Near Carpinteria, the green hills of the coast dive like dolphins into the ocean and come out on the other side speckled with houses and red tile roofs. Thomas knows that I lived in Santa Barbara for a few years but we do not talk about it. Instead we eat homemade biscuits. He makes me laugh with one of his animal jokes and my mouth, dry and full, bursts into flakes. The pastry storm dies down outside Goleta in a coat of flour and butter over our laps.
He: There’s a great contrast between the poverty of your younger years and the abundance of this country; are you still conscious of this difference?
I: Yes, but it was more shocking when I first left Spain. I was very surprised that everybody had a car. For a few months my father drove a Vespa, but other than that nobody that I knew in Madrid had a car. I remember vividly the abundance of everything in Puerto Rico and being in awe of the amount of food in the local supermarket. I had never seen most of the foods and products in the aisles. We lived at my aunt’s house for several months when we first got to Puerto Rico. The Welch’s grape juices in her refrigerator were off-limits. They were reserved for my cousin, which sounds like a dumb thing to remember but I still think about their fridge every time I see grape juice. It was in San Juan that I began to train as a painter and where I became conscious of being an outsider. Also, in those years there was a growing difference between who I appeared to be and the way I felt.
He: What kind of difference?
I: I cultivated the image of the perfect son and the honor student—a big change from my bad-student days in Spain—but I was living a different life within myself. It was hard to maintain these two worlds separately, so they started to spill onto each other. In middle school, I handcrafted a knife to attack an older student who was pushing me around.
I always read a lot to try to understand what was happening to me. When I read Hesse I felt I was getting somewhere. Emilio Sinclair, the young character in Demian, was moving between light and dark in similar ways to me. And I thought that his friend and guide, Demian, would have advised him to take care of the problem with a knife.
He: Clearly, Hermann Hesse had a great impact on you.
I: Yes. In my teens, Demian and Steppenwolf were the closest thing I had to a self-help manual. Later on I read Beneath the Wheel, which is now my favorite Hesse book.
He: In previous interviews people have been surprised by this German influence in your early years. Is it surprising to you?
I remember that he, as a teenager, had hoped to study with Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap of the Vienna Circle. But by the time he was old enough to travel Schlick was dead, Carnap was in the United States and the Nazis had occupied Austria.
I: No, I don’t think it’s uncommon in Latin America. In junior high school, a few friends and I became associated with a literary circle that gravitated around the local university. For three years we read and discussed everything together, formally and informally. The German writers, especially Bertolt Brecht, were a large part of the discussions.
When I look in my photo album at the picture of Ramos, Cibes, Caraballo and myself under a tree, I still hear the protest music coming from the phonograph speaker. I remember Pablo and I, early in the morning, walking around Walter’s neighborhood— two skinny boys in white briefs, arms around each other’s shoulders.
He: Are these literary experiences what you remember most clearly about those years?
I: What I remember most are the faces of my brothers, Carlos and Fernando. I remember them looking at me; I saw our circumstances and our survival through them. I also remember getting into fistfights in school.
He: Were you violent?
I: I got into fights because I was afraid and fighting was a way to avoid fear. I walked to school dreading confrontation. When I got there, I would sit at my desk and look at the bullies. I couldn’t wait for the inevitable fight, so I would challenge them to meet me outside, so we could get it over with. I fought at least once a week. But I was never a bully.
He: What was your family doing then?
I: My parents were trying to live the dream they envisioned when we left Cuba, but the dream never materialized. At night, my brother and I sat at a table with my parents and made custom jewelry necklaces. As children, we always found games to play, but we were aware of our situation, which was not good. My parents sought spiritual counseling outside of the church through spiritual guides. Do you want me to go on with this?
I: My parents demanded a great deal from us. Demands that often had little basis in reality. There were a lot of conflicting messages in our home but we were always expected to find the way to the normal and the good. In this environment, I didn’t have many ways to address my feelings.
He: In an extreme way, the incident of the knife was one way to address your feelings.
I: Yes, it was.
