Local artist Michael Torra’s life is centered around the Borderstan area. His first apartment was a studio on R Street NW, and he has lived in Dupont Circle since he moved to the District more than 15 years ago. Inevitably, the shapes and colors of the neighborhood have made their way into his paintings.
Cityscapes from the Rooftop
The most obvious influence can be seen in Torra’s cityscape series, which portrays the skylines of his rooftop views. His surroundings have also had a more subtle influence in the work of his sun series.
“I knew I wanted to create some sort of abstraction of the sun as a vehicle for playing with yellows and oranges,” he said. “As I thought about how I would structure the piece, I finally figured it out one day walking past the fountain in the Circle, looking at the ground and how the slabs of the concrete under my feet were shaped. I ended up basing the geometric structure of those paintings off the shapes of those concrete slabs.”
Painting has been a passion of Torra’s since he moved to the area, but it wasn’t his first creative interest.
“At college in Los Angeles I took a lot of art classes, all in sculpture, until my senior year when it dawned on me that after I graduated, I wouldn’t be able to afford welding torches, band saws and all the other equipment I had access to as a student,” he said. He decided to take a painting class and immediately fell in love. Torra admits it took a while to develop his own style of painting, but classes at The Art League in Alexandria helped him establish his voice — creating abstract and non-representational works that balance form and color.
East Coast and West Coast
Torra has lived on both the West Coast, in Los Angeles, and the East Coast, just outside of Boston, Mass. Although he thought he would eventually return to his native California, he ended up calling the District home after moving to the Dupont Circle neighborhood in 1998. Like many DC transplants, Torra sought and eventually reached his goal of working on Capitol Hill. After a decade long career in politics, he joined a public affairs firm where he works with progressive organizations. According to Torra, his day job not only allows him to work on causes he cares about, but gives him the flexibility to work on his artistic endeavors.
Torra has previously participated in DC’s biggest creative event Artomatic, as well as ArtRomp, a curated group show at the Warehouse in Washington, DC. He will have two pieces in the upcoming group show at Art17 at Coldwell Banker (1606 17th Street NW) and will be participating in the Mid City Artists’ Open Studios May 18 and 19. For more information about Torra, please visit his website michaeltorra.com.
It was a great year for Borderstan artists. During 2012, Borderstan’s Eliza French interviewed 11 of the creative talents in the neighborhood. Painting, sculpture, photography, graffiti, you name it, all were represented in a gallery of very talented artists who live and work in the area.
Scott G. Brooks has been living and working in the DC area since moving here from Flint, Michigan in 1990. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at University of Michigan in 1983, and considers himself “lucky” to know he wanted to be an artist from an early age. Although he has primarily worked in the world of painting and fine art over the past ten years, he also works as a children’s book illustrator and works in animation, graphic design and drawing.
Lucinda Murphy explores profound scientific questions within the finite boundaries of her canvases. As an artist, she grapples with questions such as,”Where does energy originate and how does it convert to matter and back?” and “What is the difference between environment and entity?” Most recently, she has been addressing a question more familiar within the artistic realm — the disparities between what an object actually is and how we perceive it. As Murphy explains, “An object must ‘look’ very different depending on what is ‘seeing’ it… Right now I am trying to visualize what it means that we can only find 10 percent of our universe.”
Parascandola sought to capture this particular location in his native country because of its unique history as a set for several popular movies during the 1960s and 1970s. Filmmakers transformed the blank slate of the desert into America, Egypt, and everywhere in between for movies such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Patton, and Cleopatra. Remnants of various fictional settings still remain scattered throughout the landscape, and Parascandola captures the transformative power still lingering in these ruins.
Arkin is not only a painter, but also a curator who experiments with printmaking, sculpture and assemblage. She previously aspired to be a poet with degrees in both Writing and Literature, and later used her education to run the creative department of a marketing agency. Arkin played multiple instruments during her college years and continues to enjoy a variety of performing arts including theater, dance and poetry, making the Borderstan area an ideal place to live. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to live and work in Dupont.
Local photographer Betto Ortiz has avidly photographed everything around him from a young age. He approached photography as a hobby and began to document his travels through the medium as a young adult. The Colombian artist exhibited his first show in 2003 and, ever since then, he has been pursuing photography professionally as an artist and travel photographer. Borderstan asked Ortiz about his evolution as an artist, his photographic style, and how living and working in DC has influenced him.
An environmentalist who emphasizes the productive aspects of art, he frequently salvages old canvases and repurposes old furniture and found objects. His works in progress–from chairs and lamps to oil paintings and charcoal drawings– surround the space. Quotes from well-known artists in their native languages are inscribed on the floor. Glass cases filled with Lem’s small collections of objects, such as antique cameras, line the walls.
Inspired by the legacy of modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, Carl Amt combines words and text to produce works that function as social commentary. Citing a range of influences from Shepard Fairey to Robert Rauschenberg, Amt also incorporates elements of the street art aesthetic in his work and experiments with textural applications, such as applying candle wax to the canvas. Amt is an art collector, as well, with a special focus on New York-based street artists.
