Disheartened by the 200 miles that separated him from Dulcinea, his beloved mare of six years, Eduardo Navarro decided to retrieve her carcass. He did not want Dulcinea buried on his farm in the mountainous province of Chiriquí, an area too far away from Panama City, where he had since settled with his family.
So he dug her up, suspended her bones from the ceiling, and revived her with vibrant, paint-splattered yellows, reds, blues and greens. She is now always with him in his 10-year-old studio in Costa del Este, a chic neighborhood in Panama City.
“I’m not a very typical Panamanian artist,” 59-year-old Navarro said, surrounded by animal horns, skeletons of birds and miniature, human-like figurines that he keeps as inventory in his studio. “I love when people don’t like my work because it’s not typical. They say it’s too strong, it’s too harsh, there’s too much skeleton and structure. But that’s just me.”
For about 18 years, Navarro, an internationally award-winning visual artist and sculptor, has been exploring his fascination with horses in his art. From using napkins to 13-foot-long canvases, he paints or draws distinct skeletal horses, and douses them with sporadic drips and blotches of color ― a style he calls drip painting.
But while he does not define himself as a typical Panamanian artist, Navarro takes very seriously his identity as a Panamanian and as a result, is very active in his community, oftentimes giving back where needed and offering art lessons to children.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rise globally and thousands of cases paralyze Panama, Navarro kept painting horses ― this time as donations to nonprofits that could auction off his work to help the people of his beloved country. “Panama is very special,” said Navarro. “If you grew up here like I did, very actively for a long time, you have it in your heart.”
He has since created pieces for about 10 local organizations that have raised over $30,000 in auction, all profits from which will go toward virus and frontline relief efforts. And he does not plan on slowing down.
“I donate to everyone that needs it,” said Navarro, who has been unable to sit still in quarantine, painting ostrich eggs and newspapers for his new series, “Pandemic.” He will paint on just about anything that helps the cause. “People send me their empty bottles, I painted them and they donate money to private foundations helping out with the virus problem.”
COVID-19 strikes Panama, Navarro strikes back
Realizing that he would be quarantined for weeks, Navarro rummaged through materials in his home, searching for his next medium. First, he grabbed a roll of toilet paper. “Everyone was buying tons of it at every store possible, as if the world were ending,” he said. “And I found it extremely funny.”
Navarro wanted to add more value to one roll, so he spent three weeks drawing on the fragile material with markers and drips of water that would make the colors bleed into each other. The roll unraveled as a series of finely drawn horses, dragons, sea skeletons and other mysterious creatures lined up one after another. Spanning five squares of the toilet paper is a sharply outlined four-headed dragon, only colored in with green splotches and blue eyes, contorting its necks. Another set of squares is used to illustrate a two-humped camel only filled in with reddish diamonds and a dragon-like tail. And so it goes throughout the roll.
“Then I picked up newspaper headlines thinking, ‘Hey, might be interesting painting horses on the precise everyday happenings dealing with the virus,’” Navarro said. He began painting on La Prensa, a local Panamanian newspaper, and donated his initial pieces to Club Kiwanis de Panama, Asociación Pro Niñez Panama and Heroes de Blanco, three non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “Suddenly it got attention because of its inherent historical context.”
This was not the first time that Navarro had decided to donate to local NGOs. “Eduardo has been supporting us for many years, donating us one of his works a year for a draw raffle that we do in September,” Joanna Boyd, the executive director of Asociación Pro Niñez Panama, which helps children in extreme poverty, said through a translator. “When the pandemic started, he approached us to tell us that he had made four pieces in the front pages of the newspaper and that he would like to donate one to us.”
As popularity grew over his timely newspaper paintings of multi-color skeletal horses, so did the bids.
Alessandro Cavallera, a Panamanian resident who in early April won an auction for Navarro’s initial painting on La Prensa, had a final bid of $1,500. Cavallera’s payment directly helped Club Kiwanis de Panama, an NGO that typically focuses on youth needs but is now also donating funds to health centers in Panama.
Cavallera, the vice president and co-founder of N&C Capital, a real estate firm in Panama, is happy to have found a way to participate in a cause directed toward COVID-19 – and the pink, purple and orange horse painting he won will eventually hang in his home as a reminder of that.
“Eduardo is a very good example of how artists should act right now,” said Cavallera, who has always been a fan of Navarro’s work. And as someone who lived in China for five years, Cavallera was specifically drawn to the tail of the dragon painted as the second half of the horse. “They have a capacity to produce art out of their essence and make something that is hardly affordable more common and use it to help.”
Typically, Navarro’s 7-by-5 foot paintings sell for $24,000.
