It always seems impossible until it's done.
We've just had a glorious weekend in St. Louis. The mornings started out a little cool, then relaxed into sunny blue-skied afternoons. This was the weekend of the annual St. Louis Art Fair. I serve on the board so have an insider's view of the nearly impossible detail that goes into staging the 3-day outdoor event. It's a relief when the weather cooperates.
One of the perks of the job is to meet the 100+ artists and hear their stories of why and how they came about their choice to be artists. "To be an artist, you must want it so bad that you can't NOT do it," said painter Rey Alfonso Santana. We are drawn to him: he is Cuban; Juan is Cuban. So, of course, they had an instant connection. But Rey's words captured my imagination, too, because it feels so similar to my desire to be a writer. I can't NOT do it, without feeling that I'm forsaking some essential core of who I am.
Do you remember the longing you felt as a teenager? Your future spread out before you like a big empty canvas. You yearned to escape, leaning toward an undefined future. I remember the ache of wanting so desperately to be the person I knew lying low and under the surface. I remember standing on top of bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River and screaming into the wind in frustration.
My future self called.
We asked Rey: how did he become an artist? His answer mesmerized us. Once we returned home I did more research, then wrote an outline of his narrative, filling in details with my imagination. His experience reflects the mission of this blog to share stories of perseverance through challenges and how this connects us to what matters, and each other.
It starts when he's a teenager:
Rey is small for 17. Slight, with a shock of unkempt black hair, at first glance he looks younger than his age and still a child. He appears unimpressive compared to the other soldiers with whom he's marched and shouldered guns. His slight build belies the strength of his core, built up from his years running on the island prison.
He must escape tonight.
The humid air is a deep, almost blue, black. The moonlight so well-blanketed by thick clouds that at first Rey can not see his hand when he puts it up in front of his face. A few moments ago, once the clock showed 1:00 am, like a cat he'd softly padded along the floor of his grandparents' living room, gently turned the bolt on the kitchen back door and edged it open. Now he stands on the back porch, listening intently for any unusual sound beneath the chorus of Cuban tree frogs.
He smells the salt in the sea air brushing his face. Briefly, his mother's face appears. Dead just five years earlier -- a lifetime ago -- she is smiling at him and he catches his breath.
Her laughter had swept through his childhood; her love for rhythmic mambos and swaying rumbas the music of his youth. Every day had been a happy repetition of soccer with friends on the beach, school lessons in an open-air classroom, and noisy meals around a table where his brothers and sister shoved elbows to be the first to ladle arroz con frijoles onto their plates.
It was his mother who had put the paint brush in his hand and brought him tubes of intense color, encouraging and marveling at his creations. "Igual que tu padre," ("Just like your father") she'd murmured, but he'd never met the man. At age 12, when she died, life changed. Separated out among relatives across the island he and his siblings were split apart. He ended up in Matanzas on the outskirts of Havana with his grandparents. No music, no dancing, no painting. They had their own troubles. Then at 16 he'd been conscripted into the Army for required training.
He shakes his head; his mother's visage disappears. He slips from the porch and begins to jog. This is no time for dreaming. Yesterday he received word that he is to leave later today for Angola. Cuba is known for the skills of their mercenary soldiers and, unless he escapes, it will be his future.
The boat is submerged with heavy rocks holding it against the bottom of a shallow tributary leading out into the ocean. Quickly, he splashes into the water and begins to heave the rocks out of the hull.
This is his thirteenth try at escape. His first attempt was a year after his mother's passing and the Cuban Coast Guard picked him up from a raft that had already begun to break apart in the waves. Although he was thrown into a holding cell for two terrifying weeks, Rey began plotting his next escape immediately. He built another raft and was picked up again. Tried an escape with a group of friends and was caught barely off the beach.
Each time he is caught, slapped around and jailed. But with each attempt his boat construction improves. This past month, on leave from the Army, he had worked quickly.
This boat will have a motor.
