“My mother always said that the main difference between Brazilians and Americans is that Americans raise their kids to become adults, to be independent, while Brazilians raise them to always remain their kids,” Laura said over a glass of wine in her Chelsea apartment. The sound of frogs emanated from her television, as images distorted in the eddies of the Amazon river danced on the screen. Laura Calhoun moved with her family from California to Belem, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon river, when she was ten years old. Now, after growing up in Brazil and traveling around the world, she’s made Manhattan her home for the last seven years, selling her paintings and doing shiatsu.
Laura was destined to live in Belem before she was born, because her grandfather had fled the United States and started a diamond mine at a site upriver. Belem is a remote colonial city, which serves as an outpost for trade coming and going on the river, and, as such, Belem has all the treachery and cunning that commerce brings with it. Laura described one experience where an unpaid and disgruntled engineer barged into their house, waving his gun and threatening to hire a mercenary, of which there is a readily available and cheap supply in Belem, to kill her grandfather, if he was not paid the money he believed was his due. Although she had to flee their house and wander the streets with her brother that night, Laura’s experience of this wild place was more about being a teenager, of getting married and raising a daughter, of being a Brazilian who happened to speak English and being part of the community, while the slow germination of her artistic talent took place against the backdrop of the jungle. Now, the impression of the Amazon is indelibly set on her art and her life.
Laura’s style developed in relative seclusion, from the examination of the natural world, of the many circuits of the river, of the many lines on a leaf, until she came into contact with the work of Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky when she came back to America and during her first forays in the Pompidou in Paris. From those awe-struck observations her style took form and her work underwent a transformation from the representation of landscapes to the abstract. For her, the abstract is another representation of the natural; the yellows, browns and deep blues of her ‘passages’ are taken from the sun, the earth, and the water. The inverted photographs of the jungle and the ‘watering hole’ are, for her, like a daguerreotype of the spiritual and the imaginary side of the Amazon. This realm of nature is deeply revered in Brazil and the indigenous Afro-Brazilian black magic cults, like Santeria and Umbanda, evoke it through various patron spirits in their ceremonies, which made a profound impression on Laura, who was raised without religion.
It wasn’t a cakewalk to make her living in Brazil through painting, but she got by, because people bought art locally. She said, “It was wonderful, because, in Brazil, they don’t like importations, and people weren’t used to putting posters in their house, they were used to having real art, and even if they didn’t have that much money, they would pay in two or three payments. So, people bought art locally, and they support it still.” She started learning Shiatsu in Japan after she left Brazil and found it harder to make ends meet selling her paintings. In Manhattan, she’s never worked with a gallery and regards it as a sort of blessing, because no one has any control over her work. She clears all the furniture out of her apartment and has private shows there when she wants to sell paintings.
One of Laura’s recent installations recreates the ambiance of the Amazon with four monitors that run images of the river at different times of day, in boats, on the bank, and at various locations in the area. One listens to the aqueous melodies created as a paddle is submerged into the current and the waters whirl around the wooden intruder in slow motion. The affect of being surrounded by the four screens is hypnotizing, because the subject is immersed in the sounds and sights of the Amazon. I suspect that Laura made it primarily for herself, as a sort of methadone for when she can’t be in Brazil, floating on dark waters near where her grandfather’s diamond mine lies ruined and empty.
For more information, contact Lauracalhoun@yahoo.com