Sylvia Fernández has just returned from the desert. In her quaint cottage home and studio in Carlsbad, she reflects on the desolate and barren landscapes that gave her the inspiration for her most recent paintings.
“Our desert back home, it’s near the ocean,” says Fernández, referring to her native Peru. “It’s a different kind of desert here. I was amazed and surprised.”
So it follows that when she was recently asked to participate in “Shape Shifting”— a dual show with fellow artist Jamie Franks at Two Rooms, a gallery and project space in La Jolla — Fernández mentioned to the owner that she wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. The hope was that she’d end up creating new paintings inspired from the trip to exhibit at the show.
“I’ve never heard the wind blow in that way; all the messages it can carry, and all that it can take from here to there,” Fernández says. “You can hear your own heartbeat and your own breath. It connects you in another way.”
It’s important to point out that it would be inaccurate to classify Fernández as an artist who is inspired by nature. At least not in the stereotypical sense.
To put it another way, she is a nature artist, but one who explores the barriers and bridges that stand between us and nature. The “nature” in question doesn’t just apply to flora and fauna. Rather, her work deals in human nature and the nature of emotions. In a sense, her paintings are the result of highly meditative experiences, but they are also deeply rooted in a conscious, almost scientific outlook on the world and the myriad ways it attempts to connect with us.
“For me, the most important part is the process. The process of how I get there,” says Fernández, adding that she rarely has an image in her mind when she begins a sketch or painting. “It just comes. In a way, I have to respect that because of the intimacy. I have to have respect for that precise moment.”
Traversing the line between abstraction and figurativism, Fernández’s work is often delightful, sometimes disconcerting. On the surface, most of her works do seem instinctive, a touching representation of a moment in time. Look closer, however, and that “intimacy” she refers to becomes more evident, the layers upon layers revealing themselves the more one stares.
“For me, it’s not about accomplishing an image. I don’t care about the image,” she says. “It’s about accomplishing something that I need to get out. When it’s done, the painting gives back to you something you would never imagine.”
This need is evident in her more recent work, such as “Mental Landscapes” and “New Islands” series, which explores the ways in which the artist herself has adjusted to not only her move to the U.S., but to the COVID-19 pandemic. The “New Islands” series, in particular, consists of moody nudes, with a body, presumably Fernández herself, surfacing above a body of water.
“I got into the ocean every day trying to get back home, in a way. To be reconnected,” Fernández says, adding that she found a sense of tranquility in the idea of it being the same Pacific Ocean that washed onto the shores of her native Lima. “It’s not a self-portrait, but it is a self-exploration to understand a new place. And not in a geographic sense, that I’m in Carlsbad now, but a new place in life. A new place inside you.”
She goes on to explain that, in a sense, the pandemic shifted her focus on how to approach her work. That in the isolation of quarantining, she found herself connecting with the everyday objects and places around her, both living and inanimate. Things that had always been there, but that they were then, as she recalls it, “saying something new” to her.
“It could have been anything. My plants, the birds, the sounds of the ocean,” Fernández says. “Now, I take nature as a bridge to reconnect. It’s one more ingredient I’ve added. Nature is important to my work, not in a geographical way, but it gives me a little treasure.”
Growing up in Lima, Fernández says she came from a very “sensible” family who likely would have preferred her to pursue something more practical, but that they did give her space to pursue her artistic inclinations. She always always felt a connection, an “intimacy,” as she puts it, to the energy offered by creativity.
“You feel alone, but you feel good. It’s a place that you feel so comfortable and you want to be there,” says Fernández. “And that’s what painting gave me when I was 12, 13 years old.”
Fernández came to Southern California a few years ago after she and her husband dropped their son off to go to college in Pasadena. Her husband, also a Peruvian-American, had previously lived in Los Angeles, and both felt it would be a nice change from Lima.
“He’s a photographer and I’m a painter so we’re pretty free,” she says. “We’re not attached to anything. Leaving family and friends was difficult, but we wanted to give it a try.”
It becomes clear in speaking to Fernández that she doesn’t lose sleep over the fact that she left a successful practice and career in Lima to ostensibly start over in Southern California. In fact, She sees it as a logical next step in her artistic journey. At one point in our conversation, she mentions that when she first became serious about painting in her 20s, she almost always did self-portraits, portraying herself in an almost “unrealistic, superficial” way.
“My work back then was always ‘please look at me, I exist and I need to tell you something,’” says Fernández. “And then suddenly you don’t care about that anymore. It’s not about one question or one matter. It’s about everything.”
She points to a recent painting of a cactus she made after returning from Joshua Tree, its chollas resembling human fingers. She plans on continuing with the desert series, heading back out soon in hopes of finding yet another connection.
“I’m so attracted to the idea of how to keep on discovering,” she says. “I kept saying when I moved here that I don’t belong here, but suddenly, throughout this whole process, it became ‘I don’t belong here, we belong everywhere.’ It’s not about being yourself in a place, it’s about understanding the whole.’”
Born: Lima, Peru
Fun Fact: Fernández and her husband were initially hesitant to move to Southern California, but she says they made an agreement that they’d put their house in Lima on the market and that if it sold right away, they’d take it as a sign. It sold within a few days. “We were like, ‘well, I guess we really have to move,’ she recalls laughing. “And we did, just like that.”
‘Shape Shifting: Sylvia Fernández & Jamie Franks’
When: Runs June 17 through July 8. Opening reception, 6 to 8 p.m. June 17, and by appointment.
Where: Two Rooms Gallery, 5560 La Jolla Blvd., Suite D, La Jolla
Combs is a freelance writer.