Rebecca Anne Renner
The spiritual world collides with my life only when I’m not expecting it. Ideas spark and I have to tell them to someone. So when Cyriaco Lopes, one of our core faculty in the MFA’s Poetry in the Expanded Field, gathered us in the stone courtyard of El Templo de la Purísima Concepción in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and gave us our assignment—go inside, choose a painting, and meditate on its attributes silently—I stifled a laugh.
The last time I’d studied art was not in an art class, but in Spanish. Despite four years of the language in high school and three in college, I’d regressed back to Spanish II. I still remember the art, oral presentations on Miró, Goya, and an extensive study of Mexican muralists. So after a few cracks about not knowing what I was doing and that I’d accidentally stumbled into art school, I trooped with the rest of our cohort into the church.
Sunlight from the brick cupola glinted in the gold leaf that gilded the three-story balustrade altar of saints. Past the two main rows of pews, dark paintings hung high on the walls of the gallery-like transepts. I wandered between them, trying to avoid people who I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut around. I struggled to choose a painting. They were oil on canvas, and they seemed more shadow than light. Created by the New Spanish painter Juan Rodríguez Juárez (b. 1675 – d. 1728), these paintings were unrestored and poorly lit, their dark surfaces flaking in the corners like pine bark. Sunlight from the cupola cast irritating blind spots across the subjects. The least obstructed painting was a portrait of Mary in the clouds encircled by angels. I attempted in vain to get a good picture of it on my phone.
Once back in the courtyard, we were free to speak. Cyriaco asked us questions about what we observed, and we talked about the subjects, time period, and form. I brought up my painting, how all of the angels were looking in different directions: either down, up, or at Mary. Cyriaco said that created lines of sight, which guide the viewer’s eye to other areas in the painting. What struck me more than the art lesson was the story that bolstered it. In 1751, the affluent parents of María Josefa Lina de la Canal y Hervás died, leaving her with a fortune. Most people would live lavishly on such riches, but not Maria Josefa. She donated her vast wealth and all the treasures her family had amassed (including the paintings I’d just stared at) to the local Catholic parish. The church then used her money to build the very structure that would become the cloister of her piety: the convent we were walking toward.
On the way around the side of the building, I prattled on about how cool it would be to collect stories like that. Maybe we could all write them, I said. The idea to scrape together an art-history-poetry hodgepodge anthology coalesced in its most fetal form as we ducked into the square cloister of the art school, a sunny yellow edifice of stucco that once housed the church’s convent. I kept talking to anyone who thought my ideas were worth hearing until we all stopped in front of a mural—a mural I actually recognized. A work by the muralist Eleanor Coen, the fresco arched to the ceiling and showed a scene of native women and children washing in a river. This may have been the first time I’d ever seen a piece of art I’d studied in person, and nothing was blocking it! I could take pictures. I could touch it.
That idea was incomprehensible to me. I had to ask if it was real, and Cyriaco gave me a funny look.
“No, I mean, are these reproductions? Or originals?” I said.
Cyriaco smiled in a way that said he understood my baffled joy. Yes, of course the murals were real.
He went on to weave another story. As we took in our surroundings—the art, the students, the greenery in the courtyard—the past glistened through in a palimpsest of words on the air. The artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who dubbed himself El Nigromante (The Necromancer) so antithetical were his communism and atheist beliefs, had begun an encompassing mural in one of the convent’s cloisters. But he never finished it. I didn’t know what to expect: maybe a visual homunculus, a half-formed idea splashed across concrete. What sparkled in my brain more than anything was the question of why it remained incomplete. According to rumor, Siqueiros had a disagreement with the head of the art school in 1940. It may have been only ideological, but some suggest that Siqueiros threatened to hurl the man down a flight of stairs.
With ideas for stories flickering in my head, I filed in with the group and raised my phone to snap a picture. The unexpected geometries of the mural spread upwards into the vaults.
A security guard stopped me. You can’t take pictures in here, he said in Spanish. Then he and the other guard ordered our group to put our phones away.
Again as in the Templo de la Purísima Concepción, we fell into silence. No one said we shouldn’t talk this time. It was the power of the room, of the shapes and forms that surged around us, unfinished yet so complete.
Before he had abandoned the mural, Siqueiros traced the lines of sight across the walls. The space teemed with primary colors, planetary ellipses, optical illusions. The more I moved, the more it seemed impossible to pinpoint every intricacy. The place was imbued with an extraterrestrial sort of holiness, like seeing under the skin of reality to the mystery pulsing beneath.
Back in our hotel, Obra came together and fell apart. We were told this would be hard. We were told not to believe. Someone said, “The world doesn’t need another literary magazine.”
In the great tradition of artistic disobedience (maybe a little like Siqueiros, though we haven’t had to pitch anyone down a flight of stairs), we pushed forward on our own lines of sight until we found what would become Obra/Artifact’s defining attribute: not art—because isn’t art in everything?—but movement, travel, place; that space where art and story collide to leave us speechless. That is Obra/Artifact, a souvenir of otherworldliness we could not leave behind.
Rebecca Renner is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Obra/Artifact. She is also a freelance writer, novelist, and high school creative writing teacher. A seventh generation Floridian, Rebecca grew up in Port Orange and earned a Bachelor’s of Arts from Stetson University. She currently attends Stetson’s MFA of the Americas, where she studies fiction writing.