In the Provincetown Studio
I’ve spent the last 6 months as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown surrounded by poets, writers, and artists. We live in a sleepy town where on a cold Sunday night, one can smell bonfires, hear the ocean waves from your window, and study the constellations above. I have made life long friendships, discovered new directions for my work, and developed a new, distilled kind of relationship with words and objects.
We were first introduced to Raul during his MFA candidacy show at VCUarts in 2019, when he exhibited a modular installation of over a hundred wooden leaves mounted to the wall. Born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, the artist immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12, and has been a DACA recipient since 2012. He received his BFA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015 and MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media from VCU in 2019. Recently, he was awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown – a prestigious residency which has housed artists including Alex Katz, Elizabeth Murray, Martin Puryear, Judy Pfaff and others. As the residency has come to a close, we’re excited to take a virtual look into Raul’s studio while he was there, while learning a bit more about his charismatic, sometimes spiky and even tooth-embedded, wood sculptures.
What does a typical day look like for you in the studio?
I start my day in the studio by cleaning the work tables, sweeping the floor, putting tools back where they belong and taking out the trash. Once the studio is clean, I start gluing up parts, sanding and planning the projects for the week. I try to be in the studio from 9am until 10pm everyday except Sunday. No work on Sundays. One of my favorite parts of my day is when another fellow knocks on my door, and we end up having a long conversation. My day in the studio almost always ends with what I call an Artist Shower. It’s basically me dusting myself off using compressed air. I dust myself off multiple times a day. During my seven months here, I worked on the upcoming solo show for Reynolds Gallery, my Fellowship solo show I had in January, my first group show in my home country through VCU, a group show with the rest of the FAWC fellows for the museum in town, a few commissions, and sculptures for Volta Basel in Switzerland.
Do you listen to music or podcasts? Is it quiet or loud while you work?
I am definitely the loud one here! I use all kinds of power tools to make my work, so noise and I have a long-term intimate relationship. I am Pro-Noise. Most of the time, I work in silence because I enjoy listening to the tools, learning their language, and noticing the different sounds materials make. It teaches me to notice when tools are tired, when too much force is being applied, and if you listen closely, you can tell when something is working as you intend it to. Like musical instruments, each tool has a certain range of sounds they project when you play them right, and a range of sounds that tell you if something bad is about to happen.
You have several shrines hanging in your studio. What’s the story behind these?
Growing up in a Mexican catholic family, I was exposed to religious wooden figurines placed inside these wooden shrine frames that symbolized either a saint, an event, or a deity. I grew up fascinated with the idea of being able to capture certain kinds of energy into chunks of wood. Once we moved to the USA, my family only brought a few of these shrines with them. I found two empty wooden shrine frames in my parents' garage, and that gave me the idea of placing materials, objects, and reminders of important ideas inside them. I now reference that wall for inspiration or guidance. The shrine with the necklace of red beans and clay skulls holds materials I use during my full moon mask making ritual: a plastic bottle filled with sand I retrieved from swimming across the Rio Grande river onto the Mexico side, a roll of red string symbolizing the red string ritual my mother performed during a lunar eclipse the day before I was born, and a bag with Tzi-Te beans and pods. There is a ceramic cup that says "Live Laugh Love" on top of a block of Zompantle wood. Those two are probably my favorite duo on that wall of objects. I went through a very long and magical journey to acquire that block of wood. After a long series of unsuccessful events, what worked was tracking down a willing farmer to cut a perfect rectangular block out of the specific kind of tree I needed, sand it, paint it a solid color, and write on it "Live Laugh Love" then ship it to the USA as "Art" and it worked! The cup was a gift from my incredibly gifted former gradschool studio assistant and close friend, Joe Gindhart.
What draws you to working with wood?
Wood is generally my first choice to work with. Some pieces of wood I use are from historical sites, some are from Home Depot, some pieces are cursed, while others are rescued, and others are smuggled into the country. Some sculptures simply need it for volume, and others depend on something hidden within the grain to make sense. I also work with sand, concrete, textiles, seeds, metal and occasionally found objects. I've been loving using Provincetown sand because the grain is much larger than commercially available sand brands. The connecting thread of all my material choices is that each of these materials let themselves be as malleable as clay - not as fast though. Each material calls for totally different set of tools and ways of processing them. I kinda have the tools of a hobbyist woodworker, a retired construction worker, an off-season tourist and a failed plastic surgeon. Some tools I have to invent, and of course that's the best part.
There’s a taped up-drawing in your studio that looks like a map of your work...Do you create drawings or small studies for each piece?
I generally draw very little, or more precisely, if I draw, it only lasts a few seconds. I keep a large piece of paper on my studio wall where I do quick sketches of forms that cross my mind. Seeing dozens of ideas all at once makes me feel calm and lets me notice what common threads exist, and how to dissect them. It feels like I am putting together a puzzle where all the parts are the same color but different shapes. What takes up most graphite is technical drafts for how a sculpture will be put together. Each part is individually engineered, and I really enjoy figuring out the puzzle of bringing it all together seamlessly.
There are painted and stained elements to your work. How does color play into your sculptures?
I ask different questions from added color than what I ask from inherent material color. I see added color as a moment where I get to guide the viewer's thoughts towards communal associations. For the most part, I use added colors that make sense with the form I'm seeing. With my leaves, I don't paint them to replicate exactly the real thing, I only paint enough to suggest a connection. I find more joy in thinking how to paint “Spring” as an idea into a leaf rather than replicating a leaf as it grows during that season. Not having to color match anything lets me be more intuitive and personal with my choices. The word “color” makes me think about the appearance of the most outer layer of information something has. But how often do we think about the color of the insides of a sculpture? There are just as many decisions and colors inside my sculptures as there are on the surface. That's why I lean more towards transparent paint - what the type of clothes we wear say to a stranger versus going tanning to the beach.
Now that your residency has come to a close, what's next?
My life right now is at a strange place because I am in the process of figuring out if I will continue to live in the USA or move back to Mexico. Not knowing what will happen with DACA is an excitement of a different kind. I am about to move out of my current studio in Provincetown, and what excites me the most is figuring out where the next studio will be. I love how every new studio ends up making me want to reimagine my practice. Of course this whole virus situation has shifted my plans, but I think I will be working from Texas and California this summer. I plan to load up my car with a specific set of tools that can do much but don’t take up too much space and hit the road.
Raul De Lara immigrated from Mexico to the United States at the age of 12, and has been a DACA recipient since 2012. Growing up in Texas as a non-English speaker, feeling neither from here nor there, his work now reflects on ideas of nationality, language barriers, body language and the sense of touch. His sculptures explore how stories, folklore and rituals can be silently communicated through inanimate objects, tools and foreign environments. De Lara often works with wood, a material that always shows the passing of time on its skin. His aesthetics and materials are inspired by the shared backyard between the United States and Mexico.
De Lara received his MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BFA from the University of Texas at Austin. He has been awarded the Ox-Bow School of Art Fellowship, a Chicago Artists Coalition HATCH Residency, the International Sculpture Center Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award and currently, he is a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.