Just before the torrential rains hit southern Arizona last week, Paula Wittner crossed the border into Mexico with more than 100 paintings. It wasn't easy.
She and her husband had to go through two U.S. border inspection points in Nogales, Arizona, and twice open and repack the paintings while keeping an eye on the impending storm.
"We had to show the official documents and open the boxes and let them see the stacked paintings," Wittner says. "The second stop we had to unstrap them so that they [the agents] could see all the paintings' labels with corresponding numbers to the giant list. "
Luckily for Wittner's stash of Renaissance-style oils and gouache paintings, the storm didn't hit Nogales until just after the crucial moment. She and her husband got the works into the Museo de Arte de Nogales "pretty much in the nick of time."
Ironically, the paintings that weathered the difficult border crossing are part of a bi-national show called "No Boundaries." The exhibition itself is divided by the border: her solo show of 108 paintings will fill the entire art museum in Nogales, Sonora. A second show will showcase a dozen works in the lobby art gallery of the Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona.
After living for almost 34 years in Patagonia, 18 miles from the Mexican border, Wittner is thrilled her art has literally crossed the line.
"It has been very exciting to finally make it to another side of the world in this way," she says.
Her work doesn't explicitly look at the U.S.-Mexico border, at the border wall that splits two nations or even at the overwhelming bureaucracy that makes it difficult for artists to exhibit on the other side of the international divide, she says. "I don't do political art."
Nevertheless, her works are about crossing lines that are both literal and metaphorical. "Lift Off," an oil on panel from 2011, pictures a man and a woman in Renaissance garb watching a tiny red rocket blasting off into space. The man raises his hand in a tender farewell. Behind the couple, we can see the tail end of a blue rocket ship that's already ascended into the heavens.
"It's symbolic of shooting upward, of breaking boundaries of all kinds," Wittner says. Her late friend Hassan al-Falak, a Tucson poet and choreographer, saw the painting when he knew he was dying. "He really liked that painting and felt he was about to embark on that flight," she says.
Brightly colored Renaissance clothes—snug hats and flowing robes—have found their way into Wittner's paintings ever since she took a life-changing trip to Europe years ago. Born in Washington D.C., Wittner had gone to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design to study photography under Harry Callahan—a luminary of 20th century photo art.
Everything changed when she went to study in Rome for a year. She was awestruck by the beauty of the Renaissance paintings she saw all around her. She fell in love with Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, painters whose jewel-like colors light up quiet images of people in meditative and holy states.
"I was inspired by all those paintings," she says.
Then, on a summertime bicycle trip after her year of studies, she saw the sumptuous Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium. Created by the van Eyck brothers around 1430, the work is a masterpiece of the northern European Renaissance.
"It was amazing," Wittner says.
She's been painting ever since. Even so, she still loves photography, and her paintings are still influenced by a student thesis project for her photography major. She set up a tripod and camera in an alleyway off a main street in Rome and "made photos of people passing by, of the river of life." Those early black-and-white photos of children, women and men, alone and together, are the precursors of the colorful paintings she makes today, of people crowded into small spaces, indulging in solitary moments, engaging with one another.
Sometimes Wittner's images are fantastical. Tiny people ride inside big white swans in one painting, while full-size figures strut by with birds on their heads. She mixes the southwestern landscape she's grown to love with characters drawn from the old commedia del'arte plays of Italy.
She also loves to use real-life references. The rockets in "Lift Off" are a tribute to her brother, who loved to draw spaceships as a kid, and a new suite of shark paintings were inspired by the sharks her college-age daughter researched in a museum internship last summer.
One of the shark works, "The American Museum of Natural History," seems to comment on the mysteries of life and death. A gaggle of people sit inside a museum diorama watching a dramatic scene. A magician conjures up a storm inside the glass case and scary sharks cavort in a rough painted sea just behind them. Museum goers, indifferent to this dangerous sea drama, pass to and fro in front of the diorama, not even bothering to cast a glance at those trapped behind the glass.
The prolific Wittner paints all the time. She has exhibited in Tucson on a number of occasions, including at the Temple of Music and Art. She currently has some work in The Velvet Elvis pizza parlor in Patagonia, as well.
The dual Nogales shows are a breakthrough for her, though. She'll be exhibiting a body of work that spans 15 years, and the location in a Mexican museum has made her think more about her connection to the country she's lived close to for so many decades.
Her work may invoke the Italian Renaissance but her colors, she said, also connect to the rainbow palette of Mexican fine and folk art.
"I feel a kinship with Mexican art," she says. The Mexican mural artist Guadalupe Serrano, who's now running the Museo de Arte and gave the go-ahead to Wittner's show, even has a shark or two in his paintings.
"I can't believe this is all happening," she says. "It seems like make-believe."