Juan Alonso and the Art of Reunion

Posted on February 13, 2013, 8:00 am
45 mins

Juan Alonso in his studio

Juan Alonso in his studio. Photograph by Anna Skibska.

Much richness in art produced in the last 150 years can be attributed to the crossing of cultural and physical boundaries made easier by new technology, especially new modes of travel. We regularly observe the practical benefits of successfully combining two superficially dissimilar sources—the hardiness of mutts and grafted/cross-pollinated plants, the cultural strength and utility of syncretism in religions. In some cases, the best qualities of both parents are preserved. In others, the root similarities of two seemingly different things are brought to the fore.

There are those who scream for “purity” and “pedigree,” as if all life were a whittling down to an essential pith the width of a pin-prick and everything has a proper place, pinned on some hierarchy or family tree—neither of which branches much. These purists and fundamentalists take a stand against the very nature of life, branching and intertwining as it will, and so they have a particular disdain for humans who embody the overflow of life, its desire to spread and spill through itself—artists, shamans, travelers, psychopomps, immigrants and exiles.

Indeed, the categories listed above are often names for different aspects of the same individual who willfully crosses boundaries and helps others to clear barriers in their own lives—barriers which many have had since birth and therefore did not even recognize. Immigrants and exiles, however, are a special class because they are not simply passing through. By choice or by force, they are pulled from their native soil and replanted elsewhere, and the process of adaptation can be extremely painful. Ultimately, they may exist in a sort of twilight, neither (of) here nor (of) there.

Out of this pain, great beauty can emerge. For travelers and immigrants, being without a specific place means being keenly aware of one’s difference. This awareness may reveal more clearly what is fundamental to a culture and taken for granted by its natives. (This is perhaps the sharpest distinction between a traveler and tourist, for the latter never truly leaves the point of origin, only observes and consumes what it comes across and is quaintly amused or offended by unaccustomed things and behaviors.) In the case of art, a non-native perspective can reinvigorate appreciation and understanding of a culture and—drawing upon their unique memories and talents—also infuse it with new ideas, aesthetics and a generally broader appreciation for human experience.

From Cuba with love

Juan Alonso has been on a journey his entire life and his works subtly bear the marks of that journey even as they remain a document of this place and time. He emigrated from Cuba as a child and then continued to find himself in other forms of exile as he matured. Alonso’s artistic development and exploration began early. His father created wrought iron ornaments and fixtures and his mother created ornately-decorated clay pottery. Young Juan’s interest in drawing was fed by a curiosity and love of nature, an appreciation for the unique flora and fauna and phenomena of island life. However, he was also captivated by dwellings and architecture, and these fascinations manifest in his work to this day.

“Probably much to the disappointment of my baseball loving father, I was never the sporty type,” Alonso confesses, “although I must say he never, ever tried to push it on me or change my interests in any way. I loved being outdoors but more to swim in the ocean or to explore the vast world of critters that inhabited our tropical back yard, particularly at the beach house. I spent hours exploring with a particular interest in insects. They were so mysterious!”

“Once I asked my godfather to build a wire mesh cage where I could place caterpillars and watch them turn to butterflies. I would spend hours watching the process and let the butterflies free once they had completed their metamorphosis. I would draw them as well as the more exotic flowers and plant life in my surroundings and sometimes I would create three dimensional versions out of wire and paper and even clay. I could get lost in the process which was as appealing to me then as it is now.”

“I was also fascinated with architecture then and I designed houses with interior details and landscaping alike. I thought I would grow up to be an architect but in hindsight, it was the desire to imagine and create an image that was most important.”

For the vulnerable caterpillar, the cage was in fact a shelter as long as Juan could provide for the creature, until it could transform and be set free, never to return to him as it beautified the world for others. There is a melancholic, parental spirit to this that has a parallel in Juan’s own life, for his mother passed away when Juan was young and when Juan was nine his father—in hopes of providing his son with the opportunity for a better life elsewhere—gave him the option to leave Cuba and live with his aunt and uncle in Florida. He trusted his father’s wisdom and took the opportunity.

