Stories & News
Las Tejedoras by José Faus
This month, we are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by inviting artist, poet, teacher, and long-time Kansas Citian José Faus to join us for a conversation about the importance of the arts in building community power.
Read a transcript of our conversation below, which was hosted by Estuardo Garcia, Health Forward’s Narrative Curator Fellow. Please note the transcript was auto-generated so some typographical errors may have occurred.
Hello, and welcome to this episode of Forward Focus. For this episode, we are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with local artists and storyteller, José Faus. We will speak about the power of the arts Tohave narrative, how the arts speak more towards similarities than our differences and the importance of home. José, if you don’t mind introducing yourself.
My name is José Faus. I’m a visual artist, a performer, a writer, kind of independent teacher and mentor. And I think my main drive is that I do believe in art as a catalyst for community building.
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
I think a lot about, for me, art has always had a transcendence. It’s not just about the thing that you make, but there’s a response as of your or as a participant in something that you react to certain things, right? It’s not probably anything intentional on the part of the artist, but the work itself speaks to you at some level, and it creates association. So to me, there’s a transformative thing that already happens in art, but then if you couple it with say, narratives about social issues, all of a sudden, then you’ve taken it to another level as well. It’s a commentary, but it can also be a way of making bridges. If you start a conversation, you find commonalities, right? If it’s a genuine conversation, if it’s authentic, you find points of interest and you go, oh, yeah, that’s kind of my experience as well. And I think when you can associate those things, that’s a power, that’s a bridge that art can do on a very different level than governmental policies or forcing people into certain kinds of situations just to get an interchange in exchange of communities. I think if we’re more open to discovering something like that in ourselves that gives us a shared experience with somebody who we would normally not associate with, that’s more powerful than being forced into it. And I think art does that about better than anything I know. Would it
Be fair to say that you’ve been an artist for most of your life?
It would be fair to say only to the extent that I wish that were the case, but I think I took a good chunk of my life out. I checked out and I worked in a corporate setting. I was in a law firm for about 15 years. I thought like an artist lab, but I wasn’t doing art in that sense. I was more accumulating experiences. I was consuming art though. I went to openings. I would read whatever new came out, but it wasn’t until I really, I think the last few years I was at the law firm, I began to realize there was just something really lacking. There was something when I would sit and say, I go to a museum and look at paintings and then look at the colors and think all of a sudden, oh my God, how did that artist do that?
And then just begin to discover things that I had been taught when I was in university, but I could apply ’em. But I’ll tell you, for example, the Cario, this down there, John the Baptist, I can remember one of the lessons I had in college was my professor pointed out, he says, God, if you go look at the John the Baptist, look at his fingernails. Look at his toenails. They’re stirred in them. And the artist conveyed that for a reason why they wanted to convert that. They wanted to express that. And I remember thinking, yeah, but they were, I never really looked at it that closely. I always looked at it from a distance until one day I’m there at the museum and I’m looking at that painting, and I remembered his words. I started really looking at it, looking at the dirt in the fingernails, looking at the dirt in the toenails, looking at the fringe, the kind of born bare fringe on the textures of the mantle that he’s carrying. And it began to speak me in a different way. I think I knew it when I was in college, but I left go of it. So I think that’s kind of where I felt like I had been estranged from art for a long time, though I was consuming it. I wasn’t experiencing it and living it, and that kind of drove me to start changing.
That’s one of my favorite paintings, and I have never noticed that. So now I have to go to the Nelson and take a look,
Look at the wilted leaves, look at the fringe and the textures under amazing. You almost want to, there is a thing about art that is just art. The art, just the color, the painting, the textures, the space that sculpture inhabits, but then we bring other things, right? All of a sudden, John the Baptist is not this guy flowing up in the sky with a halo around his head. He’s a very genuine human being that lived and walked barefoot on an earth that the callous is on his feet. That’s kind of the powerful thing.
Let’s talk about the, so we talked about there is a narrative, the artist had a narrative for John the Baptist. With all of those details, can you talk a little bit about the narratives that you wanted to portray? You are a very famous muralist here in Kansas City. There’s not a lot of places in the city that don’t probably have some kind of connection to you in the mural world. Can you talk a little bit about your experience and the storytelling that you wanted to convey with some of the murals that you’ve put around the city?
I always have felt, I’ll tell you why I think mural’s so important to me. I wanted to them when I was in university, but nobody would give you a chance. It’s like you don’t have no experience. I can remember going to this place down on Trus and showing him the drawings. It was the old Harold Penner store that used to be down on, I think it was the 18th or 19th at Truss. And after I showed him all this stuff, he says, okay, so how much are you going to pay me to use my walls? And I thought, no, you got this all backwards.
