by Ricky Toledano
“A problem – in order to be a problem – has to be able to be solved by hand. If not, it is not actually a problem. It’s nothing! It’s just a little knot in the mind” was the wisdom of my father, a man who tore wood apart with perfection, mixed cement and cooked; he planted trees and vegetables. He could also draw and paint with the accuracy of photography. Even the delicateness of calligraphy was not beyond the reach of the talent embedded in his hands. And it was exactly my father whom I recalled while going through the halls of the Rio de Janeiro Cultural Center of the Federal Justice, accompanied by a friend, Wladimir Alberto Martins, whose talents remind me of my father, as well as for having shared a similar story of migration and the arts.
“So, what did you think?” I asked him in a whisper as not to disturb other visitors of the exhibition of contemporary works – very contemporary works. I assume they were installations: words scattered about on the floor and the strands from which hung pieces of torn text and photographs.
“I found some things interesting, but it was a bit confusing. I didn’t quite get it.”
Wladimir is even as polite as my father, so I decided to set him free: “I hate contemporary art. I fail to see what this adds to the world.”
“I confess I do not like it very much,” he said distractedly. He was paying more attention to the space around us, looking up, finding all the mistakes in the moldings, the paint and the walls.
I followed his eyes on the high flights they took up to the lofty ceilings before commenting on how I am usually more impressed by the architecture of such public spaces than the contemporary art exhibitions that host them. Pointing out the details of the building, a mixture of architectural styles that was muddled in a fashion typical of the early 1900s – according to Wladimir – emulating an eclectic wannabe mix of all the European architectural styles from neo-classical to rococo at the same time. I always found the landmark building beautiful; I would never have noticed all the flaws he pointed out inside the halls, explaining where and how he would correct the lamentable condition of the walls and painting, according to his profession as an art restorer, a job to which little importance is given at the present moment in a city where there is hardly money for teachers or police.
On the iron railing of the huge staircase of the main hall, he gave me a whispered lecture on the historical architecture of Rio de Janeiro, a subject that has always fascinated me, since it is part of a taste I have for the construction of old, built during a time that prioritized beauty and the harmony over functionality and economy in the construction.
Walking down the staircase after we had bored of the exhibition was the calmer moment he took to better tailor my acerbic complaint about the artwork: “Actually, I’ve seen a lot of contemporary art that I like a lot. I think what you are trying to say is that you do not like conceptual art.”
I stood corrected, pausing to contemplate the difference in terms as I halted in the middle of a floating marble slab hung by sumptuous iron grillwork that had been imported from an English foundry (there had been no cast iron in Brazil at the time, Wladmir had taught me).
“I do not like it at all!” I replied after my pause, “And I think that you do not either.”
“It’s not really my thing, actually.”
“Do you know why?” I asked him, continuing down a few more stairs. Surprised by my inquiry, he looked at m carefully. “It is because you know how to solve problems with your hands. You have the means to create plastically, visually. If you only had concepts, you would write. “
Now it was his turn to stop and stare at the stairs.
Por Halley Pacheco de Oliveira [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, da Wikimedia Commons
The moment when Wladimir realized what a real problem was – and the power he possessed to fix them with his hands – was when part of a relief ornament had detached itself and fell from the facade of an old building he was restoring. Located in what is popularly known as Sardine Alley – for the festive grilling of fish and flowing beer at the end of the day – but what is properly known as Largo de Santa Rita, a colonial quarter in the port region and one of the oldest districts of Rio de Janeiro.
Damn! he must have thought when seeing his misfortune. Now what?
The biggest challenge of that surprise was not actually what to do, but when. Wladimir knew how to restore the coat-of-arms, but the deadline of the restoration contract was about to end. They were in the very last week of the project, and – looking at the broken emblem that would also include figurative work since it had two hands with fingers as if in motion (the symbol of the Catholic third order of St. Francis of Penance) – he knew he needed two weeks just to remake that ornament, according to the proper techniques of making a clay mold with volumetric calculations and drafting the phytomorphic relief of the ornament.
If that weren’t enough, he must have let out another Damn! when he noticed the piece had been made of plaster.
“Why? What difference does it make?” was my layman’s question as he was telling me the story.