He heaves the last rock out of the hull and the boat floats freely. He braces his feet as best he can along the sandy bottom and pushes it toward the shore, the waves helping it ride swiftly. When the boat shoves up onto the beach, Rey tilts it to drain out as much water as possible. Alongside the beachhead, in a small dip in the dunes, lies a burlap bag buried in the sand. He pushes sand and folds of burlap aside to pull out a motor. Hoisting it up and onto the boat, he then secures it with bolts to the boat frame. He is reaching for his knapsack of provisions when a torchlight blinds his eyes.
"Hey dejas de!" ("Hey you, stop!") a voice calls out, frighteningly close.
Rey swings the knapsack into the boat and tries to jog through the water, shoving the vessel forward. More voices are shouting and now he is pulling himself over its edge. "Loco!" an angry yell. Rey pulls out the choke. Trying to stay calm he turns the hand grip on the throttle control arm to neutral. He yanks at the starter rope, nothing. Cursing, he tries again, a slower tug until he feels resistance from the starter gear, then pulls forcefully. The engine sputters, catches, then roars to life. Again, a torchlight blinds his eyes.
"Mantaner la luz de el!" ("Keep the light on him!") a voice carries out from the shore. Rey's engine is rumbling; he moves the throttle control arm from neutral, then eases the shift lever forward.
"No esta vez," Rey mutters, not this time, and points the boat north.
The year was 1990 when Rey arrived in Miami on his own in his makeshift boat. These were the years of U.S. "wet foot/dry foot" policy when Cuban refugees were returned to Cuba if the U.S. Coast Guard picked them up on the water, but allowed to remain if they made it to U.S. shore. Hundreds of balseros, or rafters, attempted the treacherous 90-mile journey across the Florida Straits.
Rey found his way to a Cuban community in Miami. Upon arrival he is counseled to become a lawyer or doctor or other trade to make money. When he replied, "Ï want to be a philosopher, poet or painter," he is told, "You're going to starve." But Rey replies now, "Being an artist, you're that. It's BEING an artist. You don't do art for fun."
Rey moved to San Francisco where he found work with metal craftsman and sculptors who taught him about metal design and fabrication. Gradually, he found his own identity as an artist. Initially, he worked extensively with aluminum, then evolved to combining his knowledge of metal with painting. He uses pure pigments and fire by painting on Baltic birch, then building color, layer upon layer, distressing the surface then painting it again. Sometimes he carves or burns songs and sayings from his youth into the wooden canvases, tracing memories of people and the culture he recalls.
Today, Rey's paintings can be found in collections in more than 40 countries. After nearly 20 years since he first arrived, he is back in Miami where he and his artist wife, Patricia Deleon, make their home.
When we talked to them at the fair, they had changed their plans to stay in the Midwest for a few weeks and were headed south to check on their home and studio following Hurricane Irma.
Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Research tools: Last week I realized I lacked a basic resource -- a library card! -- so picked one up, then browsed through research materials on late 19th century France. The research material was almost too detailed; I need more general background first so hit the Internet when I came home. My goal is to begin to collect information on day-in-the-life detail, such as clothing, housing, food, politics, etc., of the upper class from around 1850-1900. Plus I need a Chicago Manual of Style to site bibliography entries correctly right out of the gate.
Writer community: This weekend I had an opportunity to strike up a conversation with someone new. "What do you do," she politely asked. "(gulp) I'm a writer" I replied, trying out this identity. It turned out she is an English lit professor from a local college who teaches creative writing! While her teaching is for a beginner level, she gave me the names of colleagues to reach out to for more advanced workshops and public readings. Person by person I am building a new network and finding out more about the St. Louis creative community.
Rey's words echo in my mind, "Being an artist, you're that. It's BEING an artist." I am learning that to BE is reflected in what I DO, consistently, one day at a time, small steps, imperfect steps, simply the next step, on the path of discovering who I am as a writer.
Are you on a path of discovery too?
In closing, let me return to Nelson Mandela:
There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere,
and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death
again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.
One step at a time,