"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Sep 6, 2018

Cayo Caribe

In case I get hit by a bus and never finish my book, it’s time to talk about a gallery I co-owned in Puerto Rico, along with 5 other artesans, named Cayo Caribe.

It was 2002, and the Twin Towers disaster had dried up tourism on the island.  Artists who could afford the airfare were fleeing in droves to sell their wares in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Kite shop Volantines was another unexpected casualty; and to top that off, I’d just become a professional artist. Timing.

Ruff Life was anchored just offshore la Parguera along the southwest coast; and the tiny Paradise contained strip-mall El Muelle:  a marvelous mix of shops anchored by a supermarket, where I’d clerked for a couple of years upon arrival. El Muelle was the heart of the community, but after 9/11 everyone was struggling.

To help drum up business several liquor companies sponsored a Friday Night parking-lot party, where free booze flowed like water, no kidding. A self-taught artist, I’d been working with the island’s calabash tree-gourds, or higueras, for about a year.

I set up a borrowed table in front of the vacant shop next to Volantines, threw a curtain panel from the Dollar Store over the top, wrapped a fanny pack around my waist for change, and tried not to drip profusely during Puerto Rico’s summer doldrums. My first art show. My one and only sale that day was a small, lemon-colored basket to hold crackers; which went to Nancy, who I now visit at her digs in Lake Tahoe.

As the evening progressed a man the size of a mountain in a white Panama hat stopped to admire my work.  Miguel, a Santeros wood carver and painter, spoke fluid English and couldn’t say enough nice things, offering encouragement and the name of a valuable contact in Old San Juan. 

“You need to speak to Siuko,” who organized artesan shows in Plaza de Armas each month, which I did. When I offered to cross the island to show her samples of my work she declared it wasn’t necessary, for if Miguel thought highly of it, then that was good enough for her.

Volantines managed to remain open for a time, while I dipped my toe into the art community.  Attending festivals was fun for a while, but sales kept declining and finding transient accommodations was always a challenge. I slept on the floor while these pot-bellied pigs had their own room, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Eventually the kite shop closed; but as luck would have it, during our final two weeks Miguel asked if (we) would like to open a gallery in la Parguera along with silk-screener Lizette, jeweler Alberto, bamboo artist Franco, painter and musician Naesche and himself, of course. The timing was certainly fortuitous and I’m a firm believer in Kismet. Invited to a spontaneous get-together to discuss the gallery’s vision, I felt honored to be included in island life in such a manner.  Who could say no?

But first we had to build it. My compadres had already located a long-closed restaurant off the beaten path in Parguera. In hindsight that should have been a tip-off, but we were all optimistic and there was nothing else on the horizon. The planning parties had gone so well we assumed everything else would as well.

Imagine half a dozen Artists agreeing on anything involving designs; and we were starting from scratch. We couldn’t even agree on what color to paint the deck. We fought, laughed, got high, and teased Lizette mercilessly, since she was the only one among us who did not smoke cigarettes. She demanded our nicotine fixes be relegated to the Top Deck, inadvertently isolating herself; then going ballistic because we needed so many smoke breaks.

I drove Lizette around while she navigated the endless government departments requiring paperwork to open our little dream; while the fellows installed new wiring, removed tree roots growing out of the toilets and poured a new concrete floor. 

The Captain had remodeling experience and confidently assumed responsibility for construction projects; while I remained silent about all the leftover hardware after he reassembled things on the boat.  At least the gallery wouldn’t sink.

We made plans while we worked: poetry readings, free art classes for children; Friday night musical performances.  We didn’t have to worry about things like liquor laws, but we did need two bathrooms, being a public establishment. Lizzie and I would brawl with our partners after they’d sneak into ours (ladies, you can relate); but despite these differences we remained close friends and confidants.

We opened to great success.  We were featured in a newspaper article (read the Spanish language article here), and people seemed to like our mix of eclectic art.

Miguel’s fascinating paintings and sculptures are based on triangles; Naeche loves symbolism both in his art and music. Lizette is a master silk screen artist, and Alberto’s silver jewelry includes seeds, semi-precious stones and anything else he has lying about.

Franco was in the same boat as me, since harvesting, cleaning and carving bamboo was just as difficult and time consuming as my work with higueras. He made all sorts of touristy- items, and I collaborated with him by painting his incense holders, which we couldn't give away. Unfortunately, not just for us but the majority of artesans, the economy stunk and the public just wasn’t buying.

We all agreed to volunteer our time to the success of the gallery; but the quantity and frequency of time, well, that’s where our biggest thorn of contention emerged.  It highlighted the main difference between two cultures:  those who truly live, not just believe in, Island Time; and the rest of us.  Suffice it to say that my partners did not agree with my idea of regular hours

"Local businesses, like hotels, need to know when the gallery is open to direct tourists." I didn’t have any other source of income at the time, instigating my frantic pleas; and yet to a person my partners disagreed.

Cayo Caribe is more of an artist’s cooperative rather than a gallery. We’ll probably stay open late, working on new pieces while people shop.” Well, it was their concept, after all.

The fact that they all felt the opposite caused me to question myself: I still hadn’t incorporated Island Time despite years on the boat.  What was wrong with me? They all tried so hard to help me relax; Miguel even dragged me to church during one festival when I was crying because, again, I hadn’t had any sales.

Eventually I left the gallery because I wasn’t earning enough to even cover the gallery rent. We'd hoped that more artists would join the cooperative, reducing everyone's payment, but in those dark times it was a pipe dream. My partners, Miguel in particular, helped pay my share; but I just didn’t see things getting any better. Add to that, menopause.  Still, to this day they all love me as I do them.  We’ve shared an exceptional experience.  We support one another in times of trouble. Four of us are Librans.

Cayo Caribe eventually closed, along with so many other businesses. No one was really surprised but everyone was sorry.  Parguera was turning into a ghost town. My partners went back to their studios and continued with the show-route, as I did; but in addition to organized shows, which yielded little income for me, I painted murals, gave art lessons, and set up dog-and-pony shows for ladies’ groups. THOSE were profitable; and where I learned that no matter how lousy the economy, there will always be people with money. It also helps for an artist to have a benefactor-or-tress, and fortunately I had a couple of those, too.

You know how rosy memories become over time?  Back then we couldn’t get away from one another even if we tried.  We were all on the carny-route, coming and going, yanking stock out for shows and rearranging the gallery to look full.  During lengthy, common shows far away from our little county of Lajas, we’d all bunk in the house Miguel's wife, Nellie, rented while she worked in San Juan.

My Cayo Caribe family is still in Puerto Rico but fortunately they did not suffer too terribly following hurricane Maria; other than lost water and electricity like the rest of the island.   I was thrilled to learn that the little compound Miguel's building in the 'bush' near Cabo Rojo survived, except for the bamboo.  What will Franco do for material? 
Now that we’re heading into the particularly troublesome time for hurricanes (Sept/Oct), I’m keeping fingers crossed for the island, as I know you are, too.

I am not exaggerating when I say I would not have become the artist I am without my partner's instruction, guidance, love and encouragement. Oh, and thanks in large part to their tenacity, enough Island Time was thrown at me for at least a little to stick. 

Gracias, mi Boriquen.

P.S.  I would like to again share the following link to the GoFundMe page set up by non-profit CERF+, which helps artists around the world. This fundraising campaign is specifically for the artists of Puerto Rico needing help following Maria. Thank you.

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Original gourd art designs Copyright 2020 Andrea Jansen Designs. Please write for permission.



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