Isabel de Obaldía: From Paper to Painting to Glass

Posted in Essays
Monica E. Kupfer

The painter and glass sculptor Isabel De Obaldía remembers her early years as a time during which she found pleasure in creating imaginary worlds, something one might say she continues to do today. A shy, tomboyish girl and an only child, she first explored self-expression during her adolescent years: drawing, working with paper cut-outs, even writing short stories. As a teenager, she experienced “a strong dose of existential crisis”1, liked being on her own, and was an avid reader, with a preference for authors such as Kafka, Hesse and Sartre. It was also at that time that she decided that draftsmanship would be an essential discipline for herself as an artist, one that she has upheld throughout her life.

Most of De Obaldía’s earliest works were drawings, but she also experimented with creating small figures out of “papier maché”, her first attempts at sculpture. From the age of eleven, when her widowed mother married Panamanian artist Guillermo Trujillo, Isabel lived surrounded by art. His paintings and his dedication as an artist had a significant influence on her, but so did the artworks the family collected, particularly Trujillo’s interest in three-dimensional pre-Columbian artifacts. Moreover, he was friends with most of the modern artists active in Panama, whom Isabel also came to know from the time she was very young.

There has also been a powerful European component in her life. De Obaldía’s mother, Janine Laneyrie, is French, and trips to Paris were a part of the artist’s life from early on. Isabel remembers visiting the Louvre when she was about seventeen and feeling deeply impressed by one painting in particular: Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. She was in awe, not surprisingly for those who know her oeuvre, by “the painting’s majesty, its drama, its tragedy, the danger that the men were in, the technical virtuosity, the movement, the muscles, the sea.” 2

Although she was born in Washington D.C., Isabel De Obaldía definitely considers herself Panamanian. Her father, a diplomat who died in a tragic accident when she was only five years old, stems from one of Panama’s best known intellectual and artistic families. Her great-grandfather, José Domingo De Obaldía, was president of the Republic, and her grandmother, María Olimpia Miranda De Obaldía was Panama’s most famous poetess. Isabel’s relatives include writers, teachers, political figures, and painters. Her great aunt, Beatriz Miranda de Cabal, wrote a book about the Dorace Indians of Chiriquí, whose language she helped translate into Spanish. Isabel grew up in Panama and has always expressed a sense of belonging that stems from those De Obaldía roots.

When she finished high school, De Obaldía began her studies at the University of Panama’s School of Architecture, which at the time was the only faculty that offered art classes. While there, she would spend her afternoons in the Las Guabas ceramics workshop, working with clay. She remembers creating small human figures, among them a “man-tree”, a form that would come up again in her later work. During the following year, De Obaldia continued her artistic training in Paris, where she attended a life drawing class at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, visited museums, including regular visits to the Louvre’s drawing collection where she studied original drawings by masters like Da Vinci and Michelangelo.

De Obaldía later moved to the United States to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, where in 1979 she completed a degree with a double major in Graphic Design and Cinematography. Surprisingly, although Dale Chihuly was a well-known figure at RISD, where he had established the glass art program in 1969, De Obaldía did not take any courses with him. During those years, she was completely focused on her majors, even considering that her future would be in creating animations and films. Nevertheless, in 1977 and 1978, she held her first two solo art exhibitions in Panama. In both cases, she showed drawings on paper, initially in ink, and later in a combination of charcoal, pastel, color pencils and collage.

During the early eighties in Panama, De Obaldía continued working in graphic design and film editing, continued drawing and began to explore painting. She also fell in love with Horacio Icaza, got married in 1980 and four years later, gave birth to her twin sons, Pedro and Sebastián. These were most productive years. In addition to being a new wife and mother, between 1980 and 1990, De Obaldía presented seven solo exhibitions. She considers 1985, when she first exhibited her paintings, a turning point in her career. She also took part in numerous group shows both at home and abroad, and represented Panama at international biennials, often with large-scale paintings such as the 5-meter long polyptych “Los Afanados” (Zealous Beings) shown at the Cuenca Biennial in 1987. In paintings such as this, De Obaldía employed a neo-expressionist style of great visual energy, intense colors and dynamic brushstrokes.3 Typically, her compositions consisted of exuberant tropical landscapes inhabited by mysterious, often contorted, male figures that gave the sensation of representing narratives, which the viewer could not fully decipher.