So it’s like, it was not a time, but I always fostered this idea that a city should have more of that. It should be at the level, at the street level. It should talk to people. And I was in New York, I was in MoMA, and I came into this one room, and as I walked in, there’s the big Guernica Picasso’s, Guernica hanging up on a wall. And I’d only seen it in a small four by eight reprint in the art history books. And I was shocked, man. I mean, literally, it just took my breath away. I’m leaning up against the wall. I slide down the wall to my butt, and I just sit there and look at it for like 10, 15 minutes. And I thought after I left from it later, it just, the thought consumed me that that’s the way we should experience art as well.
It should not be that we have to go to a dedicated building. It should be a part of our lives. We step out of a coffee shop, we go to our work, all of a sudden there’s something here, and you look at it, oh, I recognize that’s familiar to me. And the looking of it can always be something new. The sun can shine on a certain way. The trees can begin to obscure it, or you can see it all of a sudden as a discovery, every time you look at it, it’s a different possibility. And I thought that that’s transformative. And why only limit that experience to where it only happens in say, a theater or in a gallery. I mean this for all forms of art. So there’s like Shakespeare in the park or plays that come out in the park. Musicians play outdoors all the time, right?
There’s something more transformative about that experience. It’s almost like you’re having a communication by nature. You are communicating. Nobody’s telling you don’t touch it, nobody’s telling you, Hey, look at it from this point of view. You just consume it, and it’s your experience that comes to it. So for me, that’s always been a big motivator. And so I felt that when you have that kind of a possibility, you are telling a story. We started to tell stories. We did narrative murals, and I do narrative murals. Truthfully, there is a story I’m trying to represent. We started out as a group of three, and we were very aware. We were telling narratives about marginalized communities and how those communities have strength despite of being segregated or marginalized. And those stories resonated within the community within us, and we saw the impact they had. I mean, it was literally transformative to paint a mural in an area that suffered a lot of neglect and indifference from civic institutions or even the people that lived there.
But then to see them after the mural goes up, start to transform it themselves. I think about when they started the day of the Dead celebration, the parade over in K C K, that’s been a transformative thing that to me is art. It’s the art of performance. It’s the art of active engagement celebration. And you can see the transformation is gone from the very first one that they did, which was pathetically small, but God, it’s so exuberant that people said, God, we got to do this next year. Now it’s like a big thing, right? That’s a transformative thing. And now you see people that dress up and they put on the makeup and they become the figures. And then you see musicians that want to be there in the food, and all of a sudden culture comes alive and you celebrate something. That’s a transformative thing to me.
Let’s go back to the murals. Can you tell me a little bit about the history of when you said it was three of you, and I think you guys have a plaque over in the river market?
Yeah, there’s a plaque there. Actually, what started was we used to have a gallery here before it became Crossroads. It was the 19th and Baltimore Gallery, and I think there were maybe four galleries at that time in the Crossroads. And one of the people that was running the place got sick, and we were going to close the gallery down. We decided we’re going to have one last shot. So I reached out to, I got this flyer from an organization called the Latino Guild of Fine Arts, and it was run by Linda Callen was one of the people that was involved in it. And she was getting a bunch of artists to put up there at the Fiesta. And we thought, oh, shoot, that sounds really good. So I thought, why don’t we have a show about Latino artists and put it down here on 19th and Baltimore and I went and talked to her, and she was thrilled.
She says, oh my God, you show us. Okay. And so we had a gallery show, and that’s where I met Jesus Ortiz and Alicia Gambino. And one day after the show had gone up and we had all this great success with it, Jesus said, how do you guys feel about going to painting bureaus in Mexico? I was like, oh, heck yeah. What are we talking about? Yes, I still had that idea of the Mexican muralist that was very influential in my mind. And he said he’d had been invited to his school in Chuan, in Tang, to paint for the 25th anniversary of this school that he attended. It was the founding of the school, and they wanted him as an alum to come back and paint. And he decided, well, they have so many walls in that school. Why don’t I bring a couple of friends down with me? So he asked me if I was interested. I jumped on it. Alicia was interested. She jumped on it. We brought a couple of artists from the Art Institute, John Northrop and Gear at that time, and we invited, we went down there and they did their work. We all did our own work. But when we came back, Jesus said, how do you guys feel about painting the wall over here in Argent? That’s a two block long wall.
I don’t think we were too intelligent about that, but we said, oh, yeah, then, oh, yeah, that was a project and a half. We did do it though, and it’s now 25 years since we painted that one. And so, yeah, that kind of got us started, which is meant through this kind of last gasp, but let’s put on a show kind of thing. And I met them, and then it just touched a nerve when he said, how do you feel about painting murals, boom?
In your experience in Mexico, did it have kind of that same transformational effect to communities in Mexico?
Intense. I remember the theme of the first one was he basically, Jesus said, why don’t we come up with a theme like Americas? What does Americas mean to you? And they were up in the highlands, we in this little town, like I said, t and I was thinking, I hadn’t thought much about my roots, where I came from for a while. I just got involved in work and stuff like that. But in that moment, I began to think about my memories of place. And we remember thinking, I was raised in Boka. I was born in Boca Manka, which is coffee region in Santander, in Colombia, mountain mountains. I remember the green of mountains. And then when we were in GaN sequin, I looked around me. We were in the mountains and it was green, it was lush. And so immediately my themes came out, and I remember thinking, I’m painting scenes from what I remember of my childhood, but how do I tie it to this community?
