For Andrés Kal, school never let out. As a teenager, he attended Instituto San Pablo Apostol, in Bogotá, Colombia. It was one of only three technical high schools in the city. Students studied classic academia but also honed skills like mechanics, woodworking, and technical drawing. In the afternoons, they were taught music. Kal played the violin. When he put down the bow at the age of 17, he picked up a pen to fill idle fingers. Within a year his illustrations were published in local newspapers, garnering praise from his fellow students. After high school, Kal continued illustrating for papers and working prepress to raise money to study graphic design at university.
Kal recounted this to me over Skype from back home in Bogotá, his voice occasionally drowned out by a mariachi band rejoicing in the streets. He explained, laughing. “Sorry because of the music! It is not always this kind of Mexican music here. When you have an anniversary or a special date, you bring out the old mariachis.”
Colombia, I thought, sounded like a lovely place. We had met a week or two before our call, at the opening of the Grata Sorpresa show at Ayden Gallery. The exhibit brought eleven Colombian artists to Vancouver to show their work. Several of Kal’s pieces were featured in the exhibition—powerful paintings with subjects caught amidst fragmented memories. Moments of laughter. Moments of love. Surroundings that faded like smoke, or twisted into colourful geometric flecks. We chatted briefly the night of, but by the time this interview was scheduled, he had already returned to Bogotá. So we made due with intermittent mariachi interludes and spoke across countries. His continued search for knowledge and love of learning shone through his responses.
Kal praised the value of life before university: meeting other established illustrators and comics, taking all the lessons to heart. Even as prepress, his work was new and exciting. “I learned a lot about Macintosh,” he explained. “It was the first time I had a Macintosh in my hands. I saw the opportunity to do something with that.”
Kal took that foresight with him when he attended university and went on to excel at graphic design. He fell in love with magazines and editorials, and before he knew it, he had graduated and opened up his own studio with several friends during the ’96 digital design boom. When he wasn’t working, he would return to teach at his alma mater, as well as at one other university, Universidad Javeriana.
Again, Kal’s excited laughter interrupted our chat. He explained that he had always thought he could teach (a given, with his passion for learning), but that he never expected to do it at the age of 25. He was barely older than his students. But this was good for them, he continued. “I could show them the real life. They said, ‘Okay, if that guy can, I can also do it!’”
But then Kal hit a wall. Like most creatives, he started to rankle under the direction of clients. He wanted to do his own work, wanted to express his own voice. He left the studio and started to paint.
“Thinking back on it now, it’s like when I quit music. I stopped doing something, said ‘Bye-bye!’ and started doing something else creative. I was doing part-time freelance, and teaching, and painting, and trying to find my voice. I had skills, but I didn’t know where my place was. I was very confused. ‘I don’t know what I am. Am I a designer, or an illustrator, or a teacher, or a painter?’ All lines were blurred. And then I said, ‘Okay, I’m an artist. I didn’t study to be one, but I can do art.’ I started to learn more about art, and painting, and it was very good. I did a lot of exhibitions. People started to follow me by my work. I said ‘Okay, I want to do another thing now.’ So I left everything and went to London.”
I started to laugh—Kal’s delivery and set-up were as good as any comedian’s. But he wasn’t joking. Kal left Bogotá behind to to study English in London for nine months, though he would end up spending three years there. And what was he doing in that time? Learning, of course. “I went to every exhibition. Every venue. Speaking with the artists about how they work and how they made their art…I was like a sponge. Collecting things around me.”
That sponge-like quality is reflected in his art from that time. Restricted by space, he was held back from painting. Instead, he made collages from the magazines, newspapers, and scraps that the city offered him. English street art became an influence on him. He attended classes at the Prince’s Drawing School, and became more and more comfortable with drawing physiognomy and breaking away from abstraction. Eventually, funds ran dry and he returned to Bogotá to really paint.
It was during that time that he began to develop his current style. Often working from photographs of friends or models, Kal sought out special moments—captured instances of something more than natural beauty. I asked him what drew him to these aspects of memory and time. Although he responded with a fairly eloquent explanation, it was clear that he didn’t believe he could really put the experience into words. “It’s very hard in Spanish,” he said. “And in English it’s kind of impossible.” Kal works with the feelings inside, in an effort to make them more visible. More external. He described it as akin to desire, something that you feel pushed to find, but it’s difficult to know what it is. “When you think you have it, it’s melted in your hands. It’s going between your fingers. You never can get it. That’s how I feel about the characters in those images that I paint.”
He paints in layers, erasing and adding until the subject fades into the surrounding abstraction. The ghosts of interlocked lips and blooming roses emerge in the soft shape of a thigh, an eye surveys from the small of a back. The background becomes a shifting shape, the painted futility of catching smoke with bare hands.
The futility is not off putting to him; I got the feeling that without it, he would not be painting as he does. His work is a continued attempt to answer that question, to feel the call of desire. That desire led, and continues to lead, him along a path of never-ending learning. From high school to now, he still hones his craft and absorbs the world of art like the sponge that wandered London’s streets.