Frida Kahlo: 7 Tips For Creatives
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.
Frida Kahlo’s life and art has a built-in instruction manual to help creatives unleash the most original, inventive and untamed aspects of our authentic selves.
We learn by example.
And Kahlo’s life is chock full of instances where despite pain (or perhaps because of it), she nixed the safe grey path and bravely opted to try for Technicolor.
Here are 7 facts about Frida that might surprise you, along with a few bonus tips on how we too can try for Technicolor in our own lives.
How much do you know about the Mexican maverick that dared to live many lives in her mere 47 years on earth?
Fact 1. Kahlo Was Pre-Med
Kahlo began her study of medicine in 1922 at Mexico’s brainy, mostly male, National Preparatory School.
A tragic accident derailed the brilliant Kahlo’s initial dream of becoming a doctor but her passion for all things medical wasn’t wasted.
Frida’s investigation of medicine and medical illustration enabled her to instill tremendous power into her pieces that described the failings of her own body.
El Aborto (Frida and the Miscarriage) or her 1937 painting Recuerdo, El Corazón (Memory, The Heart) are two examples of anatomical illustrations incorporated into in her art.
The knowledge of the body Kahlo absorbed in her pre-painting years ended up being a monumental asset to her in her later life as an artist.
Tip 1 for Creatives: None of Your Past is Wasted
Remember, all the schooling and all the passions you have for anything outside of school, can inform and inspire your art.
Any job you’ve had, (no matter how boring you may think it is), can be a potentially glorious gizmo tucked into your artist’s bag of tricks.
Say you’re a wanna-be big installation artist but you have spent years slaving away as a taxidermist for hunters.
You’re depressed because taxidermy couldn’t possibly be a keystone to great art that sells, right? Mega-artists Damien Hirst, Claire Morgan, Kate Clark, Cai Guo-Qiang, Catherine Coan or Mark Dion (who all have used taxidermy in installation pieces) would tell you otherwise.
None of your past is wasted.
Put your past to work for you.
It just might be the magic lasso that pulls you right into your accidentally ingenious future.
Fact 2. Kahlo Was A Fighter, Literally
One morning in 1925 Kahlo and her fellow intellectual/radical boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez Arias, were riding a wooden city bus. The bus driver apparently forced his vehicle into the path of an oncoming streetcar, which then T-boned the bus, splintering it and Frida, to pieces.
Kahlo was just 18.
Red Cross Hospital staff thought Kahlo was beyond help. Her boyfriend’s pleas for doctors to operate on Kahlo and not assume she was a lost cause probably saved her life.
A doctor’s report states Kahlo sustained a “fracture of the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, pelvic fractures,” as well as a “deep abdominal wound produced by a metal rod entering through the left hip and exiting through the genitals.”
The accident should have killed her. But Kahlo was a fighter.
Her father Guillermo wisely had her take up boxing in her youth to strengthen her body and spirit after surviving childhood polio.
Frida even learned to wrestle to recover her confidence post-polio.
Kahlo painted her way through several long convalescences in her life. After the accident her mother Matilde thoughtfully hung a mirror in the canopy of her sick-bed and thus began Kahlo’s life long practice of employing that mirror to create self-portraits while bedridden.
Kahlo didn’t apologize for her physical infirmities. She dared to document them in detail. “I’ve done my paintings well, not quickly but patiently, said Kahlo, “and they have a message of pain in them.”
Tip 2 for Creatives: Let Art Help You Endure
None of us are immune to failings of the body. If you are in the midst of a health crisis or chronic illness, remember what Georges Braque said, “Art is a wound turned into light.”
When we are hurting the act of creating can turn our attention away from pain and towards the big picture. Kahlo herself said, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”
Let your art help you endure.
Fact 3. Kahlo Was Once Covered in Blood and Glitter
Kahlo’s old boyfriend related exactly how he found Frida in the moments after he managed to pull himself out from under the bus in the streetcar collision.
Frida was lying prone, nearly naked, her body spattered in blood and covered in gold glitter.
One of Frida’s fellow passengers (possibly a house painter) was carrying a bag of gold powder or glitter that exploded at the moment of impact and floated down over her wounded body.
Kahlo biographer Martha Zamora (author of The Brush of Anguish) reports bystanders in the street cried out, “¡Ayuda para la pequeña bailarina!” (Help for the little ballerina!).
True events in the life of the archetypal-goddess-like Frida Kahlo are so tragic, surreal or beautiful one could mistake them for passages from a magical realism novel by Isabel Allende or Gabriel García Márquez.
Tip 3 For Creatives: Pretend To Be A Magical Realist
What was a magical realism moment in your own childhood or adult life?
Give yourself time down the road to ponder this.
Eventually an odd cinematic circumstance from your own past will surface from memory. When it does, consider making art about the event, or about the objects, symbols or dreams connected to that important positive or negative happening in your life.
That’s what Frida would do.
Fact 4. Diego Wasn’t the Only One Playing The Field
“I have suffered two serious accidents in my life, one in which a streetcar ran over me…the other accident is Diego. Diego was by far the worst,” wrote Frida.
Diego Rivera (Kahlo’s famous muralist husband) is often depicted as a narcissist, and an omnivore who devoured women.
He had open affairs with an astonishing assortment of screen stars, art models, friends of the couple, as well as with Kahlo’s closest sister and confidante, Cristina.
It’s not surprising then that Frida is sometimes painted as the long-suffering, innocent bride of the wicked Diego.
