I came to São Paulo in November 2016 for the first chunk of a Fulbright grant. This first visit was two months long, with the plan to do a second two-month visit in mid-2017. While I initially planned to spend the majority of my time in Minas Gerais, a state in the northern part of the country’s southeast, I longed to see São Paulo, having heard of its brilliant colors, bright sun, street art, and international flair.
A friend introduced me to Alexandra Ungern-Sternberg Prufer, whose artist-run space Ateliê Alê is located in the Santo Amaro part of the city. I contacted Alê, as she is known, and we agreed upon a plan for me to visit the city for three weeks, during which time I would do a residency in the studio space attached to the associated gallery. This plan brought shape to my previously amorphous vision for how, exactly, I would be conducting my time in Brazil, at least for the first couple weeks while I got on my feet. Flights were booked, arrangements made, and bags packed. Off I went.
São Paulo, with its cacophony of noises, sights, smells, and colors, did not disappoint. It couldn’t. With a population of over 12 million, the city has a relentless pace, pounding out a constant beat by which I marked the rhythm of my days.
Music was everywhere, as Carnaval bands were in the throes of rehearsing for February’s celebration. Crowds outside of bars spilled into streets at all hours. Sunday afternoons were as vibrant and raucous as Friday nights. Traffic snarled the streets and makeshift vendors approached diners at restaurants selling homemade packets of peanuts or breakfast cakes called bolos. I had expected a sort of South American version of New York City. This wasn’t that, but rather an urban mega-city unlike anything I had ever imagined, with its own set of rules and a chaotic logic that often defied itself. I loved and hated it.
A particular struggle for me was coming to terms with the painfully public, achingly desperate situation of so many Paulistas—adults and children alike—living on the streets, or in equally precarious situations. I wore an armor each time I left the house, in large part because I knew I’d cry (and did, more than once) when I looked too hard. After awhile I began to recognize this steely face in others I saw on the streets. To navigate such a huge city, with its gaping expanses and wild social and economic inequality, requires a certain level of detachment. Underneath it, for me at least, lay a constant uneasiness, a constant awareness of my good fortune, and the dire straits of others.
I learned. I learned to take the bus (two hours, sometimes, to get through the snarl of traffic to the studio just a few miles away), where to buy art supplies, which museums had free days, and when. I learned that I had to leave for the studio by 8 a.m. if I wanted to arrive by 10. I spoke my best Portuguese, which is really not very good, and was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by everyone I met. I was extremely cautious, but I think it worth noting that despite the frequent warnings (mostly from Brazilian friends) about my safety, I rarely felt unsafe.
My paintings started to build up a texture different from that I had achieved at home. I began to incorporate fragments of the architecture I was seeing, the everyday geometries, the jagged nature of picking my way across the sidewalk to the bus stop. The colors became bolder, the shapes spikier. The paintings felt like the city.
I worked on collages, too, but those never did what I hoped they would. I’m not sure if they will, but I plan to keep working on them. The jagged-ness and rough edges of my experience was reflected in the shapes I cut out of older drawings and then knitted together to create new forms. I used old laser-cut paper forms from a previous project as stencils, marking the negative spaces created by the delicate cuts in marker on new sheets of clean paper. These ghost shapes, as I thought of them, struck a contrast to the clean geometry of the paintings.
The studio itself was busy and cheerful. Ateliê Alê is a curious and singular space: part studio, part gallery, part salon, and part classroom. On any given day there might have been a guest curator meeting with a group of artists, a young woman from the neighborhood taking drawing lessons, an exhibition opening, and me, working in the studio. There was always coffee and bolos in the fridge. Alê and her assistant, Isabel, maintain an international network of projects (during my stay, they flew off to Miami Basel for a week), and the studio hummed with their collective energy and good cheer. Alê was supremely generous with her time and energy. Through her, I met other artists and curators, attended openings, and benefited from recommendations of what galleries to visit.
Like some of my fellow artist friends, I sometimes reach a stopping place on a project earlier (or later) than I expect. About 2 ½ weeks in, I sensed that I was done with the work I had started. I packed up my belongings, stored my paints in a box under a sink, did my best to take photographs. I’ll go back in May, at which point I’ll show the work (and some of the resulting developments) in a weeklong exhibition—more of an extended open studio—meant to showcase production during the residency period. With time away to think about the work, I have a clarity about it that I wasn’t quite able to access when in the thick of the city’s sensory assault. Two months home, though, and readying myself to return I find that I crave that buzz, that hum, that whir.