Desirée Alvarez is a painter and poet whose work speaks to a mythic human interaction with the natural world. Both her poetry and her painting are highly-awarded and have met with critical success. Desirée is also our model here at RTJ. Take a peek into her fascinating life and inspirational ethos.
RTJ: How did you meet Ronnie?
DA: We met during our freshman year in high school. We had a deep connection at a young age because we both grew up in homes that put emphasis on art-making. We also both loved reading and nature.
We had many classes together, including French class. We went to France together after our sophomore year. The family lived near Normandy and they had a chateau that was haunted! That adventure, plus going to college together cemented our friendship.
We’ve kept our kinship, despite geographic distance. I went to Paris and Florence to study. Ronnie went to Israel for a long while. She went to RISD and I stayed in NYC. We both found some of the letters we’d written to each other, and it’s been fun to read these earnest letters written at that young age when every emotion is running high.
Now Ronnie lives in Westchester [County] and my mom’s house was out in the country, so I could drop in on my way to visit my mom. We’ve always had a relationship where we can just drop in unannounced. The only part that’s changed is I text her now when I’m on my way. It’s a sisterhood. Ronnie really knows how to be a sister.
We’ve never collaborated in our artwork, but we’ve always sent each other inspiration: articles and links. It’s been organic for us to keep in touch.
RTJ: How did you get started?
DA: I’m the daughter of two painters. Art was everywhere and I built my life around it. I also grew up in the country on the weekends at my great aunt’s house. I spent time in nature and that really shaped and defined me.
Today, I’ve organized my life around having as much as possible of both nature and art-making. Nature gets into your bloodstream. Despite living in the city, I search out opportunities to be in nature.
RTJ: Who are your mentors?
DA: Lucie Brock-Broido, former director of Columbia MFA poetry program. I studied with her privately for years, maybe a decade. There was a small group of us who worked with her and it was magical. It’s extraordinary when you find someone who can light a flame inside you.
I also had great mentors in the visual arts- Gregory Amenoff, John Lees who has a show right now at Betty Cunningham Gallery, Philip Pearlstein. Philip was a huge mentor for me. He’s also an art historian and that was inspirational. In college, Jacqueline Gourevitch was my painting teacher and we’re still in touch, so there’s a wonderful thread of continuity. And then, of course, my mom! She was always very supportive and never expected anything else of me other than to be an artist.
RTJ: Have you sought out your mentors, or have they just happened?
DA: I definitely sought them out. I was at Yaddo (an art colony in Saratoga Springs, NY). Mary Jo Bang gave me a book of contemporary poetry by Lucie Brock-Broido. I wasn’t doing poetry at the time and suddenly it was like all the lights went on in the chandelier. Maybe a year later she was teaching a master class that I attended, and that was how I met her, and we started working together.
RTJ: What is your main focus: poetry or visual arts?
DA: Both! I just released a book, so I’ve been promoting it and doing readings, but I also have an exhibition of paintings at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Conservatory Gallery. It was closed because of the pandemic, but I hope it will open again soon. It was supposed to be this really exciting moment where I had both my artistic endeavors coming together.
I often focus on projects that combine the two. I write poems as paintings, and then refine them and publish them in journals and books. They’re really inseparable, the two.
I also like to make public poems. I’ll crowd source giant group poems. I solicit the lines and then transfer them from paper to fabric and hang them in public. I’ve also done this with 8th grade students (through an Artists Space program called Expanded Art Ideas with P.S. 140 on the Lower East Side where I used to teach) and also with some of my college students.
RTJ: What’s your motivation these days? Has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
DA: I’m consistently motivated by sustainability and green living. I try to only shop local farmer’s markets. I’m a big boycotter of large corporations and anything not local or plastic. In terms of lifestyle, I’ve always been motivated by a need to be respectful of nature. I was raised this way. Sustainability is not a new idea for my family, it goes back many generations.
Being a teacher has made me more focused on being a role model. There still aren’t enough women and BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of color] artists getting attention. Being a role model has been more of an inspiration to me than just wanting a career for myself.
