Using art to heal a broken community - Extended Interview

Craig Martin and Earl Bridges explore the cobblestone streets of the Old City (Viejo San Juan) and the vibrancy of the artists who live there. Sculptor Ana Rosa Rivera talks about her work in Viejo San Juan’s poorest community, La Perla, and how her and others have used art to enhance the lives of those living there.

Earl: The steps of death. Ok, here we are. Oh, my God. I love it. Every time I enter the space.

Earl: And what’s been a long time.

Craig: You came here a couple of years ago.

Earl: Well, the Caracol is still here.

Craig: What are you doing with this piece here?

Charlie: Well, this this has to do with an inner ear. So some of that has to do with a space where sound becomes part of our body.  Something that one processes goes through the brain, see after being in this space with vibrations. This is something that I’m doing which is a sound piece.

Craig: Are you currently working on this?

Charlie: Yeah, yeah, I’m working on it.

Earl: It’s been two years. Charlie, when are you going to get it done?

Charlie: I like it so much to it is.

Craig: You know, you don’t rush art!

Charlie: I love it as it is. Yeah. The next stage is with this, you know, wooden elements that I’ve been thinking about and they don’t fit here. This is sort of a model I made for this piece.

Craig: This is the best one.

Charlie: Yeah, that one is very nice. Maybe this one.  And this one. This one. Okay.

Ana Rosa: I want one too.

Craig: Anna wants one too.

Charlie: This is a project that I did in the middle of the rainforest. It’s a private property, right. That edges  the forest reserve and with el Junque. I wanted to do something that will go well with nature.

Earl: Did you offer them, like, something that they could use or they’ll just pick some stick up off the.

Charlie: Some sticks? Yeah, I made some sticks too, you know, there, but that’s pretty simple. You can make your own or even with your finger.

Earl: Luna!

Craig: Luna came here on a spaceship. I mean, this. I’m not kidding. This is this is not a joke.

Charlie: She wants everybody to believe that she was that dog that was sent to space by the Russians and that she you know, everybody thought that she was you know, she had died, but she really, you know, came back down this river right at that spot and relocated to center. That’s why you have the Sputnik thing on top of the Apollo say lunar thing. That’s true. Yes, true.

Craig: You know that Luna’s not actually from space, right?

Charlie: Mira! You know, she went to space missions.

Ana Rosa: She has been to space!

Charlie: A picture of her taken in front of the head of the Russian cosmonaut. You want to go to the other room?

Craig: You know, this here is another story. This is part of a shoeshine project that I did. It is really the Moscow version of the shoeshine box. And the inside of the box is a small museum. And it’s about relating things. Remember the USS Maine.

Charlie: This is the USS Maine blown up in the Havana Bay. I took a photo. You know, a famous photograph is a black and white, and I just put it as the day is kind of starting and, you know, the ship is all blown up. There’s these three turtles swimming around.

Craig: Did that start the Spanish-American War?

Charlie: The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Bay meant that the U.S. just over.

Earl: Here’s Craig. Hey, Charlie. Just check me if I’m right here. The USS Maine in I believe it was a Wednesday around 7:00. I’m not sure the story, but…

Charlie: This is just more.

Earl: This is one that I love too. 

Charlie: Have to turn on the lights, I’m sorry.

Earl: Charlie,I’ve been here a few times.  These things, they’re never getting done. Look at why.

Craig: Look at all the different patterns and Ana. This is all of your stuff? You do the work. This is your stuff.

Ana Rosa: No, that’s Charles’.

Earl: But when you did your piece where you working in it here as well.

Ana Rosa: Yes.

Craig: Yeah. You have have all the tools.

Ana Rosa: This is the wood area.

Charlie: This is something that I continue to work on. And, I made quite a bit of them, but they have to do with. You know, bringing together different kinds of wood, you know, for sound, you know.

Earl: Excuse me, I’m hungry

Charlie: It’s crazy.

Charlie: And it’s just two pieces of wood and it’s just rubbing.

Earl: And it’s simply because they’re different types of wood?

Craig: The shoeshine box does that connect to the…

Charlie: That’s where it came from.