As a child in a military family, by the time he was in high school, Michael D. Crossett had lived in Hawaii, Japan, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia. These drastically different cultural influences shaped his point of view and his artistic eye. In particular, he has incorporated characteristics of the Japanese aesthetic — the highly designed nature of everyday objects, the bright colors, and bold patterns. The graphic appeal and immediacy of these elements still drives his approach today.
After taking a 20-year hiatus from her work as an artist, Sally Kauffman is reviving her career and finding camaraderie among the Mid City Artists in her studio adjacent to the Harmon Art Lab. Photography has heavily influenced her work, and recently she has drawn inspiration from her day job as a digital user experience designer.
Aniekan Udofia moved back to DC to pursue a career as an artist after living in Nigeria for most of his life. As a young man, he worked mostly in colored pencil and pen illustration. He remembers studying the technique of an artist in his Nigerian village of Uwo and trying to master his style. He would also look at the political caricatures in newspapers and studying how the image mimicked the editorial content. Not surprisingly, Udofia tries to incorporate an element of social commentary in his art.
Kreg D. Kelley came to DC from Connecticut to study political science at George Washington University and pursue a career in politics. Before graduation, he changed his goals and decided he “wanted to do something…I loved, something I would want to do for the rest of…my life.” For Kelley, that “something” was art. Before he graduated, Kelley left George Washington to take a job at Galerie Lareuse in Georgetown, “an opportunity…I couldn’t refuse.”
From Eliza French. Follow her on Twitter @elizaenbref; email her at eliza[AT]borderstan.com.
Local photographer Betto Ortiz has avidly photographed everything around him from a young age. He approached photography as a hobby and began to document his travels through the medium as a young adult. The Colombian artist exhibited his first show in 2003, and ever since then he has been pursuing photography professionally as an artist and travel photographer. Borderstan asked Ortiz about his evolution as an artist, his photographic style, and how living and working in DC has influenced him.
Borderstan: How long have you lived/worked in the DC and specifically in the Dupont/Logan/U Street area and how did you come to live here?
Ortiz: I have been in the DC area since late 1990, right after graduate school. ….I have always lived in the Dupont/Logan area; in Logan, in particular, since 2000. I visited DC for the first time when I was 10 years old, it was then when I felt in love with this city. When I finished graduate school at the National University of Colombia, and after deciding not to finish my last rotation of veterinary medicine, I moved to DC to do some modeling and attend the University of Maryland. I soon decided against studying there but continued modeling …. I also worked for many years with Gala Hispanic Theater on many productions, from small parts to big roles.
I wanted to live here because of its international flavor, its small buildings, and big green areas. I love DC because it is a city in the States where having an accent is cool, [and] it is common. In DC, everyone is from someplace else, from other countries, from different cultures. It is a city of power but our voice does not matter because we have no representation. It is in these contradictions that I find myself loving to be here. No other neighborhood has seen more change and exhibits more contradictions than Dupont/Logan.It is the place I call home, where I want to come back after traveling the world.
Borderstan: How and when did you discover your affinity for photography? What first attracted you to the medium? I’m also curious about why your first show in 2003 convinced you that photography could be more than just a hobby.
Ortiz: I have always liked photography. I remember being a kid in school and being fascinated by photography, in particular those photographs that had people in live actions. I got my first camera, an Instamatic, for my eighth birthday. I took photos of everything and everyone. I drove everyone crazy. When I was 12, one of my aunts got a camera for her graduation…. I was enchanted with that great Minolta. So, I took my first class in photography with the newspaper of my school, I was the only “young boy” among all the juniors and seniors of high school who were running the newspaper. To my surprise, and everyone else’s in class, I was the best photographer of the class and… joined the newspaper. I was in heaven! …Photography became then one of my strongest hobbies.
In 2003, a couple of friends were at my place for dinner. They asked to see my photos from some of my trips, [since] everyone was always talking about my photos. These friends were impressed. Two of these friends were gallery curators who were moving to New York City. They told me that my talent was more than just that of a person with a hobby [and] that I should explore it. One of them pointed out what I still believe it is true today, that I capture in travel photography what people think they did but never could in their own trips. I was happy but truly skeptical. So, we agreed that I would put together… the duplicates of 100 photographs they [could select] from my boxes. Once I got the matted photos, I was to take them to their gallery to be sold, but I was afraid of rejection. So, I first took them to my office to show my coworkers and to see their reactions. I sold almost all of them in two days. I could not believe it. I then created another set for my friends and arranged my first show.
I would say that it was that broad acceptance to my natural art of taking the photographs on my trips [that convinced me to pursue photography seriously]. The “wow” reactions of people …motivated me to open my photos to others and to explore this artistic side.
Borderstan: Which cities and towns have been particularly inspiring for you or been particularly challenging to photograph? How do you go about choosing locations and finding subjects to photograph?
Ortiz: Italy is enchanting and a photographer’s dream in my opinion. It does not matter where one is there is always an interesting landscape, an old building, people with character, crazy fashion, old people beautifully dressed, families enjoying the afternoon, towers, parks, and food.