“I had already experienced things that most nine year-olds don’t. My mother had died and it had been kept from me. I had to find out through a stranger and still go on pretending to the rest of my family I didn’t know the truth. I suspect this was another one of my grandmother’s authoritarian decisions. I had seen people arrested just for speaking out against the revolution and had been through air-raids and other unpleasantries, so getting the hell out, didn’t sound so bad. At that age I didn’t realize I would never see my father again.”

“When I arrived in the US, I was in for a rude awakening. There was the reality of poverty and struggle as well as family dysfunction. I believe my uncle’s wife felt a bit put upon, having to take care of someone else’s child, and although I tried to be on my best behavior, it was never good enough. When I realized and honestly told them I was gay at age sixteen, I ended up running away from what had become intolerable circumstances at home.”

Cascadia painting by Juan Alonso

“Cascadia” – 2012, acrylic on wood, 48″ x 36″ – Photograph courtesy of the artist

Before reaching adulthood, Alonso had experienced the trauma of losing one parent, losing direct contact with another, immigrating to a new country, and then experiencing exile in a yet unfamiliar world at a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, criminal and—this has not changed for everyone—perverse. One might think that each trauma inures one for the next, but each is peculiar and one cannot truly be prepared for the unique pain and practical means of coping that each brings. Yet, Juan found means of support, becoming increasingly independent and eventually establishing himself as a musician in Miami. His interest in music has been lifelong, but he didn’t begin enthusiastically.

“I lived in a household with two sisters and two female cousins who were all forced to take piano lessons, and so naturally when I was old enough I asked my grandmother if I could also learn. She informed me that piano lessons were for girls but she would be happy to let me learn to play guitar. I went begrudgingly, in much the same way my sisters went to their piano lessons. I recall playing in the family living room as if I were performing on a stage and visualizing myself in front of an adoring audience.”

“It wasn’t until the mid-seventies that the performance bug started up again. I found myself playing in high school talent shows and I developed some confidence. Around 1976, I hooked up with a friend and we began rehearsing a set of songs to audition in local Miami clubs. I found out that the owner of a new one was as huge a Cat Stevens fan as was I. On my own, I shaped my beard as closely as I could to his style, tamed my long black locks and off I went to audition with a voice I didn’t have to alter much to sound like the popular singer. I got the job and let the owner know it would be a two person show.”

The duo went their separate ways after a while, but Alonso continued playing to public and private audiences. The luster of the nightlife was improved as he met “some interesting folks along the way”—that is, quirky celebrities of the time, including Ann-Margret, Barry Manilow, and Paul Lynde. He was even mistaken for Cat Stevens himself, thanks to a little mischief.

“I had the Cat Stevens thing so down pat that one evening while playing in a Key West restaurant in 1981, my partner then—who was also a waiter at the place—told a group at a table that I was Cat Stevens, that he just happened to be there and decided to do a set. They believed it until I made sure to visit their table and let them know the truth. I miss writing songs and performing. It’s an instant gratification high that just does not occur with visual art.”

As someone seeking first and foremost to provide for himself as best he could, Alonso was not invested in supporting himself exclusively through art or performance. When he moved to Seattle, Alonso began working at a frame shop and practicing his crafts on the side. Opportunity eventually came knocking and—just as when he was a child offered the chance of a new life—he seized it.

Photography by Anna Skibska

Photography by Anna Skibska

A frame story

While working at the frame shop, Alonso created a few pieces of art to fill empty product, and some clients started asking to purchase the work—and then asking for more of it. Alonso is a committed craftsman in all that he does thanks to a keen attention to detail and the demands of his surroundings—instincts that he had as a young lepidopterist that were honed by several moves into unfamiliar territory. These instincts also allow Alonso to know opportunity when he sees it and he was proactive about filling demand for his work at the frame shop. This demand grew as he also began entering contests and winning prizes. His artistic instincts were serving him well out the door, and his unpretentious, earnest drive to experiment allowed him to improve and adapt as he taught himself the finer technical points of artistry.