He: Did you use the knife?
I: No. I wanted to be a killer, an avenger, but I didn’t have it in me. One afternoon, feeling guilty, I gave the red kitchen knife without a handle to my high school principal.
He: How did he react?
I: He looked at me very carefully and wrapped the knife in his handkerchief. For the next six years, at the end of each day, we would sit in the schoolyard and talk. He published a few of my essays and encouraged me to express my ideas through artwork and writing.
He: Did you write about love or family?
I: I guess I didn’t…not directly. I wrote essays on religion and philosophy. I’m sure that they weren’t very good, but writing was a way to sort things out.
Those years feel like photographs from the seventies—out of focus, washed out and bathed in orange light; small snapshots left in the sun too long.
He: I don’t want to force an autobiographical reading of your work but I see the boy and the elk piece as referential to these years. The boy doesn’t look up to see his reflection in the mirror on the elk’s antlers, but we see his reflection there. And if we stand behind him, we also see our own reflection in the mirror, so we are drawn into the whole dynamic between the elk and the boy. The elk is always offering this reflection to the boy but, for whatever reason, he doesn’t receive it or chooses not to. Or having seen himself there, has turned away, not in defiance but in what appears to be humbleness. The boy’s response doesn’t change the fact that he and the elk are made of identical materials, tar and feathers, and that those materials reference humiliation.
I: I like your analysis.
I say that, but I am not so sure.
We have been silent for a while. I am thinking about my answers to Thomas’s questions and how they are encircling me in a place that I don’t want to be. When we approach the road leading to Hearst Castle, Thomas brings up Rosebud, the mysterious clue in Citizen Kane. I tell him that some people think that Rosebud relates to Hearst’s predilection for Marion Davies’s ass. He turns away quietly and looks out the window—his blue eyes are calm and agitated at once. I should not have said that.
It is not difficult to imagine how he became a friar. When his youthful dream of Vienna did not work out, Thomas worked with his father in their garment factory until he was called for military duty. He served with the Third British Infantry Division and was wounded on the right arm during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944.
The war had a profound influence on Thomas’s way of thinking, and when he arrived in Cambridge his original interest in logic had given way to religious fervor and a passion for theology. After two years at the university he left to be, in his own words, "morally better." He was ordained a Franciscan and came to California to work with the mission at San Luis Rey.
I cannot remember when Thomas told me these details of his life.
He: I want to go back to the question of science. Did the scientific training really give you an alternative to the other feelings in your life or did it just force those feelings to go inward?
I: Science was good for me. It was different than anything I have ever known in my life. It was so organized, so clean. It was also a camouflage; a way of being that was more advanced than I was.
My escapist attitude towards science culminated in high school. My room was a good place to hide from the problems of my family, but to stay in my room I needed a justifiable activity. So I started building a laser with very basic household parts. For five or six months, this laser was a physical and mental guarantee of safety. I didn’t know anything about circuits so I read the electronics cookbooks and taught myself how to build a power supply. It isn’t hard if you follow the recipes, but I burned myself many times when I was learning to solder. Despite the burns, staying in my room was a better deal than confronting the emotional currents in the rest of the house.
The summer after ninth grade in Puerto Rico I was hanging around the empty school, in order to avoid being at home or working. Alonso, my high school principal, didn’t like it and arranged for me to volunteer at a physics lab in the university. Since I was building my laser at home, I welcomed the opportunity. My mother gave me two dollars each day, enough for a child’s meal at Burger King. Towards the end of the summer things got worse for my mom and my lunch became bread with mayonnaise.