ManiObrasDe Obaldía’s interest in glass art was triggered by her love of color and the transparency of oil paints, in addition to a personal fascination with the work of artists such as Daum and Gallé. In 1987, she decided to take a course at the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, an art school with a focus on experimentation and programs where artists teach other artists.4 Going to Pilchuck marked the beginning of a new chapter for the Panamanian artist, and the intensity with which she took up glass art is reflected in the fact that she returned to Pilchuck five times during the next six years. She took part in workshops with renowned glass artists such as the Czech master glass engravers Jiri Harcuba and Jan Mares, U.S. glass artist Gene Koss with whom she learned about hot casting, and the Norwegian Bertil Valien, known for his work in sand casting.

InvasionIn her own studio, De Obaldía continued to work with oils on canvas and, in 1989, in the midst of Panama’s political crisis, she presented an exhibition entitled “Mani Obras” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The title, which literally means “Maneuvers”, was a play on words that combined the initials of Manuel Antonio Noriega, the military dictator that had forced Panama into a desperate political and economic situation and the Spanish word for oeuvre. Bravely, she showed paintings such as “Radio Bemba” (Word of Mouth) or “La Isla” (The Island) which made allusions to the suppression of free speech and the way the military government made some members of the opposition “disappear” by throwing them from helicopters into the sea. After the U.S. invasion of Panama and the return to democratic government in early 1990, De Obaldía exhibited drawings and works on paper that had never been shown publicly in Panama because of their specific references to the human rights’ violations and other horrors of the military dictatorship. Showing them earlier would certainly have put her at risk. She had been open in her opposition to the government and, in 1989, had even come close to being arrested, after trying to defend another civilian during a political demonstration she had been filming.

In the more peaceful 1990s, De Obaldía continued painting, while also pursuing her ever-growing enthusiasm for glass. In 1992, she was awarded the First Prize in the First Panama Art Biennial for a large oil painting entitled “Queen Ant”, which focused on issues of gender and ecology. At around this time, art critic Adrienne Samos rightly noted that in De Obaldía’s paintings “movement has become less energetic, more static than before, perhaps because her volumes and spaces now express greater weight and solidity.”5 The three-dimensionality of the artist’s works in glass had begun to influence her interpretations of volumetric forms on canvas. Two different scholarships from the Pilchuck Glass School provided an incentive to return for more training in glass art and by 1993, De Obaldía was ready to present her first solo show of works in glass at Panama’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It included blown-glass pieces that she had engraved and/or painted, among them some utilitarian objects, as well as small sculptures created in pate de verre and sand-casting.

El Rastrillo / MedusaDe Obaldía describes her first experience with glass casting during a course with Gene Koss at Pilchuck as an “epiphany”, the moment when she became aware of the potential of molten glass and her desire to become a glass sculptor. She had recently finished the paintings “La Bestia” (The Beast) and “El Elegido” (The Chosen One) and, in creating her first mold for a sculpture, it was the image of the upside-down man-beast in those works which she transformed into a three-dimensional form. With his torso as a table-top and his limbs as its legs, this figure inspired the series of glass “Metates” (table-like pre-Columbian grinding stones) that she would start producing soon after that. Over the years, there have been other similar transferences of painted forms into glass works. One interesting example is the reappearance of the “vagina dentata” from De Obaldía’s oil “El Rastrillo” (The Rake) from 1991 in her glass figure of “Medusa”, created over a decade later.

