My studio is my church,” says Woodstock artist Julia Santos Solomon. “When I go into the studio, I open up to my relationship with God.” Peacefully listening for direction, she readies herself to engage with the medium before her. It’s a method of tuning in that has resulted in a lifetime body of work recently awarded a place in the Smithsonian Institute, and also in the Dominican Studies Institute Archives at City College in Manhattan. The trajectory of her childhood and career could not have predicted such a level of professional approbation.
Her artistic talent was recognized early on, and Santos Solomon claims that she was guided: first to an art high school in New York City, where all the kids had a common language and passionate teachers, then to the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons to immerse herself in the beauty of the classics. One stage led to another, through fashion illustration and design to teaching to sculpture and painting, each prompting inquiry into the next experiment.
After spending some adult time back in her place of birth, the Dominican Republic, the artist realized that she was on a path of self-discovery as each stage, each focus on a particular medium opened more and more of her heritage. Sculpting the heads of female ancestors and one of herself as a child, she was able to recreate an intimate relationship between subject – the grandmother, for example – and ground: the lush Caribbean earth out of which they all came. The pieces are painted in browns and greens and mustardlike gold, replicating the genetic mix of her line.
“I’m the third generation of immigrant women in my family,” she says while explaining how being separated from her mother at four years old meant that her grandmother was her matrix. She calls herself a hybrid: the child who had to navigate, observe and translate for her elders. “I had to handle it. I wanted my daughter Paloma, the fourth generation, to remember what she came from” – again referring to the ground of being: the what, not merely the where.
Always prompted by a commitment to have her artwork be a “visual prayer,” she recalls arriving at the understanding that with the gift comes responsibility. Color has driven much of Santos Solomon’s experimentation. Her schooling engendered an appreciation for rich-but-traditional palettes, particularly when she traveled to Europe to study and work in Italy. “In that incredible golden light, I transitioned from a Baroque palette I had picked up in high school to this tropical coloration. It was shocking to look at, but it never abated.”
Suddenly – that’s how things emerge when one follows sacred instincts, she says – the almost-raucous colors of the islands found their way to her canvases. A self-portrait marks the shift, a fact that the artist only became aware of much later. Her paintings are a veritable advertisement of those Caribbean aesthetics: the big, lush images, the bright blues and oranges, the liquid movement of flora under a hot sun, the birds and fish – and everywhere the verdant greens.
“You see the world from those eyes – where you’re from.” It’s a statement gleaned after realizing that she’d painted an aerial view of a landmass that resembles the two-nation island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Next, Santos Solomon added the gold leaf, some in relieved shapes that could be interpreted as being mountainous. It was as if the maplike landscape wanted the gold, so she slapped it on.
“The material has to do with the message,” she explains. “Hispaniola was the first landing place of Europeans, where the first genocide committed by them took place. Fueled by this historical reality, I am ‘reappropriating’ the gold: the more than 180 tons of gold that was taken from the Western Hemisphere, starting with my home island.”