Earl: We talked about the different woods in your piece. You’re dealing with different woods here, but it’s that combination of organic sound function. Remind us of this project.

Charlie: Well, basically, I’ve done a shoe shine project, you know, in different cities around the world. Washington, D.C. was the first one. And then I went to Prague. To Moscow. The most recent one was in Asuncion, Paraguay. So they asked me, wow, we would like to have your shoeshine project because a shoeshine is here in the city or something. I decided this time because I in my work, I assume like characters or, you know, I become like a character, the shoe shiners, the artist that goes as a normal around the world to show his work. And it has to be portable, portable work because he lives in Puerto Rico. And, you know, that’s that’s the only way I’m going to be able to go around and show. Then I thought that I should return that character. I should give it back in Asuncion. So instead of building a huge shoeshine box, which was the same as a small one, this time I just decided to concentrate on the shoeshine box and make the best one I could make, because it would be the one that I will give to the shoe shiners. So I make 25 boxes of these of these. And I made them for the kids. So the idea was that we would put it together and we will do like small workshops. So the kids would understand how it how they work, why they make this sound. And so the shoeshine box that I decided to do is unlike the other ones that have like the house shape. This is a traditional this. This is not like the traditional one on purpose. I want to have this barrel and just have everything changed. But everything worked for the purpose it should have the straps so you can carry it, you know, has the right height for someone to put their foot on top. It has a compartment where you can put your materials. Right. This little compartment. I made it out of plastic PVC. Which is a very recognizable material. So someone wanted to reproduce it. You know, you need this kind of barrel because of the sound. Because I thought, you know, make a sound piece, you know? So I made a this is the main part, main body to, you know, to produce a sound. And then every part makes a different kind of sound.

Craig: In the shoeshine business. Is this a traditional thing that people make these noises?

Charlie: Yeah. that’s where the idea came from! That’s where the idea came from. Because when you when someone shoeshine is here. You might fall asleep. Because it’s like a foot massage. Right. And so they do. So you change your foot because they get so much into it. So this there’s all these sounds, and then when they finish, they hit the box twice. And it’s time to pay. And so I thought that shoeshiners is would appreciate something that had some extra sounds, capacities or something. And they can attractive their customers.

Earl: I remember even in Mexico when I lived there. You get in the Zocalo. The kids you’re trying to find that guy that you always get your shoeshine from. So you could have a discrete kind of sound. You just in a crowded area. You follow the sound. That’s my guy that I always get that the Olympia botas guy.

Craig: Nice where this came from.

Charlie: Because I saw and I actually copied this from a bird call like an. Which fascinated me when I saw it. I thought, this is something very simple that I can make that the kids would love, you know, because they can, you know, it’s a way to whistle to a clown to see, because if you play that, somehow it’s going to whistle. And also, the kids kind of are together. And, you know, I thought that the idea that they could jam together maybe. And start doing their thing. You know what one is doing like that? One is doing like that. But it’s it’s a sound piece.

Earl: Did they use it?

Charlie: Yeah. Well, what I did was, I met with the shoe shiners several times. I spoke to them about the project. Because this is a kid, this is a kid. So these are big, so. And I show them. I took chalk, I said, you know, you have to put chalk once in a while. So when you rub it, you know, and I taught them what makes a sound so they could make more or they could fix their own. So it was a workshop about the box and the sounds and about the idea that I was an artist coming from Puerto Rico, participating in an international event, and I wanted to connect with the real people. And that’s really what we did, because we very discreetly met with the shoe shiners every time. And then at the end, I just gave him the shoeshine boxes and I said, what I want to do is a little concert with you guys, just jam for a little bit. And they jammed and then, you know, they all ran with their boxes in National Ocean. The shoe shiners are all from age maybe five or even younger to about 14, 16, and they’re boys and girls. It’s regulated by the government, so they cannot work during school hours. So they sure shiners you can only find out of school hours. So I thought, these weird things, these coincidences that happen in the world. In Paraguay, there’s a very famous orchestra that plays with instruments made with trash, and they’re real instruments.  And the thing is that I didn’t know about this thing until I got there, and this kind of fits into that. Yeah. Now that this was done with, you know, really like discarded things but is about making sound and making an instrument and something very special, accessible. Yeah. So, you know, for this event, the kids stayed with their boxes. There for them and they didn’t have to give me a picture or anything. I don’t know if they continue to use them or if someone came and bought them off of them or they thought it was a good idea, you know, in the end.

