All histories — even personal ones — offer something to be learned. Ouida Touchón’s story is a lesson in art history.
Lesson one: Life intervenes. As an art student in the 1960s, Touchón vowed to “live life as art.” By her definition, this meant not only doing art but also being art: “the way you cook, dress, write a letter; the way you choose to create relationships.” Like many of her flower-child peers, she dropped out of school, engaged in political demonstrations and fled the city to the country, where it seemed more economically feasible to put her motto into practice. Then she had a child, and the parameters of feasibility shifted.
“For most of my twenties and thirties,” Touchón says, “I was an artist who was preoccupied with making a living; what I produced must be sellable…. I couldn’t dare take the risk of being a fine artist because I’d be by myself out there. I had to get to a financial place where I could raise my son before I could even think about pursuing a fine-art career.”
So she worked as a metalsmith, accessory designer and fashion designer, and she traveled the world as an independent consultant for large retailers. In between, she attained associate’s degrees in fashion design and pattern-making. Certainly necessity forced her creative hand toward these more practical and, in her view, less fulfilling vocations. So did socialization.
Lesson two: Quilters are made, not born. Touchón began asking herself why women of her generation primarily pursue crafts such as needlework, sewing and culinary arts instead of the fine arts. Her answer: “Women sublimate their true interest in fine art because it’s not socially encouraged. This is the compromise I made and many women throughout time have made. Maybe they were not concerned with bringing home the groceries [like me], but they knew their place.” And their place, professionally, was not in the visual arts, writing or music — disciplines men historically dominated. Yet it would be years until Touchón recognized the role society had played in her decision-making. The realization was, she says, “like a door opening to the sky.”
Lesson three: It’s never too late. In 1991 Touchón traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for a painting workshop with figurative watercolorist Jim Kosvanec. “He reawakened my love of paint,” she says. “I began painting seriously in 1992 and returned to Mexico to work with him in 1994.” Back in the Midwest, Touchón directed her creative interest toward botanical watercolors. She constructed a painter’s garden called Hawks Grove: four acres of trees, perennials and vegetables designed with the artist in mind. Hawks Grove was an all-consuming project that became “a loving and benevolent monster.” When Touchón and her husband decided to sell the property, she considered the loss “comparable in my mind to the death of a child. My consoling thought was that I would pursue my love of painting by going back to school.”
Lesson four: Generations gap. Touchón entered the Kansas City Art Institute lacking only twelve credits but stayed for four semesters. Although she developed a close and rewarding rapport with her instructors, her relationship with her student-peers (most were younger than her son) often was brutal. She became, in her words, “the parental whipping boy,” particularly in critiques. One woman accused her of being “preoccupied with beauty.” Worse — and better — was what Touchón considered the death of her ego. “No one was interested in the least in where I’d been, what I’d done, my opinion. I was odd, older and invisible.” The experience helped her focus on the work itself, what she was painting and why. By the time she received her bachelor of fine arts degree, she had a body of work that was miles beyond her floral watercolors, in terms of both content and style.
Lesson five: Money makes a good parachute. Touchon’s hard work over the years has put her in what most artists would consider an enviable position: She can concentrate fully on her art without worrying about how to pay the rent — or mortgage. She recently purchased a large midtown home with a third floor that will serve as her studio, and she will pursue a master of arts degree in print-making and perhaps art history at UMKC. The Figure Observed, at Pedestrian Gallery, is the first of many post-KCAI exhibitions Touchón hopes for. In other words, she has made the leap.
Lesson six: Experience matters. The exhibition’s title, The Figure Observed, is, on a facile level, misleading; on a complex level, it’s apt. Four of Touchón’s thirteen paintings are mixed-media abstractions resembling varnished wall fragments unsuccessfully stripped of aged wallpaper: Fragments of patterns and text overlap, peek through, abut. They contain no human figures; rather they address the issue of human emotions — the psychic effluvium that is indeed observable in every person participating in life. Touchón has had a lifetime of participation. The effluvium is her own and well-considered: “I have gone so far as to identify the feeling, create a title reflecting the feeling, and then paint the piece…. There are no formalistic concerns, and then space evolves as each layer is applied, each element is added.”
The painting “Fine. Did You Like It?” serves as a link between Touchón’s abstract and figurative works, combining elements from both into a painting that suggests emotional ambiguity. By contrast, her figurative paintings are straightforward in their assertion that women are powerful and hold a prominent position in the world. In “The Bathers,” two women and two girls sit in the foreground of a beach, distracted by sand or surf. They are voluminous, their torsos and thighs and arms built of large ovals like overlapping globes. In the background stands a boy, sharp-angled and diminutive in both stature and relative size. There is no room for him in the foreground and no way for him to compete with the calm and contented voluptuousness of the females. They are beautiful and human.
Touchón’s respect and appreciation for the “imperfect” female body is evident in all of her paintings of women, including those of her sister, painted shortly after the woman’s son died in an automobile accident. “A Map of Texas” and “Morning Light” depict ordinary domestic life — a mother pinning up her daughter’s hair; the same pair surrounded by house pets and sparse furniture — yet there is nothing ordinary about Touchón’s portrayal of her sister: chin held proudly in one painting; bending body stalwart and monumental in another. These are paintings about survival — surviving with grace and strength — a subject a younger artist might not yet fully perceive.
Lesson seven: In freedom begins responsibility. “I did a small body of work that I entitled ‘Escaping Woman,'” Touchón says, summing up both her past and future. “I realized, with great clarity, that I have escaped. It is the responsibility of freedom that I must now express.”