At FOUR, we keep returning to the concepts of generosity and reciprocity, asking ourselves what does it mean to be part of something larger while working small? Over the last few years we've been inspired by the dedication of others who live by their ideals, practice what they preach, make and give and question. For the second piece in our Celebrities to Us series we asked the brilliant novelist, Lynn Steger Strong to interview her mother-in-law, Cuban painter,
Cristina de la Vega, Citizen Painter
Lynn Steger Strong: We're talking about two journeys and maybe how they informed one another and perhaps also how one might have made the other harder to come by, which is to say, you came to the States, it wasn't an ideal circumstance, and you eventually decided to make a very particular kind of art. I wonder, maybe we could start with getting here, what that was like with an eye toward how that informed your eventual decision to make art.
Cristina de la Vega: I think that what my coming to the United States did is that it took the firmament out of my world... We had a very sort of comfortable life and a very old life that had gone on for many generations. Then when we got here there was nothing. You know?
How old were you and what did you lose when you came here and how did it not feel as much like a loss? What did you gain?
Well, I lost stability forever. Right? I mean, I think I lost the type of stability that's very hard to get back. I think I lost that.
What is that type of stability?
Living in the same place for 200 or 300 years, going to the same school that your grandmother did, going to the same club that your great-grandfather started, walking the same road, thinking the same thing. I don't know. Whatever all those things are. Being a known entity. Being someone.
It's interesting, being a known entity to yourself, right?
Sort of knowing...
But then what happened is because I was only six, I didn't really know any of that. I just know that I left comfort for discomfort.
Describe the discomfort. You get here and how is it uncomfortable?
We left our nannies behind and we left the cook and the maid and our home and we moved into a tiny two bedroom house with my uncle and aunt, their three children and my sister and I. My aunt had no idea how to do anything. You know what I mean? It was chaos and she was depressed.
Then my parents came and then it got a lot better, not financially, but we lived together in very, very, very ugly, horrible places...just terrible places.
The one thing I can tell you for sure is that it was painted, the interiors were painted dark battleship gray. And had very little windows. That I can tell you. I've had to search for light and big windows for the rest of my life.
We went from affluence to insecurity and poverty. My parents would get together with their friends and each person would bring one beer and one hamburger and they would share.
I think the reason that it's relevant is because there wasn't that much to lose in choosing art. I didn't know another way. There was no reason not to. Do you know what I mean? It's not like we became financial successes in our family. What it taught me is that financial success maybe really wasn't all that important because we had been pretty happy, even though we hadn't had financial success. I think my parents made it look pretty easy. I guess the smart thing to do would have been to become a teacher and have a secure job but I just didn't know how to do that.
Yet you're incredibly smart. What do you mean by you didn't know how to do that?
I didn't know how to not dream. You know? I just didn't know…
Let's talk more specifically about the art that you decided to make because even if we think about what you just described with the walls and the lack of windows, I feel like beauty is something that you've prioritized in your life.
Oh, yeah. I think beauty was what I lived in and I think the kind of beauty that was consciously made. Everyone in my family was very into their surroundings and how to make them beautiful. It wasn't ostentatious or crazy, it was very geared towards simplicity and beauty. I remember going with my grandmother to visit the furniture maker and going to choose fabrics and all those kinds of things.
When you started to make art yourself, did that feel connected to that or did that feel separate from that?
I think that even when we were still in Cuba and I would draw and everyone would come and look at it and then they'd say, "Oh, she's going to go to San Alejandro” which was the art school. I was probably five when people started talking like that. I was so excited and proud, it was never far out of my mind that I was going to go to art school.
Was that always encouraged? I was asking you the relationship between the beauty that was cultivated or valued in your upbringing and whether or not that was connected to your art but what you were also talking about was having been identified early as an artist and maybe just feeling like you were doing what you had been told that you were maybe destined to do or meant to do. I don't know. Tell me.
Well, I think it was always in my background, in the back of my mind that I was going to be an artist or that I was artistic, whatever that means.
