May 13, 2017

The Degas of Panama

Art is magical - it not only sparks emotion but it tells a story without words.  Every artist strives to be known for his or her story - hoping that one day they will be remembered as the artist who captured a subject matter and brought it to life through art.

Being a daughter of two artists, I have been exposed to the world of art for as long as I can recall.  I have studied the Masters and appreciate their stories and all that they have taught artists and admirers today.

As a young child, I danced ballet for 14 years.  Needless to say, Edgar Degas was one of my favorite artists.  At first, I admired him because he painted beautiful works showing the world of ballet.  As I continued to study his career and portfolio I learned he was a master at capturing the human figure. 

Blue Dancers, Edgar Degas, 1899

I have always said my father, Al Sprague is the Degas of Panama.  His beautiful renditions of the polleras show not only the beauty of the dancers, but the pride Panama has in a culture that has been passed down from generation to generation.  

Polleras, Al Sprague, 2013

As a young student at American University in Washington D.C., my father painted many paintings of my mother.  Much of these were used for his Master's thesis.   Recently, I received an email from a gentleman inquiring about a painting he had fallen in love with over 30 years ago.  He had cherished it over the years and was digging into the history of the work and confirming that the painting was my father's. When looking at the photo attached to the email, I was shocked to find a painting of my mother.  

Preparing for Bed, Al Sprague, 1964

Just as Degas was mastering the human figure through his early work, so was my father.  This, and so many early pieces of my father's, remind me of Degas' paintings of women combing their hair, taking a bath, and getting dressed. 

Seated Bather Drying Herself, Edgar Degas, 1895

 Looking through the door and capturing the figure "doing everyday ordinary things" was practice for my father.  He continues to use these techniques when sharing a story of the market and lottery vendors, the fishermen, and the pollera dancers dancing down the street.  It is as if he captures them in a moment in time allowing the viewer to witness a story in action.

Venta de Pixbae, Al Sprague, 1988
Lottery Vendor Bronze, Al Sprague, Unknown Date

Pulling in the Nets, Al Sprague, 2013

Very similar to Edgar Degas, my father began his career painting portraits of family and friends.  This provided him even more practice at painting the human figure.  I can clearly remember sitting downstairs under our duplex in Balboa while my father painted portraits in his studio which was actually an enclosed garage.  Today, he still paints in his studio - a converted garage found at his house in Virginia.

Portrait of Betty Goldstein, Al Sprague, 1967

Degas was best known for mastering the human figure in motion.  His paintings, drawings, and bronzes of the ballet dancers are typically what most people recall when they think of Degas and his work.  He captured the beauty of the dance and the drama of the performance. Today, in his converted garage studio, I believe my father has become the Degas of Panama - mastering the human figure in motion and best known for his pollera paintings - capturing the beauty of the dance, the drama of the the performance and most of all the pride in the culture of the people.

Montunas, Al Sprague, 2013

Group of Polleras, Al Sprague, 2012

I know, in my heart, that in years to come, my father's work will be on display around the world and the story of Panama and its culture will be told through his portfolio.  

Living a Double Life as a Daughter of the Famous Panamanian Artist, Al Sprague

I am a forty something mother of three and a wife of a hospital administrator.  We live on a lake in a small North Carolina town.  If you met me today, you would never know that I grew up with a father who was so well respected in a small country the size of South Carolina because of his artistic talent. If you visited my home, you would begin to see the opening of a window into my past and you just might see a glimpse of my double life as a daughter of the famous Panamanian Artist, Al Sprague.

Growing up with a famous father was a life much different than many of my friends ever experienced.  The saying of my last name in Panama always brought on the question, "Are you related to the famous artist, Al Sprague?"  As a teenager, this statement brought the rolling of my eyes and a not-so excited answer of "Yes....."

In high school, I was ridiculed in geometry when I couldn't draw the shapes correctly on the blackboard with "Are you sure you are the daughter of artist Al Sprague?"

I laugh now when I think of this time in my life.  I had no idea of the uniqueness of my childhood. My every day life with my father provided me with the opportunity to stand on the sidelines watching how his artwork enhanced Panama's sense of pride in its culture, heritage, people, and natural resources.  How do you explain that to others who were not exposed to that?

In 2013 I stumbled onto an announcement on FaceBook that Memphis in May International Festival had chosen Panama as its country of honor for 2014.  My brain immediately went into overdrive and I knew I had to pitch the idea of my father being being part of this month-long festival in the city of my college alma mater.  I knew this would be a great opportunity to share my "other life".

What a joy it was to open a door for others to see a different side of my life.  Through this experience, I was reminded, once again, how important my father's artwork is to Panamanians, especially those who have migrated to the United States to live and raise their children. His work captures more than just a moment in time - it expresses a pride in a culture; a way of life; and of a country that is rich in its history and people.

Backstage after the Danilo Perez Jazz Concert

Artist Reception at Gallery with Panamanian Representatives and Memphis in May Representatives
I can't help but smile at the thought of living a double-life as a famous artist's daughter. My every day life has been filled with extraordinary experiences because of my father and his God-Given talent. Thank you dad ... I look forward to many more adventures and experiences in the future. 

A Love Story

I have always said that artists have a unique way of seeing things others just can't see.  They can express something on canvas which opens the eyes of others. 

My father has done just that throughout his career.  In the early 1970's my father saw something in the way the light hit the templeques of the pollera dancers (the national folkloric dancers of Panama).  He saw the gracefulness in the way the dresses moved and most importantly he recognized the absolute beauty in the girls who wore the dresses with pride.  He had to open the window for everyone else to see what a beautiful tradition was right before our eyes. 

This early painting portrays the beauty of the polleras.  I first saw this painting on my father's easel in 1976 and told him how I loved it.  He promised it to me right there on the spot.  Today I wake every morning to the beauty of Panama as it hangs in my bedroom for me to enjoy.
Over the years, my father continued to paint the beautiful girls in their cherished dresses.  He spent many weekends at Old Panama taking photos of the dancers that he would use as material to produce these wonders.  An Al Sprague pollera became a "must have" for many in this small country.  He traveled the country to capture the many types of dresses and dances.  His favorite place, still today, is  the small village of Santa Domingo just past Las Tablas on the way to Pedasi.  He says the light is perfect and the dresses are the prettiest. 

"Galinda" is one of my father's paintings using the polleras from Santa Domingo.
Today my father's polleras hang proudly on walls of many across the world.  He has created a pride for many Panamanians for a tradition that may have gone unnoticed in the past.  This was best explained to a group of Panamanians during a show at the Panamanian Embassy in Washington D.C. when the Ambassador stated that it took an American artist to see and paint the essence of Panama for Panamanians to see the beauty of their country, people, and traditions.

"La Reina" is another painting of the beautiful dancer from Santa Domingo.

I guess one can say my father's career of painting Panama is a love story.  He fell in love with the people and the culture a long time ago.  And now, he continues to nurture that love through his art which opens our eyes daily to the beauty of a country and its people.