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.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

La Barra Mural Update

Since the school kids of La Barra de Potosí began painting the blown-up renditions of their butterfly art on the library wall last week, Doña Laura has been keeping us posted on their progress with almost daily reports and photos. She reports that the students are so excited and proud that they can't wait for the next time they can work on their mural, and that there's a real sense of community-wide interest.

The photos, and even a brief U-Tube video, have been shared on the very busy ZihuaRob's Message Board, the cyber-community of people who live in, visit or just love the Zihuatanejo/ La Barra/ Troncones area.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

La Barra de Potosí Mural - Pt.2


It had been two weeks since we'd met Laura Kelly in La Barra de Potosí and had our planning session about creating a mural of students' butterfly art on the exterior wall of the library she's started there. When she reported that the students were done with their butterfly drawings (to their great excitement) and that she'd rounded up the necessary paint supplies for the mural, Sally and I headed down there once again.

We all knew our part could easily become a two-day project. So, to spare us yet another trip, Laura had offered to put us up without charge at La Casa del Encanto, her charming, lavishly colorful bed and breakfast inn. We felt we couldn't accept such generosity from her, especially since we were there to help her and her work with the students. Still, we hated the thought of having to pay for both this and our empty villa back in Zihuatanejo. So we decided to get all our work done in one day.

The plan was to leave Zihua. early by cab instead of the very slow bus-and-pasajero connection we'd used for our first visit. We'd arrive in La Barra in time to finish most of the wall prep work during the precious couple of morning hours when it would be in the shade. Then, during the mid-day heat, we'd move inside to review the kids' artwork, recommend sizing and positioning of the images on a to-scale layout, and teach the students and teachers the process of accurately blowing up the montage to the wall. Finally, in late afternoon, when the site was again in shade, we'd mark the full-size grid on the wall and letter the mural's title. We'd leave by dark and be back to our villa in Zihua. in time for a late dinner.

It was a nice plan. I'd recently posted in my list of things we learned about Zihuatanejo and environs this trip that, "No matter what your expectations, no matter how well you've prepared, no matter how insistent you might be, a project in Mexico will not go your way." How well this truth would apply to our plan started becoming evident when, by the time we'd greeted Laura, had a quick bite to eat and gathered a few tools, we found the sun already beating directly down on the library wall. Undaunted, we slapped on the SPF 30, stocked up on bottles of water provided by Laura and began scraping.

Fortunately, the existing mural—a lifeless array of a mermaid and various marine critters each apparently pondering a different icon of Mexican history—had only a few spots that had begun to chip and peel, so that part was easy. (We were to leave the much more presentable bottom couple of feet of the existing design, a row of kids' heads and uplifted arms, holding open books inscribed with the names of famous Hispanic authors and poets.)

Using our one small wire brush, I went over the whole surface, removing more scaling and loosening years of dust and grime that had billowed up from the dirt street in front. The hose we'd counted on to then spray down the wall had so little water pressure that simply raising the end about knee high was enough to stop the flow. So the final wash would have to be a sort of bucket-and-scrub-brush affair. We ended up using a scruffy broom and Sally's donated t-shirt, dipped in the bucket and then sloshed against the wall.

How appropriate that, as we worked, many of the same varieties of butterflies the kids had represented in their artwork kept us company, fluttering around us and watching from the white and magenta bougainvillea nearby.

By noon, our wall might as well have been a giant dish mirror for the skin-frying, energy-sapping heat it seemed to focus on our melting bodies. A bottle of water every half hour didn't begin to keep up with the rate at which we were perspiring. And we hadn't even started the priming.

(I must note here that, while, indeed, the sun in La Barra can be intense, it is certainly no moreso than in other parts of Mexico, especially those widespread areas of high plateau. Inside Laura's B & B, in the many enramadas (the 20 or so beach restaurants covered with canopies of woven branches) and anywhere with shade, La Barra is a very comfortable place.)

It was that time of day when we'd planned on being indoors, in the shade, working with students and teachers. But, we were reminded, this was Semana Santa (Holy Week) and everyone was on vacation. With renewed hope that this might get us back on schedule, we decided to keep working outdoors, albeit at a crawl, and apply the white base coat. The best I could manage was to alternate about ten minutes in the sun with five minutes in the shade and welcome breeze found under the building's entrance canopy.

