Art Speaks Universal Language

Local artist and Guatemalan immigrant Ubaldo Sanchez worked with friends this past October on the first step in creating Alfombras-- large decorative Guatemalan sawdust carpets that are traditionally created during Holy Week before Easter.Video by Jacqueline Refo/
By Heather Farrell
Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ubaldo Sanchez's living room doesn't have much furniture, but the art on his walls fills the space with color and emotion.

When Sanchez moved to Arlington, he brought his culture with him, and through his art he offers Washingtonians a taste of his native Guatemala.

Sanchez, 23, is one of a diverse group of artists born abroad and seeking to make a living in the Washington area. Some infuse their works with the traditions that surrounded their childhoods. Others approach their art with training from traditional masters in their countries. Like most artists, they might never see their work appear next to paintings by Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso. But the artists, among the region's more than 1 million immigrants, contribute to an evolving art scene in Washington.

Sanchez's interest in art began early, when he helped his family with art projects, learning pottery painting, silk-screen painting and sculpture from his older brother.

Sanchez came to the United States when he was 15 and began taking art classes while attending the Arlington Mill High School Continuation Program, graduating in 2005. His art has been displayed throughout the area, in places such as Arlington County's Central Library and the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington.

But his first real break came with the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Sanchez designed and helped build a traditional "carpet" of wet, pigmented sawdust for last summer's festival and another for October's National Folk Festival in Richmond.

Sanchez infuses his Mayan roots into the brightly colored floor murals, which his community in Guatemala would create for Easter weekend processionals. (Early tomorrow morning, Sanchez will start building a carpet at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church for a Good Friday processional at 6:30 p.m.)

For his Folklife Festival carpet, Sanchez enlisted the help of his newfound community, including carpenters from Guatemala who helped him cut wood frames and stencils for the carpet's designs.

As Sanchez continues to establish himself in Washington's art scene, Argentina native Alfredo Ratinoff has been making a living here from his artwork for years. His works don't have the cultural references apparent in many of Sanchez's paintings, but Ratinoff's pieces evince his training and travels abroad.

At 11, Ratinoff began studying art under ceramics master Teodolina Garcia Cabo in Argentina. A few years later, he went to Europe to learn more about the techniques of those he calls the old masters. At his Hyattsville home can be found a coffee table he made with 200-year-old tiles from Italy. He points to a yellow paint in the design of the tiles as evidence of their age.

Ratinoff, 41, keeps a book-lined idea room separate from his other studios. Two floors below it, a narrow staircase opens into a basement studio housing shelves of paint labeled in Spanish. Outside, past two large kilns on the back porch, there's a third studio, where unglazed pottery and some of his students' works sit on a table. His biweekly studio classes often are sold out.

Ratinoff also is a faculty member at the Smithsonian Institution, where his novice students include lawyers and bankers. Although Washington might be better known for its political powerbrokers than vanguard painters and sculptors, Ratinoff said the city definitely provides a market for artists.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company