THE BOOK OF LIFE - Video Interview with Artist Patricia Portillo
8:43PM Aug 22, 2020
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Today's podcast is going to be unusually visual. We've got an interview with artist Patricia Portillo so we got together on Zoom, so we can show you some of her work. You can find the video at BookofLifepodcast.com or you can just listen to the audio in your regular podcast feed. You'll learn about the special gift that Patricia created for me, and how you can get her to make something for you, too.
All right, Patricia Portillo, welcome to The Book of Life.
Thank you for having me.
It's wonderful to see you on Zoom. Usually we just do audio recordings, but today we're going to include some video because we have some visuals that we want to share.
Yeah, thank you. Thank you for being here. So we don't usually have crafters on the program, but I just had to share this adorable doll that you made for me. And our mutual friend Susan Kusel wanted to give me a present. And she hired you to bring The Book of Life podcast logo to life. And you can see, here is the original painting by Simms Taback, and then here is the doll that looks just like him. I'll give a little closer up view of the logo. You can see it's this dancing man with an iPod and a book. And here he is with his crocheted iPod and his crocheted book even has the title Tales of the Shtetl right there. So can you tell us, how did you make this?
Oh, you know, I started making crocheted items when I was very little, my mother taught me how to crochet. I learned how to crochet first, I think I was probably only about five or six. And so you learn how to make this basic stitch, you know, it's a single crochet stitch. And amigurumi which is what your doll is, is basically just a single crochet stitch, but in different shapes. So his head is a round shape, his nose is kind of an egg shape, like a teardrop shape. And so it really is just about learning how to create these different shapes, crocheting, which is, that's really the fun part of it, is when you look at anything in the world, really what you're looking at is different shapes. Everything is made up of different shapes. So if you look at the drawing, I was trying to capture the way that his nose looked the most. I think that was one of the most important features of his face, and his beard. It looks like it was probably very curly. So I wanted to make his beard very curly. And that's just the way that, the way that crochet happens naturally is when you do certain stitches, it curls up on itself and it creates this wonderful curly effect. It's just really those little things that you learn along the way. And I've been learning as I go also, this is creating these dolls is newer for me, mostly I had been, you know, creating scarves and hats and that I've been doing forever. But I just recently started making toys. And they're really more like legacy heirloom toys. You know, these are things that are going to last people for a very long time it can get handed down. So
That's what I love about it the most, I think.
So for the layman, what exactly is crochet and what's the difference between crocheting and knitting?
So with crocheting, it's a hook. Um...see if I have a big enough one that'll show up right in the camera. It's different than knitting because it's, it has the hook at the end of it. And if you can see that there's an actual hook at the end. And crocheting is just one handed, whereas knitting you use two sticks, you're using both hands. And I think it's a lot simpler actually, than knitting but that could just be because I learned how to crochet first. So it's more natural for me.
Okay, now, you're not strictly a crochet artist, right? What other media do you work in?
I work in clay. I do a little bit of watercolor art. And then I bake. And I also sew, so I do knit also and I embroider, I make, I actually made this, I learned to, how to, how to make nanduti. Nanduti is spiderweb lace. It is an art craft that comes from Paraguay which is where my mother is from. And I actually went to take classes and how to learn how to make this artisan work. And I made I made a collar for Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her birthday a few years ago. And I was honored to be able to see her in person and give it to her.
Wow, that's exciting!
It was it was one of the highlights of my life so far. I mean, she's just an amazing human being so to be able to give her that gift was pretty special.
Wow, that's awesome.
And I don't know if you know this, but she has a collection of collars so this went into her collection.
That's That's amazing. So I would like to have you show us some of your creations. I think you have some there with you and others we could share on screen. Do you have something there that you can show us live?
Yes. So this is one of the dolls that I created this some of your some of your listeners will recognize this from the Disney film Lilo and Stitch. This is Scrump. I also, I love kids movies. So this is a character from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, there's a scene on a boat and they say there's a leak on the boat and then you see this guy.
This guy is a leek. The vegetable.
He is a leek, the vegetable the leek.
With quite a startled expression on his face.