“Water damages plaster. Yet it was not the first time I had encountered pieces like it that were made over a hundred years ago. How did they survive all this time? I know of no technique to do so. It was really strange! I could never figure it out. I even asked the acquaintance of mine at IPHAN (the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage); he didn’t know either. I have no idea how that is able to last centuries! “
As if he had been speaking another language, my face could not feign comprehension. That is because Wladimir, in fact, was describing manual knowledge – the same one that cooks or builds and solves the problems that my father had called real ones – and such knowledge easily escapes words. So much so that my father was easily irritated by his own failure to express himself or to delegate tasks. It is hard to find equal portions of both the ability to do things and to describe things in the same person. And it is no wonder that geniuses are often known for their bad tempers. Those with the most balanced talents, however, are the teachers of this world, and I believe that Wladimir would make a good one. He patiently explained to me the difference between plaster and concrete and the basic techniques by which plaster is most used for interiors, dry places. He could not see how plaster had been utilized for exterior parts exposed to rain. Such ornaments had to have been waterproofed in some way he could not imagine. According to his logic, it could only have been prepared with oil… but how? And what technology was that that has since been lost?
I was imagining my hogaza, a Spanish bread that includes semolina and plenty of olive oil. How to explain that one point of the dough that I just know? And to explain how and when to add olive oil? It is also part of a manual and physical knowledge I would fail to delegate. Every recipe of bread is the same: flour, water, yeast and a pinch of salt. Yet it should be so easy. That basic recipe fans out into an infinite array of possibilities. While some recipes are more useful than others in transmitting knowledge, they remain merely conceptual – words – at best directing an individual to an understanding that will only be revealed red-handed, so to speak. Nothing replaces the memory in the skin: it is a learning retained by the eyes and the hands and not by words.
And like my dough, Wladimir could not express his understanding of cement mortar. That is because, in fact, it was intuition. His observation had been worked over and over again in all the masonry mixes used in the construction and restoration he has done over the years until those exact points of his doughs became tacit habit. And it is only when knowledge reaches this level that the rules can be broken:
“I made the ornament in three days,” confessed Wladimir, with the sweet smile of a child whose mischief had worked.
It was an instinct he had upon analyzing the broken piece. He felt in his skin that he could redo the coat-of-arms directly in cement, bypassing all the clay modeling procedures, but not without certain risk.
My face remained lost and incited more explanation as to what was so bold about that risk: “It is because clay is malleable, cement is not. Once set, you have even less time to manipulate it than normal.”
Sautéing, I thought, seeking a parallel for my hands. You have to be quick and attentive. You cannot do it distractedly or leave the stove to do something else.
“Then I just did it by hand, kind of working as a sculptor, at times lapidating”, he tried to articulate words for what he only knows silently.
He had broken the normal rules and it worked. More importantly, he delivered the facade within the deadline, because, in the end, honoring one’s word shall always be more valuable than being gifted.
I remembered well when my father confessed that he knew I had broken the rules. I used to skip school. Thinking I was far too slick, I never imagined he could have caught me in the act, as I had been walking right past him in the window of the restaurant where he sat with his clients in downtown – miles from where I should have been.
With great laughter in a conversation between adults years later, I asked him why he had never said anything, why he hadn’t he punished me.
“You’d always been a good kid and an excellent student. If the school had complained, I would have done my duty and punished you. But I knew that you had everything under control. There comes a time in life that you have to know how and when to flee the rules; otherwise, you’ll get nowhere in life.”
Reflecting today, I recognize the wisdom in his words, but I would complement them by saying that I think my father meant that breaking the rules – correctly – can only be done after having proven a certain discipline. And discipline is something that cannot be feigned. Either you practice it or you do not practice it. Either you know how to do something or you do not know. Discipline is proven in action; it will never be done so conceptually.
