Paraguayan artist Carlos Colombino died May, 14 2013. For years Kansans traveling to Paraguay were struck by the power of his work. When Kansas-Paraguay Partners opened an exhibit of Paraguayan art in 2006 his work came off of our living room walls and museums exhibits and became a prominent feature.
When Kansas-Paraguay Partners organized a tour of Paraguay in 2005 Edith and I stayed an extra week to visit old haunts. One day checking in at the travel agency someone mentioned Carlos and the owner of the agency said that Carlos was a good friend of hers. She picked up the phone got Carlos on the line and arranged for us to visit with him at his wonderful home in Aregua. What a fantastic Sunday afternoon. Carlos was gracious, opened a bottle of wine and we visited for 2 hours with my very bad Spanish.
Judith McCrea, Professor of Art at the University of Kansas has even more powerful memories. Here tribute to Carlos follows.
There are many reasons why Paraguayan artist, Carlos Colombino, became an iconic figure. For those of us raised in a free society, he was a reminder that we are spoiled. Imprisoned twice for not making happy art, Colombino’s message to K.U. art students was so compelling that no one left the room when he finished speaking. Colombino detailed a history completely foreign to our students, a history that even many of his friends avoided by leaving Paraguay during Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship. But Carlos stayed, refusing to renounce his work or his right to make it. The smoking, stolid, rock-like shapes that he carved and painted (a hybrid technique he developed and dubbed, “Xilopintura”) became powerful portraits of oppression, the face of the country, itself.
Carlos Colombino was raised in the isolated countryside of central Paraguay where, as a young boy, he gathered pictures of paintings, sculpture, and architecture he found in discarded magazines. Those reproductions were his only glimpse into the vast world of art outside Paraguay. Years later, that same boy was the connoisseur who preserved the art history of an entire country and became its most distinguished and prolific artist. Carlos donated land for art museums that he designed and maintained, and helped sponsor educational reform throughout the country. At that time, Paraguayan children chose one of several urn-like shapes to trace in art class.
The most important thing I learned from Carlos and my experience in Paraguay was that when a government sanctions “this” art but not “that” art, a dangerously divided culture is created with the vitality of artistic expression completely alienated from official leadership and governance. Although this may seem obvious, the ramifications are profound for all of us and I tried to imagine Carlos Colombino on the senate floor with Jesse Helms.
I knew we would be great friends from the very beginning. We just appreciated each other. Through extensive travel and study, Carlos had digested the European influences of Cubism and Surrealism to develop a unique mythology that was both personal and political. My own work used the figure to speak about our place in the natural world. During my two visits to Paraguay, I marveled at the vitality and generosity of the artists and collectors there. Without any official or institutional support, they formed their own support group, an impassioned cooperative that provided healthcare for the nation’s artists and ensured that each new exhibition was celebrated with substantial sales.
During Carlos Colombino’s 1997 visit to K.U., the Spencer Museum of Art mounted an exhibition of work and added a painting to their collection. Carlos stayed in a beautiful stone apartment on the north edge of campus, but the affable artist was so lonely that he started cooking fantastic dinners for us each night to recreate the camaraderie he enjoyed at home.
One day, as I was showing Carlos the Kansas countryside in a 1970 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the car had a flat tire. Far away from the elegant entourage that accompanied him at home, Carlos, the artist/architect, bravely manned a jack and tire iron. I caught a sly smile as he glanced my way. Even though our histories were very different, I was reminded in that small moment how artists share a special bond. Still, like everyone else, artists just like to make things work. And Carlos, you see, worked to save the legacy of a whole country.
Judith Burns McCrea