At Play: Head, Heart, Color

BETWEEN the rational and the emotional, between the serious and the playful, between white America and Hispanic America, Patty Ortiz treads softly her own path. In her drawings lies her unique resolution of conflict between head and heart and between her two cultures.

Because she is from San Antonio (a highly integrated city) she says she has never really suffered the ill will of the ignorant. And perhaps because of this she has been freer to choose for herself what direction her art would take. Traditionally trained in Western (perspective) drawing techniques at the University of Texas, Ms. Ortiz also collects a wide variety of Mexican folk arts and draws freely from the color and celebratory disposition of her Mexican heritage. Her work cannot be easily pegged eithe r to a particular culture or to a political position. But it reflects her daily experience as a mother and her complex experience as a Mexican-American woman.

We stood together in her studio, gazing at "Drawing the Way a White Man Sees." The multimedia piece takes a little from architectural drawings - clean, rational lines outline the side of a house with a single darkened window. Rice paper has been stacked in several layers. On the bottom layer all around the edges is a quiet riot of color, somewhat obscured by the paper, but present in expressionistic fervor. Here lies Ortiz's assertion of her womanhood, her Hispanic heritage, and her emotions, she tells m e. An-other layer offers straight lines, and above those on yet another layer, words spell out the title. The anatomical drawing of an eye reminds us of both Renaissance perspective and the draftsman's analytical perception of line. Expressive black marks punctuate her playful self-assertion. Carpenter's nails neatly clamp the rice paper to the plywood underneath, a persistent expression of order.

"My husband is an English professor," explains Ortiz. "He told me about a student he had from Africa who had gone back to college to acquire writing skills needed to get a raise. He could not write. My husband struggled constantly with him, working after hours, knowing it was a cultural thing and trying all sorts of things. And finally he said, 'I hate to say this, but you need to write like a white man talks.' The student opened his eyes and said, 'Oh ... . This is what you mean.' Steven had been sayi ng, write like you think, write like you think....

"All my graduate professors were white men. I had no women teachers. I worked with one Hispanic professor, but I was basically trained to draw like a white man. I don't want it to seem like I'm putting down white men, I'm not. I was trained to see that way - and that's the way I see.... It's just the truth. [The piece] speaks to my Americanization. I can teach people how to draw. It is a question of seeing analytically. Edges have always been really important, and that's the secret to teaching people to draw. If they stop seeing lines and see edges, there is a breakthrough that happens, and they start seeing space."

Still, the passionate color underneath the rice paper straggles out untidily underneath all this rationalism. Human experience isn't tidy. Feeling isn't tidy. She can and often does draw "like a white man sees." But she also deliberately embraces a more "primitive" style of drawing that captures her sense of the childlike and the immediacy of emotion.

Ortiz's work appears to be an honest struggle between the rational and the emotional in herself. It seems she nearly became a mathematician.

"Basically my work is about the contradiction between the mathematical and the emotional. I was always very interested in math. You could open math books and look at those drawings, which I found just beautiful, but they made no sense to a lay person. They are intimidating, but you do have the feeling they mean something."

So the geometrical, the mathematical, has a place in almost all her work. She likes the metaphor of flight - the romance of flight is supported by the rigorous precision of its technology. Paper airplanes appear again and again in her drawings and in three-dimensional suspensions in some installations.

A few years ago when she was looking for a new place to live, architectural forms moved into her pictures to stand for the rational and the mathematical. The house form (sometimes a simple triangle, sometimes a more complex structure) often stood for herself as well - her being, the place where she lives. Her geometrical shapes were transformed in many of these drawings by more child-like, almost automatic "scribbling," expressionistic slashes of color.

In "Escuchale," a little white house throws a giant shadow against a larger "neighborhood." Fitful scrawls suggest graffiti's discontent. In the structure behind the little white house, one bird perches hopefully in a window bathed in light. Another window holds a dark bird. Ortiz's personal imagery is not obscure: The bird, too, represents something of the human spirit and its ability to soar beyond its circumstances, however dim - another metaphor for flight. Here, the dark surroundings, the scrambled emotions of the troubled neighborhood still admits of the shining heart, the spirit capable of flight or glowing stasis.

