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Women’s History Month: Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was born July 6th, 1907 in Coyoacan Mexico City, Mexico as Magadlena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderon. Her father Guillermo Kahlo was born Carl Wilhelm Kahlo in Pforzheim Germany, he was the son of a painter and goldsmith. At the age of nineteen he sailed to Mexico, upon his arrival he decided to change his name to Guillermo Kahlo. He was a photographer when he met Frida’s mother Matilde Calderon y Gonzalez, who was a devoted Catholic of Spanish descent. Frida was the second youngest of four sisters born to her mother Matilde and had two older half-sisters born from her father’s previous marriage. Because of her mother’s Catholic background, Frida grew up with a strong interest in Catholicism. Her father Guillermo enjoyed art which made Frida the closest to him as they could bond over their love for art. 

Frida was an anomaly of her time in Mexican culture, blazing a path in a time that was stricken with female oppression. As one of the best and most recognized female artists, Frida’s name is known in Mexico and around the world. Frida is not just an inspiration to artists; she is also an inspiration to women and men around the world; feminists; and especially the people of her home country. There are many reasons for her recognized success; she was an artist and a fighter who shared her struggles openly with the world. Frida Kahlo was shamelessly herself through her artwork, her voice, and every aspect of her life. Frida’s image was something she was very proud of, she showed her love for her Mexican Heritage in the way she dressed and carried herself.  She wore traditional Mexican clothing which became her signature look. She loved wearing shawls around her shoulders, headdresses made of flowers, lace intertwined in her braids, and rings on most of the fingers of her hands. Her long, traditional Mexican skirts served more than just a fashion statement for Frida. At the age of six, she contracted polio which left her with a noticeably thinner right leg that her skirts disguised very well.

 In 1922, Frida enrolled in National Preparatory School where she was quickly noticed for her bravery and outspoken ways. She was one of the very few female students attending the school at that time, this is also where Frida met Diego for the first time. Diego was painting a mural, the Creation was the name of that piece. Frida loved to watch him work, she became a big fan of his art, the more she watched him work, the more she admired and looked up to him, she even told a friend that she would marry Diego one day. That same year Frida joined a group of friends in the Young Communist League and Mexican Communist Party, which became a very important part of her life, but not something she incorporated into her artwork much. On one of her trips with the leader of the group, Alejandro Gomez Arias, they were victims of a very tragic accident. The bus they traveled on collided with a street car that left Frida with many injuries. Her hip was badly hurt by a steel handrail, and her pelvis and spine fractured, this was an accident that left Frida dealing with a lot of pain and a very long recovery ahead of her. Frida spent weeks at a Mexico City hospital and was in a full-body cast for three months while she recovered at home, it was during this time that her parents encouraged her to paint in hopes this would lessen the pain.

This was what many would consider the beginning of Frida’s legacy, she painted her first “Self Portrait Wearing a Velvet Dress” in 1926, during her recovery from the bus accident. During this time Frida had so much to deal with physically, mentally, and emotionally, but somehow, Frida persisted. She considered herself a “daughter of the Mexican Revolution” and because of that, she continued to fight. One of the many ways she participated in being politically active was by being an organizer for the Mexican Communist Party. One of the many protests she participated in was for peace during the US-initiated Cold War. She also had a role in fighting for the Spanish Republican refugees whom she also helped find homes and secure stable jobs. Even during her worst health problems, Frida was dedicated to staying politically active. A few days before her death, in a wheelchair, she protested against the United States’s intervention in Guatemala to overthrow president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman who was in office at that time. In her diary, she wrote, “I must struggle with all my strength to contribute the few positive things my health allows to the Revolution, the only real reason I live.”

