Magdalena Suarez Frimkess
Twentieth Century Contemporary Ceramist
Magdelena Frimkess was born in Venezuela, and sent to an orphanage at the age of 7, when her mother died and her father couldn't take care of her. She studied at the School of Plastic Arts in Caracas from 1943 to 1945 and hoped to pursue a career as an artist. But in 1947, when she was 18 and had no means of support, she entered into a union with a man who had left his wife but wasn't divorced.
Magdalena and her partner moved to Chile, where they had two children. As their son and daughter began to grow up, Magdalena resumed her study of art at Catholic University in Santiago. By 1962, she had become so accomplished in clay sculpture that a report in Art in America, a major New York art journal, named her "the most daring sculptor now working in Chile."
Public recognition of her talent had a profound effect on her life. "In those days, women didn't leave home," Magdalena says. But New York beckoned and she accepted a fellowship at the Clay Art Center. "The man I lived with said, 'If you leave, that's it,' but I did." She arrived at the center a few months after Michael had settled in.
It may not have been love at first sight, but Michael and Magdalena say they were immediately attracted to each other. "I loved her work," Michael says. When she laughs, he adds: "Well, I liked the whole package."
Michael wanted to marry Magdalena, but she longed to be with her children and returned to Chile when her yearlong fellowship was over. She was unwelcome at home, so she made her way back to New York and Michael. Struggling to make ends meet after the birth of their daughter, Luisa, in 1964, they moved to Los Angeles, where Michael's parents helped them start a new life. (Magdalena's daughter, Delia Fuentes, moved to the U.S. in the late 1970s, and her son, Sergio Fuentes, followed a few years later.)
The Frimkesses recall an extremely stressful period capped by the revelation in 1971 that Michael had multiple sclerosis. He admits to blaming his wife for his physical problem before his diagnosis, but says he never thought the disease would end his creative life. His illness has shaped Magdalena's artistic career as well. They began collaborating occasionally in the 1960s, but she gave up her independent work after the disease struck.
Expressing no regrets, Magdalena says it was a practical move, "a fact of marriage." But painting her husband's pots as well as ceramic tiles and her own hand-formed pottery is satisfying, she says. It also helps her cope with the pressures of their circumscribed life. "I paint and I forget," she says.