And so behind me, as you looked, I can’t remember what direction, but you looked off in the distance. There’s a mountain that’s called Lata, which is very prominent in Ang. Everybody references kind of the location to the Beata. And I decided, well, I’m going to paint that mountain into my landscape. I’m painting about Columbia, but I’m going to put that in there. And man, the many people saw it. They said, oh, I’ll be out there. I mean, they made this connection in making that connection. There was joy. I wasn’t just painting something that had no relation to them, even though I was painting themes that are Latin American, the colors, the dress and stuff, but they could see, oh, you are putting our place in it. That was, I think, a powerful thing. And also the reaction of the people in that town. When we were invited, Jesus had told us that, Hey, they’re preparing the walls for us, for we come.
So imagine a wall eight feet by 24 feet, nine feet by 24 feet, and it’s old limestone plastered wall, and it was old and dirty. Well, the people that worked there, the workmen in that school went in there and they chiseled the whole thing off, and they resurfaced it. They said, well, we get there. I find out they’ve done that. We were told that, and I’m going, all of a sudden it’s like, they already have ownership of this wall. They’ve invested into it. So we’re just like, I don’t know. It felt like we were contributing to something that already started, that already had a community engagement. They did it on their own. I mean, they said, oh, these artists are coming to paint this. Let’s do this. It was a respect of a way that all of a sudden, we knew we were painting for something more than ourselves.
It was for this community. And I remember after when we finished, they had a big celebration, and those workmen, oh my God, the joy they had, it was intense. I mean, it was like we had done something for them. Nobody had done, but they in turn had done something for us. Nobody had done. So it was a great interchange. Yeah, it was powerful. Still, to me, one of the greatest memories I’ll ever have was spending a month down in Tongan and hanging out with the people, and they would come by. I mean, they would check on us, and they weren’t painters, they were not painters, but they were skilled craftsmen who loved what they did and took great pride in it.
Yeah, it’s kind of the artists in their own right?
Oh, totally. Totally. I mean, we have this argument about fine art and craft, but I like process. I was taught as an artist process, as a writer process. And to me, there’s something in the discoveries you make while you’re trying to get the things set up to do it. And for those guys, it was like, I mean, can you imagine with a chisel sitting there and taking the fricking thing apart and then having that, I dunno if you’ve plastered a wall with limestone, it’s not an easy thing. I tried to do it one time, so I thought, oh, I’ll paint some preco. Eh, that was not very good. The lime that I too fast, it just didn’t work. But when we got there, these things had been sanded. It was so smooth that it was incredible joy to do.
You have been around the Kansas City area for how long?
I had say absent eight years. I’ve been here since 19. Came here in January of 1965. We landed in Miami December 29th, 1964. Been two weeks down south and then drove up here. So yeah, I’ve been, what, 67 now? So it’s been a good amount of time in Kansas City.
What are some of the big changes that you’ve seen in community, positive or negative over this time?
Sadly, sometimes I think more in terms of the negative things, because they seem to be the most impactful. Sometimes though, I do always say, don’t let a good day be ruined by one bad moment. You had a good day. But I think for me, the biggest transformational part, it’s good and bad, and I’ll give you an example. I went to Shawnee Mission North, and I remember Shawnee Mission North. I never spoke Spanish, never spoke Spanish. There was nobody that I could talk to in Spanish. There were some, I remember meeting the youth, Latino Kids Association at North, and there were maybe six or seven of us. There wasn’t that many of us, but Spanish was not in my ear. I went back, a good friend of mine, Jackie Madrigal, who teaches their Latino studies program, she invited us from the collective, the Latino Writers Collective, to come and speak there.
And I remember as I walked in, and this is after many years, right? I’m walking in and the first thing I hear is Spanish is these kids, high school kids going in and they’re Latino, hispanic, whatever we call ourselves now, but they’re walking in and they’re speaking Spanish. The guard that greets me at the door has a very thick accent, although it’s like I’m thinking, this is not the high school I went to. So there was a transformative change. And also the amount of the student body had changed too. It was much browner, right? I’m not going to say it was predominant in any way, but it was noticeable. I could sit in that school when I was in high school and not see brown faces, not see too many black faces either. But it was kind of like I walk in and I was like, yeah, that changed.
So the demographic change, I can recall when you could look at the census for all the surrounding suburbs here and predominantly 1% other race. Now, you look at some of these neighborhoods, they’re 15, 18, 20%. Grandview has always had a mix. Parts of the Northeast, they’ve always had mixed, Jackson County’s always been kind of mixed y in that county, but now you see it in Overland Park, so the demographic change is noticeable. The other thing, it kind of tells you a lot about where my head is. Sometimes food. I can remember walking into, when we first came to this country, Chinese food was dominant. I mean, every place was, I mean, that was your go-to, oh, let’s get some Chinese. They were every place. And now you think about it, what’s the most dominant food there? It’s Mexican restaurants. I mean dominant. You think Mexican before you think Chinese restaurant, but it used to be the other way around.
