Faculty Member Finds Artistic Inspiration and New Teaching Trajectory in Colombia

Assistant Professor of Sculpture Erin Wheary stands in front of a drawing she and the other artists-in-residence at Casa Taller El Boga created as a collaborative project. The drawing is inspired by the Río Magdalena that flows through Mompox, Colombia, the site of the residency.

© Western New Mexico University

Assistant Professor of Sculpture Erin Wheary was in Mompox, Colombia for several weeks this winter for an artist’s residency at Casa Taller El Boga, a not-for-profit foundation. El Boga’s mission is “to develop cultural, academic and artistic activities that foster dialogue and add value to the local community and visitors,” according the foundation’s website. “We promote cultural exchange, environmental sustainability, and the protection of Mompox’s tangible and intangible heritage,” it says.

Wheary said that the town of Mompox is itself artistically inspiring. “It is a really interesting town in that there are a lot of craftspeople there,” she said, “It is known for its silver filigree work, for wood carving, for weaving—there are people making nearly everywhere.” Most of the artists in Mompox come from families that have passed down their expertise generation-to-generation, she said.

Just getting to Mompox took some effort on Wheary’s part. “I flew to Bogota, then flew to another city about two hours away, and then I was on a bus—a van, really—for about seven hours to get to this place in the middle of nowhere,” she said. But the long journey was definitely worth the effort. “I felt when I got there that I was in some alternative universe,” she said.

In fact, the town is so unusual and, from an artist’s perspective, otherworldly that some have said that it was the inspiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous magical realist novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

According to Wheary, this setting was the perfect location to inspire creativity. “The residency at [Casa Taller El Boga] is part of a foundation, and the mission of the foundation is to connect artists from all over the world to the local community,” she explained.

The opportunity for connection, both with the other resident artists and with the town of Mompox, is very much what attracted Wheary to the position. “I have done a lot of residencies,” she said, “but this is the first one where I have collaborated with other people.” In particular, Wheary collaborated with two other artists to create a series of pieces that were very much grounded in place.

“We brought everyone’s ideas together and ended up with this body of work that was really about the Magdalena River that flows through the tiny town. It was a major river for moving goods through Colombia before there was overland transport,” she said, “We studied how the river’s course has changed over the years, and that is what the work centered around.”

“For one of the pieces,” said Wheary, “we made this really large drawing that documented those changes. For another piece, we brought in all this sawdust, all these remnants from the studios, and we did this workshop where people walked through it and carved these channels in it.” She continued, “All of the art projects were made from materials that we found there. Nothing about it is fine art materials, but that really just ties it to the location where it is made.”

In addition to creating art and giving workshops, Wheary and the other artists also had an opportunity to tour many artisan studios in Mompox, including those working in weaving, metalworking, woodworking and other handcrafted materials. “It is such a unifying moment to be in a shop [like the woodworking studio] and be able to have that connection and say, ‘I work with these tools, too. Show me how you use them.’ I learned so much,” she said.

Wheary is excited to take what she learned from the experience and apply it in the classroom at WNMU.

“All this is coming into my teaching,” she said, noting that her sculpture class this semester will have a weaving assignment, inspired by the work she saw in Mompox. “I was overwhelmed by the beautiful artisan work and wanted to integrate that into my teaching,” she said, “The weaving specifically stuck out to me. … In contemporary art, there is not a lot of weaving. It is such a beautiful way of working. And when you think about what it means to weave, the idea feels like something interesting to dig into.” There is a rich complexity to the metaphoric dimensions of a medium like weaving, said Wheary.

“I want to make sure that my students have concept and craft in their work,” she explained, “Watching these artisans reminded me why craftsmanship is so important and why a beautifully made object holds value. What we do in [the WNMU sculpture studio] is to work on that and to bring in these larger ideas about the world—about what it is to be alive right now—and to integrate them.

In addition to being inspired by the artisan work she saw in Colombia, Wheary also takes away from the experience a new appreciation of the power of teamwork. The team projects, she said, were “a good reminder for me. If you can work as part of a team, you can make more impactful work, bigger work, and it is a whole skill in itself” to navigate teamwork.

Of her experience working with other artists at the residency, Wheary said, “I am really excited about all of this collaboration and these contacts and to be able to, down the road, keep those lines of dialogue open and to be able to connect students here to people [in Colombia]. It really opens us up to being able to work at not just the state and not just national level, but at this international level, which is really exciting to me.”

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