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INTERVIEW | Artist Paula Arciniega On The Marriage Of Visual Art And Music — And NYO Canada’s Aurora Tour

By Anya Wassenberg on July 28, 2023

The Catacombs by Paula Arciniega (Image courtesy of the artist)
The Catacombs by Paula Arciniega (Image courtesy of the artist)

Mussorgsky’s iconic Pictures at an Exhibition was originally inspired by paintings. Now, the paintings of Toronto artist Paula Arciniega add a visual component to performances of the piece by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYO Canada) on their Aurora summer 2023 tour.

The connection came about as a result of Paula’s two decades old musical connections with James Sommerville, a musician and conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic from 2007 to 2015. From a musical connection, he became a fan of her paintings. “I think he owns five of my pieces,” she says.

In November 2022, Sommerville was selected as NYO Canada’s inaugural Artistic Director. Paula recounts that during an idle telephone conversation, he happened to ask what she was working on. When he heard it was Pictures at an Exhibition, the connection was made. She was happy to be working with the NYO Canada. “It brings the most talented youth from everywhere.”

In a statement, the NYO Canada said, “We are thrilled to have Paula as the commissioned artist for our highly anticipated 2023 Aurora Tour. Her stunning Debussy — La Mer artwork will be featured as the tour artwork, encapsulating the spirit of this year’s Aurora theme. Paula’s current project revolves around a series of paintings representing Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky/Ravel, the iconic musical composition we will perform throughout the summer.”

Paula Arciniega

Paula’s journey is one from music major to painter — albeit with a musical leaning. “It was actually Marc Chagall that took credit for that,” she says.

As a student working towards a Masters Degree at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she went to an exhibition of Chagall’s work. “I loved singing and I loved performing,” she says, but at the same time, something had changed. “It took my breath away. It changed me.”

She went on to earn that Masters in 2004, and has performed with Toronto City Opera, the Hamilton Philharmonic, and Modesto Opera, among others. At the same time, she plunged herself into creating both works and a career in painting. “I just had to paint,” she says.

Her then-future husband gifted her with her first canvases and art supplies, and she never looked back. “This feels like something that I’m not responsible for exactly, but I just had to do,” she says. Early pieces sold well to friends and at exhibitions, and they all had one thing in common. “All the pieces were inspired by music.”

As she practised painting, she immersed herself in chamber music, choral music, orchestral work – anything she could find. In the meantime, she’d moved with her partner from California to Toronto. Soon after arriving, and wanting to establish herself with a specific theme, she began her Mahler Project, in which she painted pieces inspired by all his symphonies and lieder.

“Let’s tackle these big works,” she recalls thinking. “Let me challenge myself as an artist.”

Pictures at an Exhibition, with its added meta paintings-about-music-about-paintings appeal, was always on the list, but she wanted the timing for such a project to be right. Listening to Baba Yaga, she thought, “You can see it!”

 by Paula Arciniega (Image courtesy of the artist)
Baba Yaga by Paula Arciniega (Image courtesy of the artist)

As for how she interprets the music in painting, it’s a matter of the feelings she gets from the work. “I’m not a trained artist. This is all just me figuring out.” She doesn’t call herself a realist per se, although there are elements of realism in her pieces.

With Pictures at an Exhibition, she was inspired by Mussorgsky’s own approach to interpreting the paintings he’d seen. It’s a marriage of creative arts that seems to be a popular feature of Paula’s work. She says her sales are driven by the connection. “They see the music,” she explains of her buyers. “I see music as colour. It’s an incredible mapping when I experience it.”

She also enjoys the fact that she’s introduced many, especially young people, to the music via her art. “We can reinvigorate them,” she says of the reciprocal effect.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Paula Arciniega’s Pictures at an Exhibition Reimagined turns Mussorgsky’s 1874 musical work back into painting, but its origins are connected to visual art as well.

Modest Mussorgsky’s musical pieces were based on the work of his friend, Viktor Hartmann. Viktor, an artist and architect, also Mussorgsky’s friend and collaborator, had died suddenly in 1873. The original title of the suite, in fact, was Pictures at an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann.

A memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s work, including more than 400 pieces, was held at the Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg in February and March 1874. In addition to attending, Mussorgsky contributed two paintings he’d been given. Inspired by the experience, he completed his score in just a few weeks.

The piece incorporates ten titled movements, with a Promenade interlude between each of them. It follows, in music, his walk through of the show of Hartmann’s work.

Paula Arciniega’s pieces from the Mussorgsky series, including Baba Yaga, The Castle, Catacombs and The Tuileries, will be on display in an exhibition at NYO Canada’s upcoming Toronto concert reception on August 2. All the paintings are for sale.

Tickets for the July 29 show in Saint John, and the August 2 Toronto show are on sale [HERE].

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