In "Neighborhood V," another white house appears next door to a house of dark blue, cloud-filled sky. The white house, well-ordered and carefully drawn, is transparent enough to disclose a fireplace within. The blue house unveils open imagination, balancing the precision of its neighbor.

Ortiz's primary medium is pencil and paper on plywood. She chooses to draw because she loves the immediacy of the form.

"It's like thinking. From the heart to the paper. I can get it straight out," she says.

But she also likes the freedom of working on installations and sculpture. The house form takes on three dimensions as well as further meaning in "Mother's Housecoat," a mixed-media comment on Ortiz's own experience of motherhood and a reflection on her mother's goodness ("My mother worked hard to be a good mother. I could feel it. I was the youngest."). The wooden house has buttons up the front and a frilly copper color. But wearing it would clearly cause discomfort. Manicured lawn "grows" out of its sid es, the roots piercing uncomfortably inside the house. Bags of seeds hang from its windows, and the heart - peculiar to so much Mexican art - refers here again to the presence of love as the center of the home. And home, with all its problems, is still the place where love is nurtured.

Ortiz did a series of small sculptures of houses to hang on the wall. "Birdhouse" is a whimsical little piece that reinterprets several of Ortiz's recurring images. Mysterious roots trail off underneath, yellow ladders lead from one story to the next, a small bird perches in a window, and realistic sky fills the attic. It's really a delicate "self-portrait."

Both "Birdhouse" and "Housecoat" remind me of doll houses, a form Ortiz very much enjoys - all the seriousness of architecture made into a toy. And sure enough, they each bring back the child, the playfulness of the heart, as Ortiz says, within the ordered sanity of architecture.

"There is a real beauty in the fantasy or romantic notion of a house. There's the architectural side, and then the sense of home. The mind versus heart. The house carries both.

ve probably developed both sides of myself," she tells me. "I am a strong female. My husband and I are really in a partnership. We really do share responsibility for the house and child care. A lot of people say it's because of my culture. I was being pushed as a Mexican to be aggressive and be educated and go beyond discrimination. So because of that I became pretty strong. Both my parents said the only thing that will fight discrimination is education."

Among the elements - line, shape, color, form, and texture - texture is the most important to Ortiz, which she claims is also a cultural preference. Next is color - traditionally Hispanic color, she says. In "Fire in My Backyard," a drawing with collage, brilliant oranges, reds, and yellows leap up in triangular flames toward a vivid sky. It's a complex drawing in which color is the prime carrier of movement.

She has done a number of pieces based on the mythology of the ancient religious text of the Mayans, the Popol Vuh. This series of drawings is wildly colorful and strong.

One depicts the Mayan story of creation. "In the Beginning" shows the coming of light into the world. The hands of the Creator reach up from the brilliant purples and blues to the white overarching light. White makes strong color that much more beautiful, she says. And in that white light she installs the recurring image of the ladder - the bridge between head and heart.

In "With Blood's Flower" (a term from the Popol Vuh meaning love) richest color carries the emotional depth of the piece. The flowers, she says, are made to suggest people, the lifeblood of whom is love. Again, the hands motif reminds us of the creative impulse - of life itself, and of the artist herself, creating with her hands.

In another piece, she recounts the Popol Vuh tale of the first people - the wood people. Here color is dark and rich, the drawing calculatedly primitive, and the effect riveting.

This series is solid and stirring, fresh and honest. Ortiz resists literalism, creating instead a series of visual metaphors from her own store of private imagery, which nevertheless point publically toward ultimate concerns.

* Last in an occasional series profiling artists whose work speaks of the expansive land and colorful cultures of the American West. Previous pieces ran Dec. 3 and Dec. 23, 1991, and Jan. 13 and Feb. 3,

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