Fellow Artist: Melvin Toledo, From a little town to an unexpected trajectory


Coca Cola en Bolsa

In this installment we start immediately talking about a painting. Before meeting Melvin and then seeing his work, I could not remember the last time that a work of art inexplicably moved me to tears. I still can’t because in the case of Melvin’s painting, “Coca Cola en Bolsa” I knew exactly why I got emotional. To me the painting was a portal to my childhood, to a familiar scene at the “Masaya a Managua” bus station, the sidewalk of La Parroquia or a Patronage Festival and endless other sites where you were bound to find a Coca Cola in a plastic bag. I can only assume that for Nicaraguans familiar with this image; he captures more than that. Like the resilience, will, ingenuity and pride of the Nicaraguan people. The scorching heat of the 1 PM Nica sun, the sounds of marimba, chicheros, a market or plaza, and the very smell of the dusty air. Finally, to me it also captures Nicaragua’s undeniably long and yet forgotten history with the US and its influence in Nicaragua. Melvin’s body of work is pure poetry. It’s for me an honor to have this fellow Nicaraguan and brilliant painter as a fellow artist.


Why is it important for you to emphasize you're from a small town?


I was born and raised in Ciudad Antigua – a tiny town in northern Nicaragua. Most residents are campesinos, small parcel growers of beans and corn. Some also raise cattle. When I was little, I would help my dad milk the cows each morning before school. After class, I would go home, pick up his lunch, and take it to him to help out with the afternoon work.

Life has taken me far away from that little town, an unexpected trajectory. The experience of living in another country, in a big city, has changed me, but despite all of these experiences, I am still a Ciudad Antiguan. Most of my family still lives there and my youth influences how I approach my work.

The images of my mother’s kitchen are always in the back of my mind as I am creating still lifes: the "guacal" full of warm tortillas in one corner and the clay pot of coffee, blackened by soot, sitting near the fire. When it comes to portraiture, I think of the men in Ciudad Antigua, coming home from working at the farms late in the afternoon, or the women balancing 10-gallon buckets of water on their heads, walking up the steep hill from the river.


Their bodies tired but always with a pleasant smile on their faces. My life experiences in Ciudad Antigua have been a major influence in my work and my perspective on the world.

untitled

Are you into sports?

I love baseball - growing up during Nicaragua's civil war in the 80's we were all very poor, so my friends and I played baseball in the empty plaza (now a beautiful park) in front of the church. I stopped playing as I got older, but my love of baseball endured. Every Sunday after attending mass we would rush to the baseball field to see Ciudad Antigua play against a team from a neighboring town. After the first game, we would go home for lunch and then head back for the double header. In the evenings, my cousins and I would gather by the park to discuss the games. As we got older, our meet ups included some local beer (Toña) or a little Flor de Caña rum. What are you trying to convey with "Ay Nicaragua"?

Ay Nicaragua

In 2018, after seeing the brutal response of the Nicaraguan government against pension workers protesting recent changes aimed to take money away from them, the people of Nicaragua poured into the streets to support the protesters. Peaceful marches were organized in different cities across the country. The government responded with a force not seen in Nicaragua in decades, killing hundreds of people, mostly students, and jailing hundreds more.

As I watched all of this on social media, I cried seeing children as young as 13 years old murdered by the police and other paramilitary forces. It was painful to watch but I could not stop following the coverage. As a result, I begun to suffer from insomnia, something I still suffer from these days. One morning, I sat in front of my easel, totally exhausted from lack of sleep. I couldn't pick up a brush to continue working on the still life waiting on my easel. I sat in the chair for almost an hour, lacking the energy and motivation to continue. I thought that maybe if I painted something else, I would feel inspired. I hadn’t painted a portrait in almost two years, but suddenly I knew what I wanted to paint. In an effort to stop the protests, the Nicaraguan government banned the display of the Nicaraguan flag. Protesters started using blue and white confetti and balloons to show they couldn't be stopped. I grabbed the Nicaraguan flag I keep in my studio, wrapped it around my shoulders, and quickly snapped some pictures for what became the "Ay Nicaragua, Nicaraguita" self-portrait. The title is a reference to a song by one of Nicaragua's most beloved composers, Carlos Mejia Godoy. I hope the painting conveys the pain I felt seeing my paisanos experience repression and violence from the government.

Elvi and Claudia

Do you work from photos? If so: when isolating the subject for a painting, what are you looking to extract?

I prefer to work from life when possible, and most of my still life paintings are done that way. I do use photos for my portrait work, because it provides more flexibility. I often paint children and it’s hard to get them to sit for long enough to paint them from life.


No matter what the subject, be it a landscape, a bowl of fruit, or a portrait, I am always trying to create a beautiful image. Beauty moves us and elevates us and it can transport us to a place where we feel happy and at peace.

I also want to tell a story - something has to grab the viewer's attention and allow them to create a connection to their own story and experiences. Is achieving human connection with total strangers important for an artist?


Absolutely. We may all look different from each other, have different cultures, and different stories, but art in all its forms connects us, brings us together, and reminds us that we are all humans. Brothers and sisters. The connection with the audience is the most important thing the artist creates.


Work in progress

Why didn't you categorize "Coca Cola en Bolsa" as a still life? How was it interpreted by those not familiar with that statement?

I assume you mean why it isn't in the still life section on my website? The main reason I post it in a different place on my website was because I didn't want it to get lost among the rest of the still life, I wanted it in a more special place because the painting represented a shift for me. At the beginning of my art career here in the US, I was looking to what successful artists were doing and I often choose to paint similar subjects because it felt safer. The Coca en bolsa painting was a more personal painting, something I wanted to do that represented me and my experience as a Nicaraguan, but it also was different, something I hadn't seen anybody paint and so I was uneasy about doing it. I painted it and it was a big hit on Facebook, some people shared their memories of drinking Coke that way in their countries and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't only a Nicaraguan thing. Others wanted to know about it, what did it mean? why was it in a bag? The painting sold right away and it gave me the confidence and courage to paint what I wanted and about experiences that deeply resonated with my life. How do you feel about NFTs?


I am very curious about them, and I think I will give it a try very soon. What are you currently working on?

Joel

The pandemic and all its complications put some of the work I was doing on pause. In early 2020, I started a series of portraits of immigrants. When schools closed in March, I had to become teacher and entertainer for my kids. I hope to get a few more of the immigrant paintings finished this year. I am planning a new series of still life paintings. I’m also continuing with something that I started during the pandemic - charcoal and graphite drawing. It was something I could do while helping my five-year-old get through the zoom calls and get his homework done. I have a lot of projects and ideas to explore! I just need more time. To see more of Melvin's work melvintoledo.com

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