Money lives in the space that we're talking about so far as we live under capitalism. We have to think about it or talk about it. You just said to me before that all of this is in some way about the pressure of money and choosing to ignore the pressure of money and, to some extent, making the assumption or presumption that everyone would make art, which I think is really interesting, if only because I'm not sure that's true. I wonder what you think making art gives people that would make people want to do it? If we had a UBI and everybody could do whatever they want every morning ... What does making art give to a person?
I think it gives them the ability to express themselves and to actually share themselves with the world around them, right? Or observe the world in minute detail and be able to explain the world in a way that maybe is not necessary but sometimes, when you think about great art and how it really is necessary ... most of us don't really get to that point, but some people manage to.
Actually what you just described I feel like is closer to your specific art, which is this incredible attention to detail. I wonder with your attention to detail, even what you just said when we were speaking about it broadly, and even this idea of can we or should we all explain the world to one another? If we take that premise and relate it back to you, what are you most interested in observing? What are you hoping to explain?
Well, I'm most interested in observing the natural world around me and that relationship that one has alone, you know? Often really to that point of ecstasy where you are really closely observing something and it's really an ecstatic experience.
I think what I'm trying to share is, that incredible beauty and perfectness of this very random thing. Nature is never not wilderness because the wilderness doesn't exist, but it doesn't matter because places that aren't touched by man every day have this kind of randomness that is just beyond our control. It's bigger than I am. It's that giving of yourself to that bigger system.
This could be my own issues, but to me, so much of art is about asserting a level of control, right? And containment and offering something, so I wonder if it's interesting to you, to connect what you just said. If part of what's interesting to you about nature is the randomness and our lack of control, how do you engage with it as you imbue that into your own work?
We have total control over the piece of art that we make, in that we are the makers of that. I think what I'm interested in is that random world. That thing that doesn't have an obvious maker ... Maybe what it is is that it doesn't have the obvious feel of someone else's control. Maybe I want so much control that I don't want anybody to control what I'm looking at. Do you see what I mean? That big thing...
The only way that I can sometimes think of it is sitting in the bow of the boat. You're sitting in the bow of the boat and you're the person in the front and you have the whole thing in front of you and you are one with that... It's just you and it.
If it's you, then we think about that in art, and maybe you’re trying to get inside of something that's separate from other people or other people's control. But then art, I would argue, by definition, is partially built by the individual who receives or reads or views it so then what is it you're hoping for? If part of your work is this individual engagement with this ecstasy or this vastness, but this ecstasy and vastness is defined by a lack of human control, what are you hoping to offer by asserting your own control over those spaces?
I think that a lot of times it's hard for many people to see. You know? I think that it's like learning to read. You learn to read and you read deeper and deeper books and the more depth that you get to, the harder it gets and the less accessible it is for some people and I think that the natural world is like that. You know? It's very easy to just see, "Oh, look, there's a palm tree and there's a green bush over there" but it's very different to see that whole as a thing of beauty. You know? As a special thing. I think that's really what I want to do is to help people see.
What about the specific place? You came from Cuba, you came to Florida, you stayed in Florida, even as Florida has continued doggedly to be Florida.
Or not be Florida.
Right. Talk about this place. What about this place you want people to see?
I want them to see its sharpness and its starkness and its lushness and all of those things rolled into one.
Explain the sharpness and the starkness. What does that mean for Florida?
If you think about Florida, everything is sort of spiky and hurts. You go walk out in the woods and unless you stick to the trail, everything is really spiky and it hurts. Then at the same time, it has this lushness of everything always being bigger than it should be probably. Then things never really die.
Yet, at the same time, they're dying all the time. You always have a certain amount of decay going on that I don't see in the north, but maybe that's just because I'm not as conversant with the north, right? Maybe I see it more here and so there's always decay and there's always new growth whereas, in a really seasonal place, spring comes and bright green comes out, and everything is new and fresh and then in Florida, that never happens. It's all the time. Constantly.
I think there's something about that that I find so specific. I'm making that sound like that's all that I'm interested in and I really am interested in whatever I see really. As long as I can feel the randomness then it could be anywhere.
What is randomness? We're going to go back a little bit because I know that you briefly thought you would be a saint. You were raised Catholic.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, like religion is ... You are no longer Catholic.
