Plaster exudes pure possibility for Monica Curiel. Both versatile and tactile, it allows the Denver-based artist to mold her memories and Mexican-American heritage into poignant abstract works. Minimalist linen whites, inky blacks and creamy taupes that Curiel tints with coffee grounds help draw the emotions her pieces capture into focus. First, the artist applies plaster onto wood panels. She then lets it dry just enough to form pliable layers that can be folded into dynamic shapes. “You have to understand how this material behaves and know how light and shadows will hit certain angles,” she notes.
Curiel grew familiar with this medium as a child, accompanying her father to construction sites where she learned to grout tile and plaster walls. Surviving a cancer diagnosis at age 19 gave her a yearning to study diverse fields, including interior design, fashion and fine art. But she found her true voice by returning to sculpting plaster. Her practice soon became “an ode to my parents,” she says. “It keeps me connected to their labor and sacrifice as Mexican immigrants pursuing the American dream.”
Waves and sinews from childhood memories permeate her art, from striped cobija blankets to damp bedsheets billowing in her grandmother’s backyard, or a rippling river where she and her sister used to play: All these shapes undulate through the delicate drapes and grooves Curiel coaxes into her plaster paintings.
The artist appreciates using “the things we consider ‘ordinary,’ ” she notes. This includes utilizing plaster powder and sheets from the hardware store to form her ethereal folds. She also employs tile-grouting tools to carve out shapes and sandpaper to smooth surfaces. This paraphernalia fills her luminous studio with a comforting chalky aroma that conjures memories of her father.
In another homage to him, Curiel’s latest foray into functional design was inspired by his love of music: Her recent light fixtures, chairs and decor items evoke the ornamentation of mariachi garments. Wherever her practice may lead, she remains grounded in a sense of herencia, or heritage: The love and lessons handed down from her parents, but also the inheritance she’s building through her work. “I think about my pieces as objects I will leave behind on this Earth,” Curiel says. Plaster, after all, retains the touch of her fingers, preserving every movement, mark and memory.