Where I went on that day, my father never knew and he never asked. It might be that he already knew that I was going to the Art Institute of Chicago from the direction I had been taking with friends, judging from the window of the restaurant where he sat pretending not to see me, one of his eight beloved creations. It was exactly on that the day, long ago, when I began to contemplate what discipline looked like, when absorbing the entire line of the sketches and drawings of Picasso’s Minotaur sequence. On that day in the museum, they stood side-by-side on a wall of a large gallery. I looked at each one, noticing what had been repeated and what had changed from frame to frame. I was a seventeen-year-old boy, standing and gaping, amazed by that artist who until then had been just another famous abstract painter to me. Coincidentally, my friends and I had just passed by that downtown square where a monumental-sized iron statue by Picasso stands; it is an abstract portrait of a woman that would never led me to believe the artist had such talent as an illustrator. I remember clearly seeing how he repeated and repeated and repeated that Minotaur theme until he had the certainty of the alignment between his eyes and hand to execute exactly what he wanted. I spied on how the great master improvised, breaking the old rules of fine art to create his own style – which included that huge iron statue in a square in the center of my hometown, so very close to the restaurant where my father sat witnessing how his son improvised his day when the rules no longer suited him.
I had been by that statue hundreds of times, I had always thought it was a horse!
J. Crocker [Attribution or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wladimir’s improvisation also had its origins. He excelled in an art class when quite young. Seeing the obvious, the teacher told him that he had a talent for painting. He never forgot the compliment but decided to save it for a less hectic time. His success in serving as a waiter in the bars, restaurants and buffets of his city of Araraquara, São Paulo, had only been increasing, as only it could have for a handsome, polite and responsible young man. His jobs were always taken seriously, as the sincere means to attain the normal aspirations of the young person who wants to be successful and see the world around him. Even so, the memory in his skin leaked in the quiet hours: he could be watched as he took a paper napkin and drew on the counter of the bar. The talent impressed and seduced, even when it was not the intention.
“… Except in Fortaleza,” he explained to me. I had asked him how she he had come to Rio de Janeiro and hear about his adventure throughout Brazil after he left São Paulo. He reached Ceará at the age of 22, and the experience in Northeastern Brazil was described as “complicated”. He tried to get a job as a waiter on the beach, in the hotels and resorts. Nothing went well for him on the coast. “It was the only time in my life that I could not find work. No one would hire me. “
I could see the text between the lines, but I could not read them: such discretion sometimes interferes with communication and I had to yank an explanation from him.
“I was told that it was the customers that wouldn’t want to be served by a black man, but I don’t think it was just the customers.”
They didn’t want a black man, I completed his thought. After the brief silence of astonishment, I asked myself, What…? I tried to imagine that guy on the seashore who had the courage to throw that half-excuse into Wladimir’s face. That imbecil could have lied, not answered, anything! I thought. I surrendered to the incredulity and guffawed. Is it truly bizarre how people lose so much by being racist? Such stupidity is laughable! Lose a good guy like Wladimir…?
The COBAL of Botafogo was not going to let him get away so easily. The era in which the district became fashionable coincided with the arrival of Wladimir in Rio de Janeiro, a city infamous for its lack of professionalism in service. Despite having just arrived from the Northeast with his life in a bag, it took no longer than a week to find a place that needed good professionals. His congeniality and reliability had won over once again.
Upon arrival in what is called the heart of Brazil, he found the solidarity of the natives of Rio de Janeiro becoming; they readily guided him as he jumped off the bus at Novo Rio Bus Station to the City Center with the fast and easy tips that are typical of Rio. He asked to be left in the middle of everything, and it was in Cinelândia where he stepped off the public transport to behold the beauty of the Municipal Theater, a copy of the Opera de Paris. A map of the city was bought right there at the nearest newsstand, and it was the one he used to locate himself and find the “singles hotel” in Tiradentes Square – and then on to another boarding house in Copacabana, where the bathroom was no longer that wretched one at the end of the corridor, a damp, barely ventilated place with “rust-colored tiles that were once white,” according to Wladimir, who tags colors with the exactitude expected of a restorer. That room of 3m² – where the bed was a mattress that looked like a canoe with its curled up ends and sunken middle and its fan ingeniously strapped to the wall with a wire and hook that made confounding noise – was all the reason he needed to escape on his first day to see “the Marvelous City”, walking from the Center all the way to Copacabana, where he was fortunate to find the more suitable and vacant boarding house. On the way back to Centro, he encountered the joy of his first samba in Glória, making the pitstop right there to drink two cans of beers before facing the vile singles’ hotel in Tiradentes Square, because it was “a place you could only sleep drunk”.