I made another doll... This is Johann Hasse who was a composer based on a, based on a portrait of him from 1740. So he's got on his little outfit ...
Breeches, and his vest...
...lovely clothes and his waistcoat and his, you know, his little...
A little ruffle at his neck.
A few other things. This was a fun unicorn scarf and I'll show you what happens if you pull on him.
Okay, so this is a unicorn with a rainbow in its mouth and the scarf comes out of the mouth. So it's like the unicorn is throwing up a rainbow!
Like it's throwing up a rainbow.
And then it's a scarf that you can put it around your neck. So it's like a scarf holder?
It's like your scarf holder or like a pillow, you could have it is like an accent pillow also. Simple double duty.
And then, you know, I was in the mood, I was in the spirit it's, I'm craving fall weather these days. And so I created this little jack o' lantern.
Cute. Alright, I like that.
Just Little things, and things like that. And there's more on my Instagram page.
Yeah, so I wanted to show your Instagram page. So let's bring that up. Here we go. So on your Instagram page there we can see Johann with his original model right over there and we can see how closely you've copied even the vest, even the pattern on the vest so that's really cool.
Yeah, all of that was hand embroidered, actually on the on the side where you can see there's like this, like brocade on his waistcoat. So that's all embroidered on on his waist coat.
Cool. And then who do we have over here on the right side wearing a jacket?
Well, that is Hannibal Lecter. That was a special commission that I just finished up and sent off.
So not all the dolls are cuddly and cute!
Well, you know we try to make them cuddly. He's actually kind of cute in a very sinister kind of way.
...sinister kind of way. And then I see, it looks like maybe a Girl Scout.
She's actually a character on a Netflix show ah called True and the Rainbow Kingdom. And that's True.
And there's a rainbow. Okay, and then who is this conductor?
Oh, that is Maestro Enrique Mazzola, it was a commission that Chicago Lyric Opera had asked for me to create, to kind of to welcome him to the fold and also to put in their prize packages. So that's one of the one of the prizes that will go out.
Oh, wow, that's awesome. So Oh, and here's my little Simms Taback.
There he is. Yes,
There he is. And then we can see something that is not crochet. What is this bird in the center picture?
The bird is, the character's name is, I think, Kiri. And it's from a show called Critical Role, which is D&D related. I'm not a huge D&D fan, but the person who asked me to make it is and so that became a pin that can go on your lapel or anywhere you want, really.
Okay, so that's clay.
Yeah, this is clay and that's a polymer clay.
Okay. And I see a mask?
Yes. So we all need to wear masks right now. And so a dear friend of mine asked if I could make something special for her and asked for a hand painted mask and that is My Neighbor Totoro and some soot sprites.
Okay, so that's paint, so we didn't even mention that skill. So just to scroll a little bit, I see Super Grover. I see The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Again, these are crochet. I see Baby Yoda.
Yeah. Falkor, some people will remember Falkor from The Neverending Story. Super Mario. And some embroidery work as well.
And that on the right, on the right hand side there on the red. You will see there's a lace, next to the gnomes. And that is the collar that I made for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Wow. Beautiful. If I click on it ,let's see what we get a bigger view. Yes. Gorgeous. Wow, I hope she wears it in good health. So, this this is some amazing work just to give people a little taste. There's the rainbow scarf in its holder that can be thrown up out of there. I see you did some Bob Ross painting is that...?
I did. I was trying to, I was trying to play with, you know, the digital tools that we have because I've been painting a lot using watercolor and I've painted with acrylic, oil still kind of scares me, but I just thought I'd try to see what I could do with digital art. And that's what I was able to come up with. And so for first time I thought that was pretty cool. So I decided to post it.
And I do just have to point out the Sesame Street characters. The Martians from Sesame Street that go yep yep yep nope nope nope.
Yeah. Good old aliens.
My favorite. Yes, All right. And looks like a little hobbit door made out of clay.
Yes, it's it's super tiny hobbit door, probably the size of a dime.
Wow. All right, wonderful stuff. And so my, my doll was a present that was ordered, as I said by my friend, Susan. So if somebody wanted one of these wonderful creations for themselves for fun or as a gift to give somebody, how could they ask you to create something for them?
