On June 12, 2006, I traveled to Oaxaca to create a print of Christ, knowing that master-printer Fernando Sandoval and his coworkers would do an excellent job of helping me bring my project to life. I also knew that neither he nor the printers working in the Taller Sangfer would ask why I had chosen to work on an image of Christ. Embarking on the project in the U.S. would have given rise to questions about my chosen subject: Was I born again? Was it ironic? I was certain that none of these questions would come up in Oaxaca, where religious imagery is ubiquitous.
I intended to base my print on “The Head of Christ” by Correggio (Antonio Allegri da Correggio, August 1489-March 5, 1534) which is in the Getty Museum collection. Correggio’s painting depicts Veronica’s veil, and because I was raised Catholic, I’d always been drawn to that story in which a striking likeness of Christ miraculously appears on a blank cloth. For me, the story of Veronica’s veil had come to embody something thrilling and essential about art making — an image takes form in blank space.
I’d been busy and preoccupied leading up to the trip and had not been following the news of events in Oaxaca. Once I arrived, the cab driver dropped me off about ½ mile from my hotel, telling me he could not get any closer because of the teachers’ strike.
The center of town, I soon discovered, was filled with tents as far as the eye could see, and occupied by thousands of teachers and supporters of the National Union of Teachers. Carrying my suitcase, I walked through the vast encampment. It was late at night, dark, still, and calm. Tents were filled with people sleeping or talking softly. I remember seeing someone cooking food over a small fire. I walked for blocks and never seemed to reach the encampment’s perimeter. In the coming days I’d learn that members of the teachers union were striking for better pay and more supplies for their students. [It was an extremely complicated and ongoing problem. It has evolved and become more complicated over the years.]
Near the center of the occupation was the Zocalo where my hotel, the Hotel Montealban, was located, a place where I always stayed during my visits to Oaxaca. While checking in, I asked the woman behind the desk about the encampments and she reminded me that the teachers went on strike every June. She also mentioned that the massive scale this year was different. Despite the sense of civil unrest, she spoke warmly and said she was happy to see me. I think I was the hotel’s only customer.
The next morning I walked through the encampment, heading toward the shop to start work. I was eager to be reunited with Fernando and the printers who worked there. After greeting me, they gave me a brief and general explanation of the teachers’ strike. I threw myself into work, and after a long productive day, returned to the hotel where I fell asleep early.
I was awoken at 4am by commotion outside. I approached my second story window and below me saw the police beginning to clear the encampments of protestors. Before I knew it, the police began attacking the teachers with clubs as the they gathered up their tents and belongings. It was dark but I could see a policeman hitting a woman on her legs as she rushed to get away. I watched the unfolding conflict until sunrise. At some point, Manuela, who cleaned the rooms, entered and watched with me. Neither of us spoke. At about 7 AM, I went downstairs to the dining room to eat breakfast, but the sting of teargas was strong enough that I brought my breakfast back up to my room.
Once things were calmer, I decided to walk to work, ten blocks away. It never occurred to me to pack up and head home. I was eager to continue working on the print, which was, after all, the reason I had come. On my way, I was directed by the police to walk down one specific street. At one end of the street were the police with shields and protective gear, at the other, facing them, were the teachers with sticks and machetes, a small fire burning in front of them. And just as I turned the corner, the city erupted into chaos.
A helicopter flew low overhead and I saw a soldier with one leg dangling outside the door as he threw tear-gas at people below. It was as if he was playing a game, giddy as he tossed the canisters. And yet, I felt somehow invisible and without fear. I finally approached the shop, surprised and relieved that it was open.
Fernando and the other printers had also shown up. I think we all felt we had to be there to continue our routine. In that atmosphere of concentration and purpose, I was able to immerse myself in details of the Christ print, despite the unrest and chaos outside.
At one point, a man ran by covered in blood. After about two hours spent on my etching, one of the printers quietly told me we all had to leave; the center of town was being evacuated and I could not safely return to my hotel.
Fernando invited me to come with him to his home in the hills a few miles away. Driving, higher and higher on the winding roads, he made jokes that I did not understand about what was happening.
We arrived at his home where a small group of his friends had gathered around his dining room table. Have been awakened early that morning, I asked Fernando if I could take a nap in a spare room. I fell asleep for a few hours. By the time I awoke, as groggy and disoriented as a child, a larger group had gathered.
I listened to Fernando address the crowd. As he described what had happened, he began to cry. “How could this be happening in Oaxaca?” he asked. The room fell silent.
For me, Oaxaca had an innocence about it. The city felt removed from the rest of the modern world and the violence seemed especially cruel.
To clear my head, I mentioned that I wanted to take a walk. I’d hoped to have a moment alone, but everyone thought that was an excellent idea, and they all decided to come with me. The walk became a congenial aimless stroll up the mountain behind Fernando’s home.
When we got back, I was told I could go back to my hotel. Fernando drove me down the mountain. It was dark by then, and quiet.
As an American, a gringo, I understood that I was an observer to what was taking place, only just beginning to understand why and how the conflict erupted. I understood that, as a foreigner, I was not to get involved. If I had, I risked being arrested or sent home.
In the following days there was a counter demonstration. Folks in identical white polo shirts and blue balloons paraded through town in support of the police and government. I again asked Fernando if he could explain what had led up to the conflict. My Spanish was not good enough to understand and his answers were reticent. And so my focus remained on the print I had come here to make.
I worked closely with the printer, Jesús Velafón who took great care of all the trial proofs as the print progressed. I had grown up with images of Christ nailed to the cross and with a crown of thorns on his bloodied head. To my mind, those images, like this print, were not images of suffering but images of devotion. I devoted myself to getting the print right. As long as I worked on it, I was in a state of grace, protected.
After the first week I got the print to a state I was pleased with. Fernando looked at it and said it was not done. I had to push it further, to keep working on it. The hair needed to be denser. The crown of thorns looked weak.
After one more week, Fernando gave it his blessing.
As I was leaving the shop, Jesús handed me a package. It was all twelve proofs leading up the completed print. The exhibition Oaxaca includes the Christ print and two of those proofs.