RTJ: Do you collect anything?
DA: I have artwork from artist friends. I gravitate toward anything with an animal in it. I love objects with a medieval feel. And then in terms of gardening, I collect plants. Autumnal crocuses are my thing right now. And, of course, books. I have thousands.
RTJ: How do you get your nature fix?
DA: Well, I garden out in the country. It used to be my mom’s and I was helping her when she couldn’t get around anymore. And then there are the amazing gardens in New York City. There are no predators in NYC, no deer, and there’s full sunlight so you can have gorgeous gardens. It’s always ironic to me how certain flowers do much better in the city than they do in the country. The city is really a great place to have a garden.
RTJ: How do you give back? Charities that you work with?
DA: I support nature conservancy, independent presses and also arts organizations in the city. They have supported me over the years, and I’m happy to give back NY Foundation for the Arts, the Lower East Side Print Shop and International Print Center NY. I teach at City Tech, CUNY [City University of NY, #COMD365], so that’s another organization that’s important to me. I really like independent presses too; Omnidawn and small poetry organizations with exciting public programming like The Poetry Project.
RTJ: If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be?
DA: My mom! The opportunity to share another meal with my mom would be irresistible! But for someone I never knew, I’d choose Hilma af Klint who was a wonderful painter. She made the first abstract paintings, and the Guggenheim had a show of her work recently. She was a botanical illustrator as well, and she organized séances, so it’s entirely possible I could meet with her! I would love to talk with her about what it was like to create her giant abstract paintings and mix her own watercolor pigments.
RTJ: What’s your favorite thing about newer technology, like social media?
DA: I think it’s exciting that there are artists who are deeply immersed in re-discovering the archive and putting it out there. Social media is making it possible to find women artists who were lost and to share that information. Suddenly you can continue your learning experience outside the university environment.
I came from a family that emphasized learning outside school. The ethos was mom gave me a stack of books. It really stuck with me, and that’s what I love about the internet. It’s the great democratizer. I like listening to music and lectures on YouTube while I work. It’s an energy inspiration.
RTJ: When you’re learning, are those things reflected in your work?
DA: It takes a long time for things I’ve learned to reflect back in the art I make. I’m re-reading Dante’s Inferno and that may play out in my art someday.
RTJ: Where do you get inspiration? What’s your creative process like?
I’m interested in how things are interconnected, and hybrid forms of humanity and nature. For example, ‘What would happen if a field were the focus? What if a field were the center of my world?’ I believe in magical thinking. If we actively make a more intimate connection with the earth then our lives and our planet will be better.
I’m starting a new piece. My mom had a field in which she grew bee balm and goldenrod and other native pollinators for the bees & birds. The fabric painting charts that growth from spring to early fall. I’ve taken photographs, but I’m in the field to make the paintings from life.
I paint on fabric scrims and hang them like pages of a diary of this field through the seasons. They are assembled into a big hanging installation. I love the way my work looks in nature, so I photograph it outdoors.
I allow some of my work to be ephemeral. I hang it and document it and that’s it. They’re very experiential, you’re inhabiting the poem. But I miss seeing my art around, so I also make oil paintings.
RTJ: What’s on the horizon for you?
DA: I have a second book out. [Note: You can purchase her book here.]
RTJ: I have to ask, which RTJ collection is your favorite?
DA: I love the Signature Collection because of the connection with art history, and they’re so dramatic! I also love the delicate nature of Ronnie’s other collections. There’s always a harmony of nature and geometry- a blending of the influences of the abstract art she grew up with, plus nature from her gardening. There’s geometry in nature, but Ronnie makes it manifest in a way that you can experience and wear it.
One thing I have to add: Ronnie has circles of women friendships. A group of us have been meeting on Zoom during the pandemic. We’ve known each other for ages, some since kindergarten. We’re spread across the country and yet we’re still connecting.
Ronnie is a silversmith and jewelry designer, making adornments that women wear. Her necklaces and rings celebrate women. I admire that she honors nurturing in her emotional life and in her art.
You can find more from Desiree on her website here.