The easiest way is to contact me on Instagram. You can send me a direct message there. Then we talk about what it is that you'd want me to create for you, and I see if it's possible or let you know what is possible. And then we go from there.
All right, awesome. And can you say, can you tell me what was maybe the most challenging of all of these projects to create or what was the most fun?
They're all so different. And I think each one has their own challenge, really, to try to get it to look-- usually the eyes in anything, either, you know, when it's, when it's drawing, when it's painting, when it's crochet, it's the eyes are the window to the soul they say and so that I think is the hardest part to create, to replicate, to make look as realistic as possible. And I take a lot of time to do that. If you go back and you look at the little Johann, I try to capture the same glint in his eye and the same thing with even Hannibal Lecter is that little dot of light that I like to put in all of, or most of my crocheted items to try to give them some life.
Excellent. So, now these kinds of presents could be sent anywhere in the country or the world. Now I know you have another skill that maybe is not quite as portable, but I was impressed with it. So I did want to show it, because people nearby might be able to ask you to to create this for them. Nearby being --Where are you?
I'm in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Yes. So people in the Maryland or DC area might be able to take advantage of your skill with pies.
And so I wanted to show your Instagram page Two Divas Bakery. And why is it two divas? Is there another diva who helps you with the pies?
No, both divas are me. Because one of my very favorite artists is Frida Kahlo. And she had a portrait called The Two Fridas. And so that's kind of where I drew my inspiration from, is she kind of lived this dual life or she felt like she did. And so I kind of feel sometimes like I live a dual life both in the kitchen and onstage. So it's two divas. I'm a diva onstage, and I'm a diva in the kitchen. So that's why Two Divas Bakery.
Okay, so I remember when I first saw these, I was just blown away. For instance, this pie here is covered with heart shapes and flowers and it just looks too pretty to eat. There's another one over here that looks like a wedding bouquet or something. It's just amazing. Is that frosting or is that the pie crust?
That is frosting, that is actually, that was a peanut butter chocolate cake.
We're very, very big fans of Reese's peanut butter cups in this household. And since we didn't have any but we did have chocolate. We had cocoa powder. We had peanut butter, so I decided to make a Reese's peanut butter cake.
Beautiful. Here's another one using hearts and the fruit shows through, through the hearts. Now here's one with Yoda on it. So I know you're a Star Wars fan. That's adorable with a little crust in the shape of Yoda's face on top of the lattice work on, what is that, strawberries? strawberry pie?
I think it's raspberry apple. If I remember correctly.
Okay, so these these-- and here's one that looks like sort of a leaf pattern. So these are the kind of pies that you would definitely get for a party or something because they are just so beautiful.
Yes, something special.
And just not only look delicious, but look, you know, impressive as a visual piece of art.
It usually takes about an hour to create these pies, prep time and then an hour to bake, so, a lot of love goes into these pies.
Yeah. Here's one with the Greek symbol for Pi on top of the pie. So it's a Pi Pie. Yes. And I see this one was for high school graduation?
Yes. So it's been a tradition. This particular family makes a tradition of celebrating Pi Day and usually ask me to create a pi pie for them.
Wonderful. So are people able to order pies from you if they live close enough to to be able to take advantage of that?
I mean, if they live close enough. I'm not a professional baker. It's very much cottage bakery and more of a fundraiser than anything. It's a very difficult time for artists right now. A lot of our venues have completely shut down. So we're trying to find ways to just kind of stay afloat. These are two ways that I've been able to try to do that.
They're wonderful ways that help us as well as you. Did you have to go to culinary school to learn how to do this?
I, you know, like I said, it's not a professional thing that I'm doing. It's really just something that I do for my friends who know me and know I'm not not trying to poison them. So I haven't, I don't have a license to sell necessarily. It's just, it's, they hand me some cash, if they if they feel like it, kind of thing.
Okay. So what's the secret to making a really great pie?
