The artist as Gothic gargoyle


Sometimes Cecilia Paredes is an octopus. Sometimes she’s a skunk.

Last summer, at the 2005 Venice Biennale, she was a macaw.

“I interpret animals, basically,” says Paredes, an internationally renowned artist who is also associate faculty master at Hamilton College House. “I put make-up on and transform myself into animals. It’s a kind of metamorphosis.”

Visitors to the Biennale saw Paredes transformed into a parrot, complete with resplendent feathers of blue and orange. On the floor in front of the large scale photograph lay a shawl woven from macaw feathers. In another installation, visible from the vaporettas plying the Grand Canal, Paredes placed transparent photographs of herself as a gargoyle in the Gothic windows of a Venetian palace.

The Peruvian born artist is used to traveling the world to make and exhibit her art. She moved to Philadelphia a little more than a year ago after marrying Penn music professor Jay Reise. Now she commutes between her high-rise home on campus, San Jose, Costa Rica, where she maintains a studio apartment, and Madrid, Spain, where she prints her photographic works. Last year she also showed her work at the Basel Art Fair and Arco, the contemporary art fair in Madrid.

The shawl in the Venice Biennale installation is made from feathers of “survivors,” says Paredes. She’s referring to macaws that were saved from predators in Costa Rica. For four years, Paredes has been in touch with a bird refuge there, which receives abandoned pet macaws and birds that poachers have attempted to smuggle out of the country to sell. When the birds have been nursed back to health, they are released into the wild. “When they shed, somebody collects the feathers for me,” says Paredes. “The shawl is like the “Schindlers List” for macaws—a proof of survival. The weaving of the shawl was very emotional for me. You get attached to the birds.”

Back in Philadelphia, Paredes works with a local photographer, Fred Pfaff, to create disarmingly beautiful works that pay homage to nature and celebrate the body—her body—as an extension of that world. “It’s all make-up,” she insists, “no Photo Shop.”

At Penn, Paredes busies herself giving the residents of Hamilton House a dose of culture. Last year, she took a group to the Dali exhibit and organized a trip to the Metropolitan Opera, as well as a Ravi Shankar recital.

The 23rd floor apartment she shares with her husband is the kind of low ceilinged, modest space you’d expect in a 1970s dorm. But Paredes has exercised her transformational skills here, too. Her living room has become a showplace for Peruvian textiles from the pre-Columbian era that dazzle the eye with rich color and intricate pattern. In the hallway, she has gathered post Columbian religious artifacts and retablos, and above the doorway into the kitchen are arrayed a dozen or so sharp spears that she and Riese bought from indigenous tribes on a trip to the Amazon.

Peripatetic as her life is, Paredes is happy to call Philadelphia her home. “My Penn life is wonderful,” she says. “I have my Fisher Fine Arts Library. That’s glorious. I have peace to work. I have Fred Pfaff.”

Originally published on September 22, 2005