The very next day, he was already in the boarding house in Copacabana. A few days later he was already working at COBAL, and two years later he was doing well as the manager of the place he worked – but his ambitions did not stop there.
With the assurance his work provided, Wladimir returned to drawing on napkins and taking his notebook around with him to make sketches and drawings wherever he went; to collect his ideas and observations. A stable life allowed him to go back to an art course, as he had done more than ten years before, but his search always ended up with the name EBA – the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. So? Why not? he thought, enrolling before he had any idea of what college meant.
After two years of the course he almost gave up. Taking the decision to stop his managerial job to dedicate himself to his studies, he turned to working shifts at night in the fashionable bars and restaurants of Botafogo, Leblon, Urca and Lapa, where he finally had found an apartment. That was when that the penny dropped, realizing that “university is not for the poor: although it is free, you have expenses!” Wladimir told me of the days of money was counted in hand either to pay for transportation or to eat, but not both. “That’s not all: if college is not for the poor, what about Fine Arts then?” He folded his arms to punctuate the explanation of the incessant costs of paints, paper, canvases, all the art materials that are not those simple ones used to start a hobby.
But the worst of the best had not even begun.
It was during the last restoration of the Sala Cecilia Meirelles theatre in 2011 that a classmate gave Wladimir a heads-up: “You work well with your hands, doing modelling: take a resume over there!”
Sent to the coordinator of ornamental restoration, the first look frightened. College taught him nothing of it: ornaments, corbels, capitals – all in lime mortar. He spied how they made everything out of molds in the atelier, but he did not quite figure out how liquid silicone worked. “I think I can do it,” he replied, and was relatively successful on the first attempt. Some trials had flaws, but he was improving rapidly, since he was quite at home with this work that required natural sensibility with the hands. “The piece tells you what it wants; technical procedures are not quite the same thing in practice. Great, make a silicone mold – Okay! But now do it upside down. How am I going to do that? Technical data does not teach us. I made my own mixture with glass powder, a thicker mass, with sawdust powder, I put plaster – nobody uses that – it’s a recipe of my own. “
With an internship for art restoration in the mornings, college in the afternoon and waiter shifts at night, Wladimir would only sleep four hours per night. He dealt with this schedule for as long as he could, until he finally took the much more difficult decision to quit working altogether in order to invest his time in art restoration. “That was when my mother started sending me R$300 per month to help me finish college”, he said. Not only did I smile at the gesture of tenderness from his mother, but how the universe had conspired in his favor.
Travelling in my mind to see him work the year he had taken leave from university, Wladimir introduced me to a world of restoration on the facade of the Palácio das Princesas in Recife. And he also described easier works, such as the restoration of the columns and handrails of the Casa da Rui Barbosa, which was a simpler matter of painting. It is the facades, however, that always require attention, since they are old and exposed to the elements. So Wladimir was strung up several times on the scaffolding in front of buildings that are part of the historical patrimony of Rio de Janeiro, be it the Jockey Club, the Riachuelo Theater (the former Cine Palácio) or the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura library. The latter was where a contractor saw him working high above the street and called upon him to work on a facade in the SAARA (the Society of Friends of the Adjacencies of Rua da Alfândega), the blocks of old attached houses that comprise the largest open-air market in Rio de Janeiro. The nickname SAARA has a double meaning (Sahara), since its shops, traditionally of Arab immigrants, as a whole remind one of the labyrinths and bazaars of the Orient. Many Arabs have moved on, and the Chinese have now move in, taking responsibility for the old facades, and it is where Wladimir is currently restoring his the 5th since 2016.
“What’s it like working on the scaffold, Wladimir?” I asked curiously. Although I do not have problems with heights, I do not imagine myself sky-walking on such framework.
“Wow, it’s high! Don’t go there!” he laughed. Wladimir then confessed that the most interesting discovery was to see the details up close and to discover that the ornaments were not made to be seen at the distance of two palms. “Up close, it looks like they look like they have mistakes, but actually they were made and placed to be seen from below and at a distance. They create an illusion: from the bottom looking up it looks like everything is symmetrical, sharp, framed, but actually there are lots of adjustments.”