A few young boys dropped by the site, curious about our progress. No, we didn't pull Tom Sawyer's classic fence-painting trick. Still, as boys their age do, each of them wanted to show us what natural painters they were. And they did a very nice job. Meanwhile Sally and Bibi, one of the lovely young German interns helping Laura, started cutting out the butterflies from the students' colorful drawings and creating the three-foot by five-foot paper grid we'd use to compose them in montage. They sized this original so every eight inches would represent two feet on the wall.

Just as it seemed we were all running out of steam, Laura—bless her heart—showed up with a tray of freshly-made margaritas—just the boost we needed.

Meanwhile, the generous coat of white we'd hoped would cover the old mural hadn't quite done the job. So, as the day—along with our hopes of making it home that night—wound down, I made quick work of a second coat while Sally and Bibi finished the grid sheet inside.

The sun, mercifully, ducked behind the palms, and I used the remaining half hour of daylight to arrange the cut-out images on the grid sheet on the library floor—excellent timing, I thought, since the building has no lights. Finally, at about 7:15, we dragged ourselves back down the street to Casa del Encanto, satisfied that we could begin lining in the scaled-up grid and rough butterfly outlines on the wall early the next morning. Or so we thought.

After one of
those truly consciousness-altering showers, we joined Laura and her other guests for a wonderful special dinner (normally not part of the inn's fare) of chiles rellenos de cameron (peppers stuffed with shrimp). We reluctantly left the after-dinner conversation to the others and settled, exhausted, into our colorful room and mosquito-netted bed for the night. We were glad to have the net's protection from the few mosquitos we'd seen. Secure in our little tent, we drifted off dreaming of brushes and butterflies.
We awakened to find the opening to our netting spread open wide enough to admit a small turkey. Nonetheless, we'd survived the night and, after a simple fruit, yogurt and granola breakfast, we got to work again, once more under the unblinking gaze of that late-March Guerrero sun.

Speaking of the sun, now that we'd gotten the wall to the nice, uniform white we'd wanted, Laura pulled me aside and asked, "What color were you envisioning as the background to the butterfly images?" Barely swallowing my surprise, I reminded her that my layout called for white. "Oh, I don't know..." she mused, "Nobody paints walls white here. The sun's glare would make it too blinding to even look at." Fortunately, Laura found some leftover, sort of deep mustard-color paint that I was able to mix with what remained of our white to create a nice, rich yellow-gold. I was sold—the new color was infinitely better-looking than the white I'd imagined. Also lucky was the fact that the new color covered easily in one coat. As it dried, I looked for a yard stick to begin gridding the wall. Finding none, I resorted to a five-foot piece of relatively straight palm leaf stem I found lying on the ground, and, with the tape measure I'd been smart enough to bring from home, penciled in the two-foot grid on our smooth, blank, golden "canvas."

By noon, el sol was once again wringing the sweat out of us like a couple of cheap sponges. And once again we were reminded that it was not we, but the time, the place, the sun, that were in control of this day. Ten minutes on; five minutes off.

At last, we were ready for the final stages of our work before handing the project off again to the students and teachers. Sally dragged the patchwork paper layout outside, anchored the corners with rocks and began scaling up the butterflies to their penciled outlines on the wall.

While she did that, I lettered the title I'd suggested, Nuestras Mariposas (Our Butterflies) in the upper left corner. We felt this name—using the possessive—would reinforce the kids' and the community's sense of ownership of these sublime creatures.

After cleaning up and putting things away, we grabbed our backpacks at the inn and said goodbye to Laura. She thanked us lavishly for our work, the art supplies we'd brought and the money Sally had given her to pay for the paint, and promised to send us photos of the kids painting their butterflies on the wall.

We were leaving with mixed feelings. We felt some satisfaction at having at least laid the groundwork for the kids of La Barra to grow up seeing their artwork displayed, bigger than life, for all to see. There was sadness, too, for not being able to witness the young artists signing their work on the wall. We were, of course, grateful for having met Doña Laura, for all the amazing work she does for her community, and for this small opportunity to help. And finally, we felt humbled by this object lesson in how much more wonderfully creativity flourishes when it is not owned, but shared, when it is shaped not just by minds and hearts and hands, but by circumstance.

We headed down the dusty street to the main road where we'd catch our taxi back to Zihua. As we walked past the library that last time, we had to stop. We weren't the only ones admiring our work. Three spectacular butterflies, hovering just in front of the wall, seemed as anxious as we are to see how the kids of La Barra will capture their ephemeral beauty...and the imagination of this extraordinary little community.