When Juan Alonso-Rodriguez was growing up in Havana, Cuba, he wasn’t outside playing a rousing game of baseball like the rest of his peers. Rather, he preferred sitting in a room drawing, making figures with clay and being crafty. One of his earliest memories is of making what he called “weird little trees” with paper and wire. Alonso-Rodriguez always thought of art as a hobby — something he would dabble in on the side — not necessarily a career. But that’s exactly what happened after his life went a few other directions first.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I feel so fortunate that I get up every morning and I am happy with my life, with what I do,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I’m anxious to come into the studio and make stuff. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have a solo museum show. That I would be getting a Governor’s Arts Award.”
In November, the self-taught artist will be honored, along with several others, at the 2019 Governor’s Arts & Heritage Awards celebration in Olympia. He’ll receive the individual arts award for his contributions to “Washington’s creative vitality.” The award is a milestone in a nearly four-decade career of producing paintings, public art and community involvement. He’s thrilled to receive the award and sees it as more than just an acknowledgement of what he’s accomplished.
“There’s so much rhetoric against immigrants and people of color and Latinos and Hispanics,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I feel like every time I’m recognized for something like that, I feel like it’s just a little pushback, and also for younger people that are feeling so berated by all of this nonsense.”
He lives in Seattle’s Capitol Hill and has a studio in Pioneer Square. His trek is a little more than two miles long and takes about 40 minutes. His studio is an open space in the corner of the TK Arts building with voluminous windows overlooking South Washington Street and Third Avenue South. Many of his paintings hang on the wall, giving visitors the full scope of his range. Abstract paintings give way to the Los Muñecones series based on Carnival, an annual celebration in his home country and others in the Caribbean. He approaches each style differently.
The abstract works, such as “Quiet Teal,” are precisely executed. It’s a meditative endeavor, and if he turns on music, classical is his top choice. The latter series is the polar opposite. Works such as “Manes” are free flowing and infused with his culture.
“It’s very spontaneous and I know what it’s going to look like — somewhat. You never know exactly what’s going on,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I don’t have to be precise about it. It’s more emotional. It’s more about, like, the energy and not trying to be. I’m not trying to do anything that looks realistic.”
In between is his “Desert” series, which he began while on a retreat in Palm Desert. Afterward, he continued creating works inspired by the shapes he saw in the Coachella Valley.
The series is a call back to his fascination with nature as a child when he would collect bugs and plants. At that time, the seeds were there for his life today. He learned as an adult that he wasn’t the only creative in his family; both of his parents were artistic. Even though he’s lived longer in the U.S. than he did in Cuba, it’s very much a part of who he is as a person and an artist.
While in Havana, Alonso-Rodriguez lived in a home built by his grandfather, Juan Alonso-Foira, who emigrated from Spain and started a wrought iron company. It was a family affair at work and at home.
Just a few years after Alonso-Rodriguez was born in 1956, the Cuban revolution began and life in the country evolved. He remembers a neighbor getting arrested for speaking negatively about Fidel Castro and spending several years in jail as punishment. He also speaks of people disappearing.
His father, Juan Alonso-Castro, correctly sensed conditions were going to worsen before they got better and thought it was best if his son boarded a freedom flight to Miami with other family members. The artist remembers key details from the day, as it would alter the trajectory of his life.
“He says, ‘I think you would have a better life if you went.’ And so, having trusted my father very, very much, and I had a very good relationship with him, I said, ‘OK, if you think I should go, then I will go,’” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I left my home. I left everything that was important to me.”
Alonso-Castro stayed behind to care for an aging parent. The artist’s two older sisters didn’t leave either. The only item Alonso-Rodriguez has left from that time is a gold ring that he wears on his right hand. He arrived in Miami in 1966, a month before his 10th birthday. In the years that followed, he adjusted to life in America and hit a few rough patches along the way. He came out to his family and was forced to leave their home.
“I’ve been homeless. I’ve experienced what that’s like, not for any long period of time, but it was frickin’ horrible,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I know what it’s like to not be wanted and to be harassed by cops when you’re living on the street. So I was a statistic. I was like the gay runaway.”
In his 20s, his dream of being a singer came to fruition and he enjoyed some success in Miami clubs. He played the guitar and enjoyed performing Cat Stevens songs.
From Miami, Alonso-Rodriguez decided to explore other cities. The first stop was New York City, then Los Angeles. Unimpressed with the City of Angels, he drove up to San Francisco. He was instantly smitten. Its hills, urban nature and overall aesthetic reminded him of Cuba.
A short vacation to Key West turned into a nine-month stay. He and his partner at the time wanted to relocate to a coastal city, but they were unsure of where the next stop would be. The year was 1981. There was no internet, Google or any of the tools we’re used to tapping into today when we need information. They wrote letters to several chambers of commerce stating they were interested in moving and wanted to know what kind of opportunities were available to newcomers. Only one city responded.
“Seattle wrote back and sent a bunch of stuff,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. At the time he thought, “Wow, this place is really enthusiastic.”
They subscribed to two Sunday papers so they could get a better feel for the area, and then an ad on the back of a magazine showing the waterfront confirmed they should move to Seattle.
“We packed a U-Haul truck and, sight unseen, just drove across country. Camped along the way in national parks,” Alonso-Rodriguez explained. “Got here and rented a place on Capitol Hill the next day for $325 a month. It was great.”
He got a job at a frame shop and started painting again. The shop owner let him hang his work, which people bought. A nearby gallery expressed interest in his work and offered to show it. Thus, his art career was born.
As he adjusted to life in Seattle, he made an attempt to go back to Cuba to visit his father, who was ill. He ultimately wasn’t able to make the trip, and his father died in 1991. By 2011, Alonso-Rodriguez says he was finally emotionally ready to return to his home country. The trip gave him a chance to engage with his family and reconcile with his past.
Among his relatives living there is a sister who is enduring communism. Alonso-Rodriguez said she only gets water every four days and it’s difficult to get food. When he returns to Cuba, it’s not a vacation but a time to commune with family. The artist talks openly about life on the island, and, depending on how much the listener wants to know, he’ll share. When he hears the refrain from people that they don’t want Cuba to aesthetically change, he’d rather they consider the type of life the people living there are experiencing.
“I want people to know that Cuba does not exist for American tourists,” Alonso-Rodriguez said. “I want people to know that Cuba should exist for the people that live there. And the better off they are, the better experience you’re going to have when you go.”
From a small country to the Pacific Northwest, the life he’s built is beyond his dreams. That’s not to say that he hasn’t faced challenges along the way. He’s married and sees himself continuing to experiment with art as long as he continues to be inspired. “I couldn’t have predicted anything better.”
*If you’re interested in seeing Alonso-Rodriguez’ work in person, his studio is typically open on First Thursday for the Pioneer Square Art Walk.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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Read the full October 16 - 22 issue.
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