The first time I spoke with John Rivera-Resto was over the phone. As a free-lance writer interested in Hispanic Art, I was familiar with several pieces of his work, but my expectations of the artist were based on the impressions of others who had met with him personally. Much as I tried, my mental image was far from clear because, it seem, everyone had a different impression of him.
At times, it felt as if he was several different people. And, after appraising the art, each piece appeared to have been painted by different hands. The styles, the colors, and even the mood of the paintings was never the same; Hispanic themes were rare. But the signatures on the paintings were identical. After all, how many artists have the surname Rivera-Resto?
To make things even more interesting, I came across people who showed surprise when I mentioned that John was a painter. They knew him as an actor of religious or classical Spanish plays, and others as a writer. This revelation strengthen my resolve to speak with this artist since now we had something in common. But no one, I quickly surmised, knew much about him other than a shared recollection of a talented, enigmatic, and very likeable but private individual.
Eager for an interview, I called his Cleveland number; he answered on the first ring. However, all the scenarios I had mentally rehearsed for this moment where momentarily forgotten when I heard this slightly accented and firm businesslike voice say, "John speaking, can I help you." I almost hung up. I was about to do so when the same voice gently repeated the line with what sounded like a tone of amusement. And, in the words of the old cliché, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I have spoken with John many times since and got to meet him in person during his visits to Florida. Our conversations have always been interesting and delightful and I am continually intrigued by him. He answers every question in a straightforward and affable manner but I am left with the notion of having barely touched the surface of his inner self. We talk about art, his experiences as an artist, the people he meets, and life in general. But the more you know of him, it seems, the less you know him.
If a few words could best describe him, then bold, confident and unrestrained will have to be at the top of the list. But you also have to add meticulous, perfectionist and practical to get the balance of his personality. And, there is also his accent; you have to imagine it. It doesn't sound like the typical Puerto Rican accent. It does sound Spanish but with what I can only describe as a cultivated-Mediterranean-Spanish inflection. His tone and polite manner, though, are pure Latino.
Perhaps, the best way to introduce you to the artist is by listening to him. The following interview is based on a compilation of questions I have asked him over the last year. If you would like to ask your own questions, please address them to his e-mail: [email protected] Enjoy!
It's what I do for a living; it's not my life. I'm not in love with it; I simply don't mind doing it.
One great painting out of a hundred bad ones, that's inspiration. This doesn't make a professional. A true artist is a trained and experienced master whose work gets consistently better from one painting to the next. To rely on inspiration is to starve. When a commission comes my way, I can't wait around for inspiration to get me going. Whatever is demanded of you by a client, you do. That's what I'm getting paid for. You trust your skills and you rely on experience to work on cue. Would you select a brain surgeon on the basis of inspiration?
Fighting to get paid. Even Titian had problems collecting from clients.
There is involvement and professional satisfaction while you work on a piece. You take pride on doing a job to the best of your abilities. But once you're finished, you have to walk away and forget about it. An artist needs a certain level of detachment from his work in order to remain objective. You can't fall in love with your work. I've known so many who puke on a canvas and call it a masterpiece.
Through a visualizing technique: I listen carefully to the client's ideas and desires and I listen for the things he or she is not telling me. What they want is usually in between. Then I lie down, close my eyes and do absolutely nothing. In a few minutes, hours, days... a week (it depends on the complexity of the commission), I will have the entire painting visualized in my mind, every detail, exactly as it will look when it's finished. The rest is easy: I do the required research, gather the necessary props and materials, make some mental revisions, and then, I paint the picture that's inside my head.
Only one... really! All my drawings are done inside my head; I am no good with a pencil. After I complete the research, gather the props (or pictures of the props) and visualize the composition, I then proceed to draw the cartoon (a finished drawing that serves as the pattern for the painting), which will end up projected onto the painting surface. I rarely make changes. This is a very reliable and productive method I learned from studying Norman Rockwell.
In my experience, most clients want to see a finished painting of the finished painting before they say yes to a commission. The only way I will do so is if they pay me for all the time and effort that will take. They rarely agree to do this. What I do instead is "describe" what the painting is going to look like. I show a sample of my work so they can judge the quality of the draughtsmanship and painting style, and I ask them to trust my judgement. So far, I have had no complaints.