No. You're always Catholic.
Right. This is part of what I'm interested in.
I'm not practicing, but it doesn't mean that in my head I don't think that I am.
How do concepts of ritual and even sort of the divine, you used the word ecstasy before ... In what ways does that language serve you when you think about your work?
I think I just gave nature the ecstatic experience. You know what I mean? Gave it the religious experience because I'm not cut out for the constancy of religious devotion. I forget about it too much.
Isn't religion just some sort of form of explaining nature? Explaining our relationship to that world and the cosmos and that whole thing. None of us know what religion is, or God is, or whatever all that stuff, so it could just be anything.
I really wanted to be a saint. I thought sainthood was really cool. I loved the part where you had to become a martyr and terrible things would happen to you and all that. I mean, I really liked that.
I think a lot of the reason that I liked it is because I liked those communities of women, I loved nuns, I loved the idea of becoming a nun. I really thought that it was terrible that nuns couldn't say mass and couldn't be priests and I thought that was unfair. There were so many inconsistencies in the church and so many things that seemed unfair to me, that I just couldn't stick with it seriously. When I received my first holy communion I thought the sky was going to open up and birds were going to come and the angels were going to open up through this gate and when it didn't happen when I was six, I really was disappointed. You know? I think that that was my first seed of doubt.
Has art ever given you what you hoped religion would give you? Not nature but art.
Art gives you the ability to think about the thing that you're choosing to think about.
Art has let me live thinking about things that I wanted to think about. I don't think I could have really been anything else. I think that this is what I was meant to do. All of us bring all the problems of our personality and how we are all along the way.
Has art given you the things that you hoped that religion would give you?
I think I gave up hoping that religion was going to give me anything pretty early on. I didn't really think that that was going to carry me through. I think that art definitely let me live and think about things that I wanted to do.
What did you start painting? What do you think of as the evolution of your interests over the years?
I started painting figures ... I began with drawing and it took me a long time to paint. Anyone has the tools to draw and they don't cost very much, so it's easy to become very proficient at drawing and not so at painting because painting requires more training, more tools, more supplies than drawing does. It took a long time for me to be able to paint as well as I could draw.
I drew figures for a long time. I thought that that's what I was going to do. I couldn't really figure out what figures meant and one of my professors said, "It has to move something. You can't just be drawing figures over and over ... It needs to have something." I could not figure out what that would do at all.
Then I decided that I would do very abstract work because from early on, I was very interested in abstract work and I did that for a while. Then I realized that they really didn't say anything either, that there was nothing I was doing there other than putting these shapes up. That might have been enough for someone but, for me, I was going to a dead end very quickly.
After that, I did these sort of allegorical figures that were half-bird and half-human. They were portraits of people as these sort of made-up people. There was a myth that my great-aunt used to tell about the bird people that were going to come if you didn't behave. I think that just always stuck in my mind. I think it let me discover the idea of being Latin within an American structure. I used very vivid color. I was using tropical fruit, papayas were big in it and all kinds of stuff and guavas....
Then I was like, "Okay, then what?" I reached the end of that thinking. I was young. That's what being young as an artist is, you're continuing to explore your way around. About that same time, I met Kenny, my husband to be, and we started sailing a lot. All of this new stuff, this new landscape, seascape. The more that we were in places like that and the more we went out into the woods and went up rivers in north Florida, the more that I became really aware of my surroundings and started to learn the names of the plants and learn about the natural world.
I was lucky I think to be in Tallahassee at that point because there were a lot of people exploring the same things. I think that was very helpful. I made the switch to landscape painting about that time. But it took a while. In the meantime, I had children and did all kinds of other things and then kept trying to paint and trying to figure it out. Then I really made a commitment to do that in my thirties I think.
To do the landscapes?
That was what I really wanted to talk about. You know? I had cut-outs and I had done this and that and I loved painting and I loved putting paint on. It just became what I did. I think about that time I met Neil Welliver. The idea of the artist as being someone who just did whatever they wanted to do and just did anything and everything was not where I went. I thought of art as you chose something and you did that thing and you tried to do the best that you could and you just kept at it.
