Right before the global pandemic landed, I was in the process of flying out to Chicago to profile visual artist Lisa Alvarado for Texas Monthly. And while that didn’t happen, I was able to spend a year in conversation with her, while also wholly immersed in the music of her group with husband Joshua Abrams, Natural Information Society.
“Looking at Lisa Alvarado’s canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presenceLooking at her canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presence.”
One section that didn’t make it into the final piece comes from Hamid Drake, jazz drummer but also magical percussionist, highly attuned to the power of music. He noted:
“There’s something in Tibetan Buddhism called yab-yum, where male and female unite to create a whole other energetic space. That’s what’s happened with them. Lisa and Josh have been catalysts for one another. They are the yin and the yang. At the point they influence each other’s work. I can see that after Josh was with Lisa, his work went to another level. He is around a very profound artist. And the same happened with her. It seems to me … Josh is playing lots of guimbri now. Her work ignited something in him to pursue the guimbri more in his work and composition. It’s mostly guimbri now. I think there’s something about the primordial nature of her work that intuited something in him to move towards the guimbri for these works with NIS. guimbri is such an organic instrument. It’s not primitive and her work is very much like that, so they complemented each other. It was this thing like BING! Her work inspired him to use the guimbri more. The natural sonic vibration of that particular instrument allowed her to go into deeper consideration of her own work. When you check out NIS, Josh is doing a lot of cycles with the music. When you look at Lisa’s work, you can see that happening with her work, too. You have things going across the canvas that might look the same, but you can see the subtle changes. So it is with the music.
“Lisa has a double role in the group. She’s not only the visual artist creating these tapestries that evoke the music, she’s also one of the players doing harmonium and gong. It’s so beautiful. She’s playing a double role: She’s in the group, but she’s the one initiating us into this mandala she’s created. She’s the high priestess. Through her we’re able to enter into these other realms. It’s very subtle, it’s not something that’s spoken, it’s intuited. Always having that female presence in a band like this –especially someone like Lisa, who has this luminosity about her– it’s a quality that can accelerate our adventures into those realms.”
The most illuminating part of the piece for me was learning about the Mexican Repatriation of the Great Depression, yet another ugly example of American amnesia of our own racist actions. As one can imagine, this was not something ever discussed in Texas history. Alvarado mentioned “My family was creative in a survival sort of way” and I asked her to unpack what that meant:
“My father’s life was tied to overcoming levels of suppression. His American born family was deported during the Mexican Repatriation of the Great Depression. They lost everything from the expulsion and eventually came back to work as migrant farm labors. My father spent his early childhood traveling around picking cotton and fruit, sleeping on dirt floors. Spanish was forbidden in the classroom at that time in the southwest. My father and his immediate family did not speak English. When he spoke in elementary school he faced physical punishment. To end the daily harassment, he taught himself how to speak English on his own, as a child.
“The perpetual question of being an outsider made an inventive approach to survival part of Mexican American culture. It wasn’t unique to my family, but most Mexican American families living in the southwest suffered repeated generational setbacks.”