Most uncomfortable about his work is dealing with the hellish noise in a city that is already raucous. Wladimir told me that it is when everyone stops hammering and turns off the saws for lunch that it is time for him to enjoy the peace of working alone. The return of the workers signals his lunch hour, after he had the moment of calm in which he could appreciate the different and privileged angles of the city, scribbling drawings from the rooftop in the notebook he totes everywhere, always prepared to capture not only what is seen in the world but what he sees inside himself.
After the contemporary art exhibition, we walked back to the neighborhood where we both live, passing through Lapa, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most iconic haunts, a true Rio de Janeiro bohemian cornucopia, where I bumped into the shy, swift look of an indigenous woman sitting on the ground next to her black velvet tarp, a scattered showcase of necklaces, bracelets, and other beaded jewelry she wove quickly and impeccably. As a whole, the showcase looked like a Persian carpet filled with vibrant colors, thrown on the gray dusty ground.
On the same sidewalk followed an artist who made curious oratories made of recycled materials. Behind him on the wall was the street painting by one of my neighborhood favorites – a fantastic painter in my view – his caricatured self-portraits reflect the life of the street.
And Lapa is street.
Glancing back before entering a bar where we would end our excursion, I took in again those great street artists we had just passed, reflecting on how I would like to join them together with others in an exhibition at the same Cultural Center where we have just left.
“You know that it was the plasterers – slaves – who made these pieces I redo today. Whiteman had the ideas, but who executed them, who took the hard part of architecture, was the Blackman – something that has not changed much.” Wladimir continued with my art history lesson as we sat, finally and comfortably at a table, while the waiter was arranging a beer for us. “We still have these bruises from the past. Unfortunately, manual labor is not as valued as intellectual labor.”
Poft! went the cap of our beer bottle, punctuating this last sentence of his. Words that are not to be forgotten.
Because they are part of the reason for much that is wrong in this world.
“I’ll give you an example: I worked in a restoration project where the plaster mason was Mr. Antônio, an elder black gentleman who did an excellent job. And I was that mulatto on the job that spoke both languages. “
“Huh?” I asked, confused. I was lost in this last detail of his account.
“It’s just that way back when, there was always a mulatto who was the translator between the main house and the slaves. Nowadays, it is the administration and the laborers. And many times, I play that role of that mulatto, a kind of foreman, got it? A peon, but I did more … “
“The stuccadore peon,” I finished with a smirk.
“There you go!” Clearer than that would have been impossible.
“So I told them ‘only Mr. Antônio to do that’, just the way they wanted it, in the timeframe they wanted, but the architecture management wanted to avoid him, since his hour bank was running high. Then came the reply: ‘Again? Soon Mr. Antônio will be making more than I am!'”
I could only laugh – not only because of the architect’s misfortunate faux-pas, but at the simplicity with which Wladimir told his stories calmly, devoid of rancor.
“See? I told you! We still have these bruises from the past, man. I’m telling you…”
Wladimir’s objective and placid observation also reminded me of my father, who would spit out a pearl once in a while after a long time of stillness, working in silence and without speaking. With all the disadvantages that manual labor can have – besides it being less valued – it comes with the great blessing of relaxing the mind. And that is because it is working with the hands that the mind is led to concentrate on a single point, as if it were a meditation, softening the oscillations of thoughts and emotions, thereby allowing for a certain clarity.
Anything done with an agitated mind will be revealed, whether it is in the broken glasses when doing the wash-up, losing things within one’s own house, or even a message, be it visual or written, that is lost or hidden behind a noisy intellectuality that is obscure, inconclusive, and does not let one enjoy beauty.
(That is why I implore you: If you do not some manual ability, I highly recommend you start as soon as possible, even if it is just cleaning your own house, so that you see how it cleans the mind.)
“That is my issue with conceptual art, Wladimir,” I explained, trying to describe my aversion more maturely than with the gross remark I impatiently ejected an hour earlier in the museum. “I confess that I have indeed seen some conceptual works of art that led me to reflect, but they have usually failed to impress me. I cannot help but wonder if it would not be better for such artists to seek the art of writing as a medium, since – most of the time – their work leans so heavily on the words to explain them at any rate, and it seems apparent such artists do not possess a visual discipline. No?”