You said, it's a long life and that is something. I want to make things and you want to make things. You're about 30 years older than I am and I want to still be making things when I'm your age. I'm wondering about time in all of this. How has time functioned in your work? Both in terms of how has it slowed you down or how life's demands have slowed you down? Also, how has it enriched what you do?
Well, life's demands have certainly slowed me down and I have let them slow me down. Often, I have invited life to slow me down.
Why do you think that is?
I don't really know. I have to think about that question for a while. Sometimes making art is hard. Making art isn't as hard as selling art. Making art is what you want to do. I like the process of making the art but I'm not very good at making it to that next step, where you have to get rid of the art.
At times, it becomes frustrating to try to do that, to try to just make the art.
How has it stopped you?
Well, sometimes you feel irresponsible by continuing on because you feel like I should be doing this, I should be doing that, I should be ... Other times, then you just say, "So what?".
Is this or that about getting another job?
Yeah, this or that, getting another job, getting some health insurance… If we lived in a world that had universal healthcare... I think, when you think about art and you think about artists -or even singers- and how great they are at the beginning in writing songs and it's all about the struggle and it's all about how you're going to make it and how you're going to do this and then they become very, very successful and then all of a sudden that whole problem is gone and then a lot of times, it's like the rest of it's like, "Okay, so what?" Maybe it's good to keep that struggle the whole time. Maybe that struggle just keeps pushing you in a certain way or maybe it's just awful.
It's interesting because, to me, one of the things that's really interesting or exciting about the art that I'm interested in is that it contains tensions, right? I feel like part of what you're talking about is art informed by the inherent tension of the deep desire to make it and the way the world continually tells the artist it doesn't give a shit until proven otherwise, right?
What you're talking about, which I think is also really real, is sometimes the world says it doesn't give a shit and after a while it's exhausting. I wonder in what ways have you sort of pushed back? What has been the most useful way of thinking or being or returning to work that felt like, "Okay, the world doesn't give a shit but I'm going to come back"?
I think that's always the back and forth of it. The world doesn't give a shit but I'm still making it. Then all of a sudden I see something I really, really, really want to paint and then I just forget about the other stuff. Then I work on that. Then the world comes back and says, "I don't really give a shit." Then you just keep doing it. Eventually it just becomes what you do and you become used to the whole back and forth of it.
You get better at being knocked down?
Yeah and you get better at saying that you're just going to go ahead and do it, that hardheadedness of being, "I'm just going to go ahead and do it."
I think when you asked about the experience of leaving the country to go to another country, I think that that might have affected how I feel about landscape and why I have been trying to find a place for self within a landscape, right? You leave something and then you try to find a connection and a home in your new place.
I think that a refugee is probably very different than someone who just moves for a better job or something because I think with a refugee there's always a sense of loss that continues on, probably for generations. Maybe one of the things that I was trying to do was find a sense of place and a sense of belonging to a landscape, to a land maybe. Those big ideas of land and patria, the Spanish word for country but it means so much more. It's like motherland but in Cuban terms, country is all. You give everything for the patria. Maybe that part of what I was doing was that.
I also know that when I'm in Florida Bay, I am certain that I am related to the Taino Indians that lived there many, many, many years ago. That is one of those places that I have a real sense of belonging and connection to but then I also have to say that if you take me to Maine and you show me a good rock, I really feel a connection to that too.
Maybe it's just finding connection to the Earth that's important. Also, valuing the Earth and valuing our positions as stewards rather than as destroyers of the Earth. You know? I think that's really important to me.
Do you think you would have had that sense ... I mean, you can't know this, but maybe this is an interesting question, or isn't an interesting question, but even thinking about what you said at the beginning and relating to what you said now, which is you had a sort of entrenched path that was built for you that is familial and generational but also place-based, right? You didn't lose the family. You only lost the place and yet it felt like you lost so much more than the place, which is just to say like ...
That's such a hard thing for an American brain, including mine, to understand that a place ...
When you lose place, you lose everything because you lose your position ... When you lose place, by force ...
Right and you couldn't go back.
