Frenetic and percussive sounds move through the studio. The music is Afro-Colombian, from the South American country where Alejandro Garcia-Lemos was born and where he spent much of his life.
“So tell me about your portrait,” he says. “What do you want?”
I sit on a chair as Garcia-Lemos stares at me with intent. He draws on a sketch pad.
“I’m just drawing you so I get used to your face,” he says.
Garcia-Lemos’ representation of my face is part of “Red Social: Portraits of Collaboration by Alejandro Garcia-Lemos,” his exhibition of painted drawings that opens Thursday at Columbia College’s Goodall Gallery. Garcia-Lemos has drawn and expressively painted more than 20 portraits of people who orbit Columbia’s arts scene.
While I don’t seek out the ever-present photographers – professional or the camera-phone kind – at events and parties, I don’t mind taking pictures; I like to pose. Until that Friday afternoon in April when I met Garcia-Lemos at his studio in the basement of his home, the Friday Cottage Artspace, I had never posed for a portrait.
“I don’t like pictures,” he says, continuing to sketch. “I feel like it’s taking me a lot of effort to get used to getting old. Not a lot of effort like I’m crying every day.”
I share a lyric from “ O.K. With My Decay,” a song by the indie rock band Granddaddy that plays louder in my mind as the years pass: “I have no say on my decay / I have no choice so I’ll rejoice.”
“The reality is different,” Garcia-Lemos responds.
“Are you relaxed? Do you want a glass of wine?” he asks.
I’m wearing a gray cardigan, maroon T-shirt and jeans. Garcia-Lemos asked me to bring a prop, something that could possibly be incorporated into the portrait. I brought my vintage Newcomb record player. I want the pose to represent something I could be seen doing.
‘It was very therapeutic’
Garcia-Lemos, 43, isn’t a portrait artist.
“There are some people that dedicated their entire lives just to do portraits,” he said during an interview at Drip Coffee, the Five Points restaurant. “My thing is that I’ve been more primitive, more raw.”
Then why portraits for the exhibition?
“I figured it was a good way to kind of create community,” he said. “I wanted to do a community portrait. So having portraits of all these people together makes it a community. Most of the people are involved in the city, building a culture of city living through the arts.”
There are portraits of Heidi Darr-Hope, Betsy Newman, Kimi Maeda, Jonathan Sharpe, Ed Madden, Andy Smith and Garcia-Lemos’ partner, Britt Hunt, to list a few. Garcia-Lemos, who was raised in Bogota, Colombia’s capital, also included portraits of his parents, who visit about twice a year, in “Red Social.”
“I needed a couple of models to start defining the kind of work I was going to do, and I always wanted to do portraits of them,” he said.
Some subjects enthusiastically agreed to sit for the work. Others dodged the invitation. Newman, a visual artist, is in the former category. Her portrait includes a doll from her childhood.
“I brought in the doll because of one of my favorite paintings by Frida Kahlo – “ Yo y Mi Muneca” – which shows her sitting on a bed next to her doll,” Newman explained. “I loved the experience of sitting for Alejandro. It was like a therapy session.”
“It was very therapeutic, both I think for me and the sitter,” he said. “For some people, this sitting has become very personal. I have learned so many things about people here.”
Some people close their eyes, Garcia-Lemos tells me. Others read, write or sip from a glass of wine.
“What I want is for you to participate in the portrait actively,” he says. “Meaning, you tell me what you want to do.”
In his studio, I’ve place my record player on a coffee table facing where he’s seated on a stool, ready to start drawing on the paper tacked to an easel.
“Tweeting is like a big deal for you, right?” he says. “So would you be looking at the telephone?”
The pose we settle on: I’m sitting, leaning over the coffee table. My right hand is on the record player’s arm as if I’m about to place the needle on a record. My left is holding my iPhone. It’s a look one can see at Craft.Bar.Happy.Hour, the semi-frequent crafting event at the Columbia Museum of Art. At the invitation of the museum’s Leslie Pierce, a friend whom I share with Garcia-Lemos, who is also one of the “Red Social” portraits, I usually play records at Craft.Bar. The player is one of my if-there-was-a-disaster-what-would-you-take items, I tell Garcia-Lemos.
“This is the really tough part because I’m trying to keep up conversation with you and at the same time trying to focus on this,” Garcia-Lemos says.
He uses a pencil to frame my face, to scale the contours. He asks about my prominent features, my nose and my lips.
“When I was a kid, people made fun of my ears because they were so big,” he says. “I really had to grow into them because they were so big.”
He began drawing when he was young.
“I remember drawing when I was in kindergarten, and I remember kids asking me to draw for them,” he says. “So sometimes I traded things, like, ‘OK, you do my homework and I’ll do your drawing.’ ”
When I return to Garcia-Lemos’ studio for a second sitting, my drawing looks like me. He’s even painted my skin tone right. I’m burnt sienna.
“With a little bit of yellow,” he says.
A rich concept
The “Red Social” logo, a composition of red and blue letters with a perfectly placed star in the “R”, will, for political junkies at least, immediately conjure thoughts of the country-wide divide between so-called red and blue states.
“I figured when I added the star that would bring the political aspect into the title, but I’m not trying to push any agenda,” Garcia-Lemos said.
The titles of the portraits aren’t named after the people who sat for them. For instance the portrait of Smith, the executive director of the Nickelodeon Theatre, is titled “Progress” because Smith wanted his piece based on the Russian propaganda portraits of the ’30s and ’40s. (My portrait is titled “Multi-tasking.”)
The exhibition, a partnership with Columbia College’s Spanish program, is in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. The show has a connection to Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist who taught at the school. Garcia-Lemos said he and O’Keeffe experienced the beauty and isolation of Columbia as migrants from large cities.
“She was a creative muse for him,” said Jackie Adams, the Goodall Gallery’s coordinator. “The concept of the show is really rich. I think, for him, it was an endearing process.”
From 1990-97, Garcia-Lemos worked as a graphic designer in BP’s internal communications department. He frequently traveled for work, coming to the United States a lot when he was dating someone who lived in New York. In 1997, he took a buyout that subsidized his move to Washington, D.C., where his brother lived. Two years later, Garcia-Lemos went to Florida International University to get his masters degree in Latin American Studies. There he met Hunt, a Columbia native.
Together, they own Comunicar, a Columbia-based Spanish interpretation and translation company. Next year, Garcia-Lemos said he will be granted American citizenship.
“I will throw a party for that one,” said Garcia-Lemos, who is known to have art exhibitions at the house he shares with Hunt.
“Red Social,” like all of Garcia-Lemos’ exhibitions, includes a self-portrait.
“I always have the impression that whatever you do is a self-portrait,” he said.
In his most recent work of himself, a handsomely bearded Garcia-Lemos stands in chest-high water in the piece titled “Als Ich Chan.” There are straps on his shoulders. But rather than a bag, the straps are for a harness, a device Garcia-Lemos had to wear as a child. When he was young, he had appendicitis. After surgery, he had a tendency to walk crouched or hunched over. The harness kept him upright.
“There’s a double meaning there,” Garcia-Lemos said, failing to hide his smile. “My parents were trying to keep me straight.”