No. I live frugally and my needs are basically that of my two children - John Alexander and Selina Marie. I rather not paint at all. But since I have to, I try to choose the largest work or the most interesting. I always do an interview with potential clients. If I sense that dealing with a particular commission is going to be a pain in the ass, I turn down the offer, period. No amount of money is worth the aggravation. If I have some money saved up, I postpone accepting a new commission until I'm broke. Unfortunately, I like to eat well and travel, so I'm usually broke.
I have done works that interest me for a very nominal fee. I am known to be one of the fastest, and most affordable, artists around. The secret to eating well is not to price yourself out the market. If you are fair to clients and deliver above their expectations, you will always have commissions coming your way. I don't see myself as an "artist" whose painting is too good for the appreciation of mere laymen; I see myself as a skilled professional working for a decent wage. And I can comfortably say that I have never been paid what I think I'm worth.
Usually, it is not by the value of the work, but by what the client can afford. I try at least to secure fair compensation for my time. If the client cannot afford me, we discuss other payment arrangements. If not, I recommend another artist for the job. My prices are constant. Regardless of the client's financial status (be it modest or wealthy), I always charge the same.
Word of mouth. That's the best promotion. A satisfied client is the artist's best friend; an unsatisfied, his worst enemy.
I have only done one show of new works in my entire life. It happened this spring (May 99) at the Beachwood Arts Center. I was part of a five Latin Artist show that tied in with the phenomenal Diego Rivera exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It also had the incentive of having my good friend Hector Vega showing side by side. I've been his mentor since the beginning of his artistic career and it's great to see his amazing success. I am not discarding the possibility of participating in a group shows in the future if I have a work that deserves to be seen. I may even get around to my first solo show if I ever manage to build a body of work to fill a gallery. But shows have never been a priority with me.
Because I only paint when someone hires me to paint. Except for a few panels that I keep for myself, I have nothing else to show.
I don't know. Look at it my way. You can have fifty great paintings that several hundred people will see during a limited period of time. Or, you can paint a mural that thousands of people will see every day. Remember, all it took was one mural to make my reputation. After that, I was cursed; I wasn't allowed to be anything but an artist. I guess that it is the company of the audience that I most enjoy from painting.
Absolutely. An easel painter paints for himself; a muralist paints for others. It takes more ingenuity and creativity to work around the clients demands and still get your way. But also, a painting is a self-contained environment; a mural is contained in an environment. Understanding this principle is what separates muralist from easel painters. You would be surprised to discover how many artists have tried to become muralist and failed. They simply could not adjust their thinking.
Murals are more demanding. A muralist works in the open. He is exposed to the public and to the elements. It demands confidence in ones abilities and, above all, it requires physical endurance. I have painted in weather ranging from 105 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I had brushes become stuck the surface because the heat would dry the (acrylic) paint almost instantly. Also, when you are close to a wall you lose your point of reference. Therefore, you have to be a good strategist and be absolutely sure of what you are doing. Timing yourself is essential. If you time it wrong and miss a deadline, you may lose more than money; you will lose your reputation.
First, the capacity to bring the obvious into focus. In other words, to see beyond ones nose. He does not judge; he makes us understand. A good artist has the ability to perceive what others have failed to notice. Then, the artist organizes these ordinary images of life to say extraordinary things about us and the world in which we live. Finally, the artist must communicate his art in a language of symbols that have meaning to the viewer. Unfortunately, there is a lamentable split between artist's intentions and public perception. It is largely the result of the absence of art education and the nurturing of visual thinking throughout our public-school systems.
And it is also the result of the isolationist stance of the art community, which has refused to recognize that visual perception in the public sphere does not occur within art world parameters. It occurs in the context of the "real world," in the context of popular culture. Pretty colors will catch the eye of the public for a few seconds; colors can even influence psychological and emotional moods. But it is the understanding of visual symbols and the relationship of images that engages the mind of the viewer in a cognitive dialogue. When communication between the artist and the viewer is achieved, there is a higher state of human enrichment. I believe that it is at this point that the artist creates art.
