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Surrender to Love: Interview with artist Tanya Torres (2010)

By Lesa Bellevie

Posted on April 23, 2014 in


In late 2010 I came across a collection of Mary Magdalene paintings online by an artist named Tanya Torres. They were bright and colorful, and reminded me of vibrant pictures I’d seen in folk art galleries. I emailed Tanya right away to request permission to feature her art in a gallery, and ask whether she would be interested in doing an interview. To my delight she agreed, and we set about conducting an interview by email to feature on the site. Life has a little habit of, well, happening. A fire in my building set everything on hold, the interview was never formatted or put online, and went into a state of suspended animation. Revisiting Tanya’s interview was high on my to-do list when I thawed the site last month, and she graciously agreed to do some revisions and updates.


Can you please talk a bit about how your interest in Mary Magdalene, and in *painting* Mary Magdalene got started?  What was the spark that lit the fire?


In 2004, I was on vacation in Puerto Rico. My father had given me the book The Da Vinci Code. It was an entertaining book, but what really caught my attention was what the author was saying about Mary Magdalene. I wanted to find out what that was all about. I figured that authors get their ideas somewhere, and that he must have done some research on the subject. A few days later, I went to a bookstore, and right next to The Da Vinci Code was Margaret Starbird’s book The Woman With the Alabaster Jar. Since I was still on vacation, I bought it and devoured it in a few days. Margaret Starbird discusses a lot of iconographical references and ways in which artists referred to Mary Magdalene in their work, and I felt I too wanted to paint Mary Magdalene. I had been painting women with babies, so painting Mary Magdalene with a child, as the Holy Grail both authors talk about in their books, was a natural transition for me. After that, because I found a color palette I really loved, and because I became obsessed with reading everything I could about Mary Magdalene, I continued painting images of her, inspired by the different aspects of her mythology and devotion that I was able to encounter through many readings. Because I was not religious at all, I was quite neutral in my feelings about the topic. But little by little, painting her image became a personal devotion, and a source of spiritual inspiration.


Do you consider your series of Mary Magdalene paintings a “project,” or is it more of an impulse that will be on-going for an indefinite period of time?  In other words, will we be seeing many more Mary Magdalene paintings by Tanya Torres?


Tanya:  I have been painting Mary Magdalenes for almost 9 years now. I feel that this is something I will be doing for the rest of my life. Although my exhibition Song of the Magdalene was presented as part of a larger project in 2010, painting Mary Magdalene represents much more than a temporary task for me. When I paint Mary Magdalene I feel connected to the aspect of divinity that I feel she represents. Mary Magdalene helps me connect to the world of Spirit, as well as helps me communicate with the “real” world. It has been interesting to see how people who are agnostics or even atheists respond with enthusiasm to the Magdalene. It is as if, through her image, many people like myself are able to connect to spiritual ideas without feeling we are giving up on our ideals. Perhaps it is because for so many years she was thought to be a sinner, that all of us feel she is not going to judge us! In this way, painting Mary Magdalene is liberating. She is the one saint to whom people are willing to open their hearts without fear.


One of the things that I find so stunning about your Mary Magdalene paintings is that there are common themes in all of them. For example, her red robes, the golden light behind her, the dove. You’ve addressed this on your blog, but can you talk a little bit more about the core elements of a Mary Magdalene painting versus the unique elements that define them?


Tanya:  All the paintings contain both references to traditional and personal iconography, and the fusion of both.  There are several elements that I always use to create a Mary Magdalene. I usually paint her wearing a red robe or veil, for which I use all the reds I have. There are layers of different reds and combinations of shades and tints of red in each of the paintings. Red is one of the traditional iconographical references I use in my Magdalenes. She also has her red hair, often showing a curl coming out of the veil, a traditional allusion to her being a prostitute that I use mostly because I like painting hair and curls, and also to indicate that she is the Magdalene. Behind her is a halo, always in pure and bright yellows blending all the way too white. I usually don’t like to use gold like the traditional halos, but prefer yellow. I see this yellow disk as the sun in our reality and as the light of God in spiritual reality. She exists between the two, able to come through when we call upon her. I often place a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. This is how traditional iconographers represent the Holy Spirit, but to me, it is more about communion with nature and the holiness and interconnection of all life. I am always fascinated by stories of ancient and modern saints being able to communicate with animals. Both the Holy Spirit and Mary Magdalene are connected to the idea of Sophia, or Holy Wisdom. Margaret Starbird provides an interesting explanation about the use of gematria and the name of the Magdalene, and how it connects her to Sophia and explains Mary Magdalene’s high status in the early Church. In my mind, the Holy Spirit is very much a part of Mary Magdalene, in a way she is the Holy Spirit. She is the one who guides me in that way that the Holy Spirit guides people.


