Focus on Art – March 2017

Focus on Art

By Rob Mohr

Cathy Chalvignac — The Preservation of Cultures


“What sets the world in motion is the interplay of differences…

by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, we weaken

life in favor of death.”

Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

Cathy Chalvignac, who has practiced her creative magic in Ajijic for the past twenty two years, paints persons from indigenous cultures in a studied effort to record the visual reality of their presence in a world which is rapidly losing all traces of cultural uniqueness. While the web of media makes our common culture increasingly two dimensional, many have forgotten that each indigenous culture, with its array of attributes, defines a distinct way of being human. Indigenous cultures we destroy or displace, with our growing need for resources and desire to produce and sell uniform goods, eliminate forever crucial understandings of what it means to be human.

Each human culture comprises a complex of contrasting spiritual, material, creative, intellectual, and emotional responses to life, which includes community practices, creative expressions, and culturally formed material structures. Cathy’s work to save the visual presence of a culture perpetuates understandings that the dissertations of anthropologists and historians fail to do.

Cathy’s focus and technical prowess form paintings that startle with their vivid, pulsating use of color and light. Beginning with one or more photographs, Cathy orders, on a stretched canvas, the essential elements required by the painting, while rejecting those that are not helpful. Rather than copying photos she transforms and enhances photographic elements, much as artist do when working with live models — consider Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) use of models. When I asked why her paintings took so long to complete, she observed, “I want to be faithful to the details.” In a significant change in direction, she recently began to paint the backs of her models so that the viewer would need to use their imaginations to fill in what her subjects might be thinking, doing, or saying.

Following the lead of Early Mediterranean mosaics (800 BCE forward), and post Impressionist Pointillism of George Seurat’ (1859-1891), Sunday Afternoon on la Grande Jette, and Paul Signac’s (1863-1935), Norma, Cathy, with a small tipped brush, applies points of two or more colors of saturated paint to create the details of indigenous clothing that pulsate with light and color which appear to come from within the painting. These points of paint are blended by the viewer, and perceived as broad areas of contiguous color. The effect is that of a surface with subtle variations of hue filled with sparkling jewel like elements that reflect the ambient light. (photo)


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Her recent paintings evoke an emotional response that reminds me of The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, (1863-1918), a gilded painting of a woman and man in a loving embrace. They are adorned in Art Nouveau dress arrayed with gem like elements of vivid colors and random forms that cover their clothing, then escape, and flow in shimmering waves out into the foreground and into the background. The effect is sensual, and evokes some mystic world fixed in a distant reality.

Cathy Chalvignac combines these pointillist divisions of intense colors, with areas of pre-blended paint that form flowing cloth, the individuals faces, skin tones — and the integrated backgrounds of her paintings. (photo)  The distinction between Pointillism and pre blended colors is made clear when we consider Vermeer’s, Woman in the Red Hat, whose face glows with an inner light created by strong dark/light contrast and his perfect blending of colors — and Lucian Freud’s, Self Portrait, where blended paint become flesh.


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Cathy’s staunch focus on painting, she often paints twelve hours a day, coupled with her commitment to indigenous peoples, elucidates her significant growth as a painter. She studied fine art for three years in Paris and Nice before coming to Mexico, where for several years she painted murals in homes. In 2002 she moved over to canvas were she often spends a month finishing a single work. With a lilt of happiness in her voice she shared —

My home is a small paradise, where, surrounded by nature, old trees,

birds singing all day, I create in peace. And I walk everywhere, knowing

everybody — always surrounded by the warmth and kindness of Mexicans.”

I was gratified to meet, and get to know, this very generous and socially committed woman. She is a gift to life in Ajijic.

“ … in diversity there is beauty and strength.”

—Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Cathy’s paintings may be seen on 16 de Septiembre, #22, while the paintings mentioned in this article may be seen through this link—




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