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Arts Dreaming of Mexico

August 6, 2018

Erin Nazzaro is not a Latin American painter. She is a Connecticut painter, the daughter of a Bridgeport doctor, who has adopted Latin America as her long-distance muse.

Her unplanned journey began roughly 30 years ago after she and her husband, an excavating contractor, moved to a cottage in Redding on the property of the locally well-known painter Allen Hermes. She began helping Hermes in his studio and with his encouragement began painting herself.

Nazzaro was not new to art, though. She had studied art at the University of Hartford and the University of Bridgeport and early in her career concentrated on precise drawing. “I did super-realistic pencil work, down to the threads of the stitching on your shirt,” she says.

Her very first exhibited piece was a charcoal sketch she did in high school of her brother that won a prize at the annual art show of the Mark Twain Library in Redding. (She’s entered the show every year since.)

The next step in Nazzaro’s transformation came soon after she met Hermes, when she and her husband went to Mexico for a long weekend. In a sense, she never came back.

“I loved the folk art and the paintings of Mexico … the celebrations … the amazing altars. It was all magical to me,” Nazzaro says.

They bought a small house on Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest fresh-water lake. They kept it for 10 years, allowing her to return for painting vacations. Meanwhile, they began exploring the rest of Mexico, South America and the American Southwest. They’ve made repeat trips to Argentina and driven across the Pampas. They’ve met Zapatista rebels conducting a clothing drive and a cellphone-carrying shaman.

“My work is constantly refreshed,” she says. “When I go to these countries the parts that speak to me most are the rural area and the indigenous people.”

By now Nazzaro guesses she’s done almost a thousand paintings, mostly in acrylic because she likes to work fast. She divides them into four categories: birds, animals, people and landscape. But since Mexico, she’s moved far from her early realism.

Nazzaro’s paintings now tend to be done in bold colors, with figures that may be amplified in size or deprived of context. A good sampling was on display recently at the Mayor’s Gallery in the Stamford Town Center.

Waiting to greet visitors were three canvases of women on market day. Each appears to be at rest, wearing the brimmed hat typical of Andean peasants (if such a term is still used). They are depicted more or less realistically. Yet their bodies somehow look thickened and enlarged.

Nearby, a herd of horses gazes from a single canvas. Their coloring suggests they might be palominos, but their anatomy is undefined, without the contour of muscle. There is no discernible background. Her painted cows are similar. Like the horses, they appear to intelligently study the viewer, even though their eyes are only black slashes. “My curious cows,” she calls them, giving a tour.

The largest painting in the exhibit was a double canvas of three roosters so crowded and plumped in the foreground they seemed about to burst out of the painting. Rather than dumb birds, they are three proud amigos whose portrait Nazzaro has managed to paint.

She often gives birds prime billing, but not necessarily a habitat. One nearly abstract painting, titled “Raven Warning,” shows two birds, one crimson and the other yellow, calling out against a featureless background. The paint is so thick and scored that the birds appear almost three dimensional.

In another painting, she has given a bird a tree to perch in. But the tree looks stripped, its greenish trunk smooth like Jack’s beanstalk.

Nazzaro says it’s a Monkey Tree, but it bears little resemblance to the actual species. The painting is titled “A Call to Gather” and a large bird, like her others, has its beak open.

“Most of my birds are communicators. They’re always shouting or yelling or having a conversation,” Nazzaro says. She guesses they could be crows or blackbirds.

“I’m not good at copying,” she says. “Someone will say, ‘What kind of bird is that?’ and I’ll say ‘It’s not any particular kind of bird. It doesn’t matter as long as the painting works.’”

Over time Nazzaro says her paintings have become more expressive, relying less on photographs or even visual memory. “A lot of it, as I’ve gotten older, is in my head. That’s a huge difference,” she says.

Some are literally dreamed. One, titled “Radish Harvest,” shows a seated woman whose enormous body seems to flow toward giant radishes at her oversized feet.

Nazzaro had already become fascinated by the century-old Night of the Radish festival in Oaxaca that happens to occur every Dec. 23, her birthday. Strange as the festival may sound, it attracts thousands of visitors who come to see elaborate carvings of giant radishes.

Nazzaro’s next exhibit is set to open in September at the Kershner Gallery at the Fairfield Public Library. Meanwhile, her work can be seen at erinnazzaro.com.

Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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