In 1928 Frida reconnected with Diego and asked him to evaluate her work; he encouraged her to continue to paint. They continued to see each other and started a romantic relationship soon after, in 1929 they got married for the first time, which was not something Frida’s family approved of. Frida’s relationship with Diego was not a typical one, it was full of ups and downs, affairs, and even divorce. In the first few years of their marriage, Frida traveled a lot due to Diego’s work, they lived in San Francisco, CA; New York; and Detroit as Diego at this time was a very coveted muralist. A few years into their marriage they divorced in 1940, only to get remarried that same year. They continued to live in separate homes sharing their life, yet living separate lives at the same time. During her marriage with Diego and their travels, Frida suffered a few miscarriages, these painful experiences influenced a few of her art pieces, the most well-known, Henry Ford Hospital 1932.

Frida had such a beautiful and creative way of turning her pain and struggles into positivity through her art. She never let heartache, pain, or illness define her, she kept on no matter what circumstances or obstacles she faced. She is a great example of how far determination and willpower can take you.

The more she painted the more her artwork gained acceptance from fellow artists, because Diego was such a well-known and traveled artist, Frida was able to have her work seen by many in the industry. The more they traveled the more famous artists she met, Frida made friends with many of them, in particular, Andre Breton, who is one of the primary figures of the surrealism movement. Surrealism is an art style that focuses on expressing the artist’s imaginative dreams. Andre Breton characterized Frida’s art as Surrealism and that Frida herself was a surrealist. Something Frida didn’t consider her art to be, nor did she feel or see herself as a surrealist. Frida went on to say “They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality”. Diego Rivera considered his wife a realist, while Frida classified her artwork as the “frankest expression of myself”. She never labeled herself as one type of artist but as an artist who painted her own reality. Even though Frida never classified herself as one thing or another, she left a big impact on people from all walks of life and artists of many different kinds. 

Amongst the biggest impacts Frida made, was in the feminist movement, she gave it a powerful voice and a very unique image. Frida was a woman who lived life how she pleased, she was unapologetically herself, which is why she is such a big inspiration to me and to women around the world to this day. She never changed her appearance to fit society’s mold of what a woman should look like. She left her unibrow and her faint mustache which people consider masculine features; which she made even more prominent in her artwork. Frida was an openly bisexual woman who had relationships with both men and women, which at that time, was not accepted nor openly talked about. In her artwork, she painted issues that many women did not openly discuss because they were labeled as taboo. Frida never let those around her change the way she lived her life, she lived a life that was true to her beliefs and desires, making her life an example to live by. Women and men alike can read about Frida’s life and see just how far ahead of her time she was, she was a force to be reckoned with, a strong woman in all aspects. She lived her life by no one’s rules but her own, which we can clearly see in her artwork and her life story. The way she lived keeps inspiring many to this day, her life story sends a clear message to everyone about how to be yourself, unapologetically. If there is one thing anyone could comfortably say about Frida, is that she lived life to the fullest and made her comebacks much greater than her setbacks.  

Casa Azul, which became a museum in 1958, is a place where people can visit and admire what was once her home. Many women and men who visit Casa Azul say Frida makes them feel inspired but more so, empowered by her life story and the powerful energy that can be felt within the walls and rooms of her home. Casa Azul has become one of the most visited museums in Mexico with close to 25,000 visitors each month, showing just how important Frida still is to this day. Frida was and forever will be an inspiration to many around the world, she left behind a legacy that extends far beyond her home country. Frida knew what she wanted and worked hard towards turning her dreams and goals into a life she could be proud of. She was a very talented artist who inspired many artists with her pieces, by simply painting her own reality.  Even through her illness, an accident that left her with many broken bones and a very long recovery that made her bedridden for months at a time, heartache and so many other obstacles she faced, Frida always found a way to see the light even in the darkest moments. 

Frida Kahlo passed away on July 13th, 1954, a week after her birthday (July 6th) in her home. The reason was reported as a pulmonary embolism but some still suspect that it could have been due to suicide. On Frida’s coffin laid the flag of the Mexican Communist Party, showing just how strong her passion for this cause was to her. Even though so many years have passed since Frida left us, her presence and her one-of-a-kind spirit is still very much alive among those who love her.  Viva la Vida!