Right. You couldn't go back. It was dangerous. To stay, it was dangerous, to go back ... When you lose place by force then I think it becomes all-important. It becomes the talk of every dinner table, it becomes what you say at the beginning of the new year next year, next year in Havana or next year in Cuba, it becomes your all. To the point of when you're a teenager it's like you're nauseated by the whole thing. You don't want it anymore.
Then all of a sudden you grow up and you realize that what you didn't want, it didn't matter whether you wanted it or not. You've got it. It's with you forever. You know? I think that's important. When I went to Cuba two years ago for the first time, I realized that I thought it would have been the same, right? It would have been ... What I wanted to do was paint all of it.
When you got there?
When I got there. It wasn't like I was so moved by it, but it was the landscape that I was moved by. The cities were wonderful and amazing and it was great to be there, but what I really wanted to do and what I got to do a lot of, was to be out in the landscape all over the countryside.
Did it feel like it did when you left when you were six? You went back when you were 64?
64. What is that? 58 years I think.
I don't know what this word means, but did it feel like home?
Within five minutes I was Cuban. My language was better, I wasn't too loud, I wasn't too friendly, I wasn't too anything. Do you know what I mean? I was just surrounded by a bunch of people that were a lot like me. I don't know if that sounds silly because a whole country isn't the same, but that idea of Cuban-ness, of being warm ... I was normal. I wasn't the oddity.
As someone who was born in the US, and also as someone who feels very classic, US small town kid, whose thoughts of growing up were largely around escape, right? I feel like that's pretty common in the States, to want to escape, but not least because, A, you know you can come back, right? And it feels so intrinsic, and even, maybe especially, to people who want to make art, right? I wanted to be a writer and so I was going to go to New York and blah, blah, blah. And I wonder how you didn't escape, you were forced out and then couldn't come back.
I think maybe you've already talked about this, but maybe there's more to say. It creates to me such a different... Even to the point that I'm not necessarily always that interested in even describing landscape in my work, because my relationship to place is not, I think, nearly as intimate as yours is. So, I wonder about that. How you think about that, how it feels, maybe, does that make sense? Sometimes when I talk to you, it feels like it's understood to you in a way that's like, why in the world do I have to explain it? But I guess that's part of what I'm doing, I'm asking you to explain that.
Well, I think that family took the place of country, you know what I mean? So when I finished school and I was going to go places, what I did was come back to my family, thinking that it would just be for a short while, and then we could go on because at that point, I really think that I just thought the same way, what you were describing. Small town, I went to high school in a medium town and I wanted to escape. But then all of a sudden, when I came back to family and friends and extended family, that became more and more, it had a bigger hold than I thought.
And so we stayed, and then I think I was trying to create that same sense of place here as what I felt would have been in Cuba. But when you're in Florida and you're trying to create a sense of place, it's disastrous because if you're trying to hold on to something, Florida is the wrong place to do it.
Florida is constantly changing, constantly growing and constantly populated by people who don't know it, and even less than, let's say people coming from Cuba, because people coming from Cuba at least knew the climate. Although they might not have known the culture, they knew the climate. It changes so rapidly, and so much to its detriment, that it's hard to be a landscape painter in Florida.
It's hard because nothing is deemed valuable enough. Very few things are deemed valuable enough to preserve by newcomers. It took a long time for people to appreciate swamps, and even if you asked most people, the trees are about half the size of the trees in the north. So they don't even see them as trees. It's a difficult place to try to preserve.
Maybe this is my personality, but it's admirable to me then that you're saying it's a particularly difficult place to want to try to preserve, but again, it's the place that you have chosen to continue to try to preserve. I wonder if there's something interesting there.
Lost causes. It's true. But it's also the place that I chose. You make a commitment, you make a choice, you make a choice of place, and then this is the one you've got. So it takes you a long time to figure out that maybe this wasn't a place that one could be successful at trying to preserve. So I've tried to be on the town council. I've tried all sorts of civic ways to preserve. I've tried to protest in front of dams and those kinds of things, but in the end the steam roller just keeps marching onward.
About what do you feel hopeful?