“I approach my work as an experiment where things could change at any moment if it seems right. I work in series until I feel each particular one has been explored in every way without reaching a place of boredom or lack of creativity. The work may differ slightly or dramatically in style or medium but it is still part of a whole if for no other reason, because it is being created by the same individual with the same mind, eyes and hands. I think of it as chapters in an on-going book written for the benefit of the writer and hopefully the reader as well.”

Gallerist Francine Seders was a jurist at one of the competitions that Alonso won. When he decided to seek representation, he reached out to Seders and she accepted. Decades later, that partnership remains intact. In that time, the content of the work has changed dramatically, but as Alonso stated there is a narrative to it, revealing changes in his personal and social landscape, influenced by new experiences, happy accidents and rediscovered memories.

“I started out early on making color pencil drawings of flowers to which I briefly returned in 2005. I then began experimenting with acrylic abstracts, although very different [from my current work] and much more fluid and reminiscent of Jesse Higman’s recent work. During that time, I accidentally painted something that looked like a portrait and it led me to several years of figurative painting.”

“In 1995, I had just begun two paintings for a show when I received a phone call that changed my direction. My older sister was coming to the US from Cuba. Once here, she told me stories of my parents working together before they married—my father making wrought iron bases for my mother’s floral clay pots which inspired a series incorporating wrought iron and floral motifs. The flowers [in my work] became more stylized to the point of taking on the movements of the wrought iron and the paintings again morphed into distilled wrought iron abstract shapes recalling the ornamentation of old buildings in Havana.”

“Perhaps the most consistent thing in my work has been a gloss finish which has also been one of the most criticized. Since much of my work has been shaped or inspired by my childhood in Cuba, I realized that much of that inspiration came from childhood memories and secondly from books; both sources having a glossy veneer. I thought I should honor and be truthful to those sources. Now that my memories of Cuba have been updated, there is a possibility that might change.”

Memory—at times even a longing nostalgia—plays deeply into all elements of Alonso’s creative life, but he has a wicked sense of humor about it all, too. On several occasions I have had the pleasure of enjoying Alonso’s writing, as he is a deft storyteller. During our interview, I mentioned that I would like him to write a short story, though I was uncertain if there would be a place for it in the article. Sure enough, Alonso wrote a short, sweet tale that encapsulates so much about memory and family and the ways in which we are changed by events that I think it is perfect to place it here at the heart of this story about his own journey:

The choice of a mattress is a very personal one, after all, we spend our most intimate moments literally on them, probably far more than on or with our significant others. I am acknowledging all of this because I don’t want to be accused of whining or complaining about my well-above-average accommodations, for which I am very grateful. Still, one can make observations.

The last time I bought a mattress was in 2002, that year I spent living on Mary Street in Coconut Grove, a section of Miami. Go ahead; take a few seconds to chuckle over Mary Street. OK, back. I walked into the mattress store and I asked to be shown the hardest mattress, tried it and bought it.

Now, I’m not sure if my friends own a brand name, and let me “disclaim” that I have no interest in guiding anyone away from the purchase of any type of mattress, be it foam or otherwise—but memory foam is not for me. I learned this when I house-sat for a friend who had a memory foam mattress.

I have noticed that many of my female friends tend to favor softer beds. This is not meant to stereotype or offend any hard-bed-loving women; again, this is about preference. I also don’t know if my friend, whom I’ll call Susan (because that is her name), bought this particular foam contraption for herself or if it was a joint marital purchase. The fact of it is memory foam remembers. It remembers their bodies. Their bodies which appropriately indent each half of the bed with silhouettes matching their particular shapes, and although I have slept here before, foamy has no recollection of my body. It’s like running into that one-night-stand a few months later and he/she pretends to never have seen you or your nasty parts.

