2009 Rakow Commission Artist: Isabel De Obaldía

Isabel De Obaldía (2009)

Rey del Cenote - Isabel De Obaldía

Rey del Cenote

Isabel De Obaldía (Panamanian, b. United States, 1957)
Republic of Panama, Panama City, and United States, Millville, New Jersey, WheatonArts, 2009
Sand-cast glass, glass powders, cut and engraved; steel base
With steel base: H: 182.8 cm, W: 35.5 cm, D: 35.5 cm
2009.5.2, the 24th Rakow Commission

A primitive life force seems to reside in the massive, sand-cast sculptures of Panamanian artist Isabel de Obaldía’s Unearthed series. The six-foot-tall works with animal faces echo ancient Mesoamerican ritual and symbol, a life spent close to the natural world, and a storyteller’s wiles. Striations, cuts, and colored surface treatments, added after casting and cooling, contribute to the feeling that these mysterious shapes have been lifted from a cache of ancient shamanic objects—and have lost none of their power.

Born in Washington, DC, to a French mother and Panamanian father, De Obaldía, now a resident of Panama City, first studied architecture at the University of Panama, then %%drawing%% and painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After receiving a BFA in graphic design and cinematography from the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked in two-dimensional art for 20 years. %%Drawing%% on the rich colors of the indigenous artistic traditions of Central America, she created large canvases and mixed-media works on paper. Animals and humans were depicted in bold colors with slashing lines and sometimes convoluted, tormented forms. As political and social unrest mounted in Panama in the 1980s, her animals became monsters, reflecting the anguish and cruelty of the time.

What drew her to glass, she explains, was experimenting with layers of translucent colors in her painting, using oils and glazes. Glass is not a traditional artistic medium in Panama. However, she had seen glass objects in the Louvre and other French museums she visited as a teenager and was intrigued with the medium. In 1987, De Obaldía took her first glass course at Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle and fell in love with glass. She began by engraving and enameling blown vessels and flat glass. A glass-casting course at Pilchuck in the early 1990s sent her in a new direction. Her first castings, inspired by figures in her earlier paintings, resembled the metates used by native peoples to grind grain. “Without realizing it, I had become influenced by pre-Columbian sculpture,” she says. 

Isabel De Obaldía at work

Working with glass, she tries to create sculptures that have “the spirit of our past.” Her early metate shapes evolved into torsos, some of them without heads or arms. Jagged lines of color or metal infused in the glass create a sense of movement as light plays over the surface. “The torsos became a sort of canvas,” she notes. “In each new torso I would develop a new story. Imagine an adventure lived, to create the soul. No need of a face.”

Her latest work, the Unearthed series, is totemic in %%scale%% and appearance. “I wanted to ‘build’ on a larger %%scale%%. By pure coincidence I had traveled [in 2006] to Paestum [Italy] and had seen those magnificent structures. I had also made recent trips to Mexico and Peru.”

Architectural though the prototypes may have been, it is her awe of an animal’s power and sense of its vulnerability that come through. The jaguar, which De Obaldía says is the only panther species found in the Americas, is her favorite. Once endangered but now making a comeback, “it figures prominently in the mythology of our America, from the tribal lore of the southwest of North America as well as in the Aztec, Mayan, Amazonian, and other ancient cultures.” Faces of crocodiles, monkeys, and scorpions—animals of the lush land she lives in and venerated for millennia—beguile or challenge the viewer. They are an homage to history, nature, and the power of the symbol. De Obaldía’s Commission was presented in public for the first time on Friday, October 16, 2009, during the Museum’s Annual Seminar on Glass.