“This is a time where people show their true colors and demonstrations of community,” said Cavallera. In his neighborhood in Panama City, residents have been collectively singing Panamanian songs at 7 in the evening and are dancing traditional salsa from their homes. “Navarro has been donating and I think it is a great gesture.”
A career of colorful splashes
When Navarro started experiencing severe pain in his right shoulder about 10 years ago, he decided to visit a specialist in Miami. The doctor asked Navarro what sport he played, so Navarro stood up and demonstrated how he exerts his arm and wrist when he drip paints. “I had ripped 50 percent of my rotator cuff by not warming up before engaging in my strenuous action painting technique,” Navarro recalled. “So they operated and I had a whole year of therapy.”
As a self-taught artist who has been painting for over 45 years and wearing the same paint-splattered pants for 25, Navarro spends every day in his studio to avoid losing momentum or inspiration. And he paints on anything that suits him: refrigerators, chairs, skulls, mannequins, feathers, flag-like material, people and floors.
“It’s thrown paint, very random and very subconscious,” said Navarro, describing his style as a neo-expressionist. “I prefer to have my primal energy invested in the painting itself. It makes it more explosive.”
Although Navarro was always interested in art, his parents told him he could never make a career out of it. “I went for mechanical engineering and design instead,” said Navarro, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1981. “Machine design was the closest to painting and art I could get, so all my work now is full of structure.” In 1985, Navarro got his Master of Business Administration from the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Navarro’s eye for structure is illustrated in his skeletal horse paintings, which typically outline the body of a horse with emphasis on the bone placements. Then he douses the body with color, filling it in fully with paint strokes or sporadically throwing paint at it. “Besides the main structure, which is the bone, the structure in the painting patterns still has to make sense in a way,” Navarro said. “It has to make color sense, pattern sense and molecular sense.”
While physically bound to a canvas, Navarro’s paintings reveal horses in their free, wild state, as they gallop or stand on two legs with drips of color that intentionally contrast with their bone structures.
More recently, in 2017, Navarro collaborated with Under Cover, Panama’s only rain boot store. His three-dimensional paint-splattered design was transferred onto rain boots that would support Foundation Pro Niños del Darién, an NGO dedicated to helping impoverished children in the jungle province of Darién, which borders Columbia.
“All of our boots donate to different organizations,” said Marcela Correa, an employee at Under Cover in Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. “It’s a boot that makes people who don’t know Eduardo very drawn to him, so I think it’s our most prized collaboration.”
About 10 to 15 pairs of Navarro’s boots are sold per month for $80, with the phrase “Live Free” on the back of the left one.
A break from the horse
In April 2019, Navarro was accepted into the Residency Unlimited program through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in Brooklyn, New York City. He wanted to collaborate with artists around the globe, so he took the offer at the non-profit art organization.
Acknowledging that he has won a number of international prizes, such as the Fundación Gilberto Alzate Avendaño 1994 International August Salon Prize in Bogotá, a prestigious Colombian award, and has had solo exhibitions in South Africa, Mexico, Japan and Germany, the residency program challenged Navarro to try something new.
“So I started making sketches on napkins, because I found them all over the place,” said Navarro, who decided to depict how he saw the obsessive use of cellphones in New York City. He started making the skeletal cocoons with splotches of ink and water, then experimented with coffee, cigar ash, food and wine. “I saw everybody, I mean everybody, on their phones. This was in cafes, in the metros, everywhere.” Similar to an installation that he had done in Panama, when the internet came out 20 years before, he said it looked like people were wrapping themselves in a cocoon with the excessive usage of their cellphones. His concept is called COCOONS.
“Social media gives illusions of false happiness, expectations, dreams and realities,” said Navarro on a warm day in March, looking at the suspended skeletal mannequins wrapped in plastic hanging from the ceiling of his studio. “This is when a person is on the internet, he wraps himself in a cocoon and his feet leave the ground. He’s not in reality anymore.”
But with the disruption of the coronavirus, Navarro has had to pause his exhibition plans for COCOONS, so far still a written concept that has already been edited by 20 curators at his residency program in Brooklyn. He will pick it up again once the pandemic is over.
“It is still in my psyche, but since I can’t go to my studio I’m developing the concept from home,” said Navarro, who is evaluating the new role of social media amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, Navarro will continue painting more napkins, bottles, ostrich eggs and newspapers as he donates his pieces to local NGOs that are serving Panama during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t go out of my way to satisfy customers’ needs. I paint angry stuff, happy stuff,” said Navarro. “Sometimes you can just do work with no meaning, but the most important thing is to have fun. I’m not that young, but my heart is.”