December 1, 2006
See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me
By Douglas Bernon
Lots of people gave us lots of advice when we first started cruising, and some of it proved pretty useful. High on that list was the late Jason Stern, a circumnavigator, superb photographer and a friend we much miss. Jason died a few years ago, while we were on our voyage. Before we set off on Ithaka, Jason suggested that if we wanted to take pictures, we should consider something other than random snapshots of whatever captured our fancy. He suggested that an ongoing search, a purposeful hunt with a thematic consistency across cultures would enrich our trip and improve the photography. Most importantly he felt that it would inspire us to see things with more detail and greater insight. As with most things aesthetic, he was right.
With Jason in mind, wherever we’ve gone, I’ve always sought out wall art and tried to capture it to create a chronicle of our voyage. This is not graffiti, now, although that too would have been interesting, but actual pictures of things. Sometimes the images were depictions of what was sold inside a store, especially useful in the Third World there is sometimes a sizeable population that cannot read. We were often in restaurants where the only menu was what was painted on the wall, although in one small café in Zapsurro, a tiny village on the Colombian coast, a local man with talent and a flair for painting had created an entire human being made from the forms of vegetables and fruit.
Often times the wall art we saw was political, although generally that did not interest me as much as portraiture that informed me about the social culture. One major exception was at a marina in the Rio Dulce River in Guatemala, where a Russian artist who was visiting there had been commissioned to paint identifying placards for the men’s and women’s rooms. His depiction of Hitler and Mao as the Jack of Clubs was brilliant.
Everywhere we went outside the United States I toted a camera in my backpack, trying to find those images that revealed aspects of the culture. For example, in Tigre, a tiny island in the San Blas I found a sign that said “No Acceptamos Cocos” – “We do not accept coconuts” (as currency). That such a sign would be necessary spoke volumes about the changes that island was experiencing.
In Cartagena, there were frequently posters about the narco-traffikers and the guerrilla warfare, and one terrific mural showing children longing for peace. In Jamaica, where the furies seemed always about to bubble over into conflict, there was a frightening picture outside a jerk-chicken restaurant. It showed an out-of-control man jamming a chicken drumstick into the mouth of a woman.
Curiously, here at home in the United States I’d never paid much attention to wall art. I’ve always been put off by the mediocrity, uniformity, and bombast of monstrous highway billboards, and not much taken with the destructive aspects of subways smeared with graffiti. Zoning and style police often control what kinds of commercial signs can appear in public; civic groups battle over the “appropriateness” of public sculpture, and the folk art of previous eras has been relegated to museums and private collections, rarely seen now as part of the public artscape. All of those reasons are what convinced me on our passage to Key West that once we landed back in the States I would continue my hunt for original, small-scale wall art in an effort to learn more about my own country, to which I am returning with some trepidation.
Key West , a city that’s over the top in many ways, has wall art to match. At the grocery store next to the dinghy dock there’s a formidable mural full of hammerhead sharks, groupers and turtles, and throughout town there are droll reminders that this is not a typical American city. But it was in Miami, especially in the Cuban neighborhoods that border on Coral Gables that I found images that drew me again and again.
At a Laundromat there was an underwater seascape with a magnificent whale, whose great eye seemed to follow me around the parking lot. Most
importantly, though, was the museum on the wall at Latino American Restaurant just up the street from one of the most perfectly named boating supply stores in the world: Crook and Crook.
Surrounding the parking lot at the restaurant, in the glare of the sun, is a wall that pays tribute to the restaurant owner’s favorite stars of the 1950s and 1960s. Foremost is Desi Arnaz, a national treasure, with Lucy, Ethel and Fred. Sitting on the lawn in front of that picture I recalled many afternoons with my mother, sitting in front of an old Philco and laughing together as Lucy stumbled so cunningly through life.
Down the wall from them is a skinny version of the rarely seen but much imagined Elvis Presley, splendidly attired in his younger and saner years, before he started shooting out hotel televisions with his ever-present pistol.
I sat on a parking barrier before him, sipping potent Cuban coffee and listening to my Ipod, working through a playlist of his greatest hits.
On the same wall, and painted in a style that suggested the same artist, was a joint appearance of Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I hadn’t downloaded any of their music, but I sat awhile and imagined.
I almost missed the best picture of all in this gallery, for it was on a side wall, mostly hidden under the shade of a tree. It was clearly painted by someone else, someone less reverential and more amused. I asked inside the restaurant if anyone knew what had happened to the painters, or when the work was done, and why there, and if the owner had paid for the art or just provided good food. No one knew. It was all before the time of the current help. So I went back outside and sat happily with the Lone Ranger. In all his glory, clutching a hot dog (not an item even available at this restaurant) and a drink, he’s partially eclipsed by a local palm tree.
Over the time we spent in Miami, I ate a lot of food at this restaurant. It was spicy and good and cheap. I came back often to see the artwork in different light conditions, but I never learned anything about the artists or their benefactor. Maybe that’s just as well. Maybe it’s better that I let my imagination run free. This is the gift Jason gave to me six years ago, and I think about things like that more, especially now that our voyage is drawing to a close and we’re heading home. He convinced me of the importance of focusing my thoughts, of looking for special images all of a theme, of believing that through this process I would learn more, see more, feel more. He was right.