In 1994, De Obaldía held an exhibition that combined oil paintings and glass sculptures. In her own words, her new sculptures were “less personal and more universal”6 than her canvases. Although some of the figures from her oils appear in her sculptures, because her three-dimensional works tend to represent individual human or animal forms, the narrative character one perceives in many of her paintings is inevitably absent in her sculptures. These are more essential forms that represent ideas, icons or natural forces rather than stories. At the same time, her exploration of color in glass had an effect on the intensity and transparency of her oil paints. According to one critic, De Obaldía was capable of using color “as a way of screaming, of whispering, or of murmuring.”7

EngravingIn the years that followed, De Obaldía would carve a place for herself within the modern tradition that had begun with the American artist Harvey K. Littleton, considered responsible for starting the Studio Glass Movement in the United States in the 1960s. Littleton had promoted the idea that glass could be used as a medium in the artist’s studio, using small kilns instead of requiring large industrial facilities, which had been the trend up to that time. De Obaldía, who by 1993 had acquired a kiln of her own in order to produce glass pieces in her studio in Panama, soon became increasingly involved in the international glass art circuit. During the following decade, she attended glass symposia in the Czech Republic and Hungary; participated in Glass Art Society conferences; was invited to specialized exhibitions such “World Glass Now” in Hokkaido (Japan) and “Venezia Aperto Vetro” in Venice (Italy); and held solo shows of her glass sculptures in Panama, Miami and New York.

De Obaldía became increasingly involved in making glass sculptures, working on different series, each of which has occupied her for several years. She progressed from small objects to figures of “beasts and warriors” in the late nineties, to the creation of large human torsos after the year 2000. Those manly forms offer a particularly interesting example of De Obaldía’s painterly approach to glass sculpture, as each torso became a kind of canvas onto which she applied forms and symbols with different colors and textures. She was soon adding arms and legs to her torsos, making almost full figures. Then around 2005, she turned to making beautiful, almost abstract “Heads” which, according to her own strange sense of logic, never have bodies.

Jaguar KingA fellowship from the Creative Glass Center of America at Wheaton Arts in New Jersey in 2006 marked another watershed in De Obaldía’s career. While there, she came to feel that the years of learning the techniques and working with the medium had brought her to a point of true creative freedom as a glass sculptor. Then, in 2009, she was awarded a Rakow Commission by the Corning Museum, a major recognition for artists who work with glass.

De Obaldía continued working during sojourns in Wheaton where she created a series of large translucent man-eating beasts, including panthers, crocodiles and sharks.8 In collaboration with a team of assistants, and access to large furnaces of hot glass and huge annealing kilns, she was eventually creating pieces up to six feet in size. Upon returning to Panama in 2010 with some of her new, huge glass sculptures such as “Iguana” and “Jungle Jaguar” and a great sense of achievement, De Obaldía went back to her easel to paint for the first time in more than a decade. Not surprisingly, a jaguar appeared in the jungle on her canvas.

1 Cecilia Bembibre y Marcela Taletavicius, “Isabel De Obaldía”, Latin Art, Year 2, No. 4 (May-June 2001), pp. 34-39.
2 Idem.
3 M. Kupfer, “Del Cincuentenario a la Invasión: El arte contemporáneo en Panamá de 1950 a 1990”, in Alemán and Picardi, eds., Cien años de arte en Panamá (Panama: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, 2003), p. 59.
4 See Pilchuck Glass School – http://www.pilchuck.com/
5 Adrienne Samos, “Galerías de arte: recorrido y selección”, La Prensa (Panama: 3 Oct. 1992).
6 Amalia Aguilar, “Isabel De Obaldía”, Talingo (Panama: Nov. 1994).
7 Agustín del Rosario, “Buritica, Navarro y De Obaldía”, El Panamá América (Panama: 27 Nov. 1994).
8 M. Kupfer, “Isabel De Obaldía: Communion with Beasts” (Panama: Mateo Sariel Galería, 2010).