Who Are Your Artistic Ancestors?

Who Are Your Artistic Ancestors?

The Mexican tradition of honoring deceased loved ones is one that involves great artistry in the construction of beautiful ofrendas (altars). I’ve seen ofrendas created in honor of famous artists, musicians and literary figures – so I had the idea of investigating my own “artistic ancestors” and I surveyed a few local artists about those inspiring spirits who continue to influence them creatively.

I recommend this exercise as a way to hone in on your own artistic identity. If you are struggling with your creative vision or defining your career, take a look at the lives of those you admire. Part of the reason you find these mentors fascinating is because, in some way, you would like to emulate part of their persona.

Once you narrow in on your artistic ancestor, pick up their biography or read their Wikipedia page. Pull out the quotes or statements that echo your experience or desires. Keep them as reminders and reinterpret them to describe your own work.

Who are your artistic ancestors?


Oscar Aguilar Olea is an expressionist figurative painter, sculptor, and print maker from Guanajuato, Mexico. His signature technique includes different types of egg tempera. His “artistic ancestors” include the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471) and the illustrator/muralist/activist Saturnino Herrán (b. 1887). Herrán trained at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City under European tutelage and he paved the way for muralists like like Orozco and Rivera. Oscar states “I feel close to him because his work with poetry and expressiveness represents Mexico at the beginning of the last century, creating a new mythology from the fusion of old and new worlds.”

Saturnino Herrán ,   Self portrait , 1918 | Albrecht Dürer,  Christ Among the Doctors , 1506

Saturnino Herrán, Self portrait, 1918 | Albrecht Dürer, Christ Among the Doctors, 1506

Painter Nancy Willis is a frequent visitor to Paris. She leads “Path of the Artist” trips and tours to share her love of French countryside and cuisine. Her “artistic ancestor” is Édouard Manet (b. 1832) well-known for works like The Luncheon on the Grass. Willis admires Manet’stenacity to be true to himself” when ridiculed for his unorthodox techniques. “He inspires me to be my authentic self and I channel him on the streets and in the cafes each time I am in Paris." 

Edouard Manet,  The Luncheon on the Grass , 1862

Edouard Manet, The Luncheon on the Grass, 1862

Photographer Norma I. Quintana channels two enigmatic female artists: Frida Kahlo (b. 1907) and Diane Arbus (b. 1923). Having recently lost her home in a colossal wildfire, Quintana relates to Kahlo’s struggles to overcome physical and emotional obstacles. “Since I can remember, I have always been inspired by her determination and grit.” And photographer Diane Arbus, who captured unforgettable characters, influences Quintana’s love of portraiture. She writes, “Like Arbus, I see people beyond their faces.”

Kahlo,  Las Dos Fridas , 1939 | Arbus,  Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, NYC , 1963

Kahlo, Las Dos Fridas, 1939 | Arbus, Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, NYC, 1963

For Peter Hassen, the direct lineage to his grandfather Roy D. Chapin (b. 1880) gives him a powerful muse. Roy worked as the first photographer in the auto industry and held a life-long passion for shooting panoramic photographs. He inspired Hassen to become an artist and led to his using panoramic film to document his Sacred Sculpture Project.

Roy D Chapin, view from Wright brothers plane, 1916

Roy D Chapin, view from Wright brothers plane, 1916

Hassen’s work is also informed by William Hogarth (b. 1697) an English engraver and painter, best known for his many series of pictures called "modern moral subjects". Hassen states, “His rapacious wit and unseemly candor are my inspiration in our era worthy of absurdist parody and give light to the expression ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

William Hogarth,  An Election Entertainment , 1773

William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment, 1773

As far as my own artistic muses, I often think of figures who have transversed borders and lived as citizens of the world. Tina Modotti (b. 1896) was a young immigrant from Northern Italy who became photographer Edward Weston’s apprentice and then moved with him to Mexico City where she documented many in the Mexican mural movement. Isamu Noguchi (b. 1904) who famously shifted between Japan, the US, and Europe – existing between his racial identities, but never compromising on his artistic vision. I admire artists with adventurous spirits in the hope that their intrepid explorations will somehow imbue my own.

Tina Modotti,  Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle , 1927 | Noguchi with stone sculpture

Tina Modotti, Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle, 1927 | Noguchi with stone sculpture

Please comment below if you’d like to share your “artistic ancestors” too.

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