Valerie Campos’ painting studio is womb-like. It’s warm, walled in by dark canvases and silent except for ambient outside noises.
The Mexican artist has been working in Kansas for the past 10 months through a Lawrence Arts Center residency. She has produced six colossal paintings for “Natural Selection: The Pursuit of Happiness,” which opens Friday.
At 32, Campos is accomplished; she has been granted residencies and/or showings in Mexico, China, Indonesia, Canada, France, Spain and the United States. Some of her work has been published in limited-edition monographs.
Most of her work has been intensely research-based. As a self-taught artist, she spends time learning about her topics and the techniques she wishes to use. For instance, the series she showed at Beijing’s prestigious Red Gate Gallery consisted of 16 interchangeable graphics of etching and aquatint on zinc — a tedious and delicate form to understand.
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“Natural Selection” is her first inward-looking collection. It was inspired, in part, by conversations with her son about Charles Darwin’s work, and later by her son’s absence.
The idea began two years ago, when Campos and her son Sebastian were traveling from China to Mexico. Some of their belongings were lost and others were stolen. To calm her, the 11-year-old told her to remember it’s not the strong who survive, but the ones most able to adapt.
As she thought about it, the meaning of adaptability evolved, and then the art began to take shape in her mind.
“It’s kind of about how we evolve in a spiritual way and how we evolve ourselves by not being controlling — not trying to manipulate or control anything around you — and how that changes us into better artists, sons, moms, people,” Campos said.
When, in September, Sebastian was deported to Mexico for not having the correct visa, Campos’ thoughts on adaptability and personal evolution were tested. Sebastian is now living in Mexico City with his dad.
Alone in Lawrence, Campos lost the structure to her days that being a mom offers. She began to paint 18 hours most days and to speak with local immigrants. During their sessions she picked up a “grass is greener” attitude, that happiness is something to seek outside of oneself.
She wants to reach out to those who think the pursuit of happiness is external, she said. She’s hoping this collection will prompt questions like: “Why are we here? What are we learning? How can we experience a more poetical life?”
She explained, “I think these paintings go more around the issue of dealing with emotion and taking suffering and happiness as part of your life.”
She wishes to build an understanding of suffering, which she doesn’t view as necessarily bad.
“Yes, the paintings are pretty, detailed. They’re images we can enjoy, but what’s the process, what’s going on in each painting?” she asked.
She has come to view natural selection as involving will. “You decide to select what you take in: friends, and what to surround yourself with.”
Friday’s opening will include a reception, talk and short animated film Campos has created, “Underground Tales of the Eternal Return,” based on her zinc plates.
Her next project? Returning to Mexico for the long-awaited reunion with Sebastian.
Contact Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org.