In college, I worked at two nuclear accelerators and did research with dye and electron lasers. I was publishing papers because I wanted to be a great scientist. At Cornell and Brookhaven I always found time to paint in between school and research. But when I went to Berkeley I was spending more time painting than at the lab. This was a problem because I had a national fellowship that supported me so I could dedicate my time to my research and studies. It started to dawn on me that I wanted to be an artist, but abandoning my scientific dreams was not easy. Luckily, a decision was precipitated by circumstances. I had passed two of my three doctoral exams. But in the third, one of the three testing professors thought that I was too immature to be a Ph.D. student at Berkeley. This was a core area, solid-state physics, and the other two professors had passed me, one of them with distinction. Passing means seven point five or above, out of ten. But this other faculty member gave a zero twice, which is the maximum number of failures allowed. Fortunately, since there was enough positive evidence of my ability and his wrong-doing, the dean offered me another chance. The whole event made me reflect on my own desires to continue on. And after some time, I declined his offer.
He: I know how hard it can be to make a life-changing decision. Who helped you during this time?
I: I spent days walking and thinking. After a while, I realized that my desire to be a physicist had dissolved and the only thing left was an anxiety about the future that I interpreted as an art calling. I left the physics program but continued in the art department. After a while I left that too. I never told anyone what I was doing, I just didn’t show up to classes anymore. I painted and sculpted in my dorm room and outside in the courtyard. I didn’t pay my bills or my dorm fees because I had no money. Overwhelmed by debts I took a job as a research engineer for a laser company but that didn’t last long either. I patented a few things and resigned after a year. I moved to a studio in Oakland to be a full-time artist and sold my work in the parks of San Francisco to support myself.
My studio was in a building full of fleas next to the railroad tracks; it was a drastic change from my life in science, but it was the right change.
He: Do you miss science now?
I: Sometimes I still miss mathematics and physics because they work so clearly.
He: It would be a stretch to say that art works the way mathematics works. What was it about art that justified leaving the concrete qualities of science behind?
I: As I got older, it became more difficult to leave my life at the door of the lab. In art, everything could be brought in. Also, physics and I were moving in different directions; we grew apart.
He: Like lovers?
I: Yes. I loved physics but the questions that started to preoccupy me then didn’t have scientific answers.
He: What were those questions?
I: I think that’s what we are trying to find out in this conversation.
He: Did your paintings reflect the life you were unable to bring inside the laboratory?
I: My paintings were cut, sewn, and patched. I was cutting the surfaces and then mending what I could. I destroyed a lot of work during that time.
He: Was this mending related to the loss of science or was it a way to come to terms with whatever you had suppressed by studying science?
I: Back then, painting was meaningful when I had brought it back from the edge of destruction. I don’t know if I can trace the loss in those surfaces to any specific source. Sewing a canvas requires a different speed and attitude towards the work than painting a canvas.
He: I can see you cutting and mending your work in the privacy of your studio. What I can’t see is then taking these works to a public audience, especially the one you find by selling your work in the parks. Did you ever feel that you were being careless with these intimate works?
I: Being an artist, whether or not I sell work in the parks, sometimes leads to trampling on important things. For me, growing up has had a lot to do with being more careful with what matters to me.
I didn’t sell very much in the parks but neither did the other artists in the Guild. We had to set up very early, before sunrise. Most of us spent the day talking distractedly because our eyes were always on a possible client. I was in bad financial shape, so when my first exhibition came my mother sent me money to print a small catalog. I was thankful but very ashamed because my parents were struggling as well. After two years of this I decided to go back to graduate school.
He: Was this shame useful to you, somehow?
Thomas believes in the utility of shame.
I: I think it was a motivation. It also reminded me to be more grateful.
He: Was your artwork more influenced by these events in your life or by seeing the work of other artists? I guess I’m trying to find out where you were in relation to the rest of the art community.
I: At the time, I was shedding many ways of working that no longer seemed right. I had some urgency because of where I was in my life and other artists helped me to get to some places faster; they gave me the courage to take certain risks.
He: What was it about those other artists that interested you?
I: They understood materials and how to make artworks with a very strong presence. I studied Velazquez every day and I tried to see as many of his paintings as I could in person. Going to El Prado is a risk because it’s very hard to paint after seeing the rooms dedicated to his paintings; the same with Vermeer. Of the Americans, I was particularly interested in Marsden Hartley and I shared his ambivalence about heritage and culture. He identified most as an American when he was away from it. This lack of grounding and his sensitive intelligence allowed him to incorporate new ideas and new settings into his work during his whole career.