“Perhaps. But in the end, taste is taste … and there are many people captivated by conceptual art.
“Speaking of taste: your favorite painter?” I always wanted to ask him about this, because if a discipline communicates so much about an individual, one’s tastes, perhaps, express even more.
“Cezanne,” he replied without hesitation, revealing that he likes the expression of the French master: somewhat harsh, savage, but at the same time delicate. “It’s caboclo, you know? It is field work, but with sensitivity; fruit that is brutish yet measured. Another inspiration would be the great Da Vinci. He was really amazing; just his studies and sketches were already a work of art. Often his sketches were even more of a work of art than their end result.”
“The process was already a work of art,” I completed with another smirk, turning my gaze to my memory of the sequence of Picasso’s works.
He thought he read my thoughts.
“OK. You think they do not go through the process then?” he asked, intending to verify what he thought had flashed in my mind. As someone who has studied art, Wladimir was well aware of the mistaken conclusions of those criticizing post-modernism. Playing the devil’s advocate, he unfolded the inapplicability of the futile arguments of I-could-have-done-that or a-child-could-have-done-that to ridicule conceptual art, if not for the simple fact that the heckler “did not do that”, nor was it realized that the conceptual work often requires more skills than one imagines.
Even so, I am of the opinion that any concept expressed without technique will be unconvincing, if it even communicates, either in words or visually. With the arrival of Modernity in the nineteenth century, when the individual gaze of the artist in the West turned inward, it began an era that broke with the old rules of how to portray beauty in the world around. Visual and literary artists began not only to portray what they saw, but how they were feeling inside. But all the great artists of that era – from the Spanish master, Goya, in the nineteenth century, with his portraits of nightmares and politics, to Kandinsky, Mondrian and Picasso, who stretched the limits of art until they even deconstructed it to its most basic elements in the twentieth century – still demonstrated skill when improvising and researching. After that great passage in the history of art, Postmodernism led to the very questioning of beauty and art itself, but I am afraid I can only appreciate such undefinition historically, philosophically even, but not aesthetically:
“After Marcel Duchamp and Rothko, the genius in that line of research is kind of rehashed and bland for me. I suspect that many of these conceptual artists are hiding in the debris of that deconstruction of art because it is easier to create without manipulating the elements of point, line, shape, color, value, texture, and space with the hands, thereby leaving them with concepts, intellectualized with a lot of -isms to qualify them, but very much leaning on words that often do not say much either. Focusing on neither one language nor another, it leaves a great margin for a failure in communication …” I further jested: “Of course, that could never be the case with you who does pretty well speaking both languages of the house.”
The cheerful and intuitive waiter already brought another beer the native way of doing so without asking. Outside, I saw the walking poet on the street, trying to sell his booklet.
“I guess language requires a certain practice, right?” replied Wladimir.
What my father might never have known was the level of my practice – or subversion, that is. My almost twin brother was born with all the artistic talent of my father. He was a prodigy, drawing hyperrealism as a kid. Although I seemed to have been born with an above-average skill for visual art, I simply could not compete with my younger brother. I manipulated color, more or less, whereas my brother was not much interested in color: his power with a pencil was effortless and unbeatable. My father had nothing to teach him.
I could have choked that runt.
Yet my little brother inexplicably had this crappy, illegible handwriting. So, in addition to my curiosity about gastronomy, my father also observed how I naturally measured the space of a line of words and drew well-rounded letters. He began teaching me calligraphy and the lettering he did for his clients, in that time before the computer retired such skills. And it was precisely at that time before the technological explosion of communications that those manual techniques my father taught me served me well – very, very well.
To this day, there is hardly a signature I cannot forge. I see clearly where each letter begins and ends, whether it is pulled by a left-hander or pushed by a right-hander. I see the pattern of space between letters. I know in a glance how much space I need to fit a line of words.
My father laughed when I showed him how I could do his own signature, my mother’s, and even my brother’s ridiculous chicken scratch. They were identical! But my father would probably find nothing humorous about his note to my dean, excusing my absence from school.
