Paul Sierra

Date: 04/28/2006
Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia
Filmed by Norma Gracia
Transcribed by Paul Symington
Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia

The interview took place in Paul Sierra's home and studio.

[Gracia]: "I would like to cover at least three things in this interview. First of all I want to ask you about how you became an artist and how your career developed; second, about the art itself, whether there are periods, whether there are things that you were trying to do at particular times; and third, I'd like to know something about how you feel as a Cuban-American or in the context of art in the US and in the world. So let's begin by asking you about how you became an artist. Is this something that you were from the very beginning?"

[Sierra]: "I don't know. I started drawing and doing watercolors when I was a little kid in school in Matanzas. I lived in Havana with my father and he got a job in Matanzas, so I was in Matanzas from the time I was about three years old until I was about ten. I always was drawing and doing watercolors, but of course when a child does that, it's just because it feels good."

[Gracia]: "Yeah, it's play."

[Sierra]: "Yes, although some people would say that's the most pure of all art."

[Gracia]: "Because you don't have to sell it."

[Sierra]: "You don't have to pay the bills. When I came to the United States, my love really was films. I wanted to be a camera man."

[Gracia]: "And this was when?"

[Sierra]: "1961."

[Gracia]: "And you were how old?"

[Sierra]: "15, 16 years old. But I didn't know where to go; I was just another exile, another immigrant. I had an uncle who was a Sunday painter and he allowed me to use his colors – oils – and I immediately fell in love with it, with the media oil and canvas. So I forgot about being a camera man and I just began to paint and then I went to the School of the Art Institute here in Chicago. But the school didn't have that much impact on me as the Museum of the Art Institute did. The school and the museum are in one place, together and at that time you were able to go into the museum as a student for free. So I would spend hours and hours and hours looking at the paintings. It was great. That's how I started out."

[Gracia]: "But at some point you decided you had a career as an artist. How did that come about, the change?"

[Sierra]: "At about 22 or 23, I was in school and I got a solo show at a small gallery in Chicago. And I thought, ‘oh, this is the beginning of being a star and I don't have to worry about anything else. I'm going to sell everything.' And of course I didn't sell a thing! Terrible, terrible, terrible. I spent all the money I had on this thing and it was a disaster! So I decided that it was going to take me a long time to really become a painter. And – it was a stupid move – that the school was not going to help me and I quit school, after three years. Then a friend suggested that I go into advertising, which I did, and from then on I used that paycheck in order to subsidize my painting. I painted at night and on weekends. And little by little over the years, I began to show my work. I think I decided to begin to show my work when I was thirty years old. And at that time, I came to the conclusion, ‘okay, it's good enough now that people won't laugh at me.'"

[Gracia]: "And they bought it."

[Sierra]: "Oh yes, and they bought it and it was great. That's what I did. I began to show little by little anywhere I could and I began to sell and it came to the point, after a few years, that I was making as much money in art as I was making in advertising. So I quit advertising and since then I'm just a painter."

[Gracia]: "In the advertising end, were you doing artistic creations of some kind? Were you working as a commercial artist?"

[Sierra]: "Yes, I was creative director for an agency and we did electronic, radio, and TV and we also did print. So, it fell upon me to do this. It goes without saying that I didn't go to advertising school, I mean I just…"

[Gracia]: "Made things up."

[Sierra]: "Yes, I lied a lot."

[Gracia]: "But you had a lot of talent too. Tell me, I see your art and I don't see any element of advertising. Is it there?"

[Sierra]: "What is advertising? Advertising and art – let's call advertising art – is an art that has a client even before it is created. So, it's created for a function, to fill up a need. And today's fine art – let's call it that – is produced by the artist because he wants to and then goes and finds, hopefully, a buyer. So advertising has a purpose, a virtual purpose, and fine art doesn't."

[Gracia]: "Right, but because it has already a client and what the client wants is to sell something usually, there are things you would not even think of putting in it because they might be too strong or forceful."

[Sierra]: "Right."

[Gracia]: "I see some of your paintings, the ones that are not landscapes but figurative, and some of them are extremely strong."

[Sierra]: "Right, if we are talking about advertising, in advertising you have to follow a set of government rules, what can you show, what can you say and so on. And you stay away from many, many, many things."