So here I am on a visit, ready to lie down on a foam pad with selective memory and realize that the only place for me is right in the middle, basically mounting the hump, which (btw), is not a sexual metaphor in this case. The scenario is more like being face down on the back of a squishy hippo, or—as an alternate visual—a beanie baby plopped on the arm of a sofa, lifeless and unable to move without falling off.

The sixteen equally soft and fluffy pillows on the bed helped. I adapted them to function as fillers of the side indentations and propped some up as boundaries so I don’t end up ejected off the bed amid a sudden turn in the middle of the night.

When I arrived, the bed looked very pretty in a spa sort-of-way, all made up perfectly in different textures of white linens with pillows lined up by order of height. I will try to reconfigure it as closely as I can before my departure. Of course, by then, new memories will have been made and the landscape of the bed may never be the same.

Juan Alonso in reflection

Photography by Anna Skibska

Homecomings and goings

A struggle common to many immigrants is that between demands to assimilate and adapt vs the demands to stay true to one’s heritage. It is not merely a social issue, but a deeply felt balancing act within oneself, and for many immigrants the end result is a twilight state, where one may be neither accepted as a true citizen or a true representative of their first culture. And yet, Alonso has an instinctive and intuitive understanding of how to balance a dual nature which reveals itself in some of his work. His symmetrical figures inspired by the marriage of floral and wrought iron designs (a dual nature in itself) bespeak his love of balance, extended in the stark, almost monochromatic palettes of many paintings in this vein.

Within his oeuvre, Alonso has balanced, too, more monochrome pieces with vivid color, in floral works and his various abstractions. Vibrant reds and blues figure prominently, but he has room for everything on his palette.

“There is a time and place for every color, honestly. I also go through phases when I favor a particular color but if I must channel Shelby from Steel Magnolias, I’d have to say my signature color is aquamarine. I don’t like it called turquoise. I don’t like it because of the stone. I like it because it reminds me of the color of Caribbean waters and it brings me very sweet memories of childhood.”

Much of Juan’s work in recent years has been a characteristic style of abstraction in which the work seems to be broken into layers of color, some vivid and others pale, near white. The near white pieces are created through many layers of paint that Alonso conceals with white and off-white paint at the end, creating a placid, milky yet murky object that rewards repeat examination. It obliquely bespeaks his early fascination with architecture and buildings and his own multi-layered experience, none of which is pristine to his mind.

"Pacific" - 2011, acrylic and ink on clayboard - 30" x 40" - Photograph courtesy of the artist

“Pacific” – 2011, acrylic and ink on clayboard – 30″ x 40″ – Photograph courtesy of the artist

“My work went from the outer ornamental facades of buildings to the structural foundations that take on various impressions from the very rigid to the organic qualities of decay.”

Here is a marriage between the linear, crystalline structure of bedrock and building married to the diffuse, fecundating growth of organic life. Here, too, is a marriage between the macroscopic and microscopic—an intuitive understanding that underlies other works by Alonso. At a time when he was traveling extensively to meet his then-partner, now-husband Roger, he was inspired to create his Viajante series, whose symmetrical, electric forms show a clear progression from the work inspired by ornament. Flying back and forth between coasts, Alonso saw the similarity in form between great rivers and their tributaries and small plants, the necessary dividing and meandering of forms that create a consistent flow of matter and energy at all levels of being. The Viajante works were done as complementary diptychs, where the shapes were repeated but the colors and three-dimensionality of the shape and surrounding space were reversed, making the images a foil for each other. Beyond the potential for romantic metaphor, it is an elegant symbol of the union of opposites that the shaman-artist is always seeking.

There is also the reunion of past and present, which can be the most shocking of all. In 2011, Alonso took his first trip to Cuba since he left as a child. It was a trip that would reshape how he saw both past and present.

