Magazine reporters Smaranda Botezatu and Tess Mavrommati interview Maria de Leon Cobo, an artist who just fulfilled a long-time dream with her first art exhibition.
At B13 Studio on a Sunday, in a jazz-infused atmosphere, I met Maria. The sunshine, Maria’s enthusiastic voice and warm expression, lights up the space. She tells me this is a dream come true, and it is hard to believe that this is actually happening, her eyes glimmering with excitement. The dream is her first art exhibition in Amsterdam, entitled “Toward Better Things.” She named it this way because “it talks about the juxtaposition between the past and the future. Most students get that feeling when they’re about to graduate, when we really want to get better, to try new things and prosper.” It is also the translation of the common saying ad meliora from Latin. Her exhibition deals with the gravitation from love toward peace, the excitement for the future, and the nostalgia for the past.
The first painting that absorbs the viewer through its pop of color and tranquility is “Sunday Morning”. The painting displays a field of sunflowers that recalls her childhood and artistic roots in the city of Ucles, Spain. It is tied to one of Maria’s earliest memories of expressing herself through brushstrokes and color: painting with her mother every Sunday morning when she was six. I thought that maybe this passion runs in the family, but she said the opposite: “My mother’s a lawyer, but she wanted to draw with me because I was interested in drawing.’’ She started taking painting seriously when young love hit her at the age of 12. “I had a massive crush on a beautiful boy at 12. He used to like manga and anime, so I started learning to draw manga for him. Then I fell in love with the practice of drawing. He really showed me the beauty of drawing every day.” We have a little laugh about how a crush was her incentive for making art a priority, while noting how grateful she is for him.
While meandering through her emotions and experiences, I assume she also pursued her passion in her studies. “Not really,’’ she responds, “I’m from Spain, which is a very conservative country, especially in the way we build careers. So, I decided to study psychology in Amsterdam, which is the capital of the arts right now.’’ I was curious if there was any connection between her art and psychology. “Definitely. Psychology gives me insight into the human perspective, into the human mind, and love, and I love people. I’ve always been charmed by them, and that’s what gave me the ability to grow into my art.’’
She explores various techniques, such as acrylics, watercolor and graphite. These are not just accidental, but intentional to convey a specific mood. “When I use acrylic, the painting is usually unstable, in motion. You can imagine the movement.”
In watercolor, she tries to show the opposite, the transparency of a stable image. The transparency of the fact that there are so many ideas in one’s head. For example, “To the Lighthouse.’’ “The lighthouse is a stable piece throughout the landscape. There is no need for true movement of the waves for the light of the lighthouse to stay there forever. It has nothing to do with the waves or the sky. The lighthouse stays there.’’
The graphite is reserved for the portrait of her four favorite people in the world. One of them is imaginary. “My imaginary best friend that I have had since childhood. Then there’s this girl I met at a random bar here in Amsterdam. She asked me to paint her. And these other two are very good friends of mine. Rock and Roll Sailor, one of my best friends, my artistic coach. He is a great man. He feels a bit intimidating until you get to know him, but he just wants to give you tons of love. And then the last one is Wade Briggs, an actor you can see in the Netflix series ‘Please like me.’ He has helped me get everything done and really push myself as an artist. He believes in me in a way that I don’t know if I believe in myself.’’
While talking about Rock and Roll Sailor, Maria praises him as the one who helped her start her poetry and short stories book “I Will Ask for Mercy.’’ The book is (hopefully) coming out on the 16th of September. “I started writing it here in Amsterdam a year and a half ago. It has an overall theme of surrendering to the experience of being alive. What I wanted most with this book is to be human. Not perfect, or Instagrammable, or beautiful, or happy.’’ Naturally, I want to know what the connection is between the poetry and the art. “There would not be one without each other,’’ she explains. “The poetry and the writing are truly what fuels me as a person. The drawings show it in a visual manner.’’
Her exhibition showcases two of her poems accompanied by two drawings. “Suffering’’ and “Living’’, which form “The Two Sisters.’’ They depict a battle between two opposing forces: the search for peace and the thirst for adventure.
The title of the ‘first sister’ takes my mind to the notorious myth of the tortured artist. It stems from the belief that great art often arises from the depths of emotional pain, and that artists who experience intense suffering are more likely to produce significant works of art. ‘’I don’t agree with it,’’ she says convincingly. “One of the criticisms that I’ve gotten of my work is the fact that it’s too happy. But I want to spread the positivity and care I give others . If we treat every single artist as a tortured artist, we’re not going to allow that artist to flourish into the love and happiness they bring to others. They are going to be stuck in a place of sadness and darkness when there is no need for it to be. But the beauty of music or art can be happy.’’
If there is one piece of advice that Maria has for aspiring artists, it is that “art should be meaningful and personal. It must be a complementary relationship between the lightness and darkness of a person like everything else.” She insists as well on the importance of having a message to showcase. “If you don’t have anything to say, then the painting or the writing is not going to come out right. It’s going to be meaningless, and you don’t want your work with meaningless.’’
Maria stresses how important her family has been through her entire process of bringing her art to fruition. “I wouldn’t be able to paint any of this without my grandfather, who painted wonderfully until he passed away, sadly. Or my grandmother Amelia, who has been the greatest champion of my work you’d ever see. Or my sister, aunts and uncles and friends. All of them have had an influence on each painting that I’ve done here.’’
Since she mentioned how influential her family has been, I am interested in what else had an impact on her and reflects in her art. “I am most moved by the Impressionist movement. However, I am inspired mostly by writers overall. Those would be Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf comes from the academic intellectuality of my work because I speak a lot about psychology and about mental health. Sylvia Plath comes with the sarcasm and irony of it all. I believe I am very humorous with my work and the way that it is. And then there’s Maya Angelou in her positivism and love for others. Just like her, I don’t believe in philanthropy. I believe in charity, and that’s why my book profits are going to be given to different charities of my choice. Many of them support women who have lived through sexual harassment and abuse, and others support children with disabilities or families that are living in poverty. I want to give all my money towards them because towards better things is also towards better things for them.’’
Fascinated by her response, I want to see firsthand how her work echoes these writers. I ask her to show me which painting she would attribute to each of the writers. “‘To the Lighthouse” for Virginia Wolf. Obviously, because she has a book called ‘To the Lighthouse’. For Sylvia Plath, it would probably be ‘Sunday morning.’ I got inspired by ‘The Bell Jar.’ She talked about her hometown in a very specific way, which made me think about my own hometown. For Maya Angelou, the two sisters ‘Suffering’ and ‘Living’, because both express the sentiment of the phenomenal women’s character. We are all phenomenal women if we believe in ourselves in that regard and we can fight towards it. It’s all about having faith.’’
One question that artists usually get asked is how they know when their art is done. “I struggle a lot with it. But probably when I feel like the art sends the message that I wanted it to send. I try to not overdo it.’’ The painting ‘Torn’ is a depiction of overdoing it. “The page below was destroyed because I was stuck on making it better, so I had to put the tape there.”
As our interview comes to an end, my last question revolves around the separation between the art and the artist. “The art is so personal to me in a way that I am the artwork. What I write about is what every single person in my life has given to me. My friend Paula, my sister and my boyfriend Daniel have impacted my work as people. Also Rock and Roll Sailor and Wade Briggs. I’m just the canvas over here. They’re the ones putting up brushstrokes and doing their own thing. And I’m feeling it, and I’m appreciating it, and I’m putting it out there.’’
Smaranda Botezatu and Tess Mavrommati are university students in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.