When I started painting Mary Magdalenes, I used the things I learned from Margaret Starbird’s books and from conversations with a friend who is a Gnostic, as well as many books and articles. But I also combined these ideas with my own previous work. The first Magdalene I painted is a nursing mother, like the images in my other paintings. The second is more about the face, about creating an iconic image that speaks to that which unites us all as human beings, a theme I had touched on before by painting The Four Daughters of Eve.


The third Magdalene is about communion with nature. Mary Magdalene is surrounded by flowers and empty branches, life and death. After that, I began to refer to the things that people traditionally associate with Mary Magdalene:  Jesus Christ casting seven demons out of her, the alabaster jar, flowers (because she is the saint of gardeners and perfumers), the Holy Spirit (although this reference had already appeared before). Then I started expressing the ideas that Mary Magdalene had evoked in me: a desire for wisdom, the idea of creating peace through art-making, the desire to heal my perception of reality. These ideas have become very important to me because I feel that this is what the Magdalene has been teaching me ever since I started painting her.


You’ve put a great deal of work into your paintings of Mary Magdalene. How long has it been since you started painting Mary Magdalene? What drives you to continue?

Tanya: It has been almost 9 years, but this is not really a long time. I wish I could say I paint her every day! I have to do many other things in order to make a living, but I always come back to painting the Magdalene. What drives me to continue is feeling that painting is my prayer, and that when I start painting, magical and miraculous things start happening. My favorite story is that one day I was painting happily when a friend called me to meet her at a café. Since I was feeling so blissful, I began talking about the way I felt while painting Mary Magdalene of the Leaves.


That’s when my friend’s facial expression changed and I noticed she was not looking at me, but that her attention was focused on the side of my head. I became confused and she signaled me to stop talking. She said a great light had appeared behind me and expanded as I talked about the happiness I felt while painting. She concluded it must have been Mary Magdalene showing her presence, and approval. I felt that perhaps I had made the right decision and taken the correct road in quitting my job as a college professor to be an artist full time. This episode of my life gives me great comfort. Because I am not a traditional kind of believer whose faith rests on doctrine, I feel that this little adventure was a pointer as to how I can bring myself to believe. And I have learned that when my imagination is at work, I have great faith. I can believe in everything because an immense world of possibilities emerges. In a way, imagination is my spirituality: it is calling upon an idea to interpret reality anew. Mary Magdalene enlivens this part of me and nourishes it. What are your greatest hopes for this experience of painting Mary Magdalene — for yourself, for the paintings, and for those who see them? Tanya: My greatest hope is that I can help people feel joy and peace in their hearts when they see one of my Magdalenes.  As an artist, I sometimes ask myself what is my role in this world. This is not a profession you choose to be rich or prestigious or even respected. You choose to be an artist out of love and passion and truth. I can only truly hope to be able to communicate on the level of the heart. I can only desire that some people will feel what I feel as I paint or will experience something beyond the recognition of an image. I would like to give back the gift that the Magdalene has given me: freedom to grow and evolve as a human being. By painting her I pursue my dreams, and by pursuing my dreams I open the door for other people to dream their own dreams and believe they too can achieve them. As I paint Mary Magdalene, I think of all the people I know, and I ask for their wellbeing. I ask for peace. I ask for the children of the world to be able to grow free and healthy. I try to only think good thoughts and consciously correct my thinking if I don’t. I try to create peace as I paint, and I exercise my right to love. This creates joy in my heart and this is what I offer the world through my Magdalenes.


