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The duende of Judith Deim

By John Gavin

Judith deim rhaspsody hungaro

“Duende burns the blood like powdered glass.”

“Duende never repeats itself, as waves in a sea at storm do not repeat themselves.”

“Duende does not appear unless it sees the possibility of death.”

—Federico García Lorca

The writer and novelist John Steinbeck was a patron and friend to the young artist, Judith Deim. While she was living in Monterey, California, in the 1950’s he proposed a painting pilgrimage to her, to live and paint for a time in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. At that time, she was among the first in a wave of world travelers who found their way to this Eden of Mexico.

Sarabande II
Until June 3
Galería Skot Foreman 12-A
Fábrica la Aurora

So it was not surprising that she made her way back to Pátzcuaro at the end of her life, where she would live and continue painting for over 25 years until she died peacefully, in her mid-90’s, in her small house with its outdoor octagonal painting studio, a field away from Lake Pátzcuaro, in the Indian village of Tzurumutaro.

At the time of her death, the paintings stacked against the walls of her studio were like the stamps in a passport from a bygone era. Notations on the back of each painting hinted at travels and adventures in Spain, France, Morocco and Senegal; their dates providing an accurate itinerary through Europe and North Africa. As these paintings are turned forward, time collapses and the viewer is plunged deeply into the immediacy of the life she was living in that moment.

The work is narrative in almost every case, with scenes from life as it was being lived: men, women, lovers, families, workers in fields and markets; but also musicians, dancers, bullfighters, acrobats and clowns. There are also kings and queens, magicians, hunters and harlequins, children, dwarves, animals of all kinds, story tellers, seers and poets at work and play, throughout the day and deep into the night.

At the time of these travels, and these far-off, well-worn paths, interiors might often be tents, or natural rather than formal structures; illumination from candles and campfires were a common source of light. Moonlight is often a magical source, providing mood-filled evidence of people and places and things otherwise unseen. This artist’s eye was watchful at night and in the darkness.

There are many things one might say about Judith Deim’s observation in her paintings and drawings. She was an accomplished painter, draughtsman and colorist. So one might easily conclude her work to be accurate in its observations of gesture, attitude, posture, movement, in the reflections of light, whether it be shadows cast from firelight or the incandescent light of the moon reflected over water.

Equally important for this artist, however, were the “subjective” observations made. Judith Deim was an adept at reading and conveying the stories and meaning behind and beneath the surface of her images. This is what gives depth, and often darkness, to the work.

John Gavin is writer, curator and producer, “Ghost Bird: the Life and Art of Judith Deim.”


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