Reprinted from The Washington Post, June 30, 2002
Naul Ojeda, a Wizard of Whimsy
By Jo Ann Lewis, June 30, 2002
The recent opening of Naúl Ojeda's show at International Visions Gallery on Connecticut Avenue NW was no ordinary event.
Ojeda, 62, had died June 6, two days before the opening, from complications following lung surgery. His family and friends were still in shock as they poured into the gallery on opening night, carrying white flowers and turning the gallery's guest log into a book of condolence.
Ojeda's 17-year-old son, Nicolas, a high school senior, wearing a rakish white cap, welcomed the crowd and bravely spoke on his father's behalf.
"I know if Naúl were here, he'd thank my mother for always being there for him," said the young man as Philomena Ojeda stifled tears. "And now we can look at these paintings," Nicolas said, sweeping his hand around the room. "They are funny, colorful and wild, just like him."
A Uruguayan immigrant who came to Washington in the late '70s, Ojeda was well known here as a printmaker and graphic artist. But these paintings -- his first -- came as a surprise.
I'd missed the chance to know Naúl Ojeda well. Years ago, I'd reviewed what may have been his first show as an expatriate in Washington, calling him "a Latin American Chagall" because of the floating lovers who hover in his black-and-white woodcuts, casting them in an upbeat, poetic mood. Dreamy and nostalgic, his prints dealt with the displacements of immigrant life and the yearning for home.
Every few years he would call to tell me of his latest venture or upcoming show: "You don't have to write anything, I just want you to come and see," he would always say, and regrettably I often didn't. This time the call came from Philomena. "Naúl is too sick to call," she said, "but I know he'd want you to see his first paintings."
And so I was there at the opening, listening to tales about this flamboyant, witty, passionately committed artist, as told by his army of friends from the Latino and human rights communities. Hoping to catch up on what I'd missed, I asked Philomena whether I might visit his studio, which was in the garage behind their Tenleytown home. She soon obliged. To my surprise, it was their house, not the studio, that still throbbed with his presence.
Clearly a man of boundless energy, he transformed everything in sight into art. He'd painted the front porch light, the tree stump beside the steps, the fence outside the kitchen window. He painted the birdhouse, the basketball hoop, a pair of andirons he found in the street, turning them into a pair of sentinels on the back porch. An enthusiastic cook, he'd painted a cow's head inside the cover of his backyard barbecue. He rescued abandoned chairs by covering them with the endearing figures that populated his prints. Some remain in the house at the dinner table or tucked here and there with homemade signs that say, "Don't sit on the art."
"I never knew what -- or who -- I'd find when I came home from work," says Philomena, who coordinates international programs at the National Endowment for the Arts. Some of the most memorable works turned out to be birthday gifts for Nicolas, including the mural that covers the entire rear wall of the garage. It is inscribed, in Spanish, "For Nicolas on his 10th birthday."
His framed woodcut prints, so unfortunately absent from the gallery show, cover the walls of the Ojeda home, each one pulled by hand by Naúl from blocks of wood he had carved after -- as he put it -- "finding" the images within.
There is a rarely seen color woodcut titled "Homage to Van Gogh," built from searing yellow and orange marks; and "Big Fish Dinner," his subversive riff on "The Last Supper," with a woman included. "Long Awaited Reunion," over the fireplace, is one of his most personal works, made after Ojeda visited his Uruguayan daughter in Holland, where her mother, Ojeda's first wife, had been granted political asylum in the '70s. In it, the floating figure of a man hands a flower to a young woman standing in a bed of tulips. Another print, "Return of the Family," deals with his own visit to Uruguay, after years in exile, when democratic government was restored.
Ojeda's switch to oil and acrylic paintings was a practical matter. Among other things, he suffered from repetitive stress injury caused by decades of carving and printing by hand. Also, five years ago, after rents had become prohibitive, he was forced to give up his longtime studio near Dupont Circle and set up shop in his cramped garage, where there was no room to make prints. "He missed being in the middle of things," says Philomena Ojeda. He continued to walk around downtown, always taking a bus or Metro. "He never drove: He said the only thing Washingtonians know about their city is what they see from the car window."
The paintings at International Visions expanded his visual vocabulary to include what he saw on those walks, as well as the immigrant experience. Brightly colored and humorous, they often verge on caricature and satire but lack the technical mastery of his prints. "Naúl was a man who loved life and color, and this is what we see in his paintings," says Philomena. "The prints express his more serious, melancholy side."
"Don't Fence Me In," one of the best paintings on view, makes her point, sending up the convoluted immigration process by presenting it as a maze of rooms and offices, with arrows pointing in every direction. And -- as in much of Ojeda's work -- the scene ends in a whimsical, upbeat way, signified by the couple floating dreamily overhead, the man playing a violin, the woman offering him a slice of watermelon. His final print is more pointed, focused on the homeless in Lafayette Park, lined up at a mobile soup kitchen within eyeshot of the White House.
It will take a more inclusive show to give Ojeda his due, and one would hope that a Washington institution will mount at least a modest retrospective soon. Till then, the paintings serve as a stand-in for his ideas and concerns. "In these paintings I give voice to the small stories," said Ojeda in a statement he dictated to his wife before his death.
Through his art, his voice continues to be heard.