Editor's note: In the summer of 2015, Francisco Souto began a series of drawings about his native land, Venezuela, and the impact of the economic and political upheaval on its people.
Early in the process, Souto asked Journal Star art critic L. Kent Wolgamott to collaborate with him through a series of conversations that took place over the course of a year, culminating last week with an encounter at Kiechel Fine Art, where "A Memory in Peril," the exhibition of three large panoramic drawings and 20 smaller pieces is on view through Nov. 1. A portion of their final conversation is chronicled on G8.
As part of the collaboration, Wolgamott wrote an essay for the exhibition catalog, revising it here for the Journal Star.
The email turned up in my Journal Star inbox on Sept. 17, 2015:
"As we discussed the other day I think it will be great if we can set up a studio visit so that we can start a nice discussion about the Venezuelan drawings series. The show won’t happen until later next year but I would love for you to be involved in the process ... I have around 6 drawings ready ... As you know the Venezuelan drawings series came after our discussion while I was working on Poetics of Recognition show ... So you are already part of it!"
Two weeks later I was in Francisco Souto's Richards Hall studio. I was there because, after he'd completed the "Poetics of Recognition" series of views of the Plains, his adopted home, I’d asked if he'd ever do work about Venezuela, his native land.
That was the first of five visits to the studio -- in October and December 2015, April 2016 and twice in July 2016.
Those visits became a collaboration of sorts. I'd come in unarmed -- no notebook, no recorder, my phone and its camera shut off in my pocket -- to look at the work and react, starting discussions that lasted at least an hour on each occasion.
At some point, when it looked like there would be a publication to accompany the show, Souto asked if I'd write a piece reflecting our discussions and my thoughts on the work.
So this essay isn't based on notes, interviews or photos. Rather, it stems from my recollections of those visits, what we talked about and my evolving thoughts about the drawings.
During the initial visit, I saw “Ripped Flag,” the first of what would become three 8-foot-long horizontal drawings -- I'm going to call them panoramic -- and about a half dozen in a smaller round format that Souto had used in the "Poetics of Recognition" series.
My initial reaction, beyond marveling at the astounding artwork itself, was a comment that the drawings were political art, but not propaganda.
The panoramic piece certainly has a narrative of uprising, repression and the struggle of daily life in Venezuela in economic collapse. But, beyond its innate humanitarianism and, thereby, an implicit criticism of the government, Souto hasn't created a polemic in his pieces.
That observation started a discussion of the realism of the imagery interpreted from photographs and its specificity to Venezuela, but recognizing a wider application of the subject matter.
A pair of drawings, one of a cathedral and its plaza where protest gatherings took place, the other of an office/government building of some sorts, were included in the first batch. On my last visit, they were tucked away, leaning against a filing cabinet.
Now, the only structures in the drawings are walls that serve as background in a few of the pieces. But most have no background at all, the drawing seemingly anchored in a space, but in no specific place. It could be Venezuela. But it could just as easily be anywhere in the world -- from the Middle East to an American city where similar scenes occur every day, week, month and year.
That gives Souto's suite of works a universality that takes the drawings farther away from their documentary roots.
There’s a more universal element in the drawings -- the medium itself -- graphite, specifically in pencil.
Literally everyon, has made a pencil drawing at some time. Those drawings may not have been good. But everyone knows what it's like to hold a pencil and draw and can relate, without processing, to pencil-drawn images, creating an instant, intuitive connection to the work.
Few can draw like Souto and almost none have used an imported 10H pencil with a "lead" so hard it's like drawing with a nail, or erasers sharpened to the tiniest point possible to wipe away the graphite and create highlights as he has done in all the Venezuelan drawings.
I take Francisco at his word about that. I've seen the 10H pencils and the sharpened erasers and watched him make some marks and erasures. But I didn't watch him work on any of the drawings at any kind of length.
Sitting in the studio as he spent two hours looking through a jeweler's magnifying headset, drawing a shoe that I couldn't see wouldn't have been close to productive for me and would have been a distracting irritant for him.
But that painstaking labor done at the drawing table or over the long board on which the panoramic pieces were made, created the rich, informed details that make the drawings come vividly to life.