A trained monkey can do just that but this does not make an artist. It is possible to be able to paint, write or sculpt without ever being one. Many so-called artists from this century have done just that. They copy from life and delude themselves by claiming to do art. When in reality, they have failed miserably to say anything at all. As I have expressed before, in my opinion, for art to be art, it must communicate. It can be pretty or ugly, but it must say something. If it does not, then it's only a decoration -wallpaper; obvious and therefore invisible.
Yes, but not because I paint. I am a good artist because of my ability to transform the obvious from invisible to prominent through my expressed observations, which I may or may not choose to communicate in a visual image.
If by that you mean success as judge in dollars, then I have failed miserably. I have discovered that being a good artist sometimes has nothing to do with financial success in this business. The business side of art has to do with marketing, showmanship and the bullshit factor.
No, it's the term I use for all the ass-kissing, false pretenses, set formulas and absurd hypocrisy that permeates the big art markets and art academia. It's unavoidable. These are shark infested waters and the competition is cut-throat. The only way to swim without sinking is to polish your social skills and by learning how to play the game.
Art as we know it has always been about business. The purists think this is wrong. That art should not be concerned with this. I agree with the principle of this sentiment, to a point. There is a certain ring of truth about it that feels right. But the purists like to create dogmas that tend to forget reality. Some consider artists, like me, who have managed to earn a living by marketing art to others, to be beneath their self-proclaimed standards of what a true artist should be. They forget to realize that artists have lived from time immemorial from the fat of the land.
Let's face it; a painting or a sculpture, for example, has no practical value. It cannot feed you or shelter you. Therefore, the artist depends on others to support them so that they can make art. The artist has to secure ways to get that support, and in my book, however he gets the support he needs, is valid. Unfortunately, for those "intellectuals" who make distinctions, to be "commercial" is a filthy way to earn that support. But I tell you, if I were able to take away the art grants, the fellowships and the museum gifts, most of those voices will be silenced. They will cease to exist. Survival of the fittest would rule. Supply and demand would rule.
Artists and art intellectuals who think that they work in a vacuum neglect to acknowledge that without an audience, a market, without the sponsors and the buyers, there are no artists. Without these they will die. We all need each other. The artist always hopes, secretly perhaps, that there is a discriminating and perceptive public which will admire his or her work. The public needs the artist to remind him that in a world of tangibles, art offers them something they desperately need: spiritual values. It may not be a perfect system and it is subject to abuse, but in the end, the market, the buying public, has the last word.
It didn't. I became a painter late in life. By then, I was already in the United States, and to begin with, my artistic role models were Europeans. Besides, Puerto Rico may be a foreign country to most Americans but it is a foreign country within the United States. So even though I grew up without knowing how to speak English, or about McDonalds and Football, I was very familiar with American culture. My parents had lived in the United States. My father was a steel worker; my mother worked as a seamstress. They did not immigrate to Ohio; they migrated like many other Americans migrate from one state to another.
The vast majority of Americans are so ignorant about Puerto Rico that they are unaware that Puerto Ricans are the only Spanish speaking Americans forced to become U.S. citizens. We didn't have a choice in the matter. It was all done by an Act of Congress in 1917 to justify American control of the Island. And, after one hundred years of fighting in every war under the American flag, from my perspective, we feel as American as any other American. So cultural distinction has not played an important part in my artistic career. Besides, when you decide to become an artist, you become a citizen of the world. I have no conflicts with this choice.
It's like having the best of both worlds. It has also produced some funny side effects. One of my greatest artistic assets with some of my wealthy clients, it's generally... my accent. It makes me sound foreign and sophisticated (in spite of being a buckeye from Cleveland, Ohio). Clients who can afford to get any competent artist are always looking for something extra to come with the package. So, they will choose the one they can impress their friends with. They want to say, "I am sophisticated because I picked him".
It's embarrassing. But I understand it as it implies as a title. Latin America is profound, artistic and religious. To be a great artist is to have a gift from God. When I paint for a Latin audience, my work makes strong use of symbolism and mystical elements that are part of the Spanish psyche. If your work moves or inspires them, you earn the title. But it only becomes official when your peers bestow it. A diploma from a big-name art school or a huge check from your last sale won't earn you the right, not even if you are the darling of the critics. Only the public can nominate you for that honour and then you try to carry the burden of living up to it. I take it very seriously.
