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This Kansas City artist's giant paintings may 'make you a little uncomfortable.' That's the point

Sitting in his home studio, Fernando Achucarro says he likes to paint late into the night. The images he conjures in his dark and moody work often relies on the light from streetlights, candles and dimly-lit lamps.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Fernando Achucarro creates his disquieting paintings in a small home studio in the Pendleton Arts Block in the Kansas City's Historic Northeast neighborhood.

Artist Fernando Achucarro paints late into the night in his home studio on Independence Avenue. The dark and moody images he conjures often rely on the glow of streetlights, candles and dimly-lit lamps. Many were inspired by the loss and trauma of life.

Fernando Achucarro’s new solo show at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center is called “Little Things,” but his paintings are as large as the themes he attempts to address.

“I want to make paintings that make you a little uncomfortable,” Achucarro says. “I don't like it when people come through a show and there's no reaction. I want it to have a punch.”

The heart of the show is a series of five large panels, 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall.

"These paintings are about emotions — not one feeling in particular, but feelings that everybody has," Achucarro says. "I have moments of happiness, (and) sometimes I feel really tired. So I am trying to paint those feelings and this is really hard because all these feelings are really abstract."

Achucarro’s images are surreal — in “The Meeting” a hooded figure rises over a calm sea while a man hangs suspended in the background on a beam of light — but the painter insists he is not a surrealist. Instead, he is an expressionist.

"The whole idea of this series is to be able to express these feelings on canvas,” he says. “At least for me, it is really hard to think, how can I express this moment?"

Awaiting hanging are Achucarro's “The meeting” at left, and “The Sellers.”
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Achucarro's “The Meeting,” at left, and “The Sellers” await hanging at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

“These paintings are conversation starters,” says Leedy-Voulkos General Manager Erin Woodworth, noting the new show may make audiences feel uneasy. But they represent universal emotions, she says.

“These are deep things that people sometimes don't want to talk about, but here it is in your face, so let’s have a conversation,” Woodworth says.

Achucarro’s paintings in the Opie Gallery, on view through Jan. 28, lay bare an artist’s greatest fears and anxieties, she says, and there is something about the night that makes the concerns of the day more ominous.

General Manager Erin Woodworth and Achucarro discuss the organization of the work before the hanging begins at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center’s Opie Gallery Tuesday night.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Achucarro and Leedy-Voulkos General Manager Erin Woodworth organize his work before hanging it in the Opie Gallery on Tuesday, Nov. 28.

“At night you wake up and you start worrying about little things,” Woodworth says. “You're alone with your thoughts, you tend to overthink and over-worry and then they become these big things. I feel like that's what he's referring to when he titles his show ‘Little Things.'"

Achucarro says the things we can’t see are often what frighten us most.

“When you are in the dark, you don't know who is there,” he says. “There is this fear of the unknown. You don't need to show them the monster, you just let their mind finish the painting.”

Achucarro, a self-taught painter, was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, and has been drawing since he was 7. His strongest influences are the late 18th- and early 19th-century Spanish artist Francisco Goya and 20th-century painter Francis Bacon, who both worked in large scale.

Achucarro's new set of works are so tall he needed a little help to reach the top of them.

“I’m very small guy, so I usually have to work on a step stool because everything is taller than me,” Achucarro says with a laugh. “They are so big, I felt like I was painting the Sistine Chapel.”

Paintings for the new show are propped up against the walls as Achucarro makes an adjustment.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Paintings for the new show are propped against the walls as Achucarro makes an adjustment.

'It's been a nightmare'

The meaning behind many of Achucarro's pieces came out of some devastating news. Earlier this year, his wife, Analia, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was in remission over the summer, but faces another round of chemotherapy next week. He has started a fundraiser to help the family pay for her care.

“These paintings are like an exorcism of the feelings that I had in this horrible time,” he says. “It's been a nightmare.”

Achucarro spends his days working for the city of Belton Public Works Department, plowing snow or laying down asphalt in a big truck. Often, the trucks double as a studio where he sketches during breaks.

Then, he paints deep into the night. His work reflects the light he sees.

“I love artificial light, and, of course, in the nighttime everything is artificial light,” he says. “In the morning, the light is horrible. Everything is white until the afternoon, when I can see more reds, yellows, blues, light blues, purples — everything.”

At home in the Pendleton Arts Block

Achucarro is one of 25 artists living in the Pendleton Arts Block, in the historic Pendleton Heights neighborhood. The 38-unit apartment building was designed with a preference for artists, and it opened in late 2019.

A nine-member selection committee chooses residents from a pool of artist applicants who provide examples of their work.

Achucarro moves a painting while working on the sequencing of the show at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Achucarro moves a painting while sequencing his showcase at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.

The Arts Asylum Education Director Courtney Perry is a member of the selection committee and helps run some of the programming for artists in the building. She says artists like Achucarro have an important impact on the communities where they live.

“If we all think of what the Crossroads was 25 years ago,” Perry says, “I think that the Northeast has the potential to see that sort of growth and change because of the fact that they choose to invest in artists being a part of their landscape.”

After living at the Arts Block for about a year, Achucarro has turned one of his 11-foot-by-10-foot bedrooms into a studio. Every surface is crowded with artwork in progress.

“My studio space is limited, so ... I put the new canvas in first and, when I finish, I take it out of the studio, then put a new canvas in," Achucarro says. "It's like a factory."

The heart of the show is a series of five, large-scale panels five-feet wide and six-feet tall.
Leedy-Voulkos Art Center
The heart of "Little Things" is a series of five, large panels, each 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall.

“You need to be working every day," he says, "and the only way an artist can fail is to quit working.”

Given the space constraints, Achucarro's first chance to see his entire series at once came when he delivered it to Leedy-Voulkos.

"It is altogether like a fire for me," he says. "I feel the embers are burning, and I can't wait to show the people this work.”

Fernando Achucarro's "Little Things" opens Dec. 1 and runs through Jan. 27, 2024, in the Opie Gallery at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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