[Gracia]: "It's also somewhat simple, isn't it?"

[Sierra]: "Yes, because you have to say whatever you're going to say in fifteen seconds or twenty-nine seconds and it's almost like politics then."

[Gracia]: "And very successful I imagine because of it. You don't have to invest a lot of time in it. But talking about success, you are a very successful artist – I would say one of the few successful Cuban-American artists. So how did you begin the process of actually selling or entering in the art market? You said that around thirty you decided to show your work and move forward in that direction, but for many years still you were doing something else for a living, advertising. But at that time you started showing, how did you start showing your work?"

[Sierra]: "I went to a lot of galleries and talked to a lot of dealers and they thought I was a collector, which of course I wasn't. But my question to them was ‘how do you want an artist to present himself or herself to you?' And they gave me ideas. So I created a portfolio with slides, and so on. I tried to build up a resume and to do that I did two things: I showed in a lot of academic places that would take more chances, and then I lied. You know, no one checks resumes."

[Gracia]: "Ah, that's great."

[Sierra]: "You know: ‘showed at the Louvre.'"

[Gracia]: "You subverted the system, which is of course corrupt."

[Sierra]: "Yes, corrupt. We all have a similar sin in the drawer. Anyway, I understood also that a dealer, in order to believe that you are a serious artist, wants to see a group of art – pieces that are similar in technique and look. So that's what I did. I remember that I did twenty-two works on paper with pastel and I took that to the dealers. So I had the slides, a resume, and a body of work and that's how I began to get into the galleries."

[Gracia]: "And so you got some dealers interested in selling your work and put on a show, and at some point introduce you to the art community, to people who want to buy. It's tough – and did you sell?"

[Sierra]: "Well yes, yes, actually – actually I only kept one of the pastels I had done."

[Gracia]: "Do you still have it?"

[Sierra]: "Yep, yep."

[Gracia]: "Good. What do you keep of your work? Do you keep the studies or the things that you start with or do you just don't keep anything?"

[Sierra]: "Most of the time I do not do a study. I do just small, rough sketch and then I try to figure out how large the canvas should be and the painting and I cut the canvas and I nail it to the wall and then I try to draw the idea. Sometimes it works straight on, other times I have to make changes. Some times something that works as a small drawing doesn't work as a large painting. Now, you asked me whether I keep certain paintings. Basically my wife is the one who decides what's going to be in our own collection, and I give the works to her as gifts, birthday or whatever."

[Gracia]: "So she actually picks whatever she wants and what you have is what you have hanging on the walls, or no?"

[Sierra]: "No, I have more in the closets. I like to change my collection because if you keep the same artwork on the walls, it comes to a point that you don't see it. So I trade, even if it's the same artwork, I put it in the kitchen or I put it in the living room, or whatever. It changes everything."

[Gracia]: "A different context makes you look at it again. And does the artwork that you have done and have hanging serves you to think about doing some more? Is it a source of inspiration?"

[Sierra]: "No, I work six days a week and I don't know how inspiration comes about – I haven't seen a muse around here for a long time. I just work with several ideas having to do with mythology for example, or with water, swimmers, or whatever and I go from one to another. Or I see something in the newspaper or elsewhere that triggers my imagination. I begin to draw and it takes many little drawings to nail it down. Then I finish one and I use it for tracing. If a part of it works, I trace it until I get something that moves."

[Gracia]: "And where do you get these ideas – you said ‘I don't know, muses are not around,' but how do you get to the ideas? Or do they just pop up in your mind?"

[Sierra]: "Yeah, I think so, but somebody said that art is 85 percent sweat. You have to work at it. This is not just a vocation, this is a job. So every morning at eight o'clock I come down here and I work."

[Gracia]: "Until what time?"

[Sierra]: "I work until 3 or 4 and then I go upstairs and I work on the computer."

[Gracia]: "So you are really an Aristotelian? Do you know about Aristotle? He said everything had to do with habit. You have to put yourself into this habit and eventually the idea comes through."

[Sierra]: "Yes, monotony is the best friend I have. Any day that is not monotonous – that has some kind of upheaval – I don't like."

[Gracia]: "So you are very unhappy today because we are here." [Gracia laughs]

[Sierra]: "No, that's not true. But it's the exception that makes the rule."

