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Miguel Arzabe

Artist Miguel Arzabe (NewsCenter photo)

Paint, video, Etch A Sketch — this artist's media are varied and many

Exhibit in Worth Ryder Gallery, March 3 to 13, showcases work of seven grad students

| 03 March 2009

Hiking through a forest may be a simple pleasure, but getting and being there are not simple acts. Not, at least, for Miguel Arzabe, a grad-student artist and outdoor enthusiast, who experiences wilderness as "a juxtaposition of two worlds" — sparsely populated wild space and the "fully inhabited," media-saturated urban world. "Where I fit in," he says, "is as a potential bridge between those two."

In the city neighborhood he inhabits, West Oakland, it's not lost on Arzabe, whenever he drives its streets en route to the mountains, that few in his 'hood aspire to explore the backcountry. "For any number of socioeconomic reasons, hiking is not part of their language," Arzabe says of his  neighbors.

He explores his complex appreciation of nature using a wide assortment of media — paint, video, laser etchings, online social-networking tools, public enactments and installations, and the Etch A Sketch. Examples of his work — along with contributions from Bonnie Begusch, Amanda Eicher, Matt Mullins, Aliza Rand, Azin Seraj, and Becky Suss — are on view in "Free Time," an art exhibit by first-year master's students in Worth Ryder Gallery. The show opens Tuesday, March 3 (with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m.) and runs through March 13.

"John Muir Text Messages," a ten-minute video, uses Google Earth to trace Arzabe's hike from the John Muir Wilderness to Sequoia National Park along backcountry trails; abstract paintings explore his experience, both emotional and rational, with wilderness. The John Muir Trail also proved inspiration for landscapes etched on wood block, transferred from drawings made with an Etch A Sketch, a medium he has used to draw portraits of nearly a hundred friends, relatives, and strangers.

Fractal image created in downtown Albuquerque by Miguel ArzabeFractal image created in downtown Albuquerque by Miguel Arzabe

Arzabe discovered his talents on the classic toy during an artist's residency in Wyoming, where he came upon four Etch A Sketch devices in a small-town thrift store, and bought them all. Back at the colony, he drew likenesses with the gadget that impressed his fellow artists, he recalls. Eventually, he was using Etch A Sketch portraiture as a tool for investigating trust and intimacy.

For Arzabe, these portrait sessions are a kind of "social mini-contract" between artist and sitter, "made informal by the nostalgic and playful nature of the Etch A Sketch medium." Many participants open up as he wields the machine's two white knobs to sketch their face, typically in 10 to 15 minutes' time. (He has degrees in mechanical engineering and fluid dynamics; simultaneous access to the right and left brain, tapping both his artist and his engineer, may account for his aptitude on the Etch A Sketch, he believes.)

After photographing the portrait, Arzabe invites his subject to shake away his or her likeness. Like a Buddhist sand painting, the artwork vanishes — while the image lives on in different form, on a friendship "community" he's created on Facebook. He also invites his subjects to use the Etch A Sketch to do his portrait. "The cumbersomeness of the machine actually brings out the individuality in people," Arzabe notes. "You have to lose a sense of control…. That's a big part of drawing, not feeling like the lines have to be a certain way."

Recently, he's moved to a radically larger canvas — using stencils of a mathematical fractal image, composed of triangles, to print the abstract pattern in public spaces using local mud. So far he's created the pattern in West Oakland, downtown Albuquerque, and New York City near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Hopefully, he says, it will next appear on an outdoor space or edifice in urban Bear territory.

(Samples of Arzabe's work, including paintings and Etch A Sketch drawings, can be found on his website.)