Thursday, April 22, 2010

Meeting Fernando Garrido

It was August, 2003. I was on my first of several Spanish immersion trips to central Mexico with my Spanish teacher and friend Silverio. Along with two more of Silverio’s students, his wife, Kate, and three-year-old daughter, Callahan, we were on one of our daylong field trips, this time from our base in Tequisquiapan to Querétaro, the capital city of the state of the same name. After a nearly unintelligible tram tour of the city, we explored more successfully on our own, including a visit to the Museo de Artes.

The museum occupies a grand former church building, though, as museums go, it’s quite small. Of the four main galleries surrounding a beautiful courtyard, two featured old, religious paintings in which I have little interest. A third gallery, with much more interesting modern works we could see through a window, was inexplicably closed. The last gallery featured a temporary exhibit of about ten paintings by an artist named Fernando Garrido, whom I assumed to be a Mexican. I was immediately taken in by the dreamlike, odd-but-not-quite-surreal subject matter (men in togas and fantastic headdresses, some of which emitted soap bubbles, posed with great tension and athleticism against eerily vacant landscapes). Some of the characters balanced or juggled various objects like balls, metal hoops and rods of iron rebar. Their quizzical expressions and the rusted, weathered textures of these objects were rendered realistically with a meticulous, yet energetic, technique comparable, I thought, with the best of the Renaissance. (I later characterized Garrido's work as Caravaggio meets Time Bandits – the latter a reference to the 1981 Terry Gilliam film.)

I knew I had to get posters of this guy’s work to show Sally and my brother, Dan, so I stopped at the small museum gift shop on our way out. To my great surprise and disappointment, the clerk told me they didn't have any posters of Garrido works. Well then, where are the postcards? No postcards. Book? No. Brochure? No. Well, okay, this is Mexico, I rationalized, and resigned myself to leaving with nothing but a mental picture of what I’d seen.

As I waited outside for my compañeros, Kate came out and handed me a slip of scrap paper with some numbers on it. Turns out she'd mentioned my disappointment to the ticket taker, who'd disappeared into a back room and emerged with the note. It was the local phone number of Fernando Garrido!

I didn't really know what to do with this information, but intrigue was definitely began to simmer deep in my gut. We walked back to the zocalo, the city’s main plaza and had lunch in a beautiful, airy, skylit hotel atrium amid lush, tropical greenery.

When I'd finished my lunch, Silverio noticed that I still had the slip of paper in my hand. He handed me his cell phone and said, “Why don't you call him?” I felt as if I were someone else watching me as I took the phone and dialed. By this time, everyone else at the table had stopped talking and was watching me. I was terrified.

A woman answered: “Bueno” / “¿Favor de permitirme hablar con el señor Garrido?” / “Un momento...” And then he answered. In deliberate but, I hoped, passable Spanish, I introduced myself, explained we were in Mexico immersed in Spanish, recounted our experience at the museum, told him how much I liked his work...and asked him where he lived. (He was very patient with my slow Spanish. He tried a little English, but caught himself after a few words, saying he guessed he'd better stick to Spanish. “Lo apreciaría mucho” (“I'd appreciate that.”), I replied, looking up at the rapt expressions of my fellow immersion students. I don’t know where it came from, but I asked him if we could come to meet him and see his studio. He hemmed and hawed a bit, explaining that he was going out for lunch and wouldn't be back 'til five. I asided to Silverio about how flexible our schedule was for the rest of the afternoon, and he whispered to go for it. “Bueno, a las cinco.” (Five it is.)

When the time came, we grabbed two taxis and headed for Jurequilla, a suburb about 10 miles north of el centro. We pulled up outside a substantial, white, two-story-plus, modern home in a small neighborhood of walled-off houses. I rang the bell next to the gate, the gate opened and there I was, suddenly trying to dredge up my meager repertoire of social introductions in Spanish.