I think that locations choose you. It is true that one has to be there first but sometimes the smallest piazza one goes by becomes the largest photo studio. I normally go to places where I can stay few days, where I can sit down with the locals and have a cup of coffee or a drink. That first encounter is crucial for me, it is when I see all the things I do not want in my photos, such as electric lines, commercial signs, tourists, bad shadows, political propaganda, etc. Then the next day the space becomes mine and my camera can freely shoot within the limits I have set for my photos. I have been called a “purist.” I still believe in the importance of composition and framing before the picture is taken. Even with digital photography, I do not believe in cropping and retouching photos. ….Artistic photography is not to make a photograph already taken look the way one wanted it to be or remembers it to be by using digital adjustments. Digitally and artistically modifying a good photo is art, [but]…cropping and adjusting a suboptimal one [is not].
There are many good tricks to capture people going on with their lives. One of them is to have someone who sits, or walks, or moves closer to the real subjects of the photo. Then, the game is on, so one can shoot people while they believe one is working with someone else. Another [trick] is to set your tripod with the camera on a busy corner of a piazza, just next to the table one is having coffee, and then wait. People just naturally walk into one’s photo and completes it naturally.
I have found that I need to be in the mood of photography, that I must have that sensitive eye to capture truly artistic photos. Photos taken without that instinct while they may be technically good, they lack the artistic touch and become commercial travel photography. This artistic touch is the innate capacity to shoot at the moment one can accurately capture the serene smile of an old lady, or the proud posture of a strong soldier, or the passionate expression of a couple in love. I want in my artistic travel photography to capture the beauty of a place and its people but with the touch of art that gives, that makes the viewers of my photos wonder about the story behind the photo.
Borderstan: In what ways specifically did your background and upbringing help you develop your photographic eye?
Ortiz: When I was a kid, my father had an approach to educating his children based on one phrase: “Do not say ‘no’ to something until you have tried it.” We traveled to so many different places, tried so many different foods and met so many interesting people. I always felt that the stories were not complete when we told others our adventures; I wanted to show them rather than to say tons of words. It is in this desire to tell the stories with one image that I found myself liking photography.
Working for the school newspaper for a couple of years cemented my desire to be good in photography, to bring to others the beauty and magic of other places. … I created more than one problem with my out of the box photography in a high school newspaper within the walls of a Catholic institution. The brothers of La Salle loved my energy and helped me as much as they could to develop my crazy ideas. I then decided to photograph every event I was involved with. ….. I wanted to be a photographer but a scientist at the same time.
Borderstan: How has living in Washington DC and the Dupont/Logan/U Street area and interacting with other local artists and institutions influenced your art?
Ortiz: [T]the most direct influence in my work, in the last few years, has come from joining MidCity Artists. Before being in an artistic group I never felt I was more than just a good photographer. [Since participating in] the Open Studios twice a year, when hundreds of people see my photos and my latest work with mixed media and photography, I have seen the faces of approval and have received the compliments that fuel the desire to be more involved with my art. Yes, I feel I can call it art these days. I believe that some artists are who they are no matter what, big geniuses of the present and past. Meanwhile, others respond to the approval of their fans creating wonders of today that may see the glory of tomorrow. I am one of the latter ones. People on the street around my place and other areas of the city, where my shows have taken place, recognize me as a Betto the artistic photographer. It is important to feel that approval and to respond to it with better work.
It is also good to hear from other artists when MidCity has shows together or when someone comes to one of my openings. In part staying in pure photography was safer because I knew how to take the best photo, but now integrating mixed media to the presentation of my photos has not only moved me into a more artistic identity but has also offered me to others so they can talk about me in a new dimension. If you know what I mean!
The other influence in my work comes from the commercial side of being an artistic travel photographer; so, sometimes, what people want has a direct correlation of what gets printed for sale. Both sides, artistic and commercial, need to be addressed always if one wants to remain relevant. So what people buy has to be available even if my artistic mind has other ideas for a new collection.
Borderstan: What are your other interests and hobbies outside of art?
Ortiz: I think I can say without fear that I am a true renaissance man. I have tried many things in life: scuba diving instructor; dog breeder and trainer; counter tenor soprano singer for ceremonies at weddings and funerals; TV reporter for a gay magazine; model for many years; and other [occupations]. Today, I like to take things a little slower, but I still seem to have more energy and get involved in more things that your average person. I like it that way. I love to travel and to repeat the same spot several times, to get to know peoples cultures and lives. …. My curiosity surpasses photography, but it is in photography that my soul finds a new religion.
Borderstan: Please let us know anything else you would like to share about your current work or future projects.
Ortiz: My last big series of acrylic matting and selected photographs was launched late in 2009. Then in 2010 and 2011 I produced only three small series of photographs from Africa, Europe, and Colombia. This break was needed due to illness in 2010 and family in 2011. It takes… time to put a big series together. These days, I am now working on my next big project which will involve acrylic work with pure photography. I am thinking it may be called acrylic dilution. I am in the process of completing the actual idea to then move to produce the pieces. I will then have to negotiate the venue. Additionally, I have more than seven trips I have yet to catalog and reproduce for this fall’s MidCity Open Studios.