Don Coen: The Migrant Series

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Don Coen: The Migrant Series is an exhibition of realistic portrait paintings of U.S. migrant farm laborers. Doctor Jerry Smith, curator of American and Western American Art for the Phoenix Art Museum talks about the exhibition.

Jose Cardenas: "Dan Coen: The Migrant Series" exhibition will open this weekend at the Phoenix art museum. The exhibition includes a series of 15 large-scale realistic portrait paintings of U.S. migrant farmers. Here to talk about the exhibition is Dr. Jerry Smith, curator of American and Western American art at the Phoenix art museum. Doctor Smith thanks for joining us on "Horizonte."

Jerry Smith: Thank you.

Jose Cardenas: The press release talks about larger than life "Dan Coen: The Migrant Series." And it really is. The first picture we want to put on the screen is a picture of the artist next to one of these pieces. You can see it's huge.

Jerry Smith: They are large paintings. They're larger than life size, the painting of the one you're looking at there of Don with Angel, it's 6 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet. That's big. That's something you can't ignore.

Jose Cardenas: And one of the interesting things, there are many interesting things about this, the big part is the scale, but the technique.

Jerry Smith: Yes. They are works on canvas, it's an acrylic paint that the artist uses airbrush. So the same thing that you'll see on decorating cars, to T-shirts, but it's a low-pressure airbrush that has up to 60 layers of paint that -- So there's real depth in the paint, and then he goes back and touches with pencil to give it a little highlights and -- So when you see the paintings up close, they're very different from what you see from a distance. It's a technique that Lewis Sharp the director emeritus from Denver art museum calls not photo realist, but photo impressionist.

Jose Cardenas: Let's talk about this next one that we have on the screen.

Jerry Smith: That is "Manuel." That is the painting that when our director first saw the work, he walked in, saw it, and was introduced to that painting. And again, that's one that is 9 1/2 feet wide by 6 1/2 tall.

Jose Cardenas: You mentioned Jim, seeing these civil years ago, probably at about the height of the ant immigrant legislation. I take it one. Things we wanted to do was to -- In fact Phoenix has taken the lead on this exhibition, put it together. It will go to other cities. But in a way it's a statement by the Phoenix art museum.

Jerry Smith: Well, it is. It's important that the community see these works and consider the dialogue that's been taking place around issues like SB 1070. Because the most important thing that these works drive home is the fact that we're talking about people and the humanity of individuals. And just seeing somebody stopping for a moment from their moment of labor, to stop for a portrait. You know, when you think of portrait paintings we think typically of heads of state, or the very wealthy. And here we're seeing just a segment of the population that we don't normally see in portrait paintings.

Jose Cardenas: Let's take a look at another one of those fantastic paintings. Put it up on the screen. As I understand it, COEN based these on photographs he's taken of migrant farm workers across the country, and this is one of the most striking, you showed me in the book that the museum has put together. Tell us about this one.

Jerry Smith: This is a portrait of Liliana. In this instance, yes, Don would -- Has traveled to farms across the country, from California down to Florida, and in this instance it was a pair of sisters, twin sisters that he was drawn to. But Liliana has the birthmark, and that just popped for him. And --

Jose Cardenas: And her photo as I understand graces the cover of the book.

Jerry Smith: Right. I do that that, we have a catalog for the exhibition that has just come out. Happy to do that, we can't always do a catalog for shows, but this one we were -- Felt it was needed.

Jose Cardenas: I think we've got a couple more pieces we want to put up and talk about. You pointed out that he's trying to show the humanity of these people, and I think this one is particularly touching in terms of the father-son.

Jerry Smith: Yeah. Francisco and his son Juan, in this instance he was visiting with some people that he had known for some time, visiting several -- Over several years, and it was an afternoon where everybody was getting their haircut out in the parking lot, and Francisco had just had his Mohawk done, and his son came running out and hopped in his lap and was ready for his haircut. And that moment just struck Don as something worthy of wanting to be put on canvas.

Jose Cardenas: I think we have one more we want to put up on the screen. Is these are people doing, again, across the country, doing a variety of things. Here somebody picking flowers.

Jerry Smith: Picking flowers. Migel is the title of this painting. And Don watched Migel going along the row, gathering up flowers, putting -- Wrapping them in cellophane, setting them down, and then coming back with the bunch and building the bunch up before you drop them off. And it's that moment, seeing those -- Seeing a large bunch of flowers like that in a field that, that's the moment Don is looking for. He wants to find something that makes everybody stop and be like, wow, somebody did actually pick those flowers by hand. Wrapped those flowers by hand, worked those fields to make sure we have the fresh produce in our grocery stores. And so he's wanting to open up that part of the conversation.

Jose Cardenas: When we spoke off camera you mentioned what he's trying to do is to convey that these are real people, doing things that benefit all of us. Your assessment as to how successful he was in doing that?

Jerry Smith: I think he's so successful that we want to put the show on at the art museum. It is a stunning collection of 15 paintings that I was just curious and I checked, and it's 129,000 square inches of paint in the collection. These are beautiful works from different aspects of farming, and of the migrant farmers, and they're not easily forgotten once you've seen them.

Jose Cardenas: Not at all, as we saw from the pictures here. It's spectacular. Thank you so much, Dr. Smith, for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about it.

Jerry Smith: Thank you. And the show opens October 18th.

Jose Cardenas: I'll make sure everybody gets out there to see it.

Jerry Smith:Curator, American and Western American Art for the Phoenix Art Museum;

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