(For more on this event, check out Wendy Townley’s updates at twitter.com/unomaha. Look for the tag “EMC”.)

When I first received the mailer, from KANEKO, about the public conversation with artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, I was intrigued. Even though I had no idea who he was, it was an event hosted by KANEKO. I have yet to be disappointed by an event I attended there. Something about the description and bio on the mailer seemed interesting to me. When I did a bit of research on Enrique (which means I looked up his page on Wikipedia), I knew I wanted to listen to what he had to say.

His background is unique. A graduate of Cornell, with a BS in applied physics, he received his masters in quantum electronics from Berkeley. He was pursuing his doctorate in physics when he decided to abandon his studies to pursue art. I can only guess at the blowback he received, from family, friends, peers and strangers, to such a decision. I can also relate a bit. (I’ll get to that later.)

Enrique talked about how life is confusing, especially for him since me moved around a lot as a child. He was born in Cuba, then moved to Spain, and then finally settled in Puerto Rico. As he put it, when he looked around at people they seemed to have a better clarity about life than he did. It was unnerving, especially when you consider that for the most part the world doesn’t really care how you feel.

Initially, he had pursued science, specifically physics, because he thought he could find answers to life in  that field. All it did, in his estimation, was postpone questions he needed to pursue. So, he dropped his physics studies and focused in on art.

My path is almost a flip of Enrique’s. Growing up I pursued art in hopes of finding a clarity about life. This was due to people around me having their own ideas and expectations for me. Art was a medium where I could express myself and find my voice.

The end result of the art I created wasn’t special, but the journey to get the end of it was. I tried creating art in different styles and mediums. I didn’t like any of it in one sense, but I relished the approach. I liked the idea of thinking creatively, thinking outside the box in creating something. I liked the exploration of finding out what I liked and didn’t like, especially since so many were bent on telling me what I should and shouldn’t believe, like or do.

My senior year of high school, I had been accepted to Nebraska Wesleyan to pursue art. However, I decided against attending right after graduating high school. I wasn’t excited about painting. I was still looking for “my voice”, my purpose, my calling. Instead, I got involved in missions and humanitarian work, which a number of people initially disparaged me for doing. Yet, here I am, almost sixteen years later, on the path I chose to divert to after graduating high school.

What’s interesting about Enrique’s art is it starts and finishes with writing. His writings occupy the space between his artistic efforts (his projects). When he writes, he writes what he will exclude from the art. I went up to him after the talk, and asked him to elaborate about his writing since he also publishes his own essays and poems. He told me that language is clarifying, You cannot be vague. However, there are some things that no matter how you precise you describe with words, there are spaces that words cannot describe. It is those spaces that he delves into with his art.

He is precise and systemic with his approach, and this is due to his physics studies. Science is a language of precision, he said. It sounds obscure to people, but it isn’t. It is real. What’s also interesting is for many scientists, it is a discovery pursuit. This is like many artists. Scientists find joy in their discovery. It is why many scientists enjoy the arts. They are creative, but not in the sense people think of with creativity. They are curious people, which is why they pursue discovery. These are traits people associate with traditional artists, but scientists fit the template.

He continued by saying artists don’t read up on sciences. They don’t look to other fields of study for insight. Most artists are only interested in art, in their own particular field, and because of this there is a deficit in the arts. There is a pretension of authority with most artists. A lot of art is bad and pointless, but the artist and their audience willingly participate in each other’s insecurity by pretending the art is something more than it really is. Scientists do not participate in such insecurities.

I liked that Enrique said “all artists hope that a few people in the world connect with their art.” I’ve always had a hard time believing most artists say they don’t care whether or not people like their art. Deep down, most of them do want their art to be liked, and it’s like their sentiment of not caring is them protecting themselves from people actually not caring about their art. It was nice that he said this, and it is in line with him being real, purposeful and clarifying with his art and work.

One of the things he tries to do with his projects is to make them seem familiar at first, but the more you engage it the art becomes unfamiliar. I thought this was an interesting concept. He talked about how even unfamiliar art can become familiar once you engage it. Once you can engage the art, it becomes familiar, and you can contain it in your mind, then the art is dead. It’s like he wants nuance and depth with his work, and I like this. You just can’t skim the surface. He wants new questions to arise the more you engage his art. As he put it, he wants to “create a virus in the painting” so it destroys the familiar.

At one time, he could be working on upwards of twelve paintings for a specific exhibition. While the painting work together in a specific exhibition, he doesn’t have an issue with them being split up after an exhibition. He compared with a family. A family is like his exhibition of paintings. It says something together, but it also says something individually.

Enrique’s work doesn’t have a linear connection from exhibition to exhibition. This is similar to scientists, who will study in a particular field, and then jump to another field to study for awhile. He also said it would be disingenuous of him to say his work is not somewhat auto-biographical. It’s nearly impossible to live a life and not be influenced by your formative years. He notes themes of displacement, exile, and loss of home in his work, and this mimics his youth.

Toward the end of the conversation, it focused on truth and art. He originally said that he pursued art to pursue questions he had that science couldn’t answer. He didn’t set out to do a philosophical system with his art. All he’s trying to do, he said, was walk a right path that is not confusing. He doesn’t have an external code telling him what to do, but he’s trying to figure out life out. Have a more clear perspective on life.

This led into him talking about some projects he’s doing for cathedrals in New York City this fall. He talked about how the church has people with real needs. The church means something to these people. He said that doing art for those places (the cathedrals) means it will have a higher standard. It’s easy to be a goofball at an art gallery with no accountability, but that is not the case with religious places. It’s hard to live with certain hypocrisies, and it is dangerous for him, but he wants to do the art in churches.

As he put it, when he looks in the mirror he wants to see “having the possibility of being honest enough, significant enough”. He “needs the possibility to be a failure to not be a failure”.

There was a lot more he shared, but I think it would take a lot more time to encapsulate the conversation. He does painting, sculpture, photography and writing. However he can create, he does it. He will not be limited in his voice.

Listening to Enrique share, last night, brought some clarity to details about my own journey. It was fascinating to listen to. It must have been, or I took five pages of notes for no reason.

KANEKO always has great events. Be sure and check one out soon.

One thought on “A Conversation: Enrique Martinez Celaya

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