If I had the audacity to use that dean’s signature – a curious, ornate signature that I practiced on a sheet of paper until it flowed beautifully, free-hand – I could have gone to another level of crime. I never had the courage. I finished my life of forgery right there and never again visited it until one day, some 25 years later, sitting on the floor for a Sanskrit literacy course. The first classes looked like a drawing class, the teacher showing how to drag the pen to write each letter, just like kindergarten. Just one look at each letter, however, and I saw that there was no challenge for me in writing them, whatsoever. The difficulty was in reading Sanskrit, which I still do dragging and out loud as if a child in kindergarten.
Due to my good grades back in high school, my dean and parents were uninterested in my studies – unlike my unruly little brother at the time and many of my friends with children today. Parents seem to be undergoing a constant torture of homework these days, together with a stress on performance, even when their children are doing well.
I imagine that today’s pressures and concerns are indeed different. Parents want to prepare their children as well as possible for a competitive market where the intellectual material to be covered nowadays is extensive, without taking into account that intellectual work itself – still assured today by the syndicates of diplomas of the world – is increasingly threatened by the advancement of technology, as computers are diagnosing illnesses and managing contracts better than the professionals traditionally prepared to do so.
Much of my father’s graphic work had been rendered obsolete by the computer, but his artistic insight was still much appreciated. I think it is for that reason that, if I had children, I would do as my father did and teach them how to observe beauty and instruct them in the language of the elements behind it and let them create. I would teach them how to do things with your hands to solve the constant problems of life, be it taking care of health, food, home and clothes, or to taking care of animals and plants. I would instill discipline in all their creations, instructing them to fulfill their words to the best of their ability, because – in the words of Indonesian writer Andrea Hirata, in his lovely novel about an impoverished school with its unassuming hero of a schoolteacher, The Rainbow Troops – “No matter what kind of work we do, we must have discipline. Talented people with a bad attitude are useless.”
“And if your child were to become a conceptual artist?” asked Wladimir, after hearing my stories and thoughts.
I choked on my beer and almost spat. I laughed not only at his sagacious query, but my own reflex that said it all, though unwittingly.
“Hunger strike!” I replied, still choking. Recovering, I continued, “Well, I’d give up beer and begin extra strong doses of acceptance, I guess. But I’d get him if he ever tried to ditch school!” Reflecting with a little more seriousness, I concluded, “Well, let him be the best conceptual artist he can.”
The best conceptual art I’ve seen is in the square next to that museum that I visited that long-ago day my father had caught me ditching school. Back then, however, the work still did not exist. It was only in 2006 that the gigantic Cloudgate, by the famous artist Sir Anish Kapoor, stood as a symbol of Chicago. That solid mass of stainless steel looks fluid, like a huge drop of mercury that reflects everything and the whole city around. It’s just beautiful.
I read some pieces trying to unfold that sculpture that is known locally as The Bean, due to its shape. There was talk of the “ambiguity of dimensions”, “abstraction, reflection and luminosity”, “the balance of space and time,” and other vague and elaborate concepts that were unconvincing. One of the good things about getting older is not pretending that you understood words that say nothing. But there is no lack of interpretation that inhibits the appreciation of Cloudgate. I repeat, it’s beautiful.
However, if the sculpture leads me to reflect upon any concept at all, it would be the questioning of who its author really is. The idea – the concept – of the work may have been Kapoor’s, but he actually did little to create it. It was a project given to an entire engineering team that not only designed the work but had to come up with completely new techniques of welding and polishing such stainless-steel sheets into a fluid mirror, and to do so on location. In fact, the sculpture was drawn by another head and other hands and then executed by many other hands. In such case – were I the artist – I am not sure I would have the courage to appropriate the work as my creation.
The concept thus leads me to reflect upon whether we are the sole and exclusive authors of our creations. Definitely no one is, if not for the fact that many things coincide to cooperate in a certain moment in order to fulfill a desire. Although we can choose our actions, the results of our abilities and efforts are not our choice. They are delivered by a universe that we do not control.