Garrido, an unremarkable-looking, ruddy-complexioned man I guessed to be in his early to mid 40s, welcomed us into his home. He was very warm and gracious, treating us all from the start as if we were his long-lost friends. Freely flashing a gapped smile, he insisting we all join him in a glass of whiskey. He introduced his wife, Jacqueline (also a painter, whose work punctuates Fernando's throughout the house) and his very cute 10-year-old son, Alexis.

Fernando led us into his studio, a surprisingly small but lofty circular atrium with a vaulted brick ceiling, taking up the full height of the house—the space reminded me of the inside of a silo. There were a couple of his very small, dark paintings, unframed, on the wall and a number of larger, brighter ones stacked in a corner. Shelves full of brushes, varnishes and other art materials in beautiful, unique tequila bottles surrounded the studio. And there was a large work in progress on the easel. He apologized profusely for not having more work there to show us, since most of it had been shipped to buyers or was in the museum exhibit.

We all had lots of questions for Fernando. He went on at great length about his symbolism, how long each painting takes, how he comes up with titles (nearly always after the works are completed), and his chief influences: Caravaggio (“the greatest painter who ever lived”), DaVinci, Dali and Hals. He explained that the soap bubbles in most of his paintings represent the temporal nature of life, admonishing us to make the most of what life has to offer rather than waiting to “get it right.”
I'd decided, on the way over, to ask if there was some small item—maybe a sketch—I could buy from the artist. But, by the time our visit was drawing to a close, I was thinking this might be crass. Maybe, I reasoned, offering him the 1500-or-so pesos (then about $150) I had in my wallet would be taken as an insult. (He did, however, hand each of us a very nicely designed and printed brochure featuring a sampling of his work—I guess no one ever thought of getting any of these to the museum!) So at least I had this, the memories and the photo Anne took of Fernando and me in front of the painting he was currently working on. After we said our thank-yous and good-byes, and resolved to stay in touch, the whole family walked us to the gate. Fernando gave us directions to a nearby hotel complex where we could catch cabs back to the city, and we started walking.

We were a bit rushed to find cabs and get back to town in time for our 7:00 rendezvous with our van driver, Tonio. But as we hurried through the hotel courtyard, we passed a nice gallery, and I was drawn by the obvious quality of the work inside. Thinking I might find another souvenir of Juriquilla, I ducked in as the others went on. Alas, everything was either too big for carry-on or too expensive. Just as I was leaving, I turned for one last scan of the place and there, right in the middle of all the other stuff I'd just looked at, was a small, bright piece with...what's this?... bubbles! I rushed back in and picked it up. It was a Garrido!

Making what I will not soon live down as the single worst haggling maneuver of my—or anyone else’s— life, I exclaimed to the gallery owner, “My God, I just had a drink with this guy!!” As I was asking “¿Quanto cuesta?” (How much is it?), I could almost hear the wheels turning in the woman's head: “Double it...triple it." When I heard her price, I told her it was several times too much for my budget, but she knew she had me. Nonetheless, to make me feel better, she said she’d forego her commission. Once we’d agreed on the price, she picked up the phone to call Fernando. I'm sure she wanted to let him know the top dollar she'd just gotten from some bozo for his tiny painting, though she told me he needed my address so he could send me a certificate of his authorship.

When the woman had wrapped up my painting, I grabbed it and took off jogging for the cab stand, worried the others might have forgotten about me and left. Silverio had sent the first cabfull ahead to make sure they’d catch Tonio. With Silverio, Kate and Callahan, we finally caught up with them and Tonio at Querétaro for the rainy van ride back to Tequisquiapan.

I spent the whole ride reflecting on the amazing experience we’d just had—and clutching my new treasure.

(Fernando and I have remained in touch, and Silverio and have visited him on two more occasions. He’s exhibited throughout Latin America, as well in Scandinavia, where he’s attracted quite a following. His larger paintings now sell for upwards of $10,000. I continue trying to make contacts for him in the Twin Cities art community in hopes that, one day, he might consider exhibiting here.)

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