Earl: You’re not trying to hide the design. You’re trying to. I don’t know… democratise.

Charlie: You have to make it more open, more accessible and and have Art be related to reality. Not not something that is only for, like, luxury or, you know, and, you know, and I’m not interested in that at all.

Craig: So I always love this piece because it’s like the rattan swing chairs that we have from Asia and it feels like Thailand. This is another example of how you could actually. Do something in your piece versus just kind of looking at the thing because you can sit in it.

Charlie: Most of the work is interactive. Interactive.

Earl: So having a lot of wood because I see a lot of wood. A lot of termites?

Charlie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Craig: That was a setup. It’s a setup.

Earl: I remember the whole story of the termites.

Charlie: They really look at that isn’t the most beautiful thing here.

Earl: But is this real?

Charlie: No, I made it.

Craig: We go back to this part of the world? Yeah.

Earl: How about the machete?

Charlie: You never know when you need one in here.

Craig: Ana these parts are yours?

Ana Rosa: Yes. These are part of mine.

Earl: This is your exercise.

Charlie: And mountain piece. But this one, too.

Earl: Everywhere you look, an airplane with bongos or djembe.

Craig: Oh, yeah, and the termites.

Earl: It’s a termite airplane.

Earl: Mine doesn’t seem to work at all.

Ana Rosa: I think that the one who is not working is you.

Earl: I must not be musical. Everyone else has music in their life.

Craig: So that’s the termite.

Earl: Oh, it is a termite. I thought it was an airplane.

Ana Rosa: No, it’s an airplane carried by termites.

Charlie: The drum does the. The bottom part.

Earl: Isn’t this house where one of the guys was shot? No, I have that wrong.

Charlie: The one with the trumpet. I can show you. See?

Craig: Let’s do that, actually. All right. You have to show Charlie because you were goofing off behind him. But here, Charlie, look at what Earl does.

Earl: I’ll go with Machete.

Craig: You cannot do it with a machete. Don’t break it.

Ana Rosa: No, you’re not supposed to touch it, Earl.

Earl: Look, there’s a whole bunch of things I’m not supposed to do. I can do the short, long, whatever. You just talk and I just balance.

Ana Rosa: Do you used to work in a circus?

Craig: He still works in the circus.

Earl: Anything. You take anything out of here, I’ll balance anything. The table and the chairs.

Charlie: It’s very heavy.

Craig: Now, those are some mad skills right there. And you have to explain the house.

Earl: Tell me about this piece.

Charlie: Well, this I’m revamping it or as I say. Yeah, this is a house, a project that I’ve worked with several times thinking about a person that was very important for the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico whose name is Filiberto Haydar Rios, and was released. With bracelet? Yeah. The day after he was released with the bracelet, he left the bracelet in front of the newspaper, Caridad. And he disappeared. And for 20 years, he was completely not seen by anybody. The FBI was behind him, right. Because he was accused to being the leader of a clandestine, pro-independence movement, armed movement. Los machateros.  And while he was disappeared, he built a house for himself in Hormigueros  Puerto Rico. This is the house.

Earl: That’s a replica?

Charlie: The replica of the house. It actually had a little kiosk here where they had lunch after being clandestine for about 20 years. The FBI found him, supposedly spotted him and and went to his house with helicopters and they surrounded him and they killed him. They killed him. They waited for him to be in the view of the rifles, and they killed him. He was the only person there. He was there with his lover/partner. He asked if he could let her go and the FBI said she could go out. And so he was left alone. And he had a gun, but nothing else. He was completely surrounded by the FBI. The FBI shot him here, and they let him bleed in the front door. And hours after he was there, bleeding. Then they went in. So they made sure there was no way he could be alive. So I’ve done several reflections on this person and what he represented. And he was also a trumpet player.  Filiberto was a trumpet player. So in this version of the project, what I did was like a little trumpet case right in the shape of his home. You know, it’s a little door. So right now I have the hinges sort of like flap, but you open it and this is a trumpet case. So inside there’s a little trumpet. Yeah, right now I don’t have the velvet,  that’s the next step to finish it up. It goes with the velvet and is spills out a little bit out of the blood. Because that’s exactly where he was murdered. He was murdered in the front door. And that’s, like I said, the porch where he blew the door.

