The Light Within
Painter Miguel Tió Talks with A&U’s Chael Needle About How Art Illuminates
As a young art student, Miguel Tió dreamed of becoming a surrealist after discovering the work of Salvador Dalí. “Somehow my works took another path, and indeed I became a surrealist, but in a visionary way,” says Tió, who actively sought out spiritual art, in particular, when he moved to New York City from his native Dominican Republic.
Not all visionary art is spiritual, though its emphasis on the transcendence of the physical and ordinary makes it a good launch pad for sacred or mystical themes. Says Tió: “Spirituality is an important factor in most of my paintings. I was introduced to the spiritual life during my childhood by my mother. She gave me many books that opened a whole new fascinating world, books that helped me lose my fear ‘to hear,’ ‘to feel,’ and ‘to see’ by understanding spiritual life. I embraced mystical power, images, and messages in later years. Indeed, they have become an integral part of my work.”
He discovered the work of visionary artists such as Alex Grey, Andrew Gonzalez, and Brigid Marlin, among others. He sought out Marlin’s work on-line and at exhibitions, and finally connected with her, years later, when he joined the Society for the Art of the Imagination, which she founded. In a welcome e-mail, she shared that she admired his work. The feeling was mutual. “Now, when I look at Brigid’s work again,” says Tió, “I realize my connection with her artworks, and I realize that many of my paintings have been strongly influenced by her work.”
Part of that influence is the Mische technique, a process of painting that was pioneered by Dutch Masters and early Renaissance painters. The Mische (“mixed” in German) technique involves applying various layers of pigments with egg tempera and oils, alternately. The subjects are shaded monochromatically, layer by layer, which allows light to refract through each different glaze and play off the first coat of gesso. Details are refined and a luminous effect is achieved. The technique is apt for visionary work like Tió’s because it amplifies the light within. Surface is given depth.
His veneration of the Old Masters, particularly those of the Renaissance, sparked an interest inTió to learn about the technique, which had been rediscovered and revived by artists like Ernst Fuchs, who, in turn, inspired pupils like Brigid Marlin. “My 2006 exhibition in New York marked a very important stage in my life. Brigid Marlin was writing the introduction for my catalogue and, in our back and forth communication, I dared to ask if she could teach me the technique. This request had been in my mind since I became part of the Society. Brigid is a well-known expert in the Mische technique and her works are well recognized and admired because of her artistry,” explains Tió. “Brigid, who is a lovely and giving soul, agreed to teach me the technique. She also said that the technique is not for everyone, but, in my case, it was exactly what my work needed.” Although Marlin forewarned Tió that mastery of the technique would take a handful of years, as well as patience, endurance and an overwhelming attention to detail, he signed on as her pupil. He is grateful he did. Says Tió: “It has given me a new dimension to express my ideas on the panel.”
Tió started his professional career studying with artist Elias Delgado while also attending the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He also pursued a course of study in publicity and graphic design at Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo. His talent and creativity has secured him work and visibility across various fields, including teaching, television shows and commercials, feature film (Spiderman 1 and 2), Broadway (Rent, Miss Saigon) and opera, and window displays for major retailers such as Richard Leeds International, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Victoria’s Secret, and Warner Brothers flagship store.
An award-winning painter, Tió has had solo shows in galleries in New York City and the Dominican Republic and has been in group shows around the world, including exhibitions in museums and other venues in the U.S., Germany, Cyprus, India, and Japan, to name a few of the places. He has been an artist-in-residence at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
“Right now I am working on a series of portraits, most of them of artists; I love portraying people with creative and complex minds,” says Tió. “Usually I don’t work in series; when I am touched by something, this triggers images in my mind and a painting starts to take form. Many times what happens is that the next painting doesn’t have any relation with the artwork done before.”
One of Tió’s pieces, Homage to an Unknown Artist, uses a painting started by another painter who died of AIDS-related causes before he could continue the work. Though this is his only painting to intersect with AIDS, his work speaks to many of the themes that have permeated the pandemic: social injustice, spirituality as an embodied practice, sexual expression, and the eternal and the transient.
Chael Needle: How did the artwork that eventually became Homage to an Unknown Artist come into your possession?
Miguel Tió: A very close friend of mine, Carlos Ortiz, was visiting a friend who had just found out that his old roommate, who was an artist, had died a couple of weeks ago. Carlos’s friend was moving out of the apartment and had in his possession a half-finished canvas that his deceased friend had begun painting a few months ago. He knew that Carlos was a painter also and offered the canvas to him so that he could recycle the canvas. Carlos didn’t need the canvas and he offered it to me.
Why did you decide to use it as a foundation for the painting?
Every day at my studio, I would look at the unfinished canvas standing on the floor and leaning onto a wall. I didn’t want to toss the canvas away in order to reuse the stretchers since I felt guilty about having to destroy the canvas. I put off this action for a few months and suddenly the idea of doing an homage to this unknown artist started to form in my mind; I realized that I didn’t even know his name, so the title of the painting came first. I thought about how many artists don’t get to see their work transcend in their lifetime and how many just give up during the difficult road of trying to make it as an artist or just how other artists at some point don’t have the perseverance to make it happen. In the case of this artist, AIDS took his life before he could rise above all this.
I did not like the idea of painting over anybody’s artwork, even if this was an unfinished piece, but the idea of doing an homage felt right. It was a challenge to continue something abstract and turn it into something figurative, but, at the same time, that was precisely what would eventually show in the painting: what was done by him and what was done by me.
Once I started working I felt connected to his lines and the energy that I was receiving from it. I worked very slowly with transparencies and hoped to be guided. This was one of the very few works that I have done in which I had no idea how the final product was going to look. I only knew that I wanted to depict a figure who was mysterious but also somehow in possession of a creative mind.
Many of your paintings document the violence of war and oppression. Your painting, Homage to Layal Nagib, speaks to this in a direct way as Nagib was a photojournalist killed in southern Lebanon by Israeli missile fire. How do you understand your role as an artist in bearing witness?
I was very touched by this incident. When Layal was killed, I was in contact with one of her fellow photographers in Lebanon who was a very good friend of hers and her family. My friend was devastated by Layal’s death and also by the horrors that were happening in Lebanon. I decided to do this painting because she represents one of the many journalists who were killed and abused during this war and also of being one of the working women in the Middle East.
More than just bearing witness, I believe art can sound a call on behalf of those whose voices have been extinguished, those who cry out for peace and understanding.
In this world in crisis, in which change is so urgently needed, art can serve as the catalyst that sets the observer’s soul astir, making it vibrate sympathetically, establishing a connection with the observer or perhaps by just leaving a seed that will germinate in the future. This is my desideratum.
Why is the representation of the spiritual so important to you?
I believe we are living in a time where spirituality is essential, as the old beliefs are changing into new ones and there are more and more people who are understanding our sacred origins. We all are coming from the same source and we all have the right to be happy and have a life of abundance. I believe that we are all connected and if I hurt somebody I am also hurting myself and the same rule goes for the goodness that I could do. We are all spiritual beings in a body and in accordance to that I have striven to see the subjects of my paintings not through eyes that are merely temporal, but through eyes that are eternal which serve a higher purpose: as the windows of the soul.
For more information about the artist, log on to www.migueltio.com.
Chael Needle interviewed artist George Towne for the August Gallery.