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Shaped by family, art and Jinapsan

Richard “Ric” Castro (1961 – ) , a Chamorro artist born to Juan and Magdalena LG Castro of Yigo, is a Professor of Art at the University of Guam, teaching at the Mangilao campus since the 1990s.  Castro, the third youngest of nine children, was raised on his family beach, Jinapsan, in the north of Guam.  He is known primarily for his paintings but also does printmaking and stone-carving.

Castro comes from a family of professional artists which includes his brother Ron Castro (artist and graphic artist), first cousins, Jeff Harris (Shortcut cartoonist), Perry Perez (former graphic designer for LA Times), Frank Perez (former graphic artist for DOE and Guam Judicial Center with a first place float design three years in a row). Other artists in the family include his first cousin, John Castro (carver), and his wife Violet (a master weaver). Castro believes their family bloodline must track back to a clan of Chamorro craftsmen or to an artistic family from Spain.

Ric Castro received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania.  He also holds an Associate degree in Specialized Technology in Visual Communication from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where, in his final year, he won “Best in Show.”  Castro also has a Master of Fine Arts degree and four-year certificate in painting and printmaking from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  While there he received a travel award to experience art in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain.

Castro is inspired by the work of abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Susan Rothenberg and Mark Rothko. Other more traditional artists that Castro draws from include Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, Diego Velazquez, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh.  His mentors from college are Bruce Samuelson, Dan Miller, Peter Paone and Flavia Zortea.

After college, Castro came back to Guam and began teaching.  Although he considers himself primarily an abstract artist, the return to the lush jungles of the island provided inspiration for his works depicting local landscapes.

Castro uses his personal experiences and memories of growing up on Guam to produce expressionistic paintings that strip away the narrative and allow the work to retain a level of ambiguity, unified with energy and movement to keep its audience curious but engaged in spiritual contemplation.  His most experimental and personal work merges formalistic qualities of modernism with a dialogue steeped in indigenous meanings. Castro’s quest is not only to discover his cultural identity through art, but also to find his artistic identity through culture.

Castro acknowledges that his perceptions of himself and of Guam make their way into his art, in one form or another. He establishes a visual vocabulary of symbols, biomorphic forms and colors that reflect his environment and surroundings, along with figurative and loose gestures of mark-making in his work, which communicate a powerful and emotional aspect of how he feels.  The visual influences he draws from are reinforced by memories and experiences of growing up on Guam.

Castro does both abstract and realistic paintings and printmaking. He finds it easy to convey the traditions and history of the island in his realistic works depicting  the landscape and the people.  He is drawn to the simplest, most mundane aspects of what we take for granted.

A recent series of landscapes taken from his family property at Jinapsan are akin to a casual stroll into the jungle.  In these paintings, Guam’s natural beauty, with panoramas of incredible sunsets, ocean and landscapes, are portrayed.  But details found in the interior of dense jungle, such as the absinthe colored moss padding and the thick, strangler vines found dangling across the ribs of a coconut tree trunk, or even the giant lemmai (breadfruit) leaf found at one’s feet among ancient pottery sherds and dry sticks, are depicted.

However, when painting in an abstract mode, Castro finds himself struggling to incorporate a sense of his cultural identity which leads him to wonder how much relevance he should give to this search, and whether his goal of expressing his Chamorro heritage may be sacrificing aspects of spontaneity and mystique of the work itself. Breakthroughs in the process of image-making often happen by sheer accident, Castro says.  He has learned to adjust by working from within and letting the imagery evolve and flow on its own by trusting his own intuition, without forcing the work.

Castro might choose to depict familiar island icons such as the petroglyphs in Gadao’s Cave, the latte stone or slingstones when he begins a new abstract work.  But once he is immersed in the painting process a departure from the most obvious features and shapes takes effect, and the act of creating becomes a spiritual journey in itself.

His aggressive, contemporary abstract style runs contrary to what can be found among many of Guam’s artists who tend toward more traditional forms of realism to convey their perceptions of island life and themes.  When Castro works abstract, rather than an idyllic paradise filled with white sand beaches, clear waters and brightly colored flowers, viewers can catch a glimpse of a rougher, more basic, elemental and primal nature.

“Earth Elements” is one of Castro’s abstract series in which he reflects and responds to the environment in order to capture the lively spirit of life through the chaos of figuration and abstraction.  In these paintings Castro attempts to explore the beauty and volatility of the natural world with hopes of describing in visual language the earth’s essence, its lushness, color and restlessness with an approach that allows the work to retain a certain level of ambiguity and spontaneity in the tradition of abstract expressionism.  These works mark a departure from his earlier intimate landscapes, transitioning from nature’s physical world and venturing into the sublime through the use of acrylic and various media.

In the initial stages, the process involved drawing with paint and taking pictorial risks that would appear to be idiosyncratic.  Eventually the artwork was developed with a controlled technique toward specific forms that move the spirit and inspire the imagination.  Through the use of sweeping gestural brushstrokes and vivid color, many of the pieces hint at biomorphic shapes and interlocking images that reveal remnants of flowers, weeds, birds, the entanglement of jungle along with the basic elements of nature in the form of fire, water, earth and sky.  Ultimately in this search, Castro hoped the earth elements series speaks to an art experience that is not defined by cultural, regional or geographical boundaries.

In the course of his career, Castro has been the recipient of other numerous awards and has exhibited his paintings and prints in the continental United States as well as in Japan, Tahiti, and the Philippines.  Locally his work can be viewed at the AB Won Pat International Airport, Pacific Islands Club Resort, Duty Free Shoppers Unlimited and the University of Guam’s School of Business.

By Shannon J. Murphy

For further reading

Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency. “Artists – Guam CAHA.”

Humanities Guåhan. Picturing Guam Teachers Resource Book. Hagåtña: HG, 2011.

I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History. VoI. 3. The Hale’-ta Series. Hagåtña: Department of Chamorro Affairs, Division of Research, Publication, and Training, 2002.

Leon-Guerrero, Jillette. Seeing Guam Through Our Eyes. Agana Heights: Guamology Publishing, 2010.