[Gracia]: "But, Paul, this means that things like vacations and so on are a little bit of a trial for you."

[Sierra]: "At the beginning, yes, yes, but after a couple of days, I relax. I try to see it like it's going to give me ideas and so on and I try to see it in that way, although I do not think successfully."

[Gracia]: "There are artists for whom travel is very important, like Bedia. His travels are important because that's where he gets his ideas about all these cultures–he calls them original cultures--and so forth. But you don't work that way. Your ideas are not related to that kind of thing."

[Sierra]: "No, right, in a certain way reading has more impact on me. I don't think I can draw a direct a line between, let's say, a page in a book and a painting. But readings keeps the mind awake, open to ideas."

[Gracia]: "Do you have some goal or idea in mind about the whole work? Are you trying to do something in particular or not?"

[Sierra]: "I'm trying to paint better, to be more professional about how I go about it, but the brain is a great liar. After I do a painting and I see it later on – three years later say – I'm always surprised and I could redo that painting all over again. I say, how come I didn't see this?"

[Gracia]: "The point is, isn't it, that you are looking at the painting with different experiences, different things have happened? You are not the same person so maybe that's what's happening. That now it would be a different painting because you're a different person."

[Sierra]: "Yes, and the technique changes with time."

[Gracia]: "So there has been an evolution."

[Sierra]: "I hope there has. I hope it is an evolution. You're not sure."

[Gracia]: "But sometimes evolutions are for the worst."

[Sierra]: "Yes, changes can be for the worst."

[Gracia]: "In your website you make a distinction between what are called figurative paintings and loosely what one would call landscapes. I think that those are the terms that you use. Where does that come from? What's involved here?"

[Sierra]: "A figure in a painting really restricts – I'm not saying it's a negative – the meaning of the painting. A human figure dictates a lot of the mood of a painting. If you want to give the viewer more opportunities to walk inside the painting and feel whatever way they want to, you better leave out the human figure. That is how I look at it."

[Gracia]: "Animals will not do the same thing, although they don't restrict as much as the human figure?"

[Sierra]: "Not at all. I like to paint birds and I don't paint eagles or anything like that; I don't paint predators. Birds are something very poetic, to my mind anyway, and very beautiful. So they really don't bring any negative to the painting. When I really want to talk about human frailties and so on, something that is in the negative, I have to put a figure in there."

[Gracia]: "The existential side has a figure. And does the other side involve a search for beauty? How does beauty function in your work, because often in contemporary art, beauty is left out. Or is not often considered. How do you feel about this whole business? "

[Sierra]: "I think that there is a line of thought that says if you do anything that is – how do you put it – pleasant to the eye, that is not jarring, that doesn't have any kind of a negative, demanding feeling to it – then it is kitsch. But I don't think so. I believe that art is one of the best things that humans have produced. And it brings to me a harmony, a center to life. I do not want, or wish, to be disturbed. People don't always want to be put in a bad spot. They want to think about positive things. And if the art has to do with death or religion and so on, it doesn't have to be presented negatively. For example, take Bedia, whose work is very demanding, but it has a great sense of design, and it is not disturbing. So, you can say many things without using a lot of bad noise. I'm not saying that painting has just to be like that, there is room for Jackson Pollack."

[Gracia]: "That brings us to the question of what is artistic or what is art and what is not, but who knows? That's the question that no one has been able to solve. The important thing is that you are an artist, that you sell paintings, and you live the life you want."

[Sierra]: "I think the most important thing about art is what it does for the artist. Hitler thought of himself as an artist, and I don't see that any of his drawings and watercolors made him a better human being. Art can change the artist, but I'm not saying that it makes the artist a better or worse human being. It makes the artist have more discipline, it takes his eye and makes it more sharp, more critical. And then you have to have a lot of patience."

[Gracia]: "Because it takes a long time to paint."

[Sierra]: "You can't expect art to do all that kind of thing for someone you know who is just going to stand in front of a painting."

[Gracia]: "It's an interesting life, the life of an artist because it's hard work. And at the same time, the financial rewards can be very, very limited."

[Sierra]: "Very. So you might as well try to get out of art some kind of payback."

[Gracia]: "For the artist needs it."

[Sierra]: "Art has to be a vocation besides being a job."

[Gracia]: "It must be very difficult not to sell any paintings, like Van Gogh."

