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For Tania Alvarez, to work/live in James Castle House, his ghost is real and presence is ‘peaceful’

Tania Alvarez is Artist in Residence at the James Castle House through April 13.
Tania Alvarez
Tania Alvarez is Artist in Residence at the James Castle House through April 13.

Tania Alvarez, Artist in Residence at Boise’s James Castle House, believes in ghosts… or at least the spiritual presence of the late enigmatic genius James Castle.

“There is such a strong presence and it's and it's not a scary presence, by any means,“ said Alvarez. “But you definitely feel the life and history of this man. And it's, it's peaceful. It is in no way scary.”

Through April 13, the Seville, Spain-born artist is calling the James Castle House her temporary home. In particular, she’s exploring the concept of memory and its influence on art. Just prior to an opportunity for the public to virtually explore her work on March 31, and another opportunity for a flash studio show on April 2.

Alvarez visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about memory and art – their individual fragility and their combined power.

“I was so surprised by my reaction to his work - feeling the person behind the material literally brought me to tears. But it's definitely something that I aspire to in my work.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I’m George Prentice. We're going to take some time this morning to consider art and the materials of our lives that can create art and the idea of the concept of memory. Tania Alvarez is here. Born in Spain, her family immigrated to the US in 1983. Her degrees come from universities in New York and Barcelona, and her work has been showcased from Harlem to Beijing, plus New York, California, France and, of course, her native country of Spain. Tania Alvarez, good morning.

TANIA ALVAREZ: Hi, good morning.

PRENTICE: May I call you Tania?

ALVAREZ: Yes, of course.

PRENTICE: Currently, you are the Artist in Residence at the James Castle house in Boise. It is there that you are, I'm told, are investigating the concept of memory. I'm so curious about this because memories may not be tangible, but they are very real to most of us. So how do you access memory for art?

ALVAREZ: So, I do a lot of journaling and when I start a piece, I generally will write down notes. I do less sketching than I do writing about the work and what I'm thinking about. So, I'll try to access memories that way. And from there, you know, I'll start creating the piece. And the piece always changes and evolves from where I think I'm beginning, because obviously the more that you work into it, the more you're remembering, or you'll forget. So, there's lots of like removing of the image, adding on to it. And you can see that in each painting that I do, there's a lot of traces of the history of my mark making in every piece.

PRENTICE: Is it your sense that… I've been thinking about this… that memory has its own life force as opposed to the life force that we think we're giving it, because, you know, memories can also be very selective. They can be very overpowering and so ethereal.

ALVAREZ: Yeah, for sure. And I mean, they're ever changing. I think that our mind does really interesting things. And I'm particularly interested in memories as and how we react in moments of trauma or stress or grief. A lot of the spaces that I create, I'm thinking about this idea of being in one place physically but mentally or emotionally, being in a separate space due to trauma. Our brain or our memories kind of transport us into different places or spaces in order to cope with what we're going through.

PRENTICE: Are you vulnerable when you share your memories in such a creative but yet public fashion? Or are your memories enigmatic… and to a stranger, we're not certain what we're looking at?

Tania Alvarez

ALVAREZ: I think to me, they're very vulnerable. But to a stranger, I, I think there's a lot of room for interpretation. And I think we can be a little vague, which I enjoy. I don't want them to be really obvious and only about me. I want the viewer to be able to make it about them as well. But I think for sure that they're really vulnerable images and tell a story of my life that I don't really ever articulate. And this is my mode of communication.

PRENTICE: When you're writing…when you're journaling… is it a form of meditation? Can I assume that you do it in silence? I'm curious about your process.

ALVAREZ: I'm definitely in silence. I think a lot of it I mean, it's not like a well-structured, written journal entry or anything. A lot of it is stream of thought.

PRENTICE: But you're digging deep, right? You're accessing deep into your soul and to your mind's eye.

ALVAREZ: Yeah, for sure. And it can just be like a word, a color. From there, it just branches off. And I access things that I guess, you know, sometimes you try not to think about or try not to talk about and.

PRENTICE: Has that taken you to some scary places?

ALVAREZ: Oh, for sure. I mean, even if I look back on things that I've written, it'll take me back a year or two later. I'll read what I wrote, and I'll be like, “Wow, you know, wow.” It'll take me back to a place where I think I tried to forget. So it's interesting to go back on those notes or entries, and.

PRENTICE: It must be fascinating for you to watch us engage with what we think we see. Do you keep that mystery? Obviously, what I see is what I see. Or do you tell people know this is what you're looking at?