I always say that it's love. And by love I mean butter. Yeah, really, I think butter is an essential ingredient when you're, when you're really looking for something that's just a delicious morsel in your mouth. Nothing really creates that other than butter. I think that coconut oil is a is a solid choice as a substitute, it just doesn't quite do the same thing. But also, it really does come down to making it with people in mind that you love. And I think that's with anything that you cook. So you put the care and effort into it and it tastes different when you're cooking. Very much like that book Like Water for Chocolate, you know, that kind of mentality. I kind of grew up with that idea. Also, my mother always told me never to cook when I was upset, you know, you'll forget things and it just won't taste right. So always have love in your heart when you cook. My grandmother as well. Everything that she created was always created with so much love. So it's those it's those little things. You know, when you're in the kitchen and you're actually doing it, it kind of it kind of clicks. And you think about those things, create it with love, do it with love. And it makes sense.
It does. So, as we said, you call your Instagram Two Divas Bakery because you are a diva. You're with the Washington National Opera.
I do sing opera, yes, I have sung there for more than 10 years now.
So I understand you're also available as a singer for hire. Is that true?
What other kinds of performances do you do beyond opera?
I have, you know, I started in musical theater when I was little. I think I started taking classes when I was about three years old. Musical Theater is where I started, I didn't realize that I could be an opera singer until I was in high school. And so that's when I started really taking singing seriously, but it wasn't even until very much later in high school, I think I was the end of my junior year, when I decided that classical music was something that I could actually pursue. And then I actively started taking voice lessons and went to conservatory. And so that was kind of just the natural path. You go from conservatory, you get a job with an opera company. And so I've sung with different opera companies in the area. But yeah, like I said, my start was musical theater. And just kind of, you know, the way that most kids grow up singing in choruses and church choirs, that kind of thing.
Can you sing a little something for us now?
[SINGING] L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
que nul ne peut apprivoiser. So that is from Carmen, which I think everybody recognizes that tune even from maybe even, my first exposure with that particular aria was Sesame Street with the singing orange.
Me too, that's what I was just thinking of!
That's what I had in my head when you started singing that.
It's funny how most people's exposure to opera comes from television with different things that they've heard over and over and over and don't even realize that they come from opera, so like these with, like Looney Tunes with What's Opera Doc and and like the singing orange on Sesame Street and different commercials that we hear all the time with classical music. We don't realize that those are arias, they come from operas.
Good point. Now, I think you also had a little Jewish snippet of music that you were going to share with us.
Oh, yes. I haven't sung it since I was in high school, actually. But um, oh, that's not true. I think that I grew up-- actually I should tell you about my being Jew-ISH.
I don't know if Susan told you that, but i I grew up as the daughter of a housekeeper who worked for a Jewish family. And they treated me like I was their youngest daughter. So I grew up essentially in a Jewish house. And when I was I, when I was little, I remember asking for an extra candle on my birthday cake because I wanted so badly to go to Hebrew school. I wanted to be old enough for Hebrew school, much to my mother, who was Catholic's, chagrin. So I feel very connected to to the tribe. And actually, I think that having that upbringing and learning a lot about Judaism made me a better, better Catholic.
I just think, understanding not just the New Testament, but the stories of how... I mean, I always say Jesus was Jewish. Jesus's mother was Jewish. So to understand what their mindset was, helps me to understand my faith better because it's a Judeo Christian religion. So, that's, that's kind of where I sit with it, is to understand where somebody else's background is. I think that's anybody. Really it's all of us to understand better where somebody else's mindset comes, where they're coming, where they're coming from, either spiritually or physically helps you to understand them better. So that's kind of where I am with my religion as well is if I understood where the mindset of somebody of that time period. And somebody who was a different than I was, it helps me to understand my own faith better.
Awesome. All right. So Do you have something you can sing for us?
Sure. I'm going to have the words in front of me because I haven't sung it in a very long time. But um, it's Erev Shel Shoshanim, which most of you probably know.
[SINGING] Erev shel shoshanim,
Netse na el habustan,
Mor besamim ulevona,
Layla yored le'at
, Veru'ach shoshan noshvah,
Hava elchash lach shir balat,
Zemer shel ahava.
Oh, thank you for singing, that's cool.