All let’s good gets fast food. Chinese. If it wasn’t hamburgers or something like that, that was the ethnic restaurant. And that’s a big change, and that’s also a big cultural change with a lot of those restaurants. You get language, you get culture. When we painted the mural in K C K, outside of the McDonald’s, we were celebrating all the different places that Mexicans immigrated here from within Mexico for a long time. We’d always hear about the North northern Mexico Chihuahua. There’s a lot of people that come from that area. But as we were starting to do it, we began to realize, man, they’re coming from all over Mexico. Now you’ve got the migrations that go even further south, even across the oceans, right? You’ve got Somalis, you’ve got Arabs. You got just a very distinct and very different kind of migration patterns, and those become part of a fabric of a community.
I used to think that we were very segregated. We still are a very segregated community, but I don’t sit there and say, I only see one thing. I see many, many things, and there are cultural festivals, ethnic festivals, beyond the one that’s in down in SW Park. I think Wand Duck County has one that they do at KC Casey. There are celebrations all over. Some of the attempts that the Nelson has done with some of the celebrations, like Day of the Dead, Juneteenth, the Chinese New Year, the Indian Celebrations, those are speaking to a recognition that there’s changing demographics. And those are, to me, very positive. The negative, the most negative, I think is how in the last few years, some of the latent racisms, some of the latent kind of existing prejudice
Have kind of come to the fore, and now they seem to be batch of honors for some people. So that is distressing. I was looking at a thing yesterday where a guy that’s running for office here in Missouri, or may already be, I don’t know, was involved in this book Burning. I took these flame throws and they were burning books, and I’m like, sometimes I don’t recognize this country. And I think that’s why, in spite of all the positive things about this country, I’ve always felt that it’s never totally been my country. So that would be, I think the negative part of it.
In the communities that you’ve seen over time, do you think they’ve gained power with these demographic shifts, or do you think they’ve lost power?
I think they’ve gained power, but it’s not the kind of power that tilts elections, I don’t think. Honestly. I think at a local level, I think there is, you can’t deny it, right? Last night, I was over at Charlotte Street and we were doing a program there, but Kansas City Defender, they had their kind of meeting there. It was just thrilling to me to see very young black folk interested in telling stories, interested in journalism, interested in presenting and questioning the status quo, and not being afraid at all, and gathering and saying, invalidating themselves, man, that was not happening 20, 25 years ago. That is a radical change, and I think it’s an impactful change because if you notice, one of the things the defenders have done, there’ve been a couple of stories that if it weren’t for their being present, I don’t think they would be stories.
They wouldn’t would’ve been swept away. So I think there’s a certain amount of accountability that is coming into place. There’s also a sense that you can’t ignore certain communities anymore. You can’t just take for granted some things. But it’s still, I think, at the power levels, the real power levels, this city, I think most cities are driven by the interest of a set class of folk. I mean, they’re developers, they’re politicians, they’re connected folk, capital driven. They have their own issues, and those don’t necessarily sometimes align with what’s really in the best interest of community. We talked about the highways. So it doesn’t matter if you build a highway right through a vibrant neighborhood, as long as you get a highway that moves people to where you want ’em to move, but never really take into consideration what you lose. Bruce Watkins and I 35 70, you can see those remnants, how bad they impact communities, but yet we still have this conversation like, well, we need to expand I 35.
We need to move it, but where’s that going to go? We’re 70. Are we going to have this conversation? Are we going to really think about the impact that these things have, or are we going to say that there’s a bigger good, a larger good that’s only measured in terms of economic growth as opposed to cultural community growth? And that to me is I think where we don’t have the power, and I don’t say it’s just along ethnic or racial lines, it’s also against class because a lot of things are about class. If you come down to it, there’s certain communities that will never have a voice. The Northeast is not just populated with immigrants. I mean, there are, but they’re Eurocentric as well. And I would say that a lot of those communities as well suffer from lack of presentation representation. And it’s that divide of whether we get our stuff done or listen to the, we keep fighting each other over very little.
I think those things have not changed. I don’t see them changing very quickly, but that’s because I think sometimes I think of the images that I see. The news is very good at portraying the most negative things as the thing that gets the attention. And so in your mind, it gets reinforced. So I have to always think in terms of my own personal relations, have those changed, have those relationships, have those conversations changed? And that’s, I think, where my optimism is at that level. Yes, those things are changing at the power level, at the places where it really matters. There’s some change, but not as much as you would think. And at some places, I think it’s going backwards.
Kind of going back to the Casey Defender and kind of the power of their storytelling, can you talk a little bit about how you feel if and how you feel stories have power?
