Recently, artists Gabriel and Isaac Fortoul had a full circle moment at the Phoenix Art Museum. Standing within the curved walls of a circular installation they’d just built inside a museum lobby, Isaac recalled standing in nearly the same spot 12 years before. At the time, he was a gallery attendant. And both artists, known collectively as the Fortoul Brothers, dreamed they’d show their work at the museum one day.
Now, they’re getting ready to unveil their first site-specific sand sculpture, as part of the museum’s First Friday celebration for an exhibition called “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.” Named for an ancient metropolis in what’s now Mexico, the touring exhibit explores the cultural context and everyday lives of the region’s inhabitants.
“I remember being in this space and respecting its energy, and wondering how we could get our art onto the walls of the museum,” Isaac says. Now, it’s happening. They’ll be showing two multipanel paintings as well, installed near the sculpture they call Molt to Manifest. “Over 12 years, we’ve done a lot of hard work, and finally this dream is manifesting,” Isaac adds.
They’ve talked for years about creating a large-scale sculpture, while making fine art paintings, murals, and merchandise that channels their family’s Colombian roots. “For this exhibition, collaborating with the museum really made sense,” Gabriel says. Like early Teotihuacan dwellers, their work draws heavily from nature – water and fire, the moon and sun.
That was evident in their designs for last year for massive banners flanking several Lost Lake Festival stages, for tarot card-size drawings exhibited at Shortcut Gallery, and a huge garden-themed mural at Garfield Elementary School. Before that, there were solo exhibits with elements like sculptural raindrops suspended from the ceiling and short trails of spice-colored sand.
“We started working on the sand sculpture concept about two months ago,” Gabriel says. They absorbed information about Teotihuacan culture, drew preliminary sketches, sourced sand from Tucson and New Jersey, and worked to bring it all together. “We were really inspired by how central the arts and culture were to that civilization,” Gabriel adds.
The sculpture, which comprises two halves of a circle, stands a couple of feet high. Rather than join the halves to create an unbroken circle with a 20-foot diameter, the artists left spaces between them, so people can walk through the circle, and pause for a time within the center of the piece.
The sand design, created atop the two half-circle platforms painted with simple black and white patterns, includes the faces of two women and two men, marking the directions north, south, east, and west. And there’s iconography for the four elements: water, fire, earth, and air. The design includes familiar symbols for these artists, including the sun and moon, but a less common one as well – a rattlesnake’s tail.
But there’s more to the installation than its physical properties.
“We were trying to play with the energy in the space, so people can move through the piece like it’s a portal, then come out thinking differently,” Isaac says. “It’s meant to be a mandala where people can shed the distractions in their life, open themselves up to the universe, and walk out with a clear mind,” Gabriel adds.
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Taken together, their paintings and sand sculpture pay homage to Teotihuacan civilization. “In Teotihuacan culture, art was a way of life, a way of teaching,” Isaac adds. “It wasn’t a decorative thing.”
Both brothers embrace the transformative power of art.
“We hope people will shed the distractions in their life, open themselves up to the universe, and walk out with a clear mind,” Gabriel says.
“Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” Celebration. Friday, October 5, 6 to 10 p.m. Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue. Free museum admission. "Teotihuacan" tickets $5. phxart.org. The free afterparty happens from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, 1505 East Van Buren Street.