Jim’s Essay for the Arriba/ Abajo catalogue

I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to write the introduction  to this exhibition of Joy Laking’s  watercolours of South America.  Being her traveling companion for both trips to South America in January and February, this year as well as last year, I am perfectly placed to describe some of the stories behind the paintings.  I am doubly excited that the profits from these creations will all go towards an art project in Bolivia, the most exciting and interesting place that we visited.

When Joy and I married, we found out quickly that we both enjoy traveling light and inexpensively.  The honey-moon spent hiking Cape Chigenecto was the first hint.    Our trips to South America have followed the same pattern; back packs, buses, trains and hostels.  Traveling this way without a schedule has given us the opportunity to get closer to the people and to see and experience their way of living.  In Joy’s paintings, you can see her love of the people and the colours and shapes that she’s sees in daily life in South America.

On our trip this year, I remember Joy saying that it felt like coming home when we crossed the border from Northern Argentina  into Bolivia.  It is a feeling that we both had of returning to a place that almost felt comfortable and familiar.  Our love for Bolivia started in February 2008 when we arrived for the first time, crossing the border by bus from Northern Chile.  After the border formalities, the bus stopped and the driver produced a bag of streamers and balloons with which we proceeded to decorate the bus and each other.  This was “carnivale” in Bolivia.  That trip, in Bolivia, ended when a family in Copacobana invited me to participate in the blessing of their vehicles at the cathedral.  It was my job to run around the cars spraying them with beer.  The warmth and friendship shown by the average Bolivian left us eager to return.

After our first visit and knowing that Bolivia is one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in South America, Joy wanted to bring some form of art support to the people, particularly the children.  Joy holds a strong belief that creativity can be taught through the arts and leads to creatively in all aspects of life.  Bolivia is certainly a country in need of creative solutions to its many problems; from ethnic and linguistic division to economic disparity and poverty.  

Joy knew that she wanted the proceeds from the sale of the 2008 sketches to go to an art project but we were uncertain of how to go about doing something effectively.  This is where fate played it’s hand.  Joy saw a beautiful book of photography called Bolivia and bought it for me.  That introduced us to Dr. Ivar Mendez, the photographer and his beautiful depictions of the people and scenery of Bolivia.  When we contacted him, we discovered that he not only was he a photographer and a world renown neurosurgeon but also that he has a personal project in Bolivia.  He spared time to meet with us and gave us some sage advice.  We were to think about sustainability not just dropping off painting supplies and leaving.  Then he advised us to develop a relationship with the Academia National de Bellas Artes, the premier art school in Bolivia.  The school has been in existence for eighty years.  With this in mind, the sale of those 2008 sketches funded the first issue of “Otro Arte”, a quality art magazine which shows the world, the high quality of Bolivian art. The premier issue came out in November of 2008 and the magazine is being continued.  Our goal this year is to use the profits from this exhibition to take the initial steps in setting up a sustainable art program in schools in a remote, financially impoverished area of Bolivia.  We continue to rely upon and follow Ivan Mendez’s advice.

Many of the sketches and painting in this exhibition were done by Joy during our travels this year from Sao Paulo, Brazil, through Paraguay, Northern Argentina, Bolivia and back to Sao Paulo.  Frequently, I would find Joy on her stool, surrounded by groups of children or adults.  Sometimes there was danger, as in Sorata, Bolivia, where she sat tightly against a building in the narrow street while big trucks made the corner right beside her.  In Samaipata, Bolivia, after carnivale the danger was to the painting .  A clean-up fellow with a stick with a nail, took it upon himself to use the stick to point out the highlights in the painting, while it was being created, to anyone he could round up.

Each of the images in this exhibition has a story: from sketches done on the main street of Villazon Bolivia, where the guide-books said that you should not go, to the pots lining the top of the wall in Tilcara.  Many of Joy’s sketches never make it home as they are left with the subjects.  There is even a “Joy Laking” sketch of the school in Ceibu, a little village in the Amazon Basin of Boliva, that now hangs in this same school.  When we did a tour of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, our driver and cook both acquired a sketch of themselves.  I remember Gerardo, the driver, posing with his vehicle, despite the teasing he suffered at the hands of the other drivers.

Some of the paintings in this exhibition were done from photos and sketches after Joy returned to Portapique.  “The Hats” started as a very small piece of a photograph and grew through a small studio painting to the large image  in this exhibition.  The “Woman and Vegetables” developed from a sketch to a one half sheet painting to a slightly tighter and simplified compostion in the full sheet painting.  All of the sketches and paintings show Joy’s love of colour and shapes.

From wildly colourful mountains in the vast stillness of South West Bolivia, where Salvador Dali once painted, to the busy street scenes with indigenous women squeezing orange juice, Joy captures a south America far from the flowered porches and mud flats of her home along the shore of Cobequid Bay.  Not only far in distance, but separated by culture, language, colours and traditions.  It is a treat for all of us to see these places vicariously through the eyes of Nova Scotia’s own Joy Laking.