Thank you so much for having me sing.
Yeah, I love it.
I've always loved the tune and I learned it in high school. And then I sang it for that family that I grew up with, the youngest daughter was getting married, and she asked if I could sing something. And so I sang, I actually sang that with the cantor, so it felt very special.
That's beautiful. So, we've been talking about all of these helpful things that you do in the world. So let's talk a little bit about Tikkun Olam. It's time for our Tikkun Olam Moment, which means repairing the world. What would you like to call people to do to help repair the world?
It's something that I often think of for myself, that you can't pour from an empty vessel. So in order to share your goodness with the world, you need to take care of yourself first, kind of the idea of putting your own mask on, before helping somebody else on an airplane. So a lot of what we do is, we're often our harshest critic. And I think we need to be more kind to ourselves. And a lot of times it just means stopping for a moment and taking a breath. And I think sometimes we don't really think about our breath very much, and I'm a professional breather as like, my partner likes to remind me that I breathe professionally. We talk a lot about breathing right now because we're most of us wearing masks all the time, or we should be, is my personal belief that we should all be wearing a mask right now. And people talk about how hard it is to breathe. So breath is life. Water is life, breath is life. So if we take a moment to breathe, and I like to do a breathing exercise where you take a breath in for five counts, and you hold it for two or three, and then you let it out slowly over five counts, and then you can up it to eight and up to 10. So I, I'd actually love to have you do this with me, Heidi, if you don't mind. I'm gonna, I'm gonna have you take. I'm going to have to take a deep breath in on five counts. So are you ready?
Okay, so take a deep breath in, one --
Should I breathe through my nose or my mouth?
Whatever is comfortable for you. A lot of times it helps to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. So let's try it with breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. So you're gonna breathe in for 1 2 3 4 5. Now hold it to three and breathe out for 5 4 3 2 1, just a nice slow breath. And then you can breathe out all the rest of the air but if you concentrate on those, on that counting and really think about the air that you're breathing out, it helps to bring you into the moment and be present right now. And I think that that helps to ground us and then you can go on with the rest of your day, you can just take a moment and take a deep breath in and just think about the breath and nothing else. And then you can help so much more because you feel more centered, you feel maybe sometimes lighter. And just think it's really helpful.
That was really helpful. I feel more relaxed already.
That's good. Sure.
Thank you. Now, I've been asking my guests to help me boost black voices recently, and I believe you have chosen a black creator whose work you would like to shout out.
My very dear friend Aaron Reeder, who is not only a phenomenal voice, but just such a caring person and I'm astounded by the work that he creates. Really, he just finds amazingly creative opportunities for himself to share his gifts which I am in awe of every single time. So what Aaron has been able to do, besides creating a show about Sammy Davis Jr, which he also is touring all over the country, is to create art installations that well, it's kind of like a curated event where you go into, say, a museum, and you are seeing an art installation. He's created songs and, and different performance elements to go along with that art installation. So things that would help evoke a feeling or an emotion not just with visual artwork, but also hearing something. So I think that sound also creates these wonderful memories for you and that's what he's, he's done here. He's made this opportunity for you to go in and see all this wonderful visual art, but at the same time hearing something that will then trigger maybe a memory or something for you. It's just very special work that he's doing. And I'm very proud of him. So I want to show, I want to show the world.
Awesome. And we can see that his website is Aaron dash Reeder dot com. Okay, cool. And you also sent me a Vimeo video of his.
Yeah, I think that talks a little bit about the the museums the installation.
Yes. And I will link to that on the website to make sure everybody can take a look at that. So is there anything else that you would like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask?