Otherwise, my father would never have caught me in the act of my rebellion, but then of course he could not have taught me the beauty of letting go: witnessing from the distance of a windowpane as one of his most cherished creations passed by without seeing him and without any need to appropriate it.
Authorship is a much more complex subject than one might think. Funny how for many intellectuals it might be the only thing that is not. They are quite quick in designating the importance of authoring the idea over who implements it and who collaborates. That is why Wladimir’s words reverberated in my ear: Should intellectual work have more value than manual?
After being interrupted at the table by the poet selling his libretto, I asked Wladimir, “So, do you think college prepared you to do the job you do today?”
He reflected in his glass before answering, “No. Not much. Except that in college we practiced a lot of observation, focused and repeated. To restore that broken coat-of-arms, for example, I had to observe it very carefully. It might be that such observation was developed in college. But nowadays, my job is to solve problems.”
Exactly, I thought, remembering his story of Mr. Antônio and the architect. The thought of laborers receiving equitably for their work was only tolerable as long as it did not encroach upon her remuneration. She had a stamp assuring herself of a higher salary than anyone who actually solved the problems under her responsibility. In an increasingly competitive and polarized world – where technology benefits and threatens everyone while there is no consensus as to the value of such stamps and patents that protect individual intellectual property even when to the detriment of society – I have my doubts as to how sustainable this labor model will remain.
From our table near the curbside, I saw the latter workers still waiting at the bus stop that never arrives to climb the hill of Santa Teresa. With their hands loaded with merchandise, they waited to get home, their faces sagging with weariness. The poet had given up and passed in front of them on his way. I watched as the passengers exchanged words between quasi-strangers. From the bar, I could not hear them, but from experience, I already knew from their looks that they checked with each other on how long ago the last bus was, or even to find out if there was any gun shoot-out up in the favela they were headed to.
Regardless of talent, the value of your work will reflect where and how you live.
“What are your Fine Arts classmates doing nowadays?” I asked.
“Some are Carnival designers. One is a tattoo artist. Some civil servants. A graffiti artist. A photographer. A wall painter. As I said, manual labor is hardly valued, no one did that college wanting to get rich. We did it because we love to create. I also like creating, but in restoration I learned manual execution, as if I were actually doing artwork, I reconstruct part of life, I give new life to an old one. I see layers of paint through centuries, several skins, records, each telling a story … My dream would be a ‘Restorer Without Borders’ program and take on those old buildings in Mexico or Cuba. See the world a little, like my father had done. “
“Had he traveled?” I asked.
“He was military. He was one of the members of the Peace Force that went to Gaza. The Suez Battalion. He saw some different places and people…”
“Funny … my father was also military, but he went nowhere after arriving in the US from Mexico in his early twenties – actually, not unlike how got here to Rio de Janeiro. He signed up for military service in the 1940s, but he did not go to war in Europe because they discovered his talent. The general would not release him at all: he had to stay beside him, drawing all his maps and presentations.”
“Making the big man’s plans come to life?”
“That’s it! Someone had to do it, right? Better than going to war, I guess. Otherwise, I might not have ever been born… See how we’re not necessarily the author of our story? “
Ching-ching. We toasted.
The day turned the night in Lapa. The mood of workers coming and going from the city center changed to another, livelier one – at times sinister – as expected of this axis of the city where people seek distraction.
I will never know if my father knew exactly how I sought distraction or how I gave myself a day off every semester to go to the beach or the art museum – much less how I did so illicitly. But from time to time, until today, when I have had enough, I take a dose of famously strong disappearance tea and have a day off, quietly free from my responsibilities. On the last one, I walked slowly and quietly along the streets of an old district of Rio. Perhaps I had already seen those old houses I passed, but I had not noticed the gargoyles and lions, lilies and rosettes, saints and horses and pineapples, hands and shields, numbers such as 1898 or 1905. They were ornaments hanging and holding up ceilings and parapets, adorning windows like picture frames, made by great unknown artists with lost recipes to embellish a world around us. I stopped at the doorways to contemplate the beauty of such craftsmanship and ask myself: I wonder who did all this.
My thanks to Wladimir Alberto Martins for sharing his work and story with me, and for all his self-portraits while restoring the old architecture of Rio de Janerio.