A Window into a Man's Soul
"Art is the window to man's soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within." - Lady Johnson.
For the past month, I have packed up and moved across country. Packing up and moving is never easy, although, slowly but surely a familiarity has been established in our new home. I would be lying if I didn't say that one of the main reasons we purchased our new house, is because it is designed to display artwork. Regardless of where I sit, I feel as if I am in an art gallery featuring the artwork of my father, Al Sprague.
Being the daughter of two artists, I don't have problems filling up wall space. I have acquired several pieces over the years that have touched me and opened a window to a special place in my heart. Each one brings a little different emotion but all tell the story of an artist's love for a country and its culture.
Five pollera paintings grace the walls of my main living space. These are treasures I have accumulated over the years and for the first time, I'm able to display them together. This is interesting as I can see the development of my father into a master artist capturing the pride and beauty of a country and its rich traditions through these five pieces of art.
During my college years, I studied art history and in particular, I remember learning about the developmental stages of Van Gough, Degas, and other artists. So, I started to contemplate the development in my father's work based on the pieces I look at each day. I don't know how academic my observations may be, but I have come up with my own thoughts on the evolution of Al Sprague's polleras.
In order to best understand how my father evolved into the artist we all know and love, it is important to look back to his college education and his Master's thesis. His thesis was titled, “Figurative Painting Organized with the Principle of Shared Emphasis between Figure and Environment.” In his abstract he wrote: “The object of this thesis is to show the figure in space painted in such a manner as to exist in the composition as a functioning shape or shapes of equal importance with the other component parts of its environment. This is attained through the simplified modeling of self-contained planes of color juxtaposed against each other to create an illusion of space and depth.” This principle, obtained through an academic study of abstract impressionism combined with a passion for realistic subjects, was to serve as a touchstone for all my father's future artwork. Cezanne and his style of layering colors and shapes influenced the development of my father's style. Still this to this day he will refer to Cezanne and Japanese art as heavy influencers on how he sees and paints his subject matter.
It was the year of 1974 when a friend of my father's, Gordon Matheny, suggested he paint the polleras. At first my father said he didn't want to paint the dancers but decided to take a stab at it. After the first completed painting, he was hooked. He loved the way the colors of the dresses reflected the soft light of the Panama sun, the way the templeques glowed in the hair of the dancers, and of course he loved the beauty and pride of the girls dancing the typical Panamanian dances.
In a recent conversation with my father he referred to his first polleras as being very "raw". As you can tell by my piece, Baile de La Pollera, painted in1976, much of the work is blended, the main focal point is the face of the dancer and her dress. The colors he chose to paint with are earth tones and it is almost as if the girl is the only thing that matters in this painting - she is in her own world dancing to the music. Nothing else really matters beyond her movement. Even though the male is behind her with his hat, she is the center of the show. When looking at this piece, one can see the style of "Essentialism" evolve in my father's work. According to my father, "Essentialism is the way we look at things in reality. Our eyes only focus on one thing while the surrounding areas blur to the side. In this painting, our focus is the girl's face - everything else is just a blur.
As years went on and more polleras were painted, the style of my father's work continued to evolve but one thing remained the same. He continued to layer shapes and colors to create a composition reflecting his style of "Essentialism".
In 1993, my father painted one of my favorites in my collection, "Josafina". She was completed the night my grandmother, Josephine Sprague, passed away. This painting has a way of immediately drawing us in.
Josafina's eyes look to somewhere beyond the painting. In the words of my father, "She is looking beyond to a better place." There is a tranquility to her eyes and a peace throughout the composition. My father continues to use shapes and colors in a layering fashion but brighter colors and more illumination bring your eyes to the place he wishes you to focus - the eyes and face of Josafina.
Painting consumes my father's whole self. It isn't just picking up a brush and throwing some paint on a canvas, it is a whole body experience. One of my favorite things to do when visiting him is to watch him paint. He creates a stimulating environment with music and lighting while he paints. Many times, you will hear Lucho's music being played in the background as he creates beautiful compositions of girls dancing. Sometimes, his painting gets a little messy - paint splatters on his clothes and he gets it on his hands. "I don't just use the brush to paint my images," he says. "I use my fingers and the sides of my hands to smooth out places or smudge an area on the canvas."
In my piece, "Night Dancers", painted in 2000, one can see the thickness of the paint he was using at that time. The thick layering of paint gives the illusion that the dress is moving. One can almost feel the texture of the material and see how the dress flows throughout the dance. The background composition of this painting is very abstract. One can almost see the figures of other dancers in the background but the focus once again is on the face of the dancer in the front.
Light is used throughout my father's paintings to bring focus to certain areas of the composition. It is almost as if an external light is shining into the painting and onto the dancer - he is opening a window for us to see something more than just a figure dancing - he wants us to see the pride and the joy brought through the participation in this rich Panamanian tradition.
"Waiting to Dance", painted in 2013, captures a group of girls waiting to dance at a festival in the interior of Panama. The bright colors of the countryside are captured in the background of the composition and the girls dresses are painted with a little more detail than that of what we see in "Josafina". Although the faces are our focal points, they are abstract shapes making up a group of girls. Obviously, my father focuses on the girl turned and looking in our direction as well as the profile of the girl looking forward. The external light or sunshine is bright and creates shadows on the girls' skin. The use of thick paint is less in this piece and the texture is much smoother than that of "Night Dancers". I was immediately drawn to this piece because, once again, my father creates a focus on something more than just girls waiting to dance. There is a sense of youthfulness and pride in the girl's eyes. She is about to participate in a well known and rehearsed dance with her friends or siblings. It is obvious she has taken the time to prepare her hair in the traditional braid, dressed in her traditional montuna costume with hat and is ready to perform as the afternoon sun is setting. The colors are vibrant and there is much joy in this piece.
The newest painting to my collection is "Singing and Dancing" which was completed this year - 2018. This piece captures something new in my father's technique. When he told me he wanted me to have this piece he explained that he had discovered something new in his painting and he wasn't quite sure what it was. I have witnessed over the years, how his work and technique is influenced by the subject matters he paints prior. For example, when he painted a collection of raspadero paintings with bright colors and started to paint fishermen afterwards, the bright colors of the raspadero carried over into the fishermen paintings. I believe this is what is happening with my father's work now. He has recently moved to New Orleans and has been drawing and painting scenes from local entertainment venues. I believe much of the technique he is using in these scenes to illumine the subjects is carrying over into his other subject matter, especially the pollera dancers. Unlike, "Waiting to Dance" this composition is more fluid. The illumination of the girls faces is brought to life in a different manner than those of the past. Once again, it is as if an external light is shining onto these angelic figures as they sing and dance the pollera.
Although the technique and style of my father's artwork has changed over the years, three things remain the same - 1) He remains true to his concept of developing a composition with the layering of abstract shapes and colors. 2) He continues to paint in his developed style of "Essentialism", and 3) He uses light to bring our focus to something beyond the canvas. As Lady Bird stated in her quote, "Art is the window to man's soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within." My father has painted close to 1000 pollera paintings since 1974, each revealing not only a glimpse into a tradition, but a glimpse into the soul of an artist who sees the beauty and pride of the country of Panama.