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On Altars, Papermaking, and Spirituality

Winter 2021
Winter 2021
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Candy Alexandra González embraces their papermaking practice as a spiritual practice with ancestral foundations.

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My mother, Maria Guillermina Gutierrez Castro, is a woman of strong convictions and immovable faith. Every morning, she stands in front of her altar—a small table overflowing with flowers, candles, rosaries, statuettes of different saints, a collection of paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Mexico and empress of Latin America) hung on the wall, and, of course, small, worn-out portraits of my maternal grandparents. She speaks to them. She gives thanks for a new day. She calls on her saints and ancestors for protection. She crosses herself. Only after all this, does she leave the house to start her workday.

As a kid, I found this practice to be tedious. My siblings and I would draw straws each week to determine who would have to arrange the floral offering for the family altar and discard the previous week’s wilting flowers. Now, at 28, I eagerly buy and arrange flowers for my own personal altar each week, and have been doing so for six years. An altar is the site at which my artwork begins and ends. My practice isn’t something that can be explained with a lengthy annotated bibliography; it isn’t something that can be understood intellectually. I define an altar as connection. To keep an altar is to be in community with your spirit guides, a transference of energy between the living and the spirits that protect them. This can be felt in the body, a sensory experience that radiates within.

Papermaking, too, is a spiritual practice. The first time I stood in front of a vat—one bright and steamy summer day at the Women’s Studio Workshop—I experienced the sensation of a puzzle piece falling into place. Stepping up to the vat was reminiscent of the time I stepped in front of my own altar. I felt the approval of my ancestors in my body. I felt a spiritual redirection. That was the day I decided to pursue a career in the arts. I didn’t know at the time that the use of paper for altar practices in Mexican culture pre-dated colonization—pre-Hispanic societies made paper ofrendas (offerings) for their deities long before the popularization of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). I do vividly remember feeling an undeniable connection to papermaking as a form of expression.

My altar and papermaking practice collided for the first time in grad school. It was 2016. I was making work that centered my mom’s experience crossing the US/Mexico border and the migrant deaths that resulted from the policy “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a policy that increased policing in border towns, effectively funneled migrants through the most dangerous parts of the border, and resulted in thousands of deaths. For my MFA thesis exhibit, I bound a book, titled Buried Sun, that contained the names of all the identified human remains (and placeholders for the unidentified remains) found along the Sonoran Desert between 1994 and 2017. The names were printed on thin, overbeaten bleached abaca so no matter which page you are reading, the shadows of the names in surrounding pages are visible. This created an effect that can be described as a cacophony of names. This drumleaf book was placed on a pedestal in front of an “altar piece,” a large, textured hide-like flax/abaca wall piece in which I burned circles that reflected where each of the remains had been found. On the floor, below the altar piece, I spread palm ash. This altar is the best way I knew how to grieve the needless loss of lives and to honor their humanity.

These days, my work on paper is an expression of healing from the impact fat phobia had in my life. This new direction started with a series of long-exposure self-portraits titled, Mirror Talk, through which I challenged myself to confront my reflection by looking directly at the camera lens. Through my self-portraiture practice, I created a space to reconstruct my relationship to being photographed and to reconstruct my relationship with myself.

As a West Bay View Foundation fellow at Dieu Donné in 2019, I expanded on Mirror Talk through a series of vivid pulp paintings. Some of these compositions depict abstracted landscapes created with tape measures, embedded thread, and flesh-tone pulp paints. Some are large-scale pulp paintings of semi-nude pictures that I embedded within an accumulation of colorful, organic pulp-painted textures. Inspired by NEA National Heritage fellow Ofelia Esparza, I used three pulp paintings to create Altar a mis estrías terrestres/Altar to corporal striations, an altar installation honoring my body and the trauma it has endured. I grounded the installation in traditional altar practices by adorning the paintings with a handmade-paper-flower arch and white candles. Altar to corporal striations is about self-adoration, self-reverence, and ascension into a higher self. It’s the best way I knew how to honor myself and my body, and grieve years of hurt caused by systemic fat phobia.

Altar and papermaking practices have been intrinsically connected for centuries. These forms of self-expression are the most precious gifts passed down to me by my indigenous ancestors, my spirit guides.

Candy Alexandra González, Altar to corporal striations, 2019, installation: pulp paintings (linen pulp paint on abaca base sheet, measuring tape), handmade abaca paper flowers, votive candles; approximately 100 x 165 x 4 inches, at BRIC, as part of the exhibition “Present Bodies: Papermaking at Dieu Donné,” curated by Jenny Gerow, December 5, 2019–February 2, 2020. Photo: Jordan Rathkopf. Courtesy of BRIC, Brooklyn. BELOW: Candy Alexandra Gonz.lez, making cempazuchitl (marigolds) out of abaca paper for their installation Altar to corporal striations (2019). Photo: Andrew Kim, 2019. Courtesy of Dieu Donné, Brooklyn.

Candy Alexandra González, Untitled, 2019, 40 x 30 inches, linen pulp paint on abaca base sheet. Courtesy of Dieu Donné, Brooklyn.

Candy Alexandra González, detail of Altar to corporal striations, 2019, 30 x 40 inches, linen pulp paint on abaca base sheet. Courtesy of Dieu Donné, Brooklyn.

A long-exposure self-portrait by Candy Alexandra González, 2019, 18 x 24 inches, digital photo print on matte photo paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Candy Alexandra González, detail of Buried Sun, 2017, altar installation (artist book on translucent bleached abaca paper, abaca/flax wall piece, and palm ash on floor), wall piece: 80 x 36 inches; book: 14 x 11 x . inches (closed). Photo by and courtesy of the artist. BELOW: Detail of the artist book.