ALVAREZ: No. I think I rarely tell anyone what they're looking at. And I've had conversations with people who are close to me and just be like, you know, try to understand like how much to tell people, how much not to tell people what to keep private or what to keep public. And I just think it's more interesting to keep a lot of it private, and it's almost more special that way.

PRENTICE: I know this question is going to come out of left field, but do you believe in ghosts?

ALVAREZ: Oh, I actually really do believe in ghosts. And it's funny, we were just having a conversation yesterday in the house about ghosts.

PRENTICE: Well, that's why I want to ask, because I'm more than a bit curious about the Artist in Residence experience, particularly in the James Castle House. It is fair to say that James Castle was an enigmatic, probably borderline genius. Can I also assume that his presence is everywhere in that house?

ALVAREZ: Oh, my goodness. 100%. And that's what we were talking about. Like, if you go into the shed, for example. Yeah, there is such a strong presence and it's and it's not a scary presence by any means, but you definitely feel the life and history of this man. And it it's peaceful. It is in no way scary.And that was something coming to this residency. I was like, Oh, no, I'm going to be scared to be alone. And I don't feel like that at all. And I've had moments which it might sound like so hokey, but that I've sat and been like, James, please help me. It's really interesting because there are a lot of things happening and in changing in my process that I just feel has to be because of, I don't know, that special presence that's here.

PRENTICE: Memories… since the pandemic erupted… and ever since then…I know my memories have become quite visceral. Could you talk a little bit about that extra layer that the pandemic has - this long, wide shadow of the pandemic - that has cast on us and how important our memories are to us?

ALVAREZ: Yeah, I think when anyone's faced with the fear of illness or death that there is a heightened concern for recording your life and your experiences and. In my work, there is a huge intent on capturing those moments in a real, raw and visceral way that can be felt and experienced by people. And I think that there's something happening with this, like Instagram culture where everything is so shiny, and it just doesn't feel. Real and I just have this strong desire to capture it in a more human approach similarly to how you feel when you look at Castle's work. Like I went to the Castle archive. When was it? Last week. I was so surprised by my reaction to his work, feeling the person behind the material literally brought me to tears. But it's definitely something that I aspire to in my work, the preservation of the realness of the moment and of the experience and  less of this fleeting, shiny version that we see so much of.

PRENTICE: Hmm. You mentioned materials. Could you…what media do you use with your art?

ALVAREZ: So, so much.

PRENTICE: Give me some examples.

ALVAREZ: Okay. Mostly acrylic. A lot of dry media, graphite colored pencil, crayon, oil, paint, paper. I use a lot of different mediums from molding, paste, fiber paste, fabrics, thread. Right now, I'm using a lot of recycled cardboard and packaging materials. I've become kind of a disaster zone of packaging materials at the residency. Oh, my goodness.

,PRENTICE: Thank goodness you're putting it to use instead of sending it to the landfill like the rest of us.

ALVAREZ: Oh, for sure. And I think that I've talked a lot with the people here at the Castle House about the material serving as a time capsule, which, you know, I think so much of James Castle’s works do, because a lot of his works weren't signed or dated and they're trying to find the time frame for which he did it based on what materials he was using. And that's so interesting to see in person.

PRENTICE: The Artist in Residency is ten weeks, right?

ALVAREZ: Mm hmm.

Tania Alvarez

PRENTICE: Can I ask what that conversation was like when you were talking with those people in your life, when you said, “I'm going to spend ten weeks in Boise, Idaho.”

ALVAREZ: I think most of my family and my partner thought I was a little crazy. “Ten weeks is a long time. What are you going to do there?” And they totally misunderstood what the residency was like in general. They thought for some reason I was going to be in a storefront and accessible to the public and that there was just like a sliding door between me and a store. And I was like, “No, that's not what it's.”

PRENTICE: So outside of your work, what else will you be doing… or have you been doing?

ALVAREZ: I've been doing a lot of walking around the neighborhood and there's a bike here that they give to you when you're a resident. And so, I've been doing a lot of bike riding and stuff like that, and I hope to do a lot more of the nature walks and stuff. I love to go to the museum.

PRENTICE: Oh, the Boise Art Museum?

ALVAREZ: Yeah, I haven't been yet and I'm looking forward to going.

PRENTICE: It's superb. You've seen so much of the world and. And you truly do hold up such a unique lens for us to look through. And I never would have connected memory to art. And now I can't get it out of my head.

ALVAREZ: Oh, thank you.

PRENTICE: For our listeners, there are several opportunities for visitors to engage with you during your stay and we'll have links to all of that on our website. But for now, Tania Alvarez, thank you so much for giving us some time this morning.

ALVAREZ: Oh, thank you for having me.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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