That attention to detail can be seen in the different types of "smoke" that appear in the drawings. The dark smudge from burning tires, for example, looks far different than the light "smoke" coming from the tear gas canisters protesters are throwing -- presumably back at the troops.
The detail that is most important, however, is his depiction of people.
Take, for example, the 95 -- I think I counted correctly -- standing in “Long Food Line,” the second panoramic drawing that I saw for the first time on my December visit.
Each figure is unique, right down to the pants of one man falling differently than those of a guy standing near him whose clothes are made of a different material. People in traditional Andean dress stand in the center of the line. A dumpy, powerless soldier stands at its end.
A man holds a newspaper complete with the outlines of the photos and columns. Another wears a T-shirt so carefully crafted, its inscription can be read. A woman's checkerboard patterned leggings took hours of work.
The drawings are Souto's tribute to the people of Venezuela, the details that create individuals treating them with the respect that they deserve and allowing him to express his deep feeling for them in fine black marks and erasures on paper.
That recognition, which really came for me during the December visit, explains one of the most notable changes in the drawings over the year of their making
The figures gradually increase in size, at least doubling in scale over the course of the series -- from the tiny “Students on the lookout” to kids, at least double their size in “What about us,” one of the final drawings.
That, it seems to me, puts increasing emphasis on those Souto is depicting, removing the most explicit references to the turmoil to focus on what really makes Venezuela, or any other city or country for that matter, its people -- a view given more poignancy by knowledge of Souto's family and friends he left behind and his love for his country.
He makes that tribute through drawings that are astonishing, and have been since I first laid eyes on them. I have never seen anything quite like them in three decades of looking at and writing about art and consider them to be among the greatest artistic achievements to ever come out of Nebraska.
The drawings, however, aren't just graphite on paper. There are stripes of color derived, in part, from the Venezuelan flag, underneath each drawing, bisecting the circles and running the length of the panoramas -- vivid markers that set the drawings apart from the ordinary, establish the drawing as an art object in and of itself and, via their contrast with the black-and-white, focus the attention on the graphite image.
Applying the stripes is, to say the least, a high risk proposition. Sprayed on through a vinyl stencil, the color is applied after the graphite portion has been completed. One errant swipe or inadvertent bobble and the drawing could be ruined. But, evidence of Souto's mastery of yet another technique, all survived unscathed.
By my second July visit, Souto was preparing to take on the final panoramic panel and a few more circular drawings -- a major undertaking given that it was less than two months until the exhibition was set to open.
"I'm not afraid of work," was Francisco's response when I raised that point. Not that I wasn't already fully aware that he arrived at his studio in the very early hours and worked throughout the day, "powering through," to use the athletic term, the pain and exhaustion.
Francisco, a tennis player, and I talked about that as well -- the connection between athletic activity and making art. In his book "Tone Deaf and All Thumbs," Frank R. Wilson calls runners, football, basketball, volleyball and tennis players, etc. "large muscle athletes" and tags musicians as "small muscle athletes."
I'd argue that visual artists in most media are combinations of small and large muscle athletes -- the precision required of musicians combining with the physicality and repetition required to work in large scale. And I'd present Souto, as I told him many times during our talks, as a premier example of that, right down to his drive to be the best -- which is present in every elite athlete I've ever encountered.
Souto's final drawings in the series focus on children, a move that began in the preceding handful of pieces.
I'd have never expected that Souto would move to kids to complete the series. But, in fact, it is the perfect ending to the narrative that runs through the work -- hinted at by “Potable water,” a mid-series depiction of three children carrying jugs of water.
Today's Venezuelan children, evocatively captured in the drawings “Sharing a piece of bread” and having fainted on a school desk in “There is no food” on the last panoramic, will be living with the aftermath of the turmoil for the rest of their lives.
So the drawings become their history and a plea for deliverance for the turmoil, like all great art unfolding with new meaning and deeper understanding each time they're seen.
I'll close with this. I'm honored to have collaborated in some small way with Francisco and hope that my reflections have added some context and understanding of the work. That said, all the words, spoken and written, can only hint at the technical excellence, emotional power and visual resonance of the drawings will linger in the memory long after they are seen.