The soul-stirring art of Federico Uribe

Reality Reincarnated

By Cindy Clarke

Images of game animals needlessly hunted shot through my mind when I first viewed Federico Uribe’s sculpture of a lion. He depicted the king of beasts as a king of bullets, using spent shells to recreate a telling trophy that roars against injustices and speaks volumes about the soul of the artist.

“It’s a statement on violence and a metaphor for the death of innocence,” he explained, “the taking of a life just for the sport of it.”

Growing up in Colombia, South America, for decades a land of civil war and today a tropical treasure, he has lived through times of carnage and calm, each shaping his art into symbolic expressions of issues – environmental, war, hunting, animal abuse, pollution, sustainability, power, nature and more – that affect every living being. Part political statement, part personal memory and always messages of love, his work transcends boundaries, linking the conscious to the subconscious in emotionally charged ways. Nature is a favorite subject. The gift of life is what he truly treasures.

He paints with recycled objects, colored pencils, discarded wire, bullet casings, band-aids, faucets. Neckties become symbols for male power. Golf balls replicate lamb’s wool. A horse is reincarnated from old saddles. A turtle takes shape in a tangle of electrical wire.

“I believe in the symbolic power of objects. If I can change the context in which an object is usually seen, I can change the meaning of this object in people’s minds,” he shared. This coming from a man who takes comments literally, recycles images into new realities and evokes reactions both palpable and personal.

Ever conscious about careless acts of wanton destruction, Federico thinks about the issues which negatively impact nature and then artfully imagines them in their new reality. Take our world’s vanishing coral reefs, fragile ecosystems today due to pollution, people – and plastics. His coral reefs are made out of plastic, the very thing that is destroying life in the sea.

He exhibited his vision of the coral reefs at the Venice Biennale in 2019, spotlighting his growing concern about their impending demise and the causes and cost of this very real crisis. Returning to the United States, he constructed a section of the reef for exhibition at the Norton Sculpture Garden, sponsored by the Perry J. Cohen Foundation, bringing attention to the need for renewed conservation and sustainability efforts in a thought-provoking way. In January, he kept the conversation going with the installation of a 28-foot wall with this same plastic reef, made from bits and pieces of recycled plastic and on display in the ocean room of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center where another one of his artful expressions amplifies the plight of endangered sea turtles, (see sidebar),

Made of recycled electrical wires colorfully reflecting the tropical sea, Federico’s turtle immerses viewers in the very real plight of marine life and the manmade habitat destruction and environmental pollution they face. His work is beautiful to behold, not just for the symbolic messages he imparts, but when you consider that the wires he used were originally designed to transmit music at the New World Symphony in Miami, it sings with his soul mission and touches us all.

Federico thrives on giving new life to recycled objects, not only making people see them in a different way but using them differently than anyone else. Having started out his career as a classical painter – oils were his favored medium then – today he paints with objects, that best reflect his vision and politics.

“I believe that people relate emotionally to objects,” he told me, explaining, for example, that the art he creates from colored pencil stubs take people back to the loving days of their childhood when they would draw and color just for the joy of it. “I like that idea.”

He also likes connecting with nature, an idea he wires to life through his art. He is entranced by its vital presence, its diversity and its communicative paths, seeing life, love and promise in the landscapes he paints. His work is uniquely intimate, charged with personal memories and thoughtfully created to make the world a better place. The discarded objects he uses to visually portray his thoughts are intentionally relevant to the feelings he has and the statements he makes.

You’ll see gardens wired in living color, trees made from books, faucets transformed into flowers, saddle-stitched horses, guitar parts and saxophone reeds turned into a bamboo forest, a paddling dragonfly, a super ladybird of jet ski and boat parts, animals of all shapes, sizes and habitats sculpted from bullets and innumerable works shaped from color pencils.

“I like experimenting with new materials and media, and I have always loved pencils in particular. “Pencilism” is an installation built entirely out of color pencils, a medium that I connected with at an early age. A pencil is a magic wand. It brings to life the sun, the garden, the house and the family. From it, a dove, a rabbit and endless handkerchiefs are revealed,” he explains in his artist’s statement. “There is a picture of yourself in every bloom of every flower you draw. In every drawing, you play hide and seek with your childhood, memories and secrets. With each drawing, the pencil gets smaller. From a distance, the assemblages appear to be gestural paintings. But up close, one can see the hundreds of colored pencils that are carefully cut and arranged, with all the techniques that a painter would use to stroke a pigment on canvas.”

His work defies classification and transcends the imagination to reincarnate reality, sensitively portraying his subjects through materials that speak volumes about their existence, no words needed. His depiction of modern-day children living through wars inhumane and inconceivable is made more poignant by painting them in band-aids. He has fashioned portraits of men out of neckties, symbolizing the prevalence of male power throughout the ages. His work with X-rays and surgical instruments reflects the ability of science to improve and extend human life, sometimes inflicting pain in their quest to heal. He envisions larger-than-life installations of cranes transformed into giant spiders, seaside gardens planted with floral-inspired boat propellers, and whales twisting out of the water with airplane-part bodies.

Was he always so creative I dared to ask, instinctively knowing that he was born to change the world with his heart – and art.

“I have been building objects since I was a kid. I connected with objects of all kinds and collected them. I remember saving candy wrappers in all different colors so I could make things like paper rabbits and hammering holes in wall to make ducks.” He also recalls looking at landscape paintings in his brother’s apartment and extending them on the walls outside of the frames with trees in murals spontaneously made.

His parents weren’t thrilled with his calling back then, hoping that he would outgrow his creative leanings and study engineering or accounting like them. But at age 23 he headed off for the urban wonderland that is New York and enrolled in art classes at SUNY. His first paintings reflected the times, morphing into strong disillusioned political statements. But that wasn’t him he admitted and he set out on a path to voice his thoughts in another, more loving way.

“I am not trying to convince people to change by showing pain. I am trying to convince them to find beauty. I want to encourage the viewer to discover, beyond the sole function of an object, the underlying symbolic and aesthetic reality where life overcomes death and beauty supplants destruction. Humor, beauty and love are essentially what I want the viewer to remember from my work.”

Fueled by his love of life, he also designs just about everything in his world, crafting furniture, bed linens, tablecloths and clothing to match his sensibilities and celebrate his passions, with nature remaining a focal point. Attend one of his many exhibitions and installations and see him wearing the custom-made colorfully themed suits he makes from found printed fabrics to celebrate the occasion and underscore his work.

What’s next for this artist who is constantly creatively in motion?

“I dream of installing my art in major cities around the world, offering the public the opportunity to discover beauty amidst the chaos of the world,” he said, acknowledging that he already has big ideas for these larger-than-life installations.

We’re behind him all the way, applauding his passion for the possible, cheering him on as reimagines recycled objects into purposeful art and smiling at the thought of his art changing the world.