He: Which you share with him. I’ve seen your art change tremendously in different settings, from the early figurations to the frozen bed. Let’s talk specifically about the drastic change in your paintings when you moved from Oakland to Santa Barbara to finish your Master of Fine Arts.
I: When I left Oakland I was afraid of the effect of graduate school on my work but as it turned out my work there was also very private because I worked mostly alone. With some exceptions, the faculty in the department and the other students were not very serious artists.
He: How can you say something like that with such confidence?
I: I try to judge others with the same ruler with which I judge myself: honesty and results. It sounds harsh because we tend to protect people more than values. People in the department didn’t work much and the work they produced was shallow. That’s it.
He: What if they tried their best but they weren’t gifted enough? Should you still judge them so harshly?
I: I try not to make quick judgements. In this case I had plenty of opportunity to see their work as artists. I fought what I saw but I was very ineffective. In my thesis exhibition I showed a controversial painting, an overt attack on a specific professor and on the hypocrisy of the system that supported him. Even the chancellor got involved. But this kind of struggle doesn’t lead to radical change.
I was ready to leave that place when I got a fellowship to go to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and only in the cow fields of Maine could I let go of some of the negative feelings that I had towards graduate school.
He: Was Skowhegan a good experience for you?
I: Yes. I had a studio on the edge of a grove where at night the moths would come up to the screens. It was small, quiet and peaceful. There I met Donald Baechler, Pat Steir and Allen Ginsberg.
Back then, I was taking Blake’s “road of excess” fairly often. One night, I was at the local bar near the school with some other students when the owner asked us if anyone could do a portrait of him and his wife. The other students pointed at me and he asked for a price. “Free Wild Turkeys all summer,” I said and he responded, “well let’s see how much can you drink.” He brought a bottle of the Kentucky bourbon for me and one of Southern Comfort for himself. We drank three quarters of the bottles in less than ten minutes. I think the New York painter Pam Fraser drank enough of my drinks to keep me from dying. Drunk and stumbling I took some pictures of the bar owner and his wife illuminated by the headlights of their truck, and then spent the rest of the night lying motionless with my mouth at the edge of a lake. I never did their portrait.
He: This kind of excess and your problems with your professors in graduate school show a part of you that I’ve not seen very much. Do you think you have a problem with figures of authority?
I: It’s difficult for me to take someone seriously when their actions show me that they are not taking themselves seriously.
He: But perhaps it’s then that your respect is most needed. Even in the most atrophied spirit you could find something to respect. People are more aware than you think about their shortcomings and what they have given up or lost. You don’t need to add your disdain to their own hell.
There is truth in what I said, but maybe not the ultimate truth. Thomas’s words sound better, but we are a few hundred miles from Los Angeles.
I: Thomas, does one accomplish more with focused passion or with broad clear thinking?
He: Depends on what the task is. Why do you ask?
I: For no reason that I can verbalize right now. Should we continue with the interview?
He: Sure. Let’s talk about the artists that you do respect.
This question never takes me anywhere good. I typically answer it with great confidence in my words. But afterwards I feel bloated, pained, annoyed.
I: Right now I am thinking about Pinkham Ryder, Beethoven, Kollwitz, Beuys, Redon, Holbein and the obscure Swedish artist Hilma af Klint.
He: Why Hilma af Klint?
I: Her paintings are more innovative than any modernist but they are not about modernity. Instead, they reconcile visions, figuration and mysticism in painting.
A while back I called the trustee of the estate to see if I could buy one of her paintings. It must have been nine or ten o’clock at night in Stockholm. The old man that answered the phone was pleasant and spoke perfect English. I introduced myself and then asked him if he would sell me a painting. He said, "we can’t sell anything. The paintings have to be kept together, you know. They contain a message." I talked to him for a while about the works and then thanked him and hung up. I was disappointed but invigorated that someone somewhere cared enough about those artworks to take them seriously and disregard the money-making machine.
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Continue to part 4