Wow. Okay. I think I can feel hopeful about human beings. Humans, although we're so flawed, we always find a way forward. A way to continue to try to make something better. And I think that I feel hopeful that we will continue to try to make things better, to make a better world, although lately that's hard too.
It's interesting what you just said, like humans continuing to try and then thinking about the steamroller and then connecting that to place, right? Because if part of what you're observing and you're saying is part of your job, is observing people coming, feeling no connection to the place, people enact progress, but this progress is destruction. And maybe part of the reason it's destruction is because they don't understand the place enough to understand that it's destruction, right? I wonder if there's something interesting about this idea of human desire and willingness and the ability to press on that has been flaunted as a positive so often in the past, and yet it has enacted so much destruction, but I wonder...
It goes both ways, because the person that's doing the destruction is continuing and the person who is trying to stop the destruction is continuing to do something, probably against all odds, right? So maybe that explains the whole human problem right there.
Do you think destruction always wins?
No, although it's hard to come up with anyone like Teddy Roosevelt, right?Teddy Roosevelt was a big destroyer of things, but then Teddy Roosevelt started the national parks and we don't seem to have anybody making a lot of new national parks, or buying huge tracts of land for the public. Those industrialists, right? That gave us so much of our national parks. I'm having a hard time seeing new ones popping up, right? So maybe we shouldn't be hopeful. Do we have a lot of dot comers coming forward and buying us half of Montana and giving it to the people?
No, but I do think we have a lot of very young people who are really interested in the natural world. Really cognizant of its transience and its decline and who are invested in trying to find ways to save it. I do think that's true.
When I was graduating high school, I read a book called The Greening of America, and it was all about these things. I graduated in 1972 and I think that book might've come out in 1970 and we are still dealing with exactly the same issues. So, yes I think that there's a lot of people that are really interested, but it is so scary to me to think that we're talking about the same thing and our carbon footprint has just gotten bigger along with our trash piles. So I don't know, maybe I'm not hopeful at all. I'm worried about our grandchildren and the future that they will have.
When I was little, I had this idea that I could know every single person in town, and I could know everything about them. I could know their mother, their grandmother, who they came from, their dog's name and everybody. There would just be this entire sense of community and that everyone would know everybody just as well. Then it would just be like this whole system where everybody took care of each other. I really did have this elaborate idea.
Then I moved. I spent part of growing up in the United States in a very small town, where it almost seemed possible to do that. I mean, some of it was segregated by Cuban and not Cuban, so that was a little more difficult because I couldn't figure out how to maneuver my way into Americans' houses or families to know more. Then we lived in a bigger town, and there, you knew it wasn't possible. But when we moved to a beach, it really almost did feel like it was possible that I could know and be a helpful citizen and the idea that it's part of our job as people to make people feel good.
I love that.
When we live in a place like in Brooklyn... On your street in Brooklyn, there's Nancy and then there's George and I know all about his kids and brother and his dreams. Then there's the guy across the street and so on... That idea. In Brooklyn, it's almost doable, right? You can know your street, and you could be a part of what makes people feel good. So maybe that's the same job. You go out. I think that's even more important than being an artist.
Being a citizen?
Being a citizen.
Do you think they're connected?
Well, for me, they are, but for the other person, it could be whatever their job is, but I think that the bigger thing is the citizen. The idea that we are a part of this place. Whether we know our neighbors, like them, agree with them or whatever, that it's our job to be better, to make it better.
I love that.
I think if we smile at someone, it really costs nothing. Wherever you are, the joy that we can bring is so big. And I think that it continues on in a bigger and bigger way, or at least that's my hope.
Is that where the hope lives? We've talked about hope before on a global, systemic scale, but now we're talking about hope on this individual, social, citizenry scale. So is that where you're hope lives?
Yes, I think my hope lives there, in the idea that even in the times where we disagree with people so much. Like these past four years, that we can find a common ground where we can figure out how to live with others. You know?
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More Lynn Steger Strong.
Maybe you know her from her incredible series in the Guardian on precarity, or maybe you were captivated by the interview with Vanessa Kirby in Harper’s Bazaar, or maybe, just maybe, you caught that NPR segment on her breakout summer hit, WANT?