March 2012

Portrait: Susana Castillo

What’s the difference between an artist and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four. It’s a common perception that artists struggle to make a living from their art. Susanna Castillo is one exception as she explains to Spaceman Africa.

By: Spaceman Africa
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Weston Creek – Australia


During the interview with Susana
Photo: Ximena Noya

"Oh, all the time," said Susana, when asked if she is always on the lookout for inspiration. ‘Like yesterday, the sun was hitting the Christ around five in the afternoon, so I said to my friend, “Come with me. We have to take photographs.” Oh yeah, all the time.’

I could tell that Susana was going to be easy to talk to. We had a lot to talk about, too, as Susana is a professional portrait artist, sculptor, a keen photographer, is well travelled, and teaches occasionally.

Keen to show her work, Susana took the initiative and started by showing me a book illustrated with 400 photographs she had published of her family history. Despite being born in La Paz, Susana has a lot of family history in Cochabamba. Her great grandfather emigrated to Cochabamba in the mid 1800`s from Braunschweig Germany and married a local lady. Susana has donated copies of the book to the library in Braunschweig and to the National Archives in Sucre and La Paz. The book came about through Susana’s love to document things, a trait inherited from her great grandfather whose love of photography helped in making the book possible. ‘In order to do something like this you need the desire, the time, the information, and the know-how. Not that everybody’s interested (in the book), including members of my own family, but it was very rewarding to write.’

The first thing that strikes you is how colourful and realistic the portraits are. Susana is able to see the beauty in ordinary daily activities and that comes through in her work.

Susana cites her parents as being influential artistically; her father was an architect and her mother an embroiderer. She knew as a young girl that she wanted to follow art as a career. ‘My father used to work at home and my two brothers and I would play with the ruler, the triangle, the pencil and everything. So I was familiar with those things. It was very clear to me at an early age.

Susana went on to study Fine Arts at the University of Texas, and later specialized in pastel portraiture at the Scottsdale Artist’s School, Arizona, under the teachings of Harley Brown, one of the top ten portraitists in America. ‘Whatever I know is due to him, he’s taught me so much,’ Susana admits.

After living in Madrid for eight years, Susana returned to Bolivia and presented an exhibit and work started for her from then on. Twenty-one years later, she has done over 160 commissioned portraits of Bolivian government dignitaries, ambassadors a portraitist.’ I asked if there’s such a thing as painters block. ‘Yes, you just have to stop. My instructor says, “Don’t worry about it. You’re going to get to that point where you get stuck.” Draw and watch, let it sit, and go again.’ Ninety percent of Susana´s work is done in Cochabamba. ‘What I need is a little bit of peace, here, in the countryside with the birds. I have my photos, my space and my work. I have to have a peaceful setting.’ The portraits are one-of-a-kind originals on show at Susana’s studio in La Paz and available to buy.


Parrot portrait
Photo: Susana Castillo

So what about creativity? With the portraits featuring the Indigenous, Susana has some freedom as they don’t need to be exact. But with the VIP’s, there’s no room for artistic licence. Susana’s expression comes in painting the backgrounds. ‘Many times I’m told what colours to use, what background to use, other times they say, “You do it.” I try to put bright colours in young people and more subdued colours for older people.’ Susana also writes short poems for the portraits of the native Bolivians to indicate where they come from, or what dance they are performing.

We moved on to her current project which deals with endangered animals. Along with her love for artwork Susana is very passionate about Bolivia’s native and social personalities, the most notable being Pope Benedict XVI. She has also painted over 160 native Bolivians.

The first thing that strikes you is how colourful and realistic the portraits are. Susana is able to see the beauty in ordinary daily activities and that comes through in her work. There’s nothing melancholy or serious about her style, dispelling the notion that one must suffer for their art.

Susana’s main method is using pastels. She usually meets the person if they are still alive and takes many photos to work from. ‘To complete a simple one it takes three or four days. The Pope I think took more than three weeks.’ Susana was given a poster to work from and declares this as her most important work. ‘For the Pope, I had to do a lot. They wanted to have the shield of the family, the cross, the ring … today it hangs in the reception hall of the Vatican Embassy in La Paz.’

And does she feel any pressure to paint someone so important? ‘No. It’s a lot of fun.’ For someone as experienced as she is, her answer is no surprise.

And how does she approach any unflattering facial features? ‘One of the things that the professional portrait artist has to do is put a bit more lip, (to make it) more sensuous. There’s a lot of theory: no wrinkles, no lines; there are shapes. And then you also learn, the older you get, your ears grow, your nose grows, and your eyes sink; that’s natural.’

Still on the subject of difficult facial features: ‘Portrait artists have to be very perseverant. You have to continue until you get it right. If you don’t have that in your personality you’ll never be flora and fauna. Commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, Susana has painted four animals in danger of extinction: the blue beard parrot, the condor, the jaguar and the armadillo. The paintings will be used to promote the project with 500 posters of each animal to be released in March. ‘So I painted these (animals) and if you were to ask me which was more difficult to paint, this was a lot easier (than human faces).’ As well as providing paintings for the posters, Susana is involved in giving presentations of the program at universities, parks, zoos and at book fairs. ‘I’m an activist. I’m an artist, but I’m an activist in this area. I try to spread the word.’


Susana will be presenting the project: ‘19 species in danger of extinction in Bolivia’ at the Feria Internacional de Turismo en Santa Cruz, March 15–17. In August, she will release the third edition of her family history book at the book fair in La Paz, as well as previewing her 2013 calendar, of which the funds will go to helping children. Speaking of presentations, Susana has had exhibits in the US and Europe and I was curious to know how was the reception towards the Bolivian culture depicted in so much of her work. ‘The foreigners they don’t really relate. It’s the Bolivian people that appreciate (it) the most. Those are the ones that know the people; they can relate.’

Why not Adopt
Rather than Buy?

A few feet away, members of ISIS – Programa de Protección Animal y Ambiental, hang a large poster urging people to “Adoptar No Comprar”, adopt a dog rather than purchase one in the market. The concern with animal welfare is a relatively new movement in Bolivia; the Association for the Defense of Animal Rights (ADDA) formed only fifteen years ago while the first North American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) began in 1866. The fact that Bolivia is a nation that is still developing, means that other social issues, such as poverty and

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