Toys are what sparks a child’s imagination as they spend hours each day creating and playing out stories inspired by real life. Revisiting old toys as an adult can bring up surprisingly strong emotional connections and can offer revealing perspectives when explored through the creative process of art.
Juan Rodrigo Piedrahita is a painter who enjoys revisiting the toys of his childhood. Although his work is figurative, his style oscillates between extreme hyperrealism and the border between abstraction and figuration.“The inspiration for my artwork comes from the toys my brother and I played with as children,” says Piedrahita. “Each toy had its own story and its own history, inspired by the movies, books and magazines of that time. Many of my toys had historical significance, like the bounty ships, the Bismarck and the Mayflower. I had a Sopwith Camel as well as airplanes from World War II. We’d see a movie and then recreate the scene – from Westerns to the American Civil War to the Battle of the Alamo, fortress and all – using toy horses, trains and cowboys. We’d even construct a landscape with hills, valleys and all the topography, just as one might find it in the real world.”
Piedrahita’s paintings include many of his childhood toys, yet they seem to be presented as if they were in the adult word instead of a child´s world. I asked the artist to explain how he accomplished this and what were the underlying themes in creating such work.
“While the toys are recruited from my childhood, the imagery in my artwork is reproduced from scenes in the paintings of Antoine-Jean Gros, Louis-François, Baron Lejeune and other painters of the time of Napoleon, as well as illustrators in general,” says the artist. “This union between the toys and the historical paintings sets up a staging of conflict, as small, somewhat surreal pieces of visual elements are used to answer larger existential questions, to describe ‘the nature of things.’”
Piedrahita purposely creates a somewhat somber atmosphere in his paintings in order to enhance the emotional tension in the image. “These themes should be realized with an emotional charge of memory,” says the artist, “in order to avoid falling into banality.”
“My figurative work allows me to step back in time and look at the things I didn’t understand as a child, allowing me to resolve those mysteries as an adult,” says Piedrahita.“Revisiting this child is like having a magic mirror where you can always come back, kind of like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking-Glass.’ The strength of the work is based on the narration of a personal experience lived in the time of childhood, a sort of ‘flashback’, like in the movies, to revisit an emerging adolescent building his internal world. The theme of toys allows me to explore personal issues, where I use the toy as a symbol to resolve an aesthetic or existential scheme, while continuing to search for the essence of oneself and to decipher one’s destiny.”
Piedrahita’s work isn’t only about boys’ toys. There are also beautiful and mesmerizing dolls in some of his paintings.
“Dolls are another means of inspiration,” says Piedrahita, “an exploration of the female character as opposed to the male character as a warrior or soldier. Female characters (dolls) are always enigmatic and mysterious. It is a challenge to capture their personality and affectations in contrast to their intuitive nature. The dolls and characters in my paintings are inspired by childrens’ illustrations and my goal is to portray them not so much as dolls, but as real and existential beings.”
Each element in Piedrahita’s paintings has its own visual story that can be recreated in thousands of ways and it is precisely this set of elements the artist is trying to extract as an adult in order to create a personal aesthetic through the medium of traditional painting. It is good to step through the looking-glass from time to time, to see our past through older and perhaps wiser eyes and hopefully re-emerge with a better perspective of how things were so we can understand our role as adults in the present.
Juan Rodrigo Piedrahita, Columbia, South America
Oil on canvas paintings
All images are used with permission of the artist, and are subject to copyright laws.
Juan Rodrigo Piedrahita’s artwork can be viewed at: Rodrigopiedrahita
Serena Kovalosky is the founder and CEO of Artful Vagabond Productions LLC, specializing in cultural projects and film production for the arts. Kovalosky is also a professional sculptural artist and curator.