Yet in actuality Kahlo was no Penelope waiting for decades in virgin martyrdom for the return of her Odysseus. Eventually she gave almost as good as she got in the infidelity department.
The intelligent, elegant, sensual, funny, enchanting, beautiful and bawdy Kahlo relished affairs with a veritable who’s who of great male and female artists and thinkers of the 20th century.
Kahlo’s lovers included entertainer/activist Josephine Baker, designer Isamu Noguchi, and Marxist revolutionary and theorist Leon Trotsky.
She enjoyed an intimate 10-year affair with Nikolas Muray, a famous photographer and champion fencer. Muray took brilliant images of Kahlo throughout their decade together.
The cornucopia of Diego and Frida’s friends and lovers probably alternately hurt and helped the creative lives of the luminous couple.
Tip 4 For Creatives: Passion or Resistance?
Is the trouble we may want to get into at the moment, fueling our creative fire or is it a fancy form of resistance? If you are curious about how to get better at distinguishing between the two, read Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art.
Fact 5. Unlike Us, Kahlo Had The Cajones To Admit She Was Strange
Kahlo didn’t deny being (what boring folks might consider) strange.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world,” wrote Kahlo. “But then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this, know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
Like us, Frida was at times frightened, vulnerable, and insecure.
But unlike us she practiced what I call radical self-acceptance. In time, she boldly exaggerated her mustache and unibrow in her paintings; she thought they were lovely.
Rather than mask her indigenous roots, Kahlo celebrated them with her embroidered clothing and Indian jewelry.
Instead of hiding her problems with her back, legs and foot, (results of her possibly having been born with Spina Bifida, [Herrera 37] ) Kahlo depicted it all in detail in her artwork.
Kahlo didn’t apologize for being female, or an artist, or a bisexual, or brilliant or Mexican or broken, or a political revolutionary.
Frida’s owning of the myriad ways she didn’t fit in, led to her becoming a household word. Why? Because as pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers said, “what is most personal is most universal.”
Tip 5 For Creatives: Your Ideal Audience Will Appreciate Your Emotional Bravery
One of our jobs as artists is to explore the realm of the personal and express it for those who can’t or won’t; and to do it no matter how society mocks or shames us for it.
Frida is living proof that what you may consider insanely personal, crazy or shameful about your physical being, your past or what you feel called to make art about-may in fact be the very thing your future ideal audience will passionately relate to and be thankful for.
If you’re like me and still find it too terrifying to display big time vulnerability in your public work, test drive expressing pain or perceived shortcomings in an art journal. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self Portrait by Alas Rojas lets you peek inside the covers of one of Kahlo’s own visual diaries.
Fact 6. Rivera Divorced Kahlo, and Her Art Bloomed
Frida’s largest and most critically acclaimed works were painted around the time of her divorce in 1940.
The historic Las Dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) was accomplished shortly after the couple filed for divorce in 1939.
The monumental, La Mesa Herida (The Wounded Table) soon followed in 1940. While divorced, Kahlo also created the now famous Autorretrato con Collar de Espinas (Self Portrait with Hummingbird And Thorn Necklace) as well as Autorretrato con Pelo Corto (Self Portrait with Cropped Hair).
She remarried Diego Rivera within a year.
Tip 6 For Creatives: Betrayal Has Its Boons
If you are an artist passing through your own face-down-gravel-drag (like a divorce), keep in mind Kahlo’s most fantastic and introspective artworks came on the heels of romantic devastation and betrayal.
If you are a big Frida fan passing thru heartbreak, definitely consider a physical pilgrimage to Mexico City.
First stop: A scamper through Museo of Arte Moderno where you can see the jaw dropping Las Dos Fridas in person. Second stop: Museo Frida Kahlo aka Casa Azul, Kahlo’s extraordinary home/museum in Coyoacán, thirty minutes outside of Mexico City.
My 3-day pilgrimage to Kahlo country during my “gravel drag” altered the trajectory of my life; it might inspire and comfort you as well.
7. Kahlo’s Death Demolished Diego
Rivera may have acted at times like Kahlo wasn’t of primary importance to him, but what happened after she died tells a different story.
According to Hayden Herrera, art historian and author of Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo: “When Frida died, Rivera was like: “[…] a soul cut in two. His great frog face sagged into folds of age and sorrow. He dug the nails into the palms of his clenched fists over and over again until they bled.”
Friends and family said Diego immediately aged 20 years after Kahlo was buried.
Rivera wrote in his autobiography: “July 13th 1954, was the most tragic day of my life. I had lost my beloved Frida forever…too late now, I realized that the most wonderful part of my life had been my love for Frida.”
Rivera lived barely 3 more years, and then passed into history himself in 1957.
Tip 7 For Creatives: Leave Fame to the Fates
You never know how important you are to another, or how impactful your art will be to future readers, viewers, or listeners.
Kahlo was an under-sung artist in her lifetime.
She was only widely celebrated decades after her death with the rise of the feminist art movement in the 1970’s.
Frida’s fame has soared ever since.
Shamelessly get your creative freak on. If folks don’t get you now, never fear, you may be the new Frida to millions of young people‑ in the 2060’s.
But if you can, leave the aspiration of fame to the fates. Instead, be bold, be flawed, be eccentric and beautiful in your own way and like Frida, you will receive a bigger boon than public approval.
You will not die having lived an unlived life.
“The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.”—W.M. Lewis
This post is dedicated to my friend Elizabeth whose kindness, bravery and affirmation allowed me to show up here on the page as myself.
Banner image: Detail of “Frida Kahlo,” silver gelatin print taken by Kahlo’s father Guillermo in 1932.