Folk art painter Oscar Peren is one of the leading painters of Guatemala’s “Comalapa School,” a colony of Kaqchikel painters in San Juan Comalapa, a town 22 miles northwest of Antigua. As a small boy in the 1950s, Peren was inspired by pioneering artist Andrés Curruchich, the first of the naïve painters of San Juan Comalapa. Indeed, Curruchich's success was the catalyst for Comalapa to become a centre for Mayan naïve art and today is home to some 500 artists, many of them trained by Curruchich.
The Comalapa School is known for the organization, placement and relation of the figures within the paintings; geometric design; a sense of balance; and frequently depicting bands of figures in processions, parades, funerals and celebrations. Oscar was inspired by Mayan legends, community traditions and the events of his own life–one of his most famous works is called the “Guatemalan Bus,” a motif he uses often. Oscar is one of the artists represented in the book "Arte Naïf: Contemporary Guatemalan Paintings" published by UNESCO. He has won many national and international prizes and has exhibited in Switzerland, China, Germany, Sweden, Norway and the U. S.
It was a privilege to meet Oscar at his gallery and have the opportunity to hear about both the customs and personal circumstances that have shaped his extraordinary art.
Is an Artist Born, or Made?
Meg: How did you become interested in painting?
Oscar Peren: When I was young, there was this famous painter, Andrés Curruchich, who lived in Comalapa. He was one of the founders of the so-called naïve movement in Guatemala. His work depicted the life of his native Mayan people in a very simple and understandable form. I lived in a little hamlet nearby Comalapa. I had to cross town in order to reach the school. One day I passed by a particular house, and I saw Andreas painting, and I got totally blown away by what I saw hanging from the walls. I promised myself at that moment, one day I will be the next Andreas Curruchich. It sounded crazy in that moment, but nowadays I don’t know if I have reached that goal or even surpassed. This painting is about that moment.
I went to school but I didn’t like what I was taught—mathematics, music, biology. I was only interested in art and painting. I decided I must paint what I see all around me because even though I was young, I realized everything is in constant change. I wanted to paint what I was seeing in order to preserve it, I wanted to make pictorial histories. I actually ended up being right. The way of life here changed completely.
In 1962, I was attending fourth grade of primary school. I was around 13. I always kept a little booklet where I was constantly painting. On one occasion, I painted 100 versions of the same face. It was the first time I realized that I could do something more than just a drawing. Many people ask me ‘Do you believe that an artist is born or made?’ I don’t have a clue. I only know that I have come along with art since I was very young.
From Small Beginnings to Huge Victories
Meg: It sounds like you felt you had a ‘calling” to become a folk art painter.
Oscar Peren: One thing that I value a lot is that my mother always taught me to never be afraid, and never hide what I feel or what I want to do. She told me to always be brave enough to let people know who I really am—and that is Oscar Peren.
When my father died, another man came into the family, like a new father. It happens rarely but it can happen. I didn’t like the idea at all. I said, “Mama, I'm not willing to receive orders from somebody who’s just not my dad. So I'm leaving.” So I left. I had no work, no idea, no plans, no nothing, just wanted to leave. There was this person from Spanish origin in Guatemala City who offered me a job to take care of a little kid. He was two years old. That little boy later became a very famous soccer player. I was the nanny for two years of this little kid! I'm a painter but I taught him how to kick a ball.
The Call of San Juan Comalapa: Mayan Roots, Religion and Legends
Meg: What made you come back to Comalapa from Guatemala City?
Oscar Peren: The first thing that made me come back was sentimentalism. Being in the city, I was always thinking about this fantastic little spot in the world--the colors, the people, tranquillity. In the city, I was having a very good time. I'm a Bohemian. I had a lot of girls and I was drinking and partying and I was having the life of an artist. But I came to visit, and on the way back, I was thinking I would like to come and stay here. I would like to have a wife from Comalapa, a Mayan woman. My name is Peren, a Maya. I would like to have children in Comalapa. So I came and found Calixa. I asked her, “Do you have a boyfriend?” She said, “Yes, why?” “Because I would like to be your boyfriend.” And she said, “Well if you come and live here, you can try.” So I decided to come and establish here because I wanted to marry her.
Meg: I understood from the reading I did that you were inspired in your early days by some of the Mayan legends. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Oscar Peren: As a kid, I was very open, and grasped information, visual information. I recognized that there were many worlds in one world in Comalapa, and most of them constantly changed. I was interested in the legends and the traditions. Like for example, one of my recurrent themes is the process that you undertake when you want to marry some girl here. You have to go through a series of ceremonies from gifts to meetings to this or that, and I wanted to paint that. Also, the brotherhoods within the Catholic Church are oriented to the Mayan religion and belief and I wanted to paint that. I wanted to portray that living legacy of what his days seemed to have been.
My mother was wise. She didn’t want me painting our family’s life. She was in a way protecting the intimacy of the family. She recognized that they are a lot of different races. Even if we hate that, that’s fact. It is. She was protecting the family from being seen as strange because they sit in the floors and they eat with their hands because the Maya eat like that. She didn’t want people to see us in a strange way or misunderstand us.