Because I tend to de-mystify the artist. I tried to see things from their point of view. Like in the fable of the "Emperor's New Clothes", the public sees art like children. They will not be fooled by the smoke screen of high-sounding words and concepts designed to impose false standards of what is and what is not desirable. Many educated people are insecure when it comes to art; they don't want to appear ignorant. Instead of trusting their own impressions or saying what the really think about a painting, they go along with whatever the "art intelligentsia" say. The result is a blank canvas on a museum wall that was purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars (for real!).
I am a very down-to-earth person. Very assessable. When I complete a mural, I include my phone number (now changed to an e-mail address) next to my signature. The public, friends and critics, are invited to call in with their comments and suggestions. I like to know what they are thinking.
Over the last few years, I've received several hundred calls. A lot of them come from students asking for tips on technique or a critique of their work. Many are from people of all ages wanting to volunteer on a mural project.
Only when doing a teaching workshop. Never on professional commissions. That is not the place to be teaching (though spectators are always welcome). Professional mural painting is not a democratic process or a paint-by-numbers enterprise. Non-professional help dilutes the quality of the work. Let's go back to the brain surgery analogy: would you like some volunteers working on your head? I do however, take experienced art students as apprentices.
I give them one of my favourite quotes by English novelist Samuel Butler: "An art can only be learned in the workshop of those who are winning their bread by it"
More or less. First, I taught myself how to paint by reading anything and everything and practicing on my own. Then I learned the business and tricks of the trade by asking a lot of questions in many dusty workshops. I still continue to visit workshops. I love to see others paint. You can never stop learning.
No, I only give a little more than what is required. Most of the time I'm painting with my hands tied behind my back. The day I find a modern day patron like Lorenzo de Medici or Isabella d'Este, who supports me while I revel in my own machinations, then, I would paint with both hands.
I love to write, always have, always will. I think I'm a better writer than a painter; I would rather write than paint.
I think the connection is that in both I try to leave a mental image that affects the way we see ourselves. Like in a good painting, the characters in a story should pull you into a world of illusion that is interpreted by reflecting on personal experience. This is why art means so many different things to so many people. We all experience life in different ways. Art evokes passion. My intention as an artist is to set your mind on fire. As a writer, I have a whole box of matches instead of just one match. Literature has been my greatest influence.
I like to write plays. I began writing plays for the church when I was thirteen. I started painting when I was sixteen. Writing made it possible for me to satisfy my other passion, which is acting. I am a big fan of the great seventeenth-century dramatist from Spain's Golden Age of theatre: Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina... Their plays are very dynamic, moving onward in a series of short impressionist episodes resembling the cinema. Acting in this kind of sword-and-cape dramas led me to fencing, which is the only sport I practice.
In my plays, I kick everyone's ass. In real life... I'm a pussy-cat. Fencing is a lifetime sport that is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. If you have an artistic temperament, fencing is the best therapy. It's the only legal way to kill somebody. But no matter how much you try, no one ever dies.
A have low tolerance for stupidity and incompetence. I expect people who claim to be someone or that know something to produce results when others are depending on them. Truth, honesty and loyalty are qualities I treasured above all. It is nice to be loved, but when it comes to getting the job done, I'll rather have results than love. If someone tells me that they are not capable or confident about a particular task, I'll be the first one to give a helping hand. I just don't want to find out at the last minute when everything is on the line. But I also believe in earning the respect of others; I will never demand anything of anyone which I have not done myself or that is beyond someone's ability.
I am neither religious or superstitious; I am agnostic and academic. But I will protect people's right to have their own convictions even if I do not agree with them. I also try to be aware of the beliefs of others because this is going to influence how they perceive me. For example: I was born at sunrise on November the seventh, which makes me a Scorpio's Scorpio. I do not believe in the Zodiac but those who do will have a predetermined opinion of me. This is a wonderful edge that I can use in my favour. Scorpios are supposed to be mysterious, passionate and sexual, so I try not to disappoint them.
I love women; all women. I think the body of a woman is the ultimate work of art -a thing of worship. I enjoy the company of women and find comfort in their friendship. Whatever passion they provoke in me, whatever passion I instill in them, I'm sure, is reflected in my work. As for being a "ladies' man" the less said the better. Discretion is a quality that defines my friends, and the intimate bond between two people is their own affair.
