Elsa Mora’s art can be described as an intimate look at women’s issues. The work in Femina Plantarum, her current solo show at Pan American Art Projects, reveals a new direction. In an informal interview, Mora talks about her work and creative process with curator Irina Leyva.
There’s an interesting change in images in this series, which is clearly influenced by the rich tradition of botanical illustration.
The visuals emerged organically around the topic. It all started with the title: Femina Plantarummeans “Female Plant” in Latin. I found this expression somewhere and immediately knew it was perfect as a starting point for my series. The idea of this series was one of those strange things that sometimes happen to us. I would describe it as the urgent need to express something very important, which I didn´t know for sure what it was about. (See works from the series on the Cuban Art News Facebook page.)
Referring to botanical illustration and its rich tradition, I’ve always been fascinated with these detailed drawings that carefully represent plants, insects, and the rest of the natural world. The words that describe a flower, for example, are full of poetry and symbolism, in my opinion. Words like petals, stigma, pistil, calyx, corolla, egg … Everything sounds like you’re describing a woman—not exactly the female body, but the entrails of our inner world with all its complexities.
Your work has always been very personal and autobiographical. The pieces in this show suggest that women mutate and become hybrid beings. Do you see this process as being linked to a visual motif or to an emotional state?
I think art, no matter the form or content, is autobiographical. As Federico Fellini said: “All art is autobiographical, the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” I would say that what I do with my hands is always the result of something that started in the mind. In turn, everything our minds absorb has been left behind by our own experiences, which most of the time are linked to others. I think my work has a strong personal element, which always acts as a filter of interpersonal experiences, and my curiosity to understand the world.
As a woman, mother, and artist I have been lucky enough to go through deep experiences in recent years. In 2005, I found that Diego, my son, suffers from autism, a neurologic condition that makes him see the world in a unique way. Watching Diego through the years has been incredibly instructive. I’m sure this has influenced my way of seeing the world, the people around me, and everything else. On the other hand I have a highly talented daughter; she is taking part in a program for advanced children. Diego and Natalie are very different yet very similar. They share what is common to all human beings: the need for self-expression and to feel part of the world.
My interest in the idea of growth, transformation, and change in recent years is connected to my children. They represent two different ways of absorbing reality, to appropriate it and reinvent it through their creativity. Their progress and their personal struggles, as well as my own, are reflected in the formal aspect of this series entitled Femina Plantarum. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned about the human experience, when looking at my children, is our great power of transformation. Not only personal but social transformation. Femina Plantarum has to do with the capacity for deep personal change we all possess and its effect on the world around us.
Do you see yourself continuing to explore this theme related to nature, or do you have other work in mind?
It’s very possible that themes of nature and change will still appear in my work, just in different materials. I am actively working on new ideas. Several years ago I began to explore paper as an expressive medium. It’s a wonderful material, both for its simplicity and its versatility. I plan to continue my explorations with this. On the other hand I want to continue working with clay, porcelain specifically. Its strength and fragility have great symbolic power, which I want to explore. I worked with porcelain ten years ago, so it’s time to revisit it. But most of all I am open to working with many different materials, because that’s what I enjoy most. I find it hard to work with only one material or medium.
Most pieces in the show are drawings. I remember when you worked more with collage. Do you think you might return to that?
Definitely, I want to return to this idea of combining different materials and objects and not just using them individually. But for sure, the one constant in my work will be change. I want to be open to new techniques and new ways of seeing the world. In the end, art is a form of expression without limits. As long as my mind is lucid and active I’ll keep exploring, creating, and learning.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for some years. How is that going? Are you in regular contact with Cuban art? How do you see it in the U.S.?
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. This is a very cosmopolitan and huge city—you never get to know it all, in detail. It’s a perfect place to explore and learn. What I enjoy most about Los Angeles is its diversity. My children go to schools where they have the opportunity to interact with people from all cultures and languages. The same is true for me, except that most of my contacts come through Internet. In 2007 I started writing a blog that has gotten many visitors. Through this blog I’ve met artists from around the world, including Cuban artists living on and off the island. I’ve also gotten to know curators and people working with all forms of creative expression—music, movies etc. This show at Panamerican Art Projects, where Carlos Estévez and I are exhibiting together, is an example of the kind of things I do with Cuban artists.
I’ve also gotten into the film world, which hadn’t happened on the island. With my husband, who produces independent films, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many talented people worldwide. All this has enriched my life so much. I am open to new experiences and continue working in my studio, which is a separate building from my house. From there, I´ve worked on various projects including publishing books in the US and Europe, collaborations, and solo exhibitions.
Here, Cuban art has always been appreciated for its quality and the strength of its content. I know several artists and other art professionals who have contributed a great deal to various institutions, such as galleries, art institutes, museums, and other organizations. I’d like to finish by saying that I am grateful for my life here in Los Angeles. I also appreciate cities like New York for their strong cultural fiber. One thing for sure is that wherever I go I always find Cubans, artists or not. And I always enjoy our sense of cultural and geographical belonging. Nothing is better than sharing a few smiles with someone you identify with culturally.
Elsa Mora: Femina Plantarum is on view at Pan American Art Projects through November 3.