“After forty-five years of procrastination, I finally felt ready to return home. It was time and the wounds had finally begun to heal. It was a joyous trip for the most part and another one of those life changing events for me. My main reason was to reunite with the family I had left and to meet the ones that had been born after; and their love and affection was clear from the instant I arrived. There were bittersweet moments, like finally visiting the graves where both of my parents had been buried and the pain of walking into what used to be their bedroom where I last pictured each of them. There was a sense of helplessness in the reality that I can’t do anything about the conditions in which my relatives live, and almost a shame in comparing my own situation to theirs. I feel lucky and spoiled. Most of it, though, was joyful and a reminder of how true family should feel.”

Juan showed his skill as a photographer during this trip. An image of his childhood room was chosen as one of the “Best of Art Walk” by City Arts recently. These are patinated, decaying rooms and buildings—not squalorous, but elegiac, deeply evocative of the experience of memory to all who see them and certainly to the photographer.

Fare forward, voyagers

Fare forward, travellers! Not escaping from the past
Into indifferent lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you…

The Frye Museum recently opened its expansive exhibit of the work of Nicolai Fechin, who like many artists of his age used the newly available means of travel to reach farflung parts of the world, displaced at times by the war and unrest that rocked Europe until he settled in America. He was associated with a school of artists known as The Wanderers, whose varied idioms and aesthetics were unified by a desire to express what was uniquely Russian as they wandered the countryside, for the artist’s journey was to them quite literal. It is remarkable to note that despite how much Fechin’s work changed over time (proceeding from a deeply foreboding view of poverty in the Russian countryside to idyllic American landscapes that almost become kitsch in their simplicity), the hand is still consistently his. So it is with skilled artists: a consistent thread unites the work though the content must necessarily change to accurately document their place and time.

Alonso’s work continues to evolve. The glossy veneers of his abstract work have taken on a more matte, soft, patinated quality since his return from Cuba. The imagined, shiny lacquers of his parent’s collaborative pottery work that inspired his use of gloss has not so much lost its luster but rather gained a softer, more human skin. This is where his work stands now, and he cannot foresee where it will go next—and he is grateful for that.

“Because I’m self-taught, it seems everything I do is an experiment tittering on the verge of success and failure and I don’t put much thought into the consequences of a fall into [categories of mature or young work]. I question myself constantly and feel that if I ever stop questioning what I’m doing, it’s time to give it up. Where is the sense of wonder and imagination if you know exactly what the outcome will be? I think failure is preferable.

I think work maturity comes after I’ve been playing with an idea for some time. I try different approaches and at some point things fall into place and they work. And there’s a joy about it—a ding-ding-ding, a flashing bulb above my head. Then I dive into developing the idea further until there is nothing else to extract out of it and that chapter must close to begin a new one inspired by some spark ignited by the last.

“It’s quite satisfying to come across an older work and still find that spontaneity. Even if it is not something I’d want to do again, I like the fact that within every series I’ve created there are some gems. Even the times when I look back with some embarrassment at some of my creations, I have to acknowledge the fact that I was seen as edgy then and I can’t get that back.”

Still, though the content may not be categorized as mature or green, there is a maturity to one’s technique. Creating becomes more second-nature, even as one moves between media.

"Escalera" - Digital photography, editions of 25 - Image courtesy of the artist

“Escalera” – Digital photography, editions of 25 – Image courtesy of the artist

“As it may be with every artist, I think that what I’m doing now is my most mature work; in part because I am more so according to age and experience but there’s also an ease about it. Not to be confused with it being easy but it feels natural, as if to say ‘of course, this is what I should be doing.’ It may have to do with many things, not necessarily talent or technical ability but rather a psychological wellbeing—for me, a place of feeling more healed than I have in some time. I think that my trip back to Cuba was a huge catharsis and the fact that I’m in a good mental state and in a healthy relationship helps create that sense of ease.

Furthermore, there remains the essential desire to simply create beautiful objects that encapsulate broad experiences, beyond barriers of language and culture, space and time. Like the path that the next work will take, the response from others cannot be calculated or foreseen and is as individual as one’s life.

“My hope is that people have an emotional response to my work, as there is a lot of emotion put into it. All the loss, all the sweetness, all the beauty I’ve experienced is in there and I can only hope it is given back in some form to the viewer.