Craig: And then he fell and bled out.

Charlie: And they let him bleed to death.

Ana Rosa: But this piece you didn’t mention that it’s part of a series that you have called Resistance.

Craig: Resistances. So all of this is a contribution in your art to the resistance of colonialism and the oppression of colonialism?

Charlie: Yeah. I want to think about it myself, and I want to bring it up. And I want to bring up the conversation and the thinking about all this.  Because this was a crime. This guy was in his house. And when I studied the house, I noticed that all the windows were glass windows, that he had a porch in front of his house that were he had I assume he had his meals right with his wife, you know, with his partner. So it was very visible. He wasn’t in a house for someone to hide.

Craig: Was going to say, that’s odd that they knew probably exactly where he was for a while before. And then they just decided, all right.

Charlie: I’m pretty sure about that.

Ana Rosa: Well, on the day that they did it, it was the. The date. September 23rd.

Charlie: The day we celebrate the first cry for independence, which we call el Grito de Lares

Ana Rosa: The yell.

Charlie: It’s a scream for independence. It is the 23rd of September, exactly that day when every 23rd of September in the recent years we had heard a speech by Filiberto. So while we were hearing the speech in Lares. The FBI was around his house and they murdered him on that date.

Earl: Is this for you or this for anyone else? I mean, when you’re exploring these things, when you’re doing your art, is it really you’re just coming to terms with it yourself?

Charlie: In a way, I guess, yeah. It’s very personal, but I’m trying also to think about ways I can make things accessible or share knowledge. So it really is not to please myself.  I’m thinking about how to bridge over and make, you know, this experience so very accessible.

Craig: So I would ask a hard question. This is a very violent piece, but you don’t necessarily advocate for violent revolution here? To be resistant.

Charlie: Yeah. I mean, these are reflections, really? So it’s not about… I’m not spelling it all out. But, I mean, for me, it’s a homage, to Filiberto and what he stood for, what he stands for in our memory.

Ana Rosa: In this piece, I want to go to my origin. These pieces of wood was from a tree that was torqued by the Hurricane Maria. I rescued the wood and tried to do a piece with it. Since I work, like I told you before, with the weaving and thread and tradition that I am interested in. 

So there’s a needle that you can see here with the wood threaded. And then you will have from where? Everything it’s come from. The wood. It’s metaphoric, too, because we have here a C clamp. And it’s like… Something need the help of others. So this is what I want to represent.

Craig: So something torn apart by Mary and then gets put back together or helped or rebuilt.

Earl: Yeah. But I like it is like your other piece. Again, you can see how it started, how it ends up, what it does, and then the fact that, you know, everything needs a little C clamp in their life once in a while.

Ana Rosa: It is true. It is metaphoric, I tell you.

Earl: No, I get it is beautiful. Was the wood here, or where was it?

Ana Rosa: Wood they would come from my parents house. My when I was a small.

Earl: Oh, really? So it is mainly personal.

Charlie: He planted this tree. My father. Then Maria torn it down and I rescued it. And it came from there. And I think one of the first pieces that I did in 1991, it was the same, but it was here I came. It’s very from the region, you know. That region of the tree, the origin of my investigations. And then I like the idea of raw and cooked. So you have something that is raw and then has something that is cooked. So you have my print, my fingerprints. Here is. And then you have the other part of the artesian.

Earl: That’s gorgeous. I love that. What do you call it?

Ana Rosa: Contorno de Silado.  Its a series that I did that it has to be with the pieces that are in this series. Has fabric on thread. And then after I own thread, then I construct something. So it’s like, how do you this construct structure to control structures.

Earl: I gotcha. It’s gorgeous piece. Thank you.