years later, since we were still in New Haven, I also applied and was accepted into the MFA program in Painting. It was the 90’s and the stock market had crashed, and as a new mom, I saw [grad school] as an invaluable opportunity for some time out to work and engage in critical thinking and discourse about the work. I studied with Mel Bochner, Catherine Murphy, Frances Barth, David Reed, David Pease, Howardena Pindell, Rochelle Fienstein, Dick Lytle, and Sylvia Mangold.

We all moved to Chicago in Fall of 1998, after I accepted a full time teaching position at SAIC in the painting department. Ramon started second grade at the Lab school, so we moved to Hyde Park. In 2006, his dad and I divorced, and I moved to the south loop so Ramon could be close to his new high school. Four years later, Ramon decided to apply to Columbia College, where his dad taught, and Ramon graduated with a BA degree in Music Business Management. He excelled in his passion, and today he lives in Santa Monica, working full time for Shazam as their Music Partnerships Coordinator!

CR: What was it like for you to become an artist-mother? What kinds of support or lack of support did you encounter?

Candida with Ramon, 1991 photo: Dawoud Bey

Candida with Ramon, 1991
photo: Dawoud Bey

CA: I remember never giving it much thought until the day I found myself pregnant. It was a conversation I really was not that invested in. I was married for 10 years and was 36 years old.  I was living the life of the artist, working in a home studio, making ends meet. When I realized I was carrying a child I felt like I was ready… but to be honest I had no idea what to expect. Most of my friends had already grown children, or they were just beginning new partnerships.

It was not very popular for artists to have children, but I was steadfast in my decision. I remember thinking I may not be taken seriously as an artist after this. It was odd to see my belly stretch out in front of me, and to feel the pulsations of life growing inside of me.

Ramon was born during the winter. A few weeks later, I remember fretting about going to an art opening, as it seemed odd to bring a baby with me. I was trying to get used to this new part, which was like walking with a new limb, so to speak.  As fate would have it, the phone rang. My dear friend, poet/mother Hettie Jones was calling  to check up on the recent mom and new baby. I told her about the opening, and she convinced me that I had to go. I went, despite my fears that I’d lost my identity as the artist to this new reality called mother. In fact it was powerful: I became both things simultaneously. Baby Ramon was bundled up in his shower gifts and he and I together walked in. As I held him in my arms he sooo became the object of desire, not the art on the walls. He intoxicated everyone around him. It was lovely.

Learning to juggle the “we-ness” of those years, when your child is totally dependent on you is daunting and doubt invariably clings like a nasty cold. Fortunately, I did know and was friendly with artists who had children, so that helped tremendously. These women were also successful: Elizabeth Murray, Allison Saar, Laura Letinsky, Hettie Jones. They all seemed so comfortable around their kids, and they made it seem easy, although they had to become better at multi-tasking. They were my role models and gave me confidence and joy in sharing a well of knowing that you just cant really explain, but need to live through. 

CR: Do you feel that parenthood had an impact on your creative practice?

Ramon and Candida, 2014 (selfie by Ramon)

Ramon and Candida, 2014 (selfie by Ramon)

CA: Yes, parenting had an impact on my creative practice. I learned to multi-task, as time and exhaustion competed for prominent roles. At the end of the day, there was not a lot of time to catch up or socialize. Unfortunately, friends who were childless we saw less and less. Bright color appeared everywhere and slowly it became important to the paintings. We left New York, so my son’s dad could get his MFA from Yale in Photography. It was as traumatic as it was exciting.

At first the hardest thing was dropping him off at the baby sitter. You worry about the care no matter what. We both cried. But soon I rented a studio and got to work. My days were not as long, but the time was precious. It was a constant juggling act. I remember having to leave him after the first 6 months of nursing. It was painful but also liberating. I was in Ecuador, showing my paintings, talking about art. I walked around like a zombie, missing this bundle of life that was so close to me. It was difficult, not sure yet how this experience had affected me.

All in all, I would say motherhood was the best thing that happened to the artist that lives inside of me. It pushed all doubt to the background as love, confidence, intuition, patience, moved to the foreground. Ramon is a constant reminder that we are still always becoming ourselves.

CR: You have raised your son through the newborn stage into adulthood. How have you negotiated the demands of your creative work, day job, and parenthood? What advice would you share with artists struggling to make it work?

As a tenured professor and a former interim graduate dean I’ve had the chance to put my multi-tasking skills to work, and they paid off! I am grateful for that relationship. It has given me the space for criticality and engagement close to home, especially when travel or networking was challenged by my commitment to my son. I wanted to be a good mother, attentive when it mattered.

I would say: Hang in there, it’s worth it. Aim to be present, not perfect. Be kind, considerate and respectful.



This interview was first published August 3, 2014 and in re-presented here partnership with Cultural ReProducers.

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