Guarding Leonora: Part I of a short story series by Leah Clare Michaels
As the COVID pandemic halts physical travel and international connections, artist Leah Clare Michaels reflects on a previous trip to Mexico where she finds inspirations in Feminist Surrealists of the past
In March of 2018 I flew to Mexico City from Baltimore to research the works of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna. My plan was to view as many works as possible and hope that enough creativity would be found for new idea. I knew what my thesis was going to be about but I wanted to have the spark of the next project ready to burn once I graduated. I wandered all around the Museo de Arte Moderno where many of these pieces live and I could not find a single one. Finally, I realized that a wing had been blocked off and I began to speak to the security guard. I inquired in Spanish about these pieces. He shook his head. All of them had been taken down for a special show that would be opening just a few days after I left Mexico. I was completely crushed. Now I needed a new plan. I dragged my broken heart with me to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. I knew that Leonora Carrington’s piece El Mundo Magico de los Mayas was there and if nothing else I could at least see that painting. After climbing the stairs to the second floor and walking all the way to the other side of the enormous museum, I found that painting.
The room was completely empty so I decided to sit on the floor and take the time to be with the painting.
The mural size painting transfixed me as the scene portrays Mayan myth and mysticism. Souls journey between worlds, fanciful creatures bear witness to human ritual, and time disappears among the colors of the ancient landscape. As I moved to peer closer at the exuberant colors and bright details of the work I felt like I was no longer alone.
I turned to my right and a security guard was standing next to me. Still sitting on the floor, I looked up at him.
“Me encanta Leonora Carrington” (I love Leonora Carrington) I told him.
Instead of asking me to move, he kneeled down next to me, and we spoke in Spanish with a bit of Spanglish.
He pointed to the bottom of the painting, where brown and grey represent the underworld, slowly moving his finger from left to right.
“Almas… malas” (bad souls) he said.
He asked me my first name.
“Leah,” I told him.
He repeated my name back to me.
“Me llamo Raul” and he asked me my last name. “Michaels.” He tried to repeat it but I had to help him. I could tell by his name tag that his last name was Lopez but he told me in Spanish too. We sat in silence for a little bit just smiling at each other and gazing at the painting. He got up first to leave and I followed. As we said goodbye, I started to feel the tense energy inside me shifting. I began to reflect on why I feel so connected to these three women and their art. I thought about growing up Catholic and how I feel like I see the otherworldly moving through our world. I thought about feminism, mysticism, and the goddess culture that has existed in many manifestations all around the world. Many of us are constantly searching for that connection to the other side, the bridge to the other world. But then I’m reminded that we are the bridge, our art is the bridge, and the space we share between each other is the sacred connection. The other worldly is not in another realm, but here. Thank you, Raul Lopez, for letting me sit on the floor.
Thank you Leonora for reminding me to relish in chance and that art isn’t just about the physical journey but the spiritual. I don’t have to physically be in Mexico to be with you.
Leah Clare Michaels
Leah Clare Michaels is a Baltimore native, writer, artist, activist, historian, and surfer.
She received a B.A. in History with a focus in Classics from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2012 and a M.F.A. in Intermedia and Digital Arts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2019.
Leah was raised as a social Catholic feminist. Her work is informed by a historical research practice and rooted in the space where social justice, art, and travel intersect. Leah's work is multidisciplinary; encompassing the mediums of Video/Film, Photography, Printmaking, Performance, Installation, Writing, and Fabrication.