Testimony for Nathalie Fabri and Her Art.
Robert M Grant
June 26, 2020
There are moments when art reaches deep within. I know in an instant when a work of art will be at home in my life.
I recall the moment when I first heard Adele’s voice singing “Someone Like You.” I was lying on the grass in Dolores Park in San Francisco on a warm September afternoon. An Indian Summer it was, a few weeks after I moved out of the house and the relationship that I had imagined would be my home for life. Adele’s voice came from a boombox on a nearby blanket occupied by a couple resting in love for each other. I welcomed the song at the threshold of my mind, and she made herself at home.
And so it was, years later, when I first saw Nathalie Fabri’s painting “Thick Fog.” At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, after public health officials ordered us to stay home, I received an email from Eden Stein, the owner and curator of “Secessions,” an art and clothing boutique in the Mission District. Ever resilient, Eden was offering a safe and virtual open house to highlight a new art collection. One of the featured artists was Nathalie Fabri. I did not know I was shopping that day – yet I opened the door for Thick Fog, and she made herself at home.
Nathalie’s “Thick Fog” sparked a long meditation on buildings and homes. The COVID-19 pandemic forced me to reconcile with my house, where I was to spend long hours at work and play, entirely alone, except for the sterile and unscented images of people cast onto my flat screen. I received some kind offers to join with others in “germ bubbles,” yet declined because I anticipated working with patients in my pulmonary medicine practice, and I did not want to worry about contaminating past or present friends. In addition, I wondered if bodies were needed for houses to become homes. Sharing meals, beds, and body fluids, like breath, are familiar sparks leading to the conception of homes. Yet, there is more.
“Thick Fog” depicts the city at sunset, a common feature of Nathalie’s work. The windows of the homes are lit up with a warm orange and yellow light. There are faint outlines of human figures in some of the windows, as I imagine people settling in after a day of work or study. The fog floats over Mount Sutro and settles into the valley below, like a blanket. The valley to the right glows in the setting sun and the lights from within. The buildings seem solid, yet the edges are curved and smoothed as if alive. I imagine the buildings communing with each other, perhaps comparing notes on the soil or the climate, or sharing some gossip about their residents. I see in this painting a larger and more solid community that shelters and embraces the community of people within. The sky and fog become parts of that larger community, regulating temperature and emotion, and creating change that entertains and enlivens. The orbs of light have halos. The reflections and shadows pass each other on the street. There is peace here, that brings safety, and creation and change that brings excitement. Home is a place of vibrant and multicolored safety and adventure.
Nathalie’s work inspired more insights about home. Her buildings exude light, color, and contrast that is hot blooded. Fog becomes a blanket, rather than a veil. I am reminded of colors used in native american baskets, in Frida Kahlo’s painting, in prose by Garcia-Marquez, and the poetry of Octavio Paz. Paz asked in his essay “A literature of Foundations” whether there was “such a thing as Spanish-American Literature?” He answers that while the language is rooted in Spain, the literature is another. “The branch has grown so that it is now as big as the trunk. Actually, it is another tree. A different tree, with greener leaves, and a more bitter sap. The birds nesting in its boughs are unknown in Spain.”
For me, the colors Nathalie paints are unashamed, exuberant, and warm, like children growing up in a family and a community who celebrates their life, their growth, and their differences – a family that keeps people safe. I believe there is something deeply American about her work, and I am thrilled to see it north of the Rio Grande.
Still sheltered at home, I reached out to Nathalie to continue exploring houses and homes. I was delighted that she agreed to accept a commission to paint the house where I had lived for 25 years. In that home, I raised two children with their mother and her mother, both powerful Peruvian women. Nathalie photographed the house from different angles and asked me what was important. I mentioned Bernal hill in the background, the vibrant color, the marina style windows, and the St Christopher statue at the top of the steps. Her initial drawings were rather accurate depictions of the photographs. I expressed a concern that realism was not my fancy, and I was looking for her “Fabri-kationed” vision of a home. She said not to worry, her creative work would grow upon a solid frame of reality.
As she worked, I expressed attraction to her painting that she titled “Moment in Time” which she explained was the “Blue House” made famous by the hit song called “San Francisco,” which came out in 1972 by French singer Maxime Le Forestier. Her painting, and the song, captures a moment when a group of friends from far away places surrounded themselves with love, friendship, music, and openness, including an unlocked front door. The lyrics of the song include a lament for where the people have gone. I thought how longing was not from failure, rather longing was essential to homes: children grow up, elders pass, lovers and friends move away. In “Moment in Time,” we see the staircase welcoming us to the warm spaces inside, and trees hovering and cradling the home from above. Long term San Francisco residents may long for an era of love, friendship, and creativity, nostalgically assigned to the summer of love. Yet our longing resides more deeply in our home.
Nathalie kept me updated on her progress, including sketches and photos of the work in progress. At first, I suspected that such updates were a good business practice, checking to make sure the commissioned work was still desired. With time, she seemed to enjoy engaging with me in her creative process. She was curious about my reflections and explorations of home, which now embraced my longing. As her painting came to life, I noticed how the buildings seemed to lean into each other, listening for precious words, and inspiring each other’s scent. I noticed how the purple flowed down the streets like a river, and the sidewalks were populated with trees and poppies as a riverbank. Bernal hill stood in the background, populated with houses. I thought how the homes were courageous and generous to glow warm light into a darkening sky being left by the sun. I also thought how people are courageous to love at home, knowing that love is not permanent. The globes of light in the sky, and the streetlamps float magically to show the ways home. At the head of the stairs, there is Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers who carried, they say, a child who he did not know. A figure in the window stares out longing for lost loves, perhaps a grandparent who had died, a dear pet now gone, or a parent coming home from work.
There is a lot to know about this artist and her work. She speaks French, Spanish, and English fluently, and has lived in some of the finest cities throughout the Americas. She is a mother and creates a home for her family in San Francisco, an unlikely prospect for an artist. To me, she seems to be as courageous and vibrant as the buildings that she paints. She may be a painter of the Americas; one who senses the greener leaves, the more bitter sap, and our different birds in the trees. I believe the blood that flows in the arteries and veins of her streets and buildings flows from her heart that is deeply embedded in this continent. Fabri-licious!