I do this thing with Kansas Humanities. I do a presentation. The sad thing is I only get called on always Hispanic Heritage Month Cinco de Mayo. Let’s tell the stories. But there is something that I try very much to convey, and that is that a narrative that we all share in too many respects and on different levels is we came from someplace else. We weren’t indigenous to this part here, this centralized, that the folk that were indigenous to this part had been driven, marginalized. Other stories have been hidden, put away, discounted, but the stories of those that have come here all of a sudden get transformed into certain stories matter more than others. So the narratives about the sod busters, the narratives about the Oklahoma land rush, those things get celebrated. Families and fortunes are built on policies that very much helped certain groups of people over others to get a leg up.
And those stories don’t get told. But when you start to really pull it back and say, where were your roots? Where did you come from? And I’m here. I could talk to somebody whose family’s roots could say, came from Belgium or Slavic immigrants that came here saying the 19 hundreds, early 19 hundreds. And then tell that story and compare it to somebody coming here in 1910 fleeing the revolution in Mexico or the changes that were taking place in Mexico. Those are similar narratives. And I think about a mural we painted over in St. Joseph’s St. Benedict Parish. On one side, we have this narrative of the, it’s a Polish, Slavic, Serbian Croatian community that did worship there at the church, supplanted now with immigrants from South America. So now the masses said in Spanish, which becomes a foreign thing to the people that had been there for a long time.
But when I sat down and started thinking about the ways to paint this mural, we came up with this idea, you know what? They came fleeing the very same things in some structures. They arrived in a community that was not very welcoming to them, and they did the menial jobs, the things that were nobody else was doing. And so they ended up working in the ice houses, the slaughtering houses. But what is the thing that brings ’em together? Sports education, the church. I’m not a church person of religious in any sense anymore, but those are community builders, the associations that you make, the parties that you celebrate, and you realize if you tell people those stories and ask them, Hey, isn’t this your experience too? It transcends whatever race you are, whatever class. Those are common stories. Nobody came here or, well, let me not say, some people came here very well, landed and everything, but most fortunes did not start out as fortunes.
And most stories, more relationships to land and ownership, and even identity as I am Missouri and I am cans and I am this. Those we built from coming here and going through the experience of it. And those narratives are, if you can pull ’em out and ask people, don’t ask their relatives to tell their stories. And I think that’s the main thing. If we did that, we’d see that commonality. We’d start to maybe start to think, okay, you were hungry. You struggled to eat, but you found a way to do it, and you found a way that your family and your descendants could do it. That’s the history of everybody. It’s not so different, but somehow it doesn’t get told or celebrated
What you just said. It reminded me of your murals and of even the story you just told about going to Mexico for the mural and creating art in a way that is a story from the artists, but people can see themselves in it. I think there is something very powerful about where are we actually aligned. Our stories are way more similar than we think. We just put, society has put all these other stories in our head that separates us.
Oh, so this happened yesterday. I was coming back. I’m painting a mural in this town in Kansas called Peabody. It’s been an incredible experience. I spent too much time there. I told them, I think I’m setting roots here in Peabody. But on the way back out, we stopped over by Council Grove. There’s an Indian mission there. Wanted to check it out. I found out also, that’s the place where this monument by the condemnation, they’re bringing this boulder that had been taken away from this sacred site, transported over to Lawrence and gifted to the community by some white entrepreneurs who said, Hey, we’re going to celebrate these contributions to these people, to Lawrence. But always the idea was, Hey, that was our sacred rock. So we went to this place where the rock is eventually going to end in, I can’t remember.
I think I’m saying it wrong, but it’s part of the Indian reservation there. So we went over there to look at it, and it wasn’t there. But in looking for it, this truck pulled up and there was these two guys in there, and they were curious as, oh, what are you doing? I says, oh, we’re looking for this. But it’s like, oh. But they knew, and I still remember this one guy saying, God, it’s such a sad story what happened here? I could have these conversations 20 years ago, and nobody would say, what a sad story. It was more like, well, the Indians were fighting. They had to be moved. You would more likely have that kind of a exchange, and then you’d have to sit there and argue. But this guy kind of looked at it and says, yeah, this is really sad. And the saddest part for him was that in when they tried to move them out of the area to the treaty gang council, they actually, the army built a series of cabins along this creek, concrete structures, and said, okay, you guys can move there.
Well, the tragedy of this was, was not their kind of housing. This was not their kind of dwelling. This was not their cultural thing. And we totally ignored that later. They just moved them down to Oklahoma. But that guy was thinking that and realizing we changed their culture so much. We couldn’t be recognized that in helping them, we weren’t helping them. We were making them become what we wanted them to be. And that we, I mean the people, not me, but the people that were enforcing that kind of a doctrine. And that recognition to me was like, I sit there and I’m still marbling at it, because we were able to have, these were two older fellas, probably from the community. I don’t think we even exchanged names, but it was a really eyeopening in a way for me that if we tell the stories long enough, we will eventually have to recognize the truth of them. Right.
That’s a pretty powerful statement. What is the story that in your life that you’ve told long enough that you’ve eventually found the truth in it?