Everyone has a higher calling in life. Isn't that what all religions teach us to aspire? I think humanity's higher calling should be the protection of everyone's right to achieve happiness and fulfillment. The artist role is to help bring forth that which is best in every one of us. I believe that art does not exist merely to entertain and gratify; it must edify. It can improve our collective existence by participating in the development of attitudes which can lead eventually to a better society.
I learned what true and unconditional love is from my children. Happiness and fulfillment... I don't know. (Philosopher) Albert Camus once said that if you spend your life searching for happiness you will never be happy. When I finish a job, there is a brief moment of tranquility, but it doesn't stay with me. Many times, I feel like a failure, like I have accomplished nothing. I have a sense that so far, my life has only been a preparation for what is to come. And at this point in time, I am ready to face that challenge. What this will be is still a mystery to me. But I'm not waiting while doing nothing. I'm going to keep pushing myself to meet life head on. If I fail when the time to be great arrives, then my fulfilment will be that at least I tried.
I wish I could taste contentment in this but I can't experience what others feel. I wish I could. Many have told me that they desire to be more like me and do the things I do. How ironic! In all I have done, all I see are disappointments and imperfections. Perhaps my lot in life is to keep on trying, but I didn't ask for this insatiable hunger that keeps driving at me. It is a heavy burden. If people only knew how I would trade all my skill to be like them, happy and content with having less in life, and yet more.
I adore my children. I have tried to expose them to a variety of art and life experiences. I taught them to be resourceful, independent of mind and always to seek and respect truth. Therefore, I will trust them to decide for themselves what path is best for them. I believe them to be better than me. It could be me the one following in their footsteps. I still have a lot of growing up to do.
Retirement? There is no such thing for an artist! I may stop painting tomorrow but I can't stop being an artist. Artists never retire.
I am working on a commission to paint murals in the lobby of the Gordon Square Theater. This is where Bob Hope began his career in vaudeville. This beautiful structure has been closed and ignored for years, but The Cleveland Public Theater (CPT) has made it its new home and the space is undergoing a program of extensive restoration. My good friend, Mr. James Levin, founder and artistic director of CPT, has managed to raise enough funds to begin the project and is trying to raise the necessary funds to complete it. Unfortunately, raising money for smaller independent theaters is not an easy task. It takes a lot of work, perseverance and a little faith. So we wait for some benefactors to come forth while knocking on doors. In the meantime, I will paint until the funds dry up.
I will paint a framework of trompe l'oeil architecture, and within that framework, figures and personalities from the theater's golden days in the 20's and 30's mingling with some of today's celebrities. It will be a statement about changing tastes and times in live entertainment. So, don't be surprised if Charlie Chaplin or The Marx Brothers make an appearance along with Mick Jagger. But this is not all, after all, this is The Cleveland Public Theater! James Levin came up with a wonderfully wicked idea which has really caught my fancy. But I don't want to spoil the surprise; you are going to have to wait in line for the unveiling to see it. I have faith that one day this will become a reality. Perhaps a wealthy sponsor reads this page and decides to pay for the art work. I would be more than happy to immortalize this person shaking hands with Bob Hope in the mural.
I estimate a couple of years, perhaps more depending on funding. This would be my masterpiece.
I challenge myself by trying to get in and out of bed at the same time every day. I challenge myself by trying to keep up with an exercise program. And, I challenge myself by learning something new every day, like a word in a foreign language. In all these things I have failed. But when it comes to painting, there is not much of a challenge; painting comes easy.
Now that's challenging! I've recently completed writing my first play in English and my first screenplay. That has been an incredible experience.
The play is titled "Death of a Mercenary". It's a three-act full-length play about a clandestine group operating in Nicaragua during the Somoza dictatorship and the Reagan Era of covert operations in Central America.
It's the kind of story an artist would live through and never forget. In a way, painting is my therapy. Everything in art is not pretty. The canvas is always the same, but the colors are always changing. I write in somber colors; the characters stay with you. But, you have to be the judge of that. You have seen my paintings, now read the play. A copy of the play has now been added to the 'Writings' section in this site. Click on the following link: "Death of a Mercenary". Anyone interested in reading it can do so. Let me know what you think by writing to [email protected].
