Artists honor spirit of famous Mexican artist - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Artists honor spirit of famous Mexican artist

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Posted: Friday, July 11, 2008 4:34 pm | Updated: 8:49 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

What does it take to be one of the Phoenix Fridas?

If the other members of this local women's artist collective named after late Mexican painter Frida Kahlo are anything like Mesa's Carmen de Novais - known as "Beader Frida" in the club - a woman's got to have it going on.

Frida Kahlo,Carmen De Novais,Ralph Freso,Tribune,Phoenix Fridas,birthday

The Phoenix Fridas lead a 101st birthday celebration for Kahlo today at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. The women, whose work in paint, stained glass, fabric and other mediums channels Mexican folk-art traditions, will give presentations on Kahlo's life, art and the food she served in her home. De Novais will perform Latin songs by and about women on her guitar.

"Last year it was packed. You almost couldn't even walk through the store," says de Novais. "You see, Frida became a pop culture icon. She represents that rebellious force we all have inside of us, that desire to be different and challenge the status quo. She is an incredible inspiration."

So what put de Novais on Phoenix Fridas founder Kathy Cano-Murillo's short list of women worthy of joining the club?

First, she needs an art form - not a take-it-or-leave-it hobby, but a burning creative passion. For de Novais, that art is beading. She spends a couple of hours each morning in a room the color of marigolds, stringing Japanese glass beads into jewelry, purses, clothing and masks. It's a skill she learned as a child in Brazil, taking walks with her grandmother to look for seeds to prick with rusty nails and string into necklaces.

"It was quite primitive," de Novais remembers fondly.

Second, a woman's got to have a fiery spirit. Diminutive but dynamic, de Novais has a degree in economics. She has lived in Mexico, Alaska and Japan, and has played guitar, charango, accordion and vibraphone for Zum, Zum, Zum, the Brazilian band she's fronted, along with husband, artist Zarco Guerrero, for 20-plus years.

De Novais marched in the streets and played music in fields with United Farm Workers in the 1970s. She tends beets, tomatoes and chilies in her yard off Alma School Road and is mother to three children and two foster children.

To be a Frida, it doesn't hurt to dress like a million pesos, either.

"When (Kahlo) showed up anywhere, she was always exotically dressed," says de Novais. "When she went to Paris, everybody went crazy over her; they had never seen anybody who looked like her."

With sleek, raven hair, de Novais is a striking figure in a long, leopard print skirt, beaded cuff bracelets and a 2 1/2-pound red beaded shawl. Her face is bare except for lipstick the color of a serrano pepper.

But perhaps most important for a modern-day Frida is to take inspiration from Kahlo.

"I feel many connections with her," says de Novais. "My husband, not unlike Diego (Rivera, Kahlo's husband), is a famous artist, and he's always gone. I have to have my own identity, separate from his, because he's a bigger-than-life persona with his art. It's easy to feel like just the artist's wife, and I'm always trying to prove I'm an artist in my own right. I'm a musician; he learned music from me."

De Novais sees herself in Kahlo's portraits, some of which depict the artist in European dress and others that show a more indigenous look.

"Like Frida, I am of mixed descent. My mother was Portuguese and my father was native Brazilian," she says.

Mostly, she identifies with Kahlo's indomitable spirit.

"She had a zest for life that was incomparable. Her ability to overcome difficulties in life, the way she used her art as a healing tool - that is what I always try to do in my own life. It doesn't matter what problems I may have; I try to have a positive outlook and be thankful for the beautiful life I have had."

And, no, a "unibrow" is not required.

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