Oh man. I told you that I believe in the power of art as a transformative catalyst for community building. It still comes to the very first mural we painted over in Argentine. I tell this story because it just resonates in a way that I can never let go of it. And we had this little tip jar that we put on the, when we were painting the mural, we put a tip jar. We wanted a little extra money for actually cigarettes and boo. We wanted some beer. And so we had this tip jar and people would give. So we had a little money in there. I remember what they were painting on the mural, and Jesus kind of called out my name and he tilted his head over, and I looked over and there was a guy approaching from the street, and he didn’t look too good, man.
He was pretty bad for where, and he’s marching right towards our jar. So I go, oh, God, there it goes. Guy’s going to steal it. So I came down and I got close to where we had the jar. And then the guy looked at me, he says, what are you doing? I was like, we’re painting a mural. And he goes, well, I can see that, but what the hell are you doing? I just wondering, well, where the hell is he going with this? And then he says, nobody has ever cared for us to do something like that. And I was stunned because he had not even, I realized in that moment, he hadn’t even seen the jar. He was looking at what we were doing, and then he just turns and keeps walking past us. And then he turns around and he’s crying, man, and he’s like, yells, thank you, brother.
Thank you for that, man. That moment I realized, I mean, I came with certain preconceptions. We all were thinking, this guy’s going to steal us. But no, this guy was realizing, you’re doing something for me. And look, he was a drunk, he was drunk, he was high. And I think that was what influenced, but I think sometimes we see something like that. We think there’s no communication there. Nothing is getting translated there. Art has no place there. You’re high, whatever. No, in that thing, he knew, he felt the pain of where he lived and was so grateful that somebody cared enough to come and do something there. I mean, it was a trashy area, and I’ve never taken it for granted. That guy totally, totally has influenced the way I see things. And it was just the briefest of moments, and I’ve never saw him again. I probably never will. And if I did, I wouldn’t recognize it. It’s been that long.
Is that a common reaction when people see what you’re doing in the neighborhood?
Man, I’ll give you painting. This mural in Peabody again, guilty is charged. I went there with preconceptions of rural America. It’s a town of 900 people, thereabouts, roughly less. Probably has seen better days. There’s an active community that’s trying to revitalize. There’s a desire to revitalize, but there’s also the acceptance that things have passed by. And in my mind I’m thinking, well, it’s like 93% white. This is not going to go well for me. There’s always this trepidation in its mind. That’s the preconceptions I bring to the thing. But it has been, I think one of the most on a level with painting in Tongan Sedo, one of the most transformative things I’ve experienced, the joy and the goodwill that we’ve experienced from the people there. I’ve had a couple of friends that have come down to help me has been it’s, I mean, it is really been challenging to let go of the conceptions that you have.
Yes, it’s a conservative community, there’s no doubt about that. But at the same time, it is a community that has the same mills that almost all communities, there’s drug problems, there’s a drug abuse, there’s a homelessness problems, there’s a lack of investment, and there’s the haves and the have nots. Those things exist. But there is this genuine feeling where people have come out and said, I thank you so much. We’re trying to do this. There was a guy the other day who said, oh my God, you guys are capturing what it is to be small town. And I’m going, that’s error. And I’m thinking how? Just by telling the story of what was there and just the appreciation that they have, I mean, they see us sweating out there, man, it’s been like over a hundred few weeks there, and we couldn’t do work. But they see us in day in and day out.
And I think there’s an exchange that takes place. For me, the heat and the unbearable ness of it is worth it because I’m telling a story they recognize. And for them, I think there’s a great appreciation that somebody’s willing to sacrifice that, to hear, to tell that story that, I mean, I can’t tell people how incredible that experience is until you transform it. And I think that’s the lucky thing about us artists is that I think if we’re open to it, we see that impact that we can have and that transformative issue. And it doesn’t have to be a narrative mural. It can be simply putting color on an area that has totally been absence of color, putting design in an area that has totally been left to whatever hazard means come us up, constructing a building that actually creates a place that people want to gather. Those are tangible things that could have an impact. Sometimes we only see the economic benefits of it, but we don’t see the people that are actually benefiting. And it’s a two-way street artists to community artists, to the people that engage you in it. And I’ve seen that, and it’s just like that’s been the best part of it. The 105 degree weather, 110 degree weather, I could do without. But that’s been awesome.
This kind of reminds me of what you spoke about earlier, just there are more shared narratives between people than we even allow ourselves to see. And how even small acts can be so appreciated just for people to be recognized, to be seen, someone has taken enough time to care about something. Our community, where we live, that seems very, just those small things seem to be so powerful.
You mentioned, I think you asked about change. How do we see communities changing? I think it’s that little thing where we can recognize that it is not a thing. I came up with. I always heard this thing a long time ago that said, the power of art lies in taking the extraordinary and making it ordinary and vice versa, taking the ordinary and make it extraordinary. And I always confounded me until I realized that is really a powerful thing. It’s like you take the most powerful thing that exists in some way, and you bring it down to a level to where you say, no, it’s not over you. It’s you are in this level. This thing does not exist. You can have an experience that is so significant to you that somebody might say, oh, that’s nothing. Until they have that same experience themselves. And so to me, there’s a leveling that takes place.
