Since I was young, my stereotypical images of Spain were of sandy beaches scorching under the Andalusian sun, dark-haired flamenco dancers enveloped in enviable multicolored layered skirts, and lazy afternoons of long meals and even longer siestas. But when I ventured to the Basque Country of northern Spain with Smithsonian Journeys, I was lucky enough to discover a different Spain, intrinsically distinct from the one a typical traveler might encounter.
The Basque Country is unlike any region I’ve visited, and this particular adventure would take us through the contemporary arts of Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the vine-clad valleys and hills of La Rioja, and into the seaside town of San Sebastian. But the highlight was traveling through the green, sinuous valleys and pine forest where Basque sculptor and artist, Agustín Ibarrola, has his home, studio, and enigmatic Bosque Pintado (Painted Forest).
We departed Bilbao in the morning and drove through winding mountains and valleys to reach Agustín’s home. Gazing through the coach windows at the ever-changing landscape, I had that exhilarating vibe that I always get when exploring an unspoiled destination off the beaten track, and I could tell that my fellow travelers felt the same excitement. When we arrived, Agustín and his wife greeted us in the driveway as if we were all old friends, welcoming us into their home to show us Agustín’s atelier (studio).
The wooden, two-story courtyard-style studio was an artist's and art-lovers' haven—tall canvas paintings and drafts were stacked high in the corners and lined every wall, various metal sculptures and models were placed on every tabletop, artist’s tools and materials were scattered throughout. There was even a series of shelves dedicated to the random pieces of art made from common everyday items and materials. We spent our time meandering through the studio, admiring his pieces and asking questions about each intricate work of art. I loved the climate in Agustín’s home. It was a warm and welcoming center of creativity and curiosity, and we all felt like we had been gifted a glimpse into another world.
The journey continued from Agustín’s house to his Bosque Pintado, a work of art set in plain nature. In the middle of a Basque Country pine forest at the peak of a small mountain, Agustín utilizes the earth and her trees to present his inspiration. One of Agustín’s many gifts is his capability to create optical illusions in his work by alternating various shapes, colors, and shading. When you look at one of his pieces, you cannot tell which tones are dominant nor can you differentiate between the background or foreground of the installation. When you look closely, you can find this common theme in many of his pieces, in fragments or as complete works.
When you enter the forest, you only encounter a handful of colors painted on the trees. But as the forest magically draws you in deeper, you find intense, vibrant paintings throughout the forest that when viewed from certain angles and distances, represent panoramic images. We had all commenced the trek into the forest as a group, but my fellow adventurers gradually broke off, individually drawn toward different sections of the Bosque Pintado.
As I hiked further along, I recognized the profundity of Agustín’s creativity. I thought that I had reached the end of his exhibition when one adventurous Smithsonian traveler flagged me down to where she had descended over a shallow bank to see more of Agustín’s paintings. I couldn’t resist and found myself sliding down the muddy embankment to get a better look. She had come across an angle that exposed not one series but a multitude of Agustín’s correlating series. Not only was it an incredible vision, so was our timing! The late morning sun shone through various gaps of the pine trees and the wind was blowing gently enough at that very moment to create slow-moving shadows over the bright red, green, and purple emblems, all in the quiet of the isolated forest.
We walked slowly and in silence back to our bus, each of us reviewing our experience of art convening with nature, nature convening with art. It was then that I was remembered our Basque guide had told us that lighting in northern Spain is darker than anywhere in the country. For me, on that particular day in the Basque Country, it felt brighter than anywhere else in the world.
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