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Carmen Toruella-Quander: Art is Her Life

Eve M. Ferguson | 6/12/2013, 3 p.m.
Artist Carmen Torruella-Quander stands next to her painting, "Selling Kinque," acrylic on canvas. Her one-woman exhibit, "My Travels-My Art," can be seen at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown through June 18. Photo by Roy Lewis

Hanging next to “Rhinoceros” is “Hippopotamus,” which with such a straightforward title would be taken to be a run-of-the-mill image of the African water horse.

Instead, the eyes of the hippo peer inquisitively above the surface of the water he is basking in, and the background in deep greens and blues, gives the impression of a deeply vegetated landscape and the tropical heat and humidity one would find there.

“She captures the cultural sensitivity of each geographic area,” said Helen Jackson, an independent curator familiar with Washington’s prolific arts community. “Her travels in Africa, the Caribbean and South America over the span of a decade show how closely she observed details. What impressed me is how she handles the background and depth that makes you feel the figure, and pushes the figure forward. It’s the sense of space, light and depth. Both paintings are transformed by their watery backgrounds, both deep and non-representational. The strength of her work is manipulation of the light. It brings the figure to the forefront.”

Quander’s paintings also have the ability to alter mundane objects and scenes into extraordinary things of beauty. “Washday,” is a collection of items – a washboard, laundry soap, Argo clothes starch and a black rag doll, but through this painting, it becomes a sacred memory of a lifestyle long past. It makes the viewer remember nostalgically, a scene where anybody’s grandmother might have been standing on the other side with an iron and ironing board and the smell of fresh laundry wafting in the air.

“Brown Girl Playing Dress Up,” captures the childlike joy of putting on a favorite, fancy dress and posing in it. The girl’s expression is both innocent and inviting, saying to the viewer, “look at me!”

One of the most stunning images in the exhibit, which from conversations with the artist, include some of her favorite works, is “The Tribesman,” a painting that has been in the Parish Gallery since Quander participated in a group show. A young Maasai boy, face covered in white dust, stares out from the canvas with a determined gaze so fixed that one knows that this young man is no longer a child – he has matured into a man. The painting is simple – the boy’s face framed by cow horns tied on as a headpiece against a bright orange background. The contrast between his dark brown face, white dust and brilliant background causes him to pop out from the canvas.

“It’s exciting to see the oils,” Jackson added. “You have the focus on the figure, as in ‘The Tribesman.’ These are real people.”

Perhaps that is what has made the art of Quander so successful. She feels the works and captures those images through her own lens, informed by her own sensibilities, then makes them accessible to the viewer by reaching out and touching a familiar vein.

“There is always something that allows me to continue, and to continue to another painting,” Quander postulates. “When I really think I am kind of finished, I sign it.”

“My Travels-My Art” is on view at The Parish Gallery, 1054 31st Street, NW (in Canal Square) through June 18, 2013. For more information and gallery hours, call (202) 944-2310. This Friday, June 14th, the gallery will host a special Artist Talk at 6:30 p.m., featuring Carmen Toruella-Quander.