I, I don't really know. Um, I think it's just a really hard time for artists right now. And I dedicated this podcast episode to all of my fellow creatives and that's everyone from, you know, crafters to classical musicians to you know, writers. Really everybody is feeling the effects of this pandemic. And I think that the creatives in our world are feeling it maybe a little harder because our, our way of life and our livelihood has been drastically threatened. And we no longer have spaces to create what it is that is our life force. And yet, we still very much are needed. We, people need the arts right now, in a very, very desperate way. And I think we fight very hard for a space in this world to be validated, at least in the US, arts are kind of an extracurricular thing. We're not as essential as say, math and science. But in so very many ways math and science are related to the arts. You know, if you didn't have illustrations of the, the insides of a person's body, we wouldn't be able to really understand them as as much we would have to, you know, go in and actually have a cadaver and look at what's happening. But we have these wonderful illustrations, and we wouldn't have that without an artist. And music. Of course, everyone's turning to music and everyone's turning to movies. I don't know anyone right now, who doesn't have some kind of streaming service going, you know, it's, the arts are essential. And anybody who denies that is not paying attention to what they're doing. They're taking what we have as art for granted. So other than that, I mean, I think just recognizing who your local artists are, giving them as much support as you can. And reminding them that they are they are valued in this world. They are very much worthy and they are valued.
Yes, absolutely. Good advice. Well, multitalented mensch Patricia Portillo, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me. It really is an honor to be here. It's my very first podcast interview. So I'm very excited that it was with you all.
Thank you for listening. Thank you for watching for those of you who are actually going to come back and watch, and a big shout out to Susan Kusel, who ... I would not have this connection if it weren't for Susan. So thank you, Susan.
Yes, thank you, Susan. And thank you, Susan and Patricia for creating my adorable doll who I love so much.
I'm so glad. Thank you. Oh, that watch party was just phenomenal to be able to see you open it!
Yes, actually we should, we should tell everybody: So when you made this and then Susan mailed it to me in a little package, she set up a Zoom call called "Heidi opens a box." And she invited you and then a few other friends who knew that this gift was coming. And everybody else knew what was going to happen. And I was in the dark. And so they wanted to see the joy and surprise on my face when I opened this and it really was amazing. I opened it with my eyes closed and pulled him out of the box. And the second I looked at him, I knew exactly what this was. And I screamed. I was so shocked. I never would in a million years would have thought that that was what this present was going to be, that that my picture would have come to life. And actually I should tell the story about how this picture came to be. So the podcast has been going for a very long time. And in 2006, I interviewed Simms Taback, who's the famous author Illustrator. And he I interviewed him right after Kibitzers and Fools came out. And we talked about Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and all his famous work. And-- but he was very rambley. And he knew that he was very rambley. And he knew that I was going to have to do a lot of work to clean up the audio. So after I did it, and I made him sound good, I spoke to him again and he said, Oh, you saved my tuchkis. And I said, Great, yo, will you make me a picture? So you know, fortune favors the bold. So he did. He made me this beautiful painting with a man with an iPod dancing because he was listening to a podcast. And what's really funny though, is that you corrected the mistake that Simms Taback made, because if you look carefully at the original art, you can see that he did not have an iPod so he didn't know that the earphones were like a Y shape with one wire that comes out and then divides to go to your two ears. He thought it was two wires from the iPod to your ears. And that was how he painted it. And then you fixed it and made it the way an iPod's earphones actually would work.
An update. That's right. But it's amazing to have this 3D huggable version of this art that I was so honored to get. So now I've had two artists create this dancing man for me, which is really incredible. So thank you so much.
No, thank you so much. I'm so glad that you're enjoying him.
I am, I love him.
You can snuggle, you know? Great. I think it's great that you can hug him. You can look at the picture and you can hug him.
Yes. All right. Well, thanks again. And if people want to get in touch to get some wonderful creation of their own, do you have an email address that you would like to share?
You can email me at Patricia Portillo. It's p o r t i l l firstname.lastname@example.org. But like I said, I think Instagram is probably the best way. It's just a way for people to look at the different items that I have available, the things that I've created and then get an idea for something that they might want and direct message me there. And that is at Raging Dove Arts.
@RagingDoveArts for the arts and crafts and @TwoDivasBakery if they live close enough to take advantage of your baking skills. Wonderful again, thank you so much, Patricia.
No, thank you for having me.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] Hello, I'm Saadia Faruqi.
And I'm Laura Shovan.
And we're the authors of the middle grade novel A Place at the Table.
And we'd like to dedicate this episode of The Book of Life to first generation American kids.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life Podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifePodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!