Leaves from the Carnaval canon

Brazilian-born Chico artist unveils a limited-edition book of her work

MOMENTS OF MOVEMENT AND COLOR Artist Cristina Rosa works on a new piece at home in her studio. Behind her is another recently created work, “Duality.”

MOMENTS OF MOVEMENT AND COLOR Artist Cristina Rosa works on a new piece at home in her studio. Behind her is another recently created work, “Duality.”

Photo by Tom Angel

The book is curious.

It is small enough to rest easily in your lap. Yet the images—from the first golden wax-and-oil crayon piece, which graces its cover, to the impressive sketches, linocut prints, collographs, aquatints and more adorning its pages within—suggest something immense; they suggest a personalized mythology, a world view that is simultaneously internalized and externalized. The book is a creature of dreams made flesh.

Its title is The Eternal Return, and it was created by Chico artist Cristina Rosa.

Rosa was born and raised in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, near the Pantanal jungle. Both of her parents are actively involved in art, so it is probably only natural that she is adept at the symbolic language of the unconscious.

“My dad’s in the visual arts,” explains Rosa one Sunday afternoon in her home near Bidwell Park. She’s a petite woman in her late 20s and speaks with a noticeably Brazilian accent. “And my mom was an art educator.”

So she was always interested in art?

“Yeah, but I was always very afraid [to make it her profession],” she admits. “It was just something I wanted to do on the side, like a hobby. I studied communications for almost three years in Brazil. And I dropped out of college because I just didn’t like it.”

Intent on learning English, she went through an agency to find a school that was good, affordable and located in a pleasant climate. The agency suggested Chico.

During Rosa’s first semester here, she studied only English as part of the exchange program. She convinced her father to allow her to stay one more semester if she passed her English test and qualified for enrolling in regular academic courses. She decided that, since her English wasn’t perfect, she should enroll in something that didn’t make too many demands of her language skills: art.

The pastel-on-paper work “Blue” seems to illustrate a bull carrying a goddess figure, suggesting elements from both the stories of Amazonian tribes and the beliefs of Hindus—Shiva seated upon a lotus, for example, as pointed out in Rosa’s book.

Courtesy of Cristina Rosa

However, she was not an instant success at art.

“I’ve always had great ideas,” Rosa admits, “but I didn’t know how to draw. I drew the worst stick figures on the planet!”

Even so, by semester’s end she realized that art was her calling.

Rosa credits retiring instructor and former Art Department Chairman Marion Epting with being a source of inspiration. Rosa discovered a special connection with Epting.

“Marion is from the Mississippi area,” she explains, “and he has a lot of African-American influences. So one day I came to class, and he was playing a Brazilian music CD. And he didn’t even know I was from Brazil, right? All of a sudden, the environment became very comfortable. We started talking, and he knew a lot about African-Brazilian culture and Carnaval. With other professors there are mainly European influences. But it was important that I found an environment where I felt comfortable and could express myself.”

Rosa’s work evokes both a physical and a spiritual world. She cites Carnaval, that annual rite of exuberance held before Lent in many Latin America countries, as contributing to that quality in her art. In her book, Rosa quotes Michael Bakhin, who states it is “more than a simple festivity, it is a view of the world, where all norms are questioned … everything that is marginalized socially seeks explosive freedom. … Briefly, as the barriers fall, a free and polyphonic communication takes place….”

“I did dance for many, many years before I studied art,” she tells me, further explaining the physicality of her work. “I [create] a lot of figures and movement, so I think a lot of that comes from [her dance experiences]. I’m a very emotional person. And my art is more about feelings. I use movement and color—those are my main things.

“I wanted to draw figures,” she says, remembering when she was starting out, “but I thought I was really horrible. When I would draw, I would have all of these extra lines. … You know, when you first start drawing, [you’re always correcting]: ‘OK, it’s not here, it’s there.’ Then one day, I decided I was not going to try to do it perfect. Because if I kept erasing all the lines, I was going to ruin the paper. So I just decided to use all of the lines [in her work].

“If you really look at it,” she adds, humorously, “there are no [correct] anatomical proportions [in my work]! It’s just a feeling.”

One can’t help but notice the grotesque distortions and symbols that fill many of her works. Did Picasso influence her?

FIRST OFFERING Rosa’s book, which explains her influences and intents as well as displaying reproductions of her work, features her first publicly displayed painting as cover artwork. “Offering” was commissioned as part of COBA’s Chico community art project and eventually selected for permanent display.

Courtesy of Cristina Rosa

“There is probably not a single artist who can say he was not influenced by Picasso,” Rosa quickly answers. “But my work reminds me of people other than Picasso. There are no difficult textures [in my work]. I’m not playing with textures [as Picasso did], I’m really playing with line.”

One Brazilian artist, she says, who has influenced her is Portinari. “He was actually kind of big in the United States a few years ago,” she points out. “Some people say he was influenced by Picasso, and I like his work very much. Picasso, Warhol and Duchamp … most of the art nowadays follows one of those three.”

I also see influences by Dali and the surrealists.

“People [in this country] don’t really know Brazilian art,” Rosa says.

She gets a book she wants me to have a good look at. It’s a volume containing works by Brazilian artist Siron Franco. Even casually thumbing through, I can see similarities between Siron’s feral, animal-like structuring of human faces and that on some of Rosa’s human heads.

“Now, Siron Franco,” Rosa says, happy to explain Brazilian art to me, “he’s kind of surrealistic. He does a lot of animals in a surrealistic way. I actually know this artist. So I’ve probably been influenced by him, too. He deals with a lot of ecological issues in Brazil.

“And Portinari was influenced by Picasso,” Rosa continues. “But then he went on to different things. I really love his line. And his colors. And his feet. That’s where my feet come from.”

Rosa has a new show opening at Moxie’s that will feature many new works. Also, during the reception there, she will unveil her book. It was funded in part through the School of Graduate, International and Sponsored Programs and the Art Department at Chico State University. There are only 15 editions currently, five of which will go to the university as part of the arrangement Rosa made to get the project funded. The other 10 were offered for purchase via a reservation list. At present, all are spoken for.

In the book she features brilliant reproductions of her work, spanning some of her earliest efforts to more recent offerings.

“I picked single images,” she explains, “and then I talk about the process itself, and the other Brazilian artists who have influenced me, in terms of style or ideas.

“It was nice for me because I learned a lot about myself."