Artist Washington Ledesma was treated to a big surprise on his 80th birthday. Not only had his longtime life partner, Alida O’ Laughlin, planned a surprise party for close friends and family, she had also arranged for a selection of work from his lengthy career to be shown publicly for the first time. O’Laughlin covertly removed paintings and drawings that had been stashed away for years in Ledesma’s studio, and brought them to the Chilmark Tavern for the party on Nov. 6, and a subsequent exhibit sponsored by Pathways Arts.
The collection represents work executed throughout many periods in the artist’s sometimes tumultuous life. According to a write-up by O’Laughlin, “This hidden treasure of paintings has traveled with Washington Ledesma for the last 40, 50 years. Hidden, wrapped up in bubble wrap in a corner of a basement of wherever he happened to be living, these fascinating paintings never saw the light of day until now. Washington never showed these paintings from that period to anyone.”
“It was a total surprise,” says Ledesma of the party and unveiling. “My initial response was, ‘My God, I did all that?’”
Not only was the artist stunned by the stylistic breadth of the work, it also prompted a walk down memory lane of sorts. “I started to recall how I started, and all of the events of the past that influenced my paintings,” he says.
Ledesma’s life has been full of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, which are all reflected in this remarkable collection. Born in Uruguay, Ledesma was an up-and-coming artist when a coup d’état took place that marked the beginning of a civic-military dictatorship in the South American country. The young artist was advised to leave the country and so he traveled to New York, bringing only one canvas with him.
As O’Loughlan writes, “Mid-Seventies New York was a hustling and bustling place —
a world that required money, a new language that he did not speak, a culture that was entirely foreign to him. All he could do was paint, paint to save himself, defend himself, against the generals, against this exciting new world that threatened to obliterate him entirely.”
Eventually Ledesma moved on to a quieter life in Pennsylvania, where he took up pottery. Upon moving to the Vineyard, the artist became known for his artistic ceramics — decorated with fantastical, mythological imagery. Much of his work draws inspiration from totems and other work from Ledesma’s native land.
The retrospective, which takes up the entirety of the Chilmark Tavern’s wall space, represents a variety of subjects and styles, ranging from two allegorical works created in New York in 1974 crowded with imagery to a semiabstract painting from the artist’s brief time in Buenos Aires to a Picasso-esque portrait of a polydactyl woman executed in the 1990s. A large painting from 1976 titled “Apocalypse Now” very clearly reflects the turmoil that Ledesma was subjected to during that period of his life, while “Un Año de Trabajo” (Year of Work) — the single painting that survives from the artist’s early career in Uruguay — is a colorful mosaic of much more positive imagery.
Those familiar with Ledesma’s decorative ceramic work may be surprised by the range of styles that represent the many periods in the artist’s career, but as a whole, the work shows the evolution of a highly original artist whose love of symbolism and imaginative depictions of human figures has remained a constant throughout.
Ledesma has shown his work all over the world — in Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Cuba, New York City, and elsewhere. However, this is the first time that all of these particular paintings have been on exhibit, and the first retrospective of the artist’s work.
“This was one of the best gifts I have ever received,” Ledesma says.
Luckily, thanks to Pathways, the showcase, planned as a surprise, is now a gift to the Vineyard as well.
“Washington Ledesma — Early Works” will be on display at the Chilmark Tavern through Dec. 19. The exhibit can be viewed Fridays through Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm.