Marcos Pavón Estrada – Interview
Hope always comes first
By Reinaldo Cedeño Pineda
Translation by Carlos Laboada and Ellen Rosenzweig
The infinite will of a human being. A true masterpiece. Cuban rural mythology. ‘I paint from my imagination.’ A member of the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists
“I’ll only teach you how to read, Marcos, my Marcos.” His mother’s eyes were wet with tears, like morning dew on the mountains.
“No, Mom, I can do it. Put the pencil in my mouth.”
Ramona Estrada wrote the five vowels in the workbook. The boy leaned over, pressing together his lips and teeth, and copied the letters, right underneath his mother’s. Slowly, gradually, the letters appeared: A, E, I…
School was far away, on the other side of the mountain, and there were eight children. So Ramona decided that she would teach her kids and others living nearby, in that land between Perronales and Aguas Claras, now part of Holguín province, where Mother Nature was queen and the horse her messenger, the river her mirror.
And she did more than teach them how to read and write. “My mother did beautiful drawings, of little flowers and houses, all naïf, and she put them up on the walls and on the table, and I looked on, very attentively. One day I said to her:
“Buy some me colored pencils and a notebook, Mom… I’m going to draw.”
She couldn’t believe it. While his brothers grew taller and wandered through the woods, he would stay on the porch and wait. He would listen to the radio, or the songs of the mockingbirds. And he observed the intense green all around him.
Poverty was a permanent caller at home, sheltered under palm fronds. He explains, “We talked about cassava and yams,” but the land was also rich in stories, that’s why this man, who seemed predestined to paint landscapes, asserts that he doesn’t copy the things he sees. “What I enjoy most is to paint from my imagination.”
OF WITCHES AND ELVES
After Grandpa finished dinner, he would go outside and lean his chair, against the palm-thatched wall. The night slowly darkened every branch, until all of it was totally engulfed; then he would place the rough-hewn seat under his arm, go inside the house and say: “The whores are already screwing around out there.” And the “whores” were the witches whom he sensed were flying across the river or over the hilltop, or even over the rooftops.
One day, when the artist was running out of things to paint, the memory of his grandfather came back to him, generously bringing with it all the rural folk imagery, filled with mischievous characters and little devils.
“Famous writers depict their birthplaces, and my paintings depict the place where I was born, with its elves, gremlins and witches. I started to paint them in 1985.
“I wanted to rescue all that treasure, and that’s why I’m painting the series on rural mythology. Old people in the countryside used to talk about these things, but those traditions have been lost, little by little. I paint it all to keep it alive, so it won’t be forgotten.”
Marcos Pavón gets along quite well with those beings. He gave the witches big purple dresses, because “to me, purple is a macabre color,” and he portrays the gremlins as harmless, naked little black creatures who bathe children in lakes and ponds. “At one time, all of them were part of the people’s history.”
For example, La bruja de los niños muertos (The Dead Children’s Witch) is impressive for its vivid brushstrokes. It is the story of a woman whose children died without being baptized, and later on she dies as well. Her ghost wanders around, pitifully begging for her children to receive the sacrament.
“They say that when a witch stoops down to pick up mustard seeds, daylight may catch her by surprise, and that’s what I have painted. But not all the witches are ugly or evil; I have brought some of them down from their broomsticks and put them to sweep up backyards. And I’ve painted them with flowers, because they say that witches brought the most beautiful flowers from the Canary Islands. There is grace in their movements, depending on the context in which you paint them.”
When he decided to paint his cousin Paco, the cousin looked at him in disbelief: “Hey, what am I doing in a painting with witches?” So the artist reached into his endless treasure trove of imagination and decided to create his own fable.
“I painted my cousin with a bottle of rum on a little table, looking at a clock marking 12 midnight. It’s said that when you get drunk after midnight, you can see dancing witches and elves. I didn’t make that up!
“Right now while I’m talking with you, ideas are coming to my mind…. I love to paint my witches.”
IF THE BRUSH FALLS, I KEEP PAINTING
Intuition, spontaneity, and simplicity, combined with natural talent, total determination and art lessons, imparted under very special circumstances, have shaped his skills.
“In 1963 I was admitted to the Frank País Hospital in Havana, which had a special school. It had a painting and sculpture teacher named Norah Lamboley, and it was the first time I ever had any formal training in the fine arts.
“Everything was quite informal, she had to teach many kids. I was always in the classroom and after she finished she would leave me the key, and it was my studio.
“I painted and made things, which she evaluated and helped me correct. I also discovered the beauty of black and white drawings.”
A special mouth device made it possible for him to learn how to do wood burning, but that wasn’t enough for Marcos. Upon returning from the hospital to Holguín, he enrolled in the Fine Arts School and graduated in 1969. As a result, since 1970 he has worked in the Manuel Dositeo Aguilera Cultural Center.