I see that through art. I see that you can yell, the emperor has no clothes. He really doesn’t have any clothes. And in the foibles that we as human beings have, are not changed because we have more power or not changed because we have more money. They still put on their clothes the same way, and they still love and hate the same way. They still carry grudges the same way, and they’re capable of changing the same way. Money doesn’t necessarily have to lead you that way, but it does in a culture become sometimes the most important thing. And I think that’s where we need to start telling these stories. So we realize at Base, Musk must have feelings like everybody else has feelings, delusions perhaps. But I think we can be diluted to with absent any money. We could have our own foibles, our own prejudices.
But at a certain level, we are all very ordinary people mean. So we can fly to the moon, big deal, birds fly. We can go down to the bottoms of the ocean and die trying to get to the Titanic, I guess. But what animals are in the ocean? There’s nothing uniquely significant about us. The earth will go on after we’re gone. We will probably, any trace of us will disappear, give us a million years. So in this moment that we’re living, why don’t we make the best of that? Why don’t we reach across and find that ordinary thing that we all have in common? To me, the power of art, that’s where it really resides as a possibility.
Have you worked with communities to, in storytelling and in building their own power?
I think for me it’s more like on a relationship, on a very relational level or in groups. I don’t think that I can sit there and shape a whole narrative for a community. I work in Artist Inc. We do a facilitate kind of ways that artists can create and still think about how to sustain careers. But one of the things that has evolved in that program is that we always think when we look at an entrepreneurial part of what an artist’s life should be, we’re always looking at it from this kind of bottom line kind of numbers, the bottom line, bottom line. But over time, we’ve also realized that values are very much an important aspect of anything. And it’s those values that we have so that people say, I want my freedom. I want to be able to say what I want to say.
Then fine, I can buy that. But why can you not see that you negated it for somebody else? If it’s such an important value to you, why don’t you transfer that value to somebody else who’s voiceless? And think about it. If you want equity in a justice system, why don’t you translate the equity you see in yourself and you demand for yourself to those that don’t have it? Because the system doesn’t allow them to have it, because the system ingrained as it is, sees them as the other that has to be negated. Those values, that’s where we can begin to change. And I think for me, that happens on a personal level. That happens on a one-on-one, small groups, maybe even the small presentations I make. And I think, and I will kind of qualify that just a little bit. I do this thing with poetry month where I share poetry, and that’s really meant to reach a broader audience.
And in that aspect, I’m just sharing my love of poetry. And in poetry, there is this transformative thing that takes place. A poem is unlike any other art form, and I’m not meaning to say is the best and the strongest, but it is a uniquely thing in that anybody can be a poet. Everybody has written a poem in their life, they literally have. And in that level, then I can reach a broader audience if I’m using the medium, but I’m not that driven to do it. I prefer the smaller engagements, but I also do understand that there is a place, there’s a broader way that we can reach broader communities. So yes, I think I’m more comfortable on smaller settings, but the mediums allow you to get out to more, like this podcast would reach more people than I will do sitting at a poetry reading for 10 or 15 people.
It’s interesting that we have been covering a lot of one aspect of your artistry, and I recently saw you at an event where you got to read some of your poetry. How do you think being able to tell your story through or stories through poetry has either given you power or have you seen it transform power in others?
It’s given me a lot of power in the sense that when I write a poem, when I think through poetically through something, I trust that as agonizing as the ideas at first come out of the page and they look totally ridiculous, that there is something inspirationally and through process that will get me to where I want to say. So that’s on a personal level, that’s transcendent. But on an even larger level, I’ve seen the power of poetry in presentations I make. I very much invest in the words that are being written. I cannot read a poem statically. I can’t just read it to you without saying, well, what is this poetry doing? What are these words doing? And how do I interpret them through my voice to give them life, to animate ’em? Even abstract poems to me is a challenge, but you can still do it.
You can still convey an emotional tension that has taken place. And that for me, connects. And I think it’s primarily because I think if anything, the Greeks had a really great way of looking at it. This idea that you could actually elevate poetry to a level of a competitive experience where it was an Olympic event, where it was part of it, where they had the olympiads that were poetry, recitals, plays and stuff. So they put it on a level that was really just, it was part of your life. And I think if we can think more the way poets think, the way poets criticize, the way poets celebrate, I think that’s a really transformative thing that really can impact society. I’ve always wondered why we don’t, and maybe it’s the way our education system is, but I loved learning. I loved reading. I was curious, man, I see a book discarded.
