The Magic of Baja by Robert E. Wood
There is an instant love for this place where the desert meets the sea. A raw energy, yet also a tangible tranquility that inspires awe and reverence. Artist Mark Gabriel moved to Baja Sur for more than just the revered quality of the light. “I had a few misconceptions about the place, and as it turned out, myself as an artist. I knew coming here would inspire a renewal in my painting, and I wanted to dig into the local folklore and find narratives in the culture that I could translate onto canvas, but I was unaware of the depth of magic I would encounter.”
A long-time salvager, Gabriel found himself collecting debris that washed up on the beaches around Todos Santos: wood that appeared to come from ruined boats, or bits of someone’s life torn away in a hurricane and then returned to shore. “I didn't realize at the time they would be so important to my growth as an artist until I started using them as canvas to paint on.”
The deep wood grains, nails, screws, and barnacles amount to a challenging surface to work with. Gabriel paints largely with a palette knife, eschewing fine detail in favour of emotional impact, and finds these surfaces “help to create the layered, storied textures I am looking for in an artwork. The partnership I enter when working on salvaged wood is quite inspiring.”
Living and working on the threshold between the rugged beauty of the desert and the raw energy of the Pacific, Gabriel finds certain themes resonating through his work. “It's the power of this place over a person. A mysterious and strangely haunting land that feels timeless yet ever-changing. There's an inherent connection between the magic I was searching for and the real magic of Baja.”
Gabriel successfully captures these themes in his new work, including his iconic paintings of whales. “Whales were not a subject I was initially interested in. but these massive majestic beasts loom large down here, as they make their annual pilgrimages to mate and breed. It's impossible not to be drawn into their deep watery world. The whales came to me in dreams, and they were no longer bound by the ocean; they seemed to be flying. So that's where my fascination began. I'm drawn to the texture of their skin and their scale, and the way they dance and hop on the waves, as much as to their spiritual character.”
What started as small works on salvaged driftwood blossomed into large-scale paintings, often 4 by 5 or 6 feet. Interestingly, Gabriel's larger pieces often feel even more intimate. His paintings of flying whales are often referred to as “dream whales” or “spirit animals” and for the artist they are both of those things, “but they also seem like beings from another world. And I guess they kind of are.”
While anchored in neutral colors and earth tones, Gabriel's work increasingly embraces color. “Another of my preconceived ideas about what kind of work I’d be painting here in Baja,” says the artist. What had bubbled below the surface now breaks through: big reds and warm sunny yellows emerge like heat through the cracking desert floor. “I'm awed by the incredible sunsets at the end of every day. Those colors now burst through my panels.”
The artist's process varies for each piece. “There are methods I employ while painting, but they land in different order almost every time. Each painting I do feels as scary and exciting as the first one. I would say that my style of tightly-controlled chaos ensures that each new work is as inevitable and surprising as the last. It keeps me excited in the process and I think that energy translates to the finished piece.”
That same energy excites the many collectors of his work. Gabriel joined the impressive roster of artists at Pez Gordo Gallery early in 2019, forming an immediately successful partnership. His work graces the homes of clients in Cabo, as well as those of international collectors. “By allowing myself the freedom to move from the dream whales, to paintings of ranchero musicians and adobe towns folk, and then to the newer works which feature socialites of the glamorous 60’s—70’s jet set age, I realized I'm still exploring the themes of mythological creatures in our modern world. The timelessness of the desert. The mysteries of the movements of celestial bodies, which somehow take on a greater meaning in the wild spaces between towns on the Tropic of Cancer.”
Motivated to give back to the community that has welcomed him so warmly, Gabriel has taken an active part in La Baja 100 art collective and monthly art fair, which helps raise awareness and much-needed funds for local charitable organizations, including the Palapa Society, Padrino Children’s Foundation, and Dog Prana.
A self-proclaimed 'perpetual nomad,' Gabriel credits a lot of his recent success to his new Pueblo Magico home. “I'm a happier person living where I am, and my work illuminates that. I'm surrounded by a supportive network of friends, artists and collaborators. My partner in life, Jessie Wallace, is at the center of my world. Together with our fur babies, we're building a studio and gallery that will enable us to grow and create and continue our love affair with Baja Sur.”
It's a love affair and a life set beneath expansive oceanic skies filled with flying whales, while the retro jet set party to the sounds of old world mariachi music, and each scene is imbued by the all-encompassing magic of Baja.
- Article written for Destino Magazine Los Cabos by Robert E. Wood