Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Sleepers in the Borderlands

The fruit of an unusual collaboration between visual artist Marta Sánchez and poet Norma Cantú, Transcendental Train Yard is a series of serigraph prints that create a verbal and visual landscape of dreams and memories. Their work occupies borderlands both literal and figurative, between the nations and languages, between the past and the present, between sleeping and waking experience. Sánchez was born in San Antonio, Texas, and is now based in Philadelphia, while Cantú, now based in Kansas City, Missouri, was born in Mexico and raised just across the border in Laredo, Texas. In the process of their long-distance collaboration, these two artists discovered the many resonances in their shared background that come through in the dream-like words and images of these prints.

Marta Sánchez, Loneliness/Soledad, 2004

Marta Sánchez, Loneliness/Soledad, 2004

Sánchez has long been fascinated by the train yards near her childhood home in Texas, which were so integral to the local landscape and to her own family history. It was the trains that brought her grandfather, a lion tamer from a circus in Mexico City, to San Antonio, where he met Sánchez’s grandmother. Cantú’s grandfather worked for the railway in San Antonio before the family moved to Mexico. These two artists have moved on parallel tracks, their lives and the lives of their family members crossing borders back and forth to forge a mestizo identity, a rich mixture of cultures and languages.

Eight of the ten prints published in the book Transcendental Train Yard are on view on the third floor in the Shanis Programming Space at the Art Alliance from October 25 until November 4. The suite begins with Soledad/Loneliness, which depicts the distinctive landscape of the train yard as seen through a shifting veil of memory and loss, and framed by the body of a woman whose grieving face hovers above the scene like a sorrowful moon as she embraces the figure of an elderly man. Sánchez’s print responds to the loss of her father, and Cantú’s poem was completed soon after her own father’s passing. The print evokes a shared grief that plays out across the landscape of the train yard, uniting the two women’s experiences and emotions across the distance that separates them.

Marta Sánchez, Prelude/Preludio, 2003

Marta Sánchez, Prelude/Preludio, 2003

In the pages of the book, these themes are laid out for the viewer in the first print, entitled Prelude/Preludio. A recumbent figure stretches across the composition, with train cars visible in the background as if through a window. It is not clear if he is dead or merely sleeping. The poem speaks of the “fiery gold crown sunset” and the moonlit arrival of trains, but also evokes a struggle between life and death. As Constance Cortez points out, Sánchez’s print recalls Frida Kahlo’s 1937 work, The Deceased Little Dimas, an uncanny painting depicting the body of a deceased child, dressed in a long robe and crown, surrounded by flowers. Rather than looking directly down on the figure with a detached, almost scientific perspective, as we do in Kahlo’s painting, Sánchez shifts the position of the body so that the viewer feels as though she is alongside the boy. Prayer cards with what appears to be the abstracted form of the Virgin Mary surround his bed, watching over him. Strong horizontal lines run along the length of his body, converging on the figure’s head, like the rail tracks of a dream landscape. In this borderland between sleep and wakefulness, between life and death, the train tracks and the rail yard evoke distant places and domestic intimacy, the journey and the arrival. The work of Sánchez and Cantú transforms the heroic landscape of the West, criss-crossed by train tracks and populated by men and machines that are constantly on the move, into a vast and mysterious interior landscape of shared memory and experience.

PORTADA ESTA Train-ebook-front-sm

A limited number of signed copies of the book, Transcendental Train Yard: A Collaborative Suite of Serigraphs, art by Marta Sánchez and poetry by Norma E. Cantú (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2015) are available for purchase at the Art Alliance.

Text by Flora Ward, Intern

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