You’ve referred on your blog to Raquel Z. Rivera, who has composed music devoted to Mary Magdalene, as your creative partner, and that the work the two of you are doing is complementary. How did this creative partnership develop?  What is it about Mary Magdalene that appeals to you as a member of a creative partnership, as opposed to as an individual?


Tanya: I met Raquel about 14 years ago, when she had just graduated from her Ph. D. and was working on her first book. Back then I was an editor of Spanish textbooks and had a gallery in the first floor of my building in East Harlem, where we met and where we discovered we had many things in common. We both yearned to pursue our passion. Mine was art, hers was writing and music. We were surrounded by many wonderful musicians, poets and artists, all striving to grow and evolve in their fields. As our friendship started evolving we discovered we had questions about spirituality, and that we both were a little afraid to talk about it. Raquel was the first person ever with whom I talked about anything having to do with spirituality, and I think that, at least on my part, this created a very special bond. This was a very taboo theme for me, and somewhat for her, I guess. At some point she discovered Mary Magdalene, but we never really talked about it until I read Margaret Starbird’s book. Raquel is the friend with whom I talk about books! This is when we started having conversations about Mary Magdalene. At one point we noticed we would do this on Saturday mornings, and we started joking that we were at church. She began writing her songs, and I started painting. We would communicate through our blogs and even compose songs that way. We were having fun, but since we are both so dedicated to our creative work, our conversations and games soon became a project, and little by little, it grew until it became the idea for one of my handmade books. Then it became an exhibition and a CD of her songs. We connect creatively through Mary Magdalene. Otherwise our artistic work and interests are completely different. We each create individually, but we help each other by talking about the work, giving each other information, sharing our feelings about the experience. Our greatest collaboration consists of moral support to be brave and strong enough to share our work with the world.  We also tell each other what we are thinking and learning. We give special names to things, we dream outrageous happenings like taking a painting for a procession down Lexington Avenue. We go to churches and museums in search of the Magdalene. Mostly, we walk for exercise around our neighborhood and, in the process, plan and dream about what to do with the work we are creating. Through our conversations about the Magdalene, we build friendship and sisterhood, we laugh a lot, and support each other. In the process, we keep each other motivated to continue growing in our chosen fields. Now that Raquel has moved to Albuquerque and has a baby, I visit her once a year, or we meet in New York City. We continue to celebrate Mary Magdalene through our Mary Magdalene Celebration last year in New York and this year, 2014, in Albuquerque. Altar at the Mary Magdalene Celebration at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, on July 21, 2013. The altar is ready for the songs of the promesa (an offering of song, food and prayer) with traditional wooden St. Mary Magdalene made by artisan Marta Iris Rodríguez Olmeda. This year 2014 join us on Saturday, July 19, 2014 at El Chante Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


Can you tell readers a bit about your work as an artist before being drawn to Mary Magdalene?  How has your non-Mary Magdalene art been affected by your Magdalene work?


Tanya: Although people began perceiving my work as spiritual long before I did, my previous work deals more with the experience of motherhood and of surviving cancer. Before painting the Magdalene, I painted women who many people identified as goddesses. I also created a series of work titled Battle Body that deals with my experience of going though a stem cell transplant. I think that all my work, before and after the Magdalene has to do with celebrating life and examining those experiences that transform us. The murals I created in a local school in my neighborhood from 2007 to 2010 are messages of joy and hope for the children of the school. I recently created two new hand-made book of poetry that comes directly out of my experience with the Magdalene. I feel that all my most recent work has to do in some way with Mary Magdalene, and with the ideas I have encountered as a result of my experience painting her. I have been giving the Mary Magdalene paintings my whole attention, so I don’t know yet how this has transformed future work. Technically, I feel my painting has improved a great deal and I am also painting some larger canvases. Of course, after creating 15’ murals made of tiny pieces of glass, I would say that a 40” x 60” painting is pretty small! I think the main way in which my work has been affected is in the way I create it by purposefully thinking loving thoughts. Although this is not something people might observe with their eyes, I hope it can be perceived with the heart.

Tanya Torres  
Art for Love, Peace and Joy

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