Maybe 30 years ago, jazz pianist Jessica Williams speculated to a Downbeat interviewer about what she did. It couldn’t be a profession, Williams said. It didn’t pay enough. Was it a disease, she wondered. A mania? A curse? A calling imposed by heredity or the gods? I suppose most artists who can’t keep up the Toyota payments ask themselves that in one form or another. Misleidys Pedroso may not, but her work, tempera and watercolor on paper, raises the question of why one creates with unique volume and clarity.
Pedroso will turn 30 in September. She has lived her entire life, with her parents and older brother, in Güines, a city of 70,000, 30 miles southeast of Havana, in a Soviet-era concrete apartment building that faces the sea. Born deaf, she does not speak, read, or write. She expresses her needs or feelings through the simplest signs. She spends most of each day at home.
A few years ago, Pedroso began cutting out figures she’d painted on construction paper and taping them to her walls. The figures ranged from a few inches to several feet in height. All were male, as heavily muscled as body-builders, and clad only in bikini briefs. Later Pedroso added torsos, heads, feet, hands, and organs to the walls. Cattle, cats, heavily muscled women, and, most recently, groups of overlapping heads have joined them. The figures, for the most part, are single-hued, red or green, blue or brown. They may be hermaphroditic. The cattle are horned like bulls but bear udders like cows. Some men have lipstick and earrings. Some heads have features on one half but are blank on the other. Some are “realistically” executed on one half but have the other divided into multicolored grids. Sometimes, Pedroso looks directly at her creations and gestures as if she is speaking to them. “No one knows why Misleidys began painting or her perception of what she is producing,” writes Phillip March Jones, director of the Galerie Berst in New York.
Creation can provide a purely personal satisfaction from the recognition of something crafted well. It can gratify by garnering praise from others. It may discharge unpleasant boiling bubblings within. It may be a way to the hearts of chicks in black turtlenecks or guys with soulful eyes. Steve, a homeless, mentally troubled fellow who frequents my morning café, believed Pedroso’s work showed her distinguishing people (herself) from animals. Or, ran his train of thought, the men’s musculature demonstrated their power, simulating Atlas supporting the globe. “But,” he went on, “they have no actual world on their shoulders; so they are weak. They support nothing.”
Re-creation and de-construction
My wife, a former child therapist, says children regularly recreate shapes of the world with which they are familiar. Then, as with Legos or Transformers, they take them apart. If their parents respond as if they are doing something special, they will continue. “Why it took Pedroso so long, we don’t know. She is aware of bodies. She’s probably seen cartoons on TV. Things we don’t bother to pay attention to may be of significance to her. We just don’t know. Because of what she lacks, we may imagine little is going on within her, but the senses she does have are probably more acute than most people’s. She has a brain, and now we have its expressions to consider.”
When I looked at Pedroso’s work, I first thought of cave drawings — but lacking their narrative, as if nothing connected for her. There was no hunt. There was no conquest. Then I thought of the figures being cut from the paper — liberated, unconstrained by a frame, unless the apartment was itself the frame. Why this, I thought. Why now? The questions followed me. I imagined anyone observing Pedroso’s work — primal, stark, unique, strange — would be ticketed for their own journey. Most artists work with an agenda and from impulses with which we have more familiarity, but this familiarity may cloud rather than clarify the rooted heart of the process.
While pondering Pedroso, I was reading Tom Clark’s biography of the poet Charles Olson. I couldn’t follow most of Olson’s poetry. I followed even less of his theoretical prose. But I was fascinated by his life’s collapse, like watching a slow-motion film of a dynamited skyscraper. Olson was a terrible husband, an awful father, not much of a friend. He was deceitful, self-obsessed, and manipulative. He abused drugs and alcohol and, when offered shelter, forced his hosts from their beds. He had a successful stint as a civil servant during World War II, but floundered as a college professor, and, when an administrator, led Black Mountain College into ruin. At the end, he existed by bleeding acquaintances and acolytes for everything from meals to money, incapable of helping himself or associating with anyone who might have reversed his disintegration.
Yet throughout, Olson pursued (or was pursued by) his poetry. His achievement is considered monumental. But as he built, stone by stone, this monument, was he not burying himself beneath them? If he had turned away, might he have survived and flourished? Or, given this option, would he have spurned it?
A marvel or an albatross
Photographs show Pedroso in front of her creations. She is neatly groomed and smiling, perhaps shyly, perhaps proudly. With Pedroso, it seems, the pursuit of art has tracked her in an opposite direction from Olson’s. It seems she has found pleasure and companionship as she has filled her walls.
When I emailed Jessica Williams to ask for her exact words about art in that interview, she replied, “Can’t remember a thing, Bob. I think it’s a gift, and, as with all gifts, it is dependent on the soul that carries it. It can be the most marvelous experience one can have, or it can be an albatross.”
Other images by Misleidys Francisca Castillo Pedroso, 2015, courtesy Galerie Christian Berst Art Brut.