It’s like we trusted some deep sixth sense. We left for Mexico City without cell phones, or any address or contact for the person we had traveled to find. We sought a woman who created a matriarchy, who lived and worked in this feminine consciousness despite society relegating her to the periphery. It was 2009, and she was the last living Surrealist, then 92 years old.
Leonora Carrington was born in England in 1917 to aristocratic wealth, which she rebelled against until she finally ran away to Paris, at age nineteen, with the Surrealist Max Ernst, who was married and 46. When he was captured in World War II, Leonora fled and wound up in an asylum. Eventually, she escaped by marrying a Mexican poet. They went to Mexico City, where she worked for almost 70 years, painting, writing plays and short stories, and making posters for the Mexican women’s-liberation movement in the 1970s.
Her friendships and collaborations with Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, and Lee Miller were inseparable from her life as a Surrealist painter. Together they invented their own worlds, mixing myth, magic, and alchemy, with women and their kitchens, everyday objects, and domestic animals at the center.
Alisha had been conjuring Leonora for years. She had exhibited a collection of Leonora’s novels bound into sculptures using leather, snakeskin, and gilded teeth, and had performed Butoh dances wearing papier-mâché animal heads that recalled those in Leonora’s stories. Alisha had started an MFA and was shifting her practice, but her work with Leonora didn’t feel complete.
On the other hand, Heidi was struggling to write her first novel, about an old woman, and had happened upon Leonora’s The Hearing Trumpet and discovered that it focused on an eco-feminist heroine, who, like Heidi’s, was 92. Heidi was breast-feeding her second child, trying to write, but it wasn’t going well.
Despite the fact that we were in different places (Alisha was seeking creative closure on a long-standing obsession, and Heidi was seeking a new way into a stalled project), there was something about Leonora that compelled us both. Leonora raised children and had a full artist’s life. We wanted to be like her but had no idea how. As mothers and artists, we needed this new vision.
On the phone one night, we talked about tracking Leonora down, and suddenly we had a Hotwire itinerary to Mexico City.
We decided to create live, ritualistic performances that would both inhabit the compositions and content of Leonora’s paintings — full of half-animal, half-human figures, fruits, and vegetables — and conjure a live meeting with her. We wanted to inhabit aspects of her life (the debutante, the fallen aristocrat, a faceless feminine creature) through clothing. It was like packing for a dream, bundling an ’80s ball gown, a shredded black Edwardian dress, and a papier-mâché rabbit head, among other things, into our suitcases.
We asked our friend Natalie, then a photo editor in New York, if she would document these picnics. She had just come back from Mexico City and was full of ideas for strange, resonant locations. Natalie admitted she wasn’t a fan of the Surrealists and hadn’t heard of Leonora, but she became swept up by the mood of the project and put her thinking toward it.
Before we left, we wrote emails back and forth, wondering about riding up to her door on horses. Could we rent horses in Mexico? Could we make them from paper and fold them out of our luggage? Were we insane? We were leaving babies, jobs; one us was opening up a marriage. We had only nine days in Mexico City — but there was an urgency to erase all the domestic chaos we were leaving behind us.