Don Jose’s Magic Escobas

Guatemala, especially for an expat artist such as myself, provides one with a constant source of inspiration as well as frustration. This country is a wild sensorial feast of exploding fireworks (I am hearing them as I write), ragged music screaming from abused speakers, horns, bells, flashing LED lights, racing buses, motorcycles, people yelling from street corners while selling their wares, church bells, ear piercing funky recordings blasting sharply from megaphones, woman slapping tortillas into their palms, hand painted shop walls, roosters, dogs, fruit stands… on and on. From this description it doesn’t sound like a far cry from New York City. But it is.

Every day I ride my bike down from our house overlooking majestic Agua Volcano, through the cobblestone streets of the pueblo of San Pedro Las Huertas, and up to my quiet studio at the top the village. Along the way I experience and absorb the raw energy and inspiration of this desperate but magical place.

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So many of the things I see everyday go into the art I am currently making. The handpainted shop walls give me ideas for new colors and textures in my paintings. Rusty rebar jutting out from unfinished buildings of broken concrete and rubble inspire a sculpture. The mounds of masa dough used to make tortillas in the tortillarias may become new bronze pieces. And the colorful plastic household items in the corner tiendas are always catching my eye and calling me to make something from them. I feel lucky to have a constant source of material and new ideas come from these streets I traverse every day.

The initial source of inspiration started when we first moved to Guatemala to get out of the city for four months. We needed a break from the constant moving around we had experienced over the last two years; from Ithaca, New York to Massachusetts then back to New York in the Hudson Valley. Then on to Brooklyn, Central Harlem, and finally East Harlem. And couple that with the birth of our daughter Iza who was not yet 1 before we moved to Guatemala; we were ready for a break. We did some research and chose Lake Atitlan, Guatemala because it was inexpensive, gringo friendly, beautiful and above all, offered a level of serenity that we were desparate for. It was all that, but little did we know what was to come.

After arriving in Guatemala and settling in a little bit, I began to look for some supplies to make art. I quickly learned that, aside from low quality kids materials in a local school supply shop, there were very little supplies to be had aside from tiny jars of over priced acrylic and tempera paint, cheap pens, crayons, markers and colored pencils.

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Walking home late in the afternoon, defeated from searching all day to find supplies, I spotted some brightly colored nylon twine hanging from a rusty screw on the wall of a dilapidated hardware store. So I bought a few balls of it and took it back to my makeshift studio on the porch of our rental house, Casita Blanca. And it all started there.

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I soon aquired some not so straight and far from dry pine wood in a wood shop in the neighboring town, borrowed some basic tools from our gardiner, and set to making some frames for what I hoped would one day be paintings. 

With much effort and frustration I managed to assemble a couple of small frames then later set out to find canvas to stretch on the frames to make some paintings.  That turned out to be a whole new and unfruitful adventure. The process of walking 25 minutes through the forest, along a makeshift plank walkway at the edge of the lake, to the boat dock at the local pueblo was exilerating and fun at first. But being that it was the rainy season and there were days on end when walking through the rain for hours was the norm, I began to grow weary.

One particularly rainy day, I woke up and ate a surprisingly quiet breakfast with my family in front of the fire while we discussed what we would do for the day. While content and elated to sit quietly with my family and just eat, I secretly dreaded another slog to the boat dock and further still a 30 minute ride on the choppy lake into town on a tired boat where I finally had to walk through loud busy streets in search of canvas I feared did not exist. 

At a certain moment of contemplating this trip into town I caught a glimpse of the nylon string (called pita) and had the idea to use that to wrap onto the frames I had constructed to make a colorful textile piece in a minimal neo-geometric composition. It all started from there.

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With the new pita plastico work coming into fruition, I decided to try to find and work with as many interesting and easily acquired materials as I could find around the lake. I began to purchase construction materials like concrete and rebar, cleaning supplies like brooms and rags, used clothing in stores called pacas which are the equivalent of a thrift stores in the US, and fabrics that were sold in the local market among other things. Using these materials is nothing new in art making these days, but I found that the things I could find locally were interesting and lent themselves to a unique and cohesive look to what I was making.

So began a quest to dive into the unique culture of Guatemala as it exists today. Through remote dirt roads of the Mayan pueblos in the country  to the smoggiest, noisiest hyper sensorial parts of Guatemala city, there is constant discovery and inspiration that drives me to make new art that represents the depth and complicated beauty of this culture in transition from ancient living to existence in the modern world. It is truly a place on the edge. There is vast and rampant poverty that pervades the country and there is a small amount of families that hold massive wealth. It is a culture of extremes. But within this culture are some of the kindest people one will ever come across. The smiles and outgoing happy energy are the things that keep me going here. At the same time there are seemingly insurmountable frustrations that drive one to the brink of completely loosing it and booking the soonest flight back home.(though returning to the USA these days seems more and more unlikely). 

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So what does all of this have to do with Don Jose’s magic escobas? And what the hell are escobas anyway? (by the way they are brooms). See the featured image at the top of this page. Don Jose struggles to sell his wares. There is still a market in this small town where my studio is, but for how long? I have only seen him once in my two years that I have been here. Back in the day he likely made his rounds daily; provided tortillas to his family with the sales of his brooms. These days who knows? But the fact that I can, on any given day, see someone like this on the street, buy up his stuff, and make art about it is incredible. Coming from a painting background and running dry on ideas, this world I now occupy has given me a creative rebirth and inspiration that will help carry me through the rest of my career. And I can thank my wife and family for supporting me through this time of uncertain growth.