Painting is always a challenge, but for you it must have been twofold.
“Getting started is the toughest part. Standing before a white canvass, with nothing to grab onto. Then you develop an idea and you have to create a composition; the rest is just working it all out. After the first brushstrokes, a figure comes out. You get very excited and become very fond of what you are creating… then you add the colors.
“I start with a sketch, and then I paint directly on it with oils. When I have sketched the figure, I give it a touch of shadow, and let it dry and start putting in the colors. If I’m drawing a straight line with a thin flat brush, I turn it sideways in my mouth. I get very tired, I’m an old man already.”
Honestly, what we’ve seen seems almost impossible – doing those paintings with your mouth!
“There are people who don’t believe that I paint with my mouth; I’ve had to do public demonstrations. That’s the toughest part, because I get nervous. There was a time when a boy threw himself under my wheelchair and crawled out. In many places, people crowd around me to see me paint.
“I paint at home, in a room overlooking the street, but I also do abstractions, and I don’t use models. My easel goes up and down by means of a special device I myself created.
“I belong to the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, whose headquarters are in Liechtenstein. They suggest that I paint landscapes and flowers, which isn’t what I like, but I understand that they do that to make decorative postcards they can sell, to provide us with an income.”
Don’t you get frustrated when the brush falls out of your mouth?
“That has happened, but then I call my wife Alba, or someone else, to pick it up for me. I don’t stop when that happens; I keep going. My mother used to help me prepare the paints and frames, and now Alba and Argelio Cobeilla, a painter and friend, help me.
What about colors?
“I like strong colors. Colors convey a message, and the purer they are, the stronger the message. I like yellow, as it resembles sunlight, I love yellows. In general, I like contrasting colors, because they make the figures stronger. I don’t think abstraction says anything, and paintings should make some kind of statement.
“There are days when I paint too much and others when I don’t paint anything. I put people’s struggles on canvas, because of their strength and dynamic movement, which is why I’ve painted a series on Cuban history. I even painted a Virgin Mary, but in my own way.”
Do you have any particular technical or spiritual influence, or do you identify with any specific painter?
I admire Wifredo Lam’s concept, with pointy figures and angles. I also like Amelia Peláez and Víctor Manuel. I feel superior to many, but inferior to others. It’s not easy to become well-known in Holguín and eastern Cuba, although I’ve been to all the municipalities. Almost all the media outlets are in Havana, and it’s easy for any half-baked painter to get recognized there.
We’ve seen a documentary about your life, in which a girl asks you to paint her portrait, but she wants you to paint what she’s like inside. How do you achieve that?
If you get to know the person you can do it, and that’s what I did. The bluebird is a symbol of the freedom she believed she had, with sensuality in her breast, and the violin is transformed into her body, given her fondness for music.”
Marcos, one of your paintings deals with the drama of the war in Viet Nam, which has marked all of contemporary history. How did that painting come about?
“Well, it’s a completely symbolic kind of painting. In an abstract background, you see a bomb falling and a boy hiding in a sort of shelter: that’s all. It is like an upside-down tear. I painted it while the Viet Nam war was raging, thinking about the children, who are the ones who suffer the most.”
But the boy doesn’t look afraid, as one might expect.
“No, he’s not afraid, he’s just waiting. Children have the right to the future, no matter what the circumstances.”
Did you continue with this line of work?
“Some suggested that I continue painting on that subject, and with that style, but I told them that I prefer not to be tied down to anything, that I’d rather paint what I feel inside, each day.”
Since we’re talking about a topic that’s so sensitive for the United States, where some of your works are being shown, can you tell us your opinion about the cultural relations between Cuba and that country?
“I’ve always thought that any cultural or human discrimination is an aberration, and that art has no frontiers.”
Marcos Pavón Estrada was born on June 30, 1938. Now, at over 60 years old, he has had a number of important exhibitions in his province, in Cuba and abroad (including one in Venezuela).
Polio left his hands shaking and useless. With the greatest of efforts he holds a cigarette between his fingers and brings it to his lips, but his mind and his will are intact.
During our conversation, his memories overflow and tears come to his eyes more than once. But the gremlins’ mischief can also be seen in his eyes.
We can wonder whether Marcos would had been a painter if he hadn’t been disabled. Even he himself has wondered that, but he insists that he would have been a painter no matter what. The truth is that his painting stands on its own merits and doesn’t need any crutch, artistic or otherwise.
Just listening to him is a learning experience, because he is someone who knows how to express his gratitude. “I consider myself a lucky man because my family loves me. Life has granted me almost everything I’ve asked for.”
What do you do when you’re not painting?
“I feel I’m wasting my time.”
Have you painted yourself, reflecting your disability?
“I’ve painted myself up close, in portraits. I don’t paint misfortune, it doesn’t work that way with me, and I don’t paint myself as a handicapped person. I always have hope in my heart.”