Professor Gene Hare, one of my teachers from the Cleveland State University Department of Drama, expressed great interest in staging it after this year's season (in spite of the strong language and serious nature of the piece). If it happens, I will get to play one of the characters and I am hoping to catch the eye of a film producer/director. I have four or five good stories in my head that are better said in film. Death of a Mercenary is not everyone's cup of tea and definitely not the safest choice to launch myself into a new career. But I took a year to write it and it has turned out to be one of the few things I'm proud of. I entered it at the International Playwrights Festival in London, England, and was selected as one of the eight finalists.
The title is "Bad Blood". It is a suspense thriller based on a nightmare I once had. Here's the outline: A Roman prince and the son of a pope settle their five hundred year-old vendetta in the city of Rock-n-Roll. All I can tell you is that it includes man-beast creatures, Rock-n-Roll, an orgy scene at the Vatican palace in 15-century Rome, spectacular sword fights, gay biker clubs, a police mystery, love, passion, revenge, and dark humour -Definitely not PG.
I am searching for investors. I want to make "Bad Blood" into a feature film, and I want to direct it. With this vision in mind, I have co-founded DreamsVcom, Inc. (Dreams Visual Communications Digital Productions Studio). We have a lot of talented people in Cleveland, OH. I am convinced that we can make an ultra-low budget high-end digital-to-film movie and make it look like several million dollars.
As of right now I am working on storyboards and conceptual illustrations. By June (2002), I will have a budget. I estimate that we will need 500 to 800 thousand to produce the film. This is peanuts by Hollywood standards, but to us in Cleveland, raising the capital will be our greatest challenge. The second half of 2002 will be dedicated to beginning this task. We would like to shoot the film by the summer of 2004, but I'm cautious about setting dates. Production will be impossible until funds are secured and I will not start a project until I know I can complete it. For me this film is a vehicle into bigger and better things that I would like to do. It may never happen, I'm a prisoner to the whims of fate, but it won't be for lack of effort on my part. I'm stubborn about letting my dreams go.
Because it makes business sense. I wrote a screenplay with a highly commercial story that is appealing to a mass audience in both the foreign and the domestic market. Half of the characters are Europeans as well as the actors I'm considering for the roles. This is to make our product marketable because of its international appeal. Eight songs are being written exclusively for its original soundtrack. I was fortunate to have my friend, international award-winning best-selling author, Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow, Children of God), helped with the editing of the script. And, I have crafted this project with the same art and care I use in my paintings.
I will be cashing in a lot of favours. In the first place, being the writer / director / art director and director of photography means that I will not have to pay myself in advance. It also means I own all the rights to the story. Second, most of the locations are locally available; many are places I have decorated myself during my career as a painter. Third, I work within a creative circle of friends that are actors, customers, musicians, composers, and visual artists, and communications technicians. Many of these talented and motivated individuals who would welcome an opportunity like this to "break into films".
Fourth, DreamsVcom is studio also create for the purpose of providing educational work experience in movie making to college students. Therefore, most of the crew will be composed of college interns working along a core group of professionals. Fifth, I will be able to recruit and train a good number of extras from the many motorcycle clubs and fencing clubs in and around Cleveland. And finally, one of DreamsVcom top priorities is putting together an advisory board of individuals with proven expertise useful to our goals, with particular attention to the areas of entertainment law and film distribution here and abroad.
Because digital technology allows for the best possible non-Hollywood movie within our limited budget. Scott Billups, digital movie making guru and author of the classic 'Digital Moviemaking', advised me to film using a hi-end digital camera to capture the cinematic atmosphere he perceives in my paintings. This confirmed one of my earliest conclusions. It also means that half of our budget will go towards getting the best digital camera and equipment we can get.
No. We cannot afford known-actors. Therefore, this movie will concentrate on the story. This is our main star. When the movie comes out, the actors being considered for the film which are good actors- will become known. Once we have invented the wheel with "Bad Blood", I'll be able to bring to life all the other stories that wait in my imagination.
My dream is to make a successful transition from painter to actor-writer-director. We'll see.
In a heartbeat!