Alonso is well inured to hostility, based on his tumultuous early life and his double-minority status as a gay Latino. Alonso in no way plays victim; to the contrary, his experiences have given him empathy and fearlessness that he channels into advocacy for various causes. He has hosted several small fundraisers in his studio to raise funds and has been very outspoken about the ways in which auctions can sometimes take for granted the work of artists and show a lack of respect about the work. It hasn’t always made him popular.

“Advocacy is indeed a thankless job but I think of it as a responsibility. I find it discouraging when I get the backlash and only hear private whispers from other artists saying how great it is that I stuck my neck out. I know it’s there, but it’s hard to hear that silent applause. It seems a lot of folks in the art world are afraid of not being liked or being black-listed if they speak up. As I see it, I have nothing to lose. The folks that are going to like my work are not going to be swayed one way or another by my enthusiastic embrace of my freedom of speech. We all want to be liked, but I’d rather be respected and the same goes for my work. Maybe stirring the pot and creating a dialog that may lead to better conditions for artists in the future is the type of legacy I could stand behind. It would have an effect on others that is about more than just my own ego.”

Alonso may be deeply invested in exploring memory, but not in being remembered. Legacy is not something oneself can enjoy, and to anticipate it can lead into (or stem from) narcissism. Alonso’s surfaces may take on a mirror-like sheen, but the only reflection that truly interests him is internal.

“I think in many ways, maybe due to traumatic events in my life, a lot of my work references the past, but not necessarily in a literal way—more nostalgically. I don’t think about any sort of legacy. This is probably due to my belief that it is likely that nothing happens after we die, so I want to make the best of life now, in the moment. I want to create the best possible work and share it with people around me. I want to see that it brings someone else joy after I have had the joy of creating it. I don’t get attached to my own work as I see the progress of making it as my reward, not the finished product. I think there is way too much emphasis on products and tangible things when it comes to art. I enjoy a live performance with much more intensity than listening to the same song as an MP3. The experience stays with you much longer than the souvenir. That said, I love to live with other artists’ work and I can’t imagine living with empty walls. For the artist, it’s the process; for the viewer, it’s the object that is magic in visual art.”

At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of man may be intent
At the time of death” – that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which will fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare Forward.

The process, the journey, the reunion, physical or mental—these are the joys of the true traveler and artist. And for Alonso, who hasn’t had occasion to travel much (though he would really like to brush up his French and hit Paris one of these days), his personal exploration of the world has not always required him to leave his own backyard, whether it is on a tropical island or the misty hills of Seattle (though it is fair to note that he has rarely been far from the sea).

“I don’t seek things out. There seems to be an endless, often overwhelming amount of ideas that I can’t possibly explore coming my way from many directions. I am very much affected by everyday events. As I have written in past statements, I am very much affected by the human condition and how we treat each other with sometimes unnecessary cruelty or unrelenting kindness. Every significant life experience I’ve had, good or bad, gets trapped into the vault of creativity and is released at one time or another in my work…”

“The sound of the ocean, the smell of night-blooming jasmine and the feel of a warm sun at the beach.”

These moments of sweetness are tempered with the bitter, a full experience of life, another union of opposites, but never too lost in reverie, never with eyes fixed only on a patinated past that never truly existed as one remembers it, but still informs one’s being in the present, still is the strata and bedrock from which one flowers.

“I can’t really call myself pragmatic but I do live in the real world. I’ve experienced too many harsh realities and I’ve come to learn how to cope with them. Giving into escapism scares me slightly because the idea of staying there may just sound a bit too appealing. I do sometimes fear going mad. And then I laugh at myself every time I feel that fear. That’s probably a good sign.”

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

3 Responses to: Juan Alonso and the Art of Reunion

  1. Juan

    February 14th, 2013

    Thanks for the love.

  2. Gigi F.

    June 9th, 2015

    I am pretty sure I saw one of his paintings in the hospital. I really liked it. Looks better in person, because you can see the layers.