I’ll pick it up and say, oh, is there anything of interest for me here? But we don’t value that, but man, I go into a school or something, or I’m working with somebody, and you can tell they don’t see themselves as a poet, but when we’re done, they’re creating poetry. They’re not thinking about, oh, this should sound a certain way, the way we teach it that we emphasize, oh, look, these are the classics. These are the masters. But no, but poetry at a certain level, it’s just one language of expressing something deeply and concisely. You’re not going to write a novel out of a poem, though. You have bad pick poems. But there were moments in it that are just contained, and we’re all capable of that. And some of the best poetry I’ve ever read really came out of a conversation. It could be a young person saying something that just caught me. I’ll always say, my God, I hope you put that in a poem. I’m going to steal it. Because something is said in the context of just an interaction and it just sounds so beautiful. It’s like, oh my God, I wish I had said that. So yeah, I don’t know. I’m going off on tangents, man, because
No, but I think that kind of goes to the whole idea of there’s a universal human experience that we are for some reason, maybe we are blinding ourselves to. And going back to the theme of we have more things in common than differences, maybe through the art of words and through poetry is another avenue to express the sameness that we all share versus the differences.
I always think about the language of things. So I know there are things that I want to project express that can only come out in color, in line and form. They don’t translate to poetry, they don’t translate to words. They don’t translate to action or performance. They are that thing. So it’s a language that I indulge. Poetry is another language. Storytelling is another language, another form music. Oh my God, music has an incredible power. You put a beat on something, 90% of the people are going to instinctively react to that beat, try to catch up with, there’s a harmony, a vibration that we are vibrant humans. I mean, we send out a frequency somewhere into the world and music connects us that way. Sounds connect us that way. And to me, it’s a form of language. So I would love to be able to do music, but I’m not a gifted musician in that sense.
I’m not disciplined enough. But I love to engage with musicians and put my words in the context of improvisational stuff because I love that idea of hearing a rhythm and then trying to find the words to match that rhythm. At the same time, knowing that I am touching something that I try to do in my poetry, but I don’t try to, in that instance, I’m free to create, right? So that’s another form of expression, that instantaneous moment. I love jazz improvisation. I love improvisation. Rock and roll. Anything you improvise away from a melody or from a structure, I’d love to hear what you discover, right? I don’t want to hear the same thing to be exactly note by note as. I really love that thing. That changes. And those are all different languages. They’re all different ways of expressing something really deep. So I do a lot of things, but always with the idea that each language has its own thing and there are overlaps.
I tell the story that when I was in college, one of our professors talking about poetry, he’s told us the thing that he loved the most about poetry was the way words rubbed against each other. And that sank into me. And one day I’ve been painting and I realized it’s translatable to painting. I love the way a color rubs against another color. I love the way a structure can stand up next to another structure, how space can work against form, shape. All these things, all of sudden are connections, and that’s really powerful to me. But they have their own distinct language, right? Words are words, colors our colors, shapes our shapes, spaces, our spaces.
As we are starting to wrap up, what’s going to bring you joy in the next few days, weeks, months, years?
Well, I’ve thought a lot about it, and not in a morbid way, just in an acceptance sort of way. I went just a month and a half ago. I was in Columbia for the first time since I left, and I mentioned that in the space where we were at for nation in exile, that presentation that I had, this strange, it was an affirmation of something that I felt for a long time. When we came to this country, we were told the joy and the beauty that was this country, the joy and beauty that is this constitution, the joy and beauty that is the celebration of liberty and freedom, only to find out that doesn’t apply to all of us. And realizing that as much as I want to embrace this, I’m always going to feel like I’m not. And so I got very rooted in having my feet in two different places.
I am very comfortable in the two different places. I celebrate that. I don’t want to be, somebody says, I’m either here nor there. You belong or you don’t belong. Those things don’t matter. I find strength in that. And going back to Columbia, the one thing that really just overwhelmed me still, it was overwhelming me is what I said. I think that I felt such an openness that I myself was thinking, I’m no longer Colombian because I haven’t been back. I haven’t been there. But everything that I saw there told me you are will always be. And also, the people told me that the circumstances told me that the music, the food, the memories, all those things came back and reinforced that I’m okay if that part of me has never been assimilated into this country. I think that’s a great strength and I embraced it.
So how do I build on that? How do I accept going forward those things, more trips to South America, more trips to other countries. I’ve traveled a lot fortunate to see a lot of places, but not as much as I would like. But also I think realizing that home, somebody said, home is where the heart is. But at the same time, I think home is more where the heart longs to be and longs to be. It’s usually a place of community where your values are shared, where what is that song where there never is a discouraging day over the range, those utopias we want. But I think there is a sense of being comfortable, and I would love, for me, I think that’s what I strive for now, is this idea of I’m comfortable any place I am. That funny song, the Temptations, what is it? His father was a
Rolling stone. Wherever he laid his head was his home. Of course, the connotation different, but for me, wherever I breathe is my home. I would love to have that be a sense of what is really more important for me going forward.
José, thank you very much for coming in here and joining us and talking about art and narratives and community power. I really appreciate your time.
Thank you for letting me just babble.
No, this is good.
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