I don’t have something one specific thing I paint. I like the religion of Comalapa. I like the traditions of Comalapa. I like the fiestas. I enjoys December with all its colors in this latitude, and there’s many fiestas because there’s many patron saints within the brotherhoods. I enjoy going with them and I paint the fiestas and fireworks, the kites they fly in November. All of this is recurrent thing in my paintings, because I live with that, and I wants it to live as a legacy.
Folk Art Painter Coming to the Attention of the Art World
Meg: What was it like getting started as a folk art painter?
Oscar Peren: It was really hard to find art materials and they were expensive. I was painting in oil, but I was using cooking oil to mix with the pigments. It was not good because it took 15 days for my paintings to dry, but I didn’t know exactly what the right kind of oil was. Every time I went to buy materials, I would see this one other painter so we started talking about technique. I did something like espionage in a way and threw out some questions and suddenly the name of the oil, the perfect oil that I was looking for for so many years, appeared.
Through my ventures in art, I began to earn some money and one day I opened Galleria Peren, my first gallery. That was around 1970, right around the time Andrés Curruchich died. I became friendly with others who were painting, including the son of Andreas, who was a good friend. Together we formed a group of naïve painters. There were eight of us in the group. At that very moment, we start coming to the attention of the art world because we were from Comalapa.
Peren's San Juan Comalapa Career Spans Amazing Gifts and Dark Days
Then, in the early seventies, hanging out this group, problems came. We are artists. There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of partying. Some members of the group even died, wrung themselves out. So the group was dissolved and everybody got his own way of painting. Some did well, some not that well if they were good artists. What helped me is my ability to speak. I have a gift, not only in painting, but I have a gift being able to speak and bring out my ideas in the most open and plain way. That has paved the way, the road. That led me to be able to give a present to the Pope fifteen years ago when the Pope came to Guatemala.
I want to make an emphasis on this painting. This is one of my dark periods. The chicken bus painting brought me an audience, some fame, and money. With the money, when I started earning some U.S. dollars, I would drink. But then I began spending what was needed for the house. When I was drinking, I would go back in time to my memories of when I 17, 18 years old, when I met the love of my life, a girl called Evangelina, Ava. This is Ava in Paradise. She represents this spirit like a drunken horse. She’s crying but I infused it with alcohol but it’s also very intimate to me. It was a love that could not be, and I was using alcohol to try to forget. During this period, I just remembered her a lot more. I did a series of paintings on Evangelina, and during that period I was devoted to those memories and to alcohol. But 25 years ago I quit and I’m clean. My children grew up and I wanted to be a father. Now I’m devoted only to the development of my and to my art and to my family.
Oscar Peren and the Patriarch of Painting Family Dynasty
Meg: Did your children inherit your artistic ability?
Oscar Peren: All of my children are artists, too. Together with my daughter and sons, we hold about 30 prizes, silver and gold medals that we have won in many countries. My sons Edgar, Orlanda and Roberto Peren are painters. Another girl, doesn’t paint, but she is a weaver. Art is the base of the whole family, it is our economy and philosophy and way of life.
One great artist that left was my daughter Elena, she died 15 years ago. Elena died from hydrocephalia. There were no symptoms, no presentation, she just went all the way until it was very late. When she died, Comalapa lost a star. Not the way we perceive stars but a star from heaven. It’s not shining anymore down here. She was a great artist. She travelled in Japan and China, they invited us for 29 days as a guest artist.
One of my prizes is the legacy of a few paintings that I saved from my daughter, nobody can buy, nobody can see, because they are in a special spot where I sleep. She’s with me there. I feel grateful that I was able to bring good people into the earth and that my children are artists, and artists make the world better.
Remembering a Fellow Folk Art Painter
Meg: Did your daughter’s death affect your ability to paint for a while or did it make you want to paint more?
Oscar Peren: Fifteen days after the death of Elena, I had visions. I dreamed about her and she came back to tell me in dreams that she was okay, she was doing good. I made paintings about my dreams of Elena’s visits that are very intimate, it was a recurrent theme, painting her.
In the Mayan world, dreams are visions, like for the Plains Indians of the USA. We really trust and believe and follow dreams sometimes. So in one of those dreams, this spirit appeared and told me ‘Sorry that I took your daughter, but I want you to know that she’s okay, she’s with us. She’s in a very nice spot. And I want you to be calm and easy, happy, because she’s okay.” That’s this painting. This is my daughter, and this is the young guy that appeared. This spirit was performing through a young fellow, and he’s the one who talked to me. He is telling them about how good she is doing now and that he had to take her. When I asked ‘Who are you? Where do you belong? Who’s your mother and father?’ He says, ‘I don’t have a father here, but I have many mothers.’ The spirit-person said, ‘I can do everything. I know everything. I manage everything.’ So that’s the answer that he gave to me.
She died, but she’s still here. In a way, I perceive her energy. She became a famous folk art painter in Japan. There are books that tell about her work, and some Japanese come and when they realize she lived here, they say, oh, Elena, Elena! And they shop in here and buy some paintings. I believe it’s through her that they are coming here. In a way, she’s supporting her dad’s art from where she is now. So she’s here.
So this is life--decisions and hard periods--celebrated here by these paintings, where I have portrayed most of what I have seen. Nowadays, I am the grandfather of 15 grandchildren, father of five, four who are alive. I am fully sane and devoted to art. So this is Oscar Peren nowadays, the artist, the person, the grandfather, the man, the whole person.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.