Artist Profile, The Expert Series: MANO Fine Art
During the early 1960s, over 14,000 unaccompanied minors from Cuba arrived on America’s shores as part of Operation Pedro Pan. One of these children was a budding artist now known as MANO. This formative immigration experience became a major element in the Miami-based artist’s work, and, even today, continues to reverberate in his creative soul.
In this artist profile, MANO talks about how his art evolved, creative processes, the importance of the immigrant perspective in his work, and more.
When did you first get into art?
I’ve always been attracted to the arts, some of my earliest memories are of my brother and I drawing away the afternoons. I remember one drawing in particular that I made of my family sitting inside my father’s green Studebaker...I loved that car. As a kid I was always doodling and sketching on the margins of my school notebooks.
I really got into art when I took this amazing course in hand-made paper making. At the time, I was working as an electronics engineer and the stress level was pretty high, so I took the course hoping it would help me manage my stress, it did that and more.
Soon afterwards, while on jury duty, I met the woman who was to be my wife. It turned out she was a museum professional and my hand-made paper was the perfect ice-breaker. Soon we were visiting art galleries and museums and I found myself consumed by art. I transitioned from making hand-made paper to painting small expressionist portraits. At the time, she was involved in a charity auction for her museum and asked if I would consider creating a painting for the event. I created a piece and used the pseudonym MANO because I wanted an authentic response to my work, not tainted by friends and colleagues who I thought could feel obligated to comment or bid on my work. The response was pretty amazing, the piece sold for more than the estimated value and a gallery owner in attendance invited me to exhibit with her. The experience was definitely a turning point for me as an artist.
Who are your favorite artists?
I’ve always been drawn to the expressionist movement from the early 1920s particularly the work of Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Kees Van Dongen, Alexej Jawlensky and a few others... My list has grown considerably and now includes many more modern artists.
Do you consider yourself part of a particular art movement?
No doubt that I have been inspired by several art movements, but I can’t claim to be part of any of them.
Do you have a favorite medium that you work in?
Because of my approach to art making, acrylics are the best because of its quick drying qualities and tempera for its intense colors and high pigmentation, but I try not to limit myself to any one medium and even use roof tar and bitumen.
Does your creative process change depending on the medium?
I work across various disciplines (including painting, sculpture and installation) and for the most part always in mixed medium. While it is true that some mediums dictate a certain approach, my process is similar regardless of the medium. I research and formulate (in my head) before approaching the work. Rarely do I sketch in advance. Initially it is spontaneous and quick but with deliberate strokes. Once the first layer of the work is completed, I can ease into incorporating more layers and details such as stitching and adding more elements such as textiles and twine. This aspect of my work is more intuitive and I consider it the part that helps me redefine the (figurative) aspects of my work.
Do you have a particular favorite work that you have created?
Of course, the joke is that most artists will say that their favorite piece is the one that they’re currently working on. But undoubtedly, there are some pieces that are harder to part with than others because they are more personal.
It’s really a toss-up, I love my “ID: Self Identification” series particularly the piece titled “In My Language I’m Really Smart.” It reminds me of my father. The work speaks to the pain of those who are immigrants and have no choice but to pivot and start their life again mainly due to the language barriers.
And then there is my series “Circa Now,” an homage to Cuba’s Vanguard artists, this body of work speaks to my soul. I truly enjoy re-interpreting works by Cuban masters in my style and honoring them for what they accomplished during their careers.
What is your artistic process?
Usually when I think of creating a body of work, I stay within the type of work that I do; something that has to do with immigration, the immigrant experience or perhaps a world event of some kind. Then I research it to become more familiar with it and as I’m doing my research, I come up with ideas as the inspiration factor starts kicking in. By the time I start the painting process, the spontaneity starts to flow and even more ideas start evolving.
Why are you drawn to depictions of faces in your art?
Faces tell amazing stories, and no matter what I create, the real beauty is that everyone will see their own story based on their life experiences and that’s the power of art.
Why are you drawn to mixed media?
Maybe it’s my innate curiosity, the alchemist in me, or my background as an engineer, but seriously why limit yourself? To create you need to be open to the endless possibilities of combinations (mediums) and explore the what-ifs.
How do your experiences during Operation Pedro Pan inform your art?
Portraying the immigrant experience is often a focus of my work, as is most evident in my “ID: Self Identification” series, which depicts facsimiles of passport portraits. [In the series, there are] portraits painted, collaged and intervened with metaphorical markings of cultural assimilation, [as well as] hyphenated and bilingual names that poignantly highlight ethnicity, the assimilation process, and self-identification.
I have also memorialized one of the greatest stories of immigration, Operation Pedro Pan, the exodus of more than 14,000 unaccompanied children to the United States from Cuba. In my series, “Faded Memories,” black and white chalk-like paintings depict the painful moments of family separation and changing of life trajectories. The work was initially exhibited with an installation of vintage suitcases painted white; these suitcases have evolved into the La Maleta Project, a manifest of Pedro Pan signatures that have been collected over ten years. La Maleta Project along with one of my paintings is currently on exhibit at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora located in Miami.
My own experience as a Pedro Pan made me realize at an early age that the plight of immigration is a shared experience, one that cuts to the very core of the human experience; it should unite us but sadly it often divides us.
Ultimately, I hope that my work contributes to an on-going dialogue about immigration.
What got you into exhibit curation and installation?
I’m indebted to my wife Cuqui for her great curatorial skills. Truly as a result of working with her I was inspired to expand my work to include conceptual art installations, my first was “Imagine: An Altar for John” (Lennon) created using recycled pallets for an exhibit on things we worship. Others include: “Friend Me” a statement on social media, and a conceptual installation called “Put A Lid On It,” an environmental statement.
Your studio is in Miami’s Bird Road Art District, what’s it like to be located there and allowing the public to visit?
I love having my studio in the middle of an old industrial warehouse district, which also happens to be a great artist community. My warehouse studio provides ample space to display my work for visitors but more importantly, the space I need to create and work in. Like most artists I don’t keep regular hours, so my studio is open by appointment or when we host an Open Studio.
Allowing someone into my studio is special, there’s this level of intimacy between the art, the viewer and the artist that just can’t be duplicated in a public format. The informal setting is perfect for questions; explaining my process, connecting over personal interpretations (mine/theirs) sometimes these visits are a source of inspiration for me too.
How important is the connection between your work and people that view it?
It’s wonderful for me to hear people talk about my work, and what the work emotes for them. Ultimately, I want people to connect to my work and sometimes they do in the most wonderful ways. It’s great when they really feel the work, it’s like listening to a great piece of music, they get goosebumps… heck I get goosebumps too.
What advice do you have for beginning artists?
Be true to yourself; strive to convey what is important to you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with mediums, techniques and different styles. Ask for feedback on your work. Network with other artists. Get to know and support your local art community.
What are you currently working on?
I have so many projects that I’d like to get to but currently, I’m working within a theme of stripes; bold, thick, richly textured stripes that I’m loosely layering into all my new portraits.
What are your favorite Arteza products?
I’m excited about several products that Arteza carries. The acrylics have excellent pigmentation and flow, the charcoal sticks are possibly the best I’ve used. Arteza also has an excellent collection of watercolors. Overall, I’ve discovered that Arteza’s product line is really outstanding.
To see more of MANO’s work, visit manofineart.com and check out his Facebook page
@MANOFineArtStudio and his Instagram page @manofineart.