[Sierra]: "He sold three before he died."

[Gracia]: "And one to his brother?"

[Sierra]: "Must be his brother bought them all."

[Gracia]: "Do you have a brother?"

[Sierra]: "Yes, I have a brother."

[Gracia]: "But he's not buying yours?"

[Sierra]: "No, he's not buying any. None whatsoever."

[Gracia]: "Well, I must talk to him. But now let's go back to the difference between the figurative paintings and the landscapes, that there are human figures in the figurative paintings and in the landscapes there are no human figures. But in the landscapes, there are sometimes animals or a statue or something that may function like a human figure, or not?"

[Sierra]: "Oviously you can put drama – let's call it that – in a landscape by the design, how you use the lines. If you put a horizontal line – perfectly horizontal line – in it, the landscape will tend to be peaceful. But if you take the horizon line and you curve it or you put it at an angle, then it becomes more challenging."

[Gracia]: "Yeah, it becomes just what I'm watching now, this river that you have here, it's like this. [hands motion upward]."

[Sierra]: "It's like the fish-eye lense on a camera, a nine millimeter. You can play with it with the light, you can play with the sky – if you have a sky – you can move the grass one way or the other. You can change the color of the grass from green, let's say, to red."

[Gracia]: "Now in the figurative paintings there is always one figure. Do you have any with several figures?"

[Sierra]: "Um, years ago I used to. Actually, one with three figures; somebody sent me an e-mail from Indianapolis. It was a painting I did when I was in school, and I don't know how the damn thing has survived. But this guy bought it from somebody and now he had it repaired because it was in pretty bad shape. And it has three figures or three Graces. Actually, now that I think about it, I have done another three Graces and it's in a museum in Miami, I don't know, the Lowe Museum. "

[Gracia]: "That's early work ."

[Sierra]: "About nineteen years old."

[Gracia]: "So now you just have the one figure. It suggests all sorts of interesting things to the viewer. Who knows what it means to you, but that may be irrelevant."

[Sierra]: "No, you go right ahead, what does it?"

[Gracia]: "I mean that maybe is it irrelevant what you think about it because this is a piece of art. It becomes independent of you once you have done it. People can come to it and interpret it any way they want."

[Sierra]: "You can think that now I am more self-centered and a bigger asshole than ever before."

[Gracia]: "Or it may be that you are concerned with a certain degree of loneliness, let's put it more poetically."

[Sierra]: "Well I always have found selfishness to be very enticing, fulfilling, selfishness is very fulfilling."

[Gracia]: "I think it's very healthy actually. A good dose of selfishness is very, very healthy because that's a natural thing for us humans, but many people don't think about it."

[Sierra]: "Artists tend to be very self-centered."

[Gracia]: "Let's talk about these lush landscapes that you paint. Why did they come about? Do they have any relationship to your Cuban past, the lush Caribbean vegetation?"

[Sierra]: "That could be true. I use a strong palette, but to tell you the truth, I was born in Havana and I always lived in the city, I never lived in the countryside. And I only see the countryside now when I go on vacation. Now I live in Chicago, which is an even bigger city. So maybe the landscape has some kind of a subconscious beauty to me. Historians say that landscapes were invented either in northern Germany or in Venice. Before, there was not pure landscape. Landscapes were always the background to the Virgin, or Jesus Christ or whatever; there was always a figure there or more than one figure. But by itself, the landscape didn't come into existence until just prior to the Renaissance. I like to believe it was the Venetian painters who started painting landscapes because who else but a real urban person will need a painting of a landscape?"

[Gracia]: "It makes sense. So you have been drawn to landscapes for those reasons perhaps, although who knows?"

[Sierra]: "Who knows, one of my early paintings was about ponds. It is a large painting, which is now at the Smithsonian, and in it there is a figure coming out of the pond. And what I was trying to say is that we came out of this soup. Obviously not in the shape of a man or a woman, of a human, but we came out of that soup. It may be that the urban environment is harmful to us. It may be that as we feed this big brain of ours with more and more philosophy and art and all kinds of history and so on, we are stepping more and more away from our feelings."

[Gracia]: "We are becoming divorced from nature."

[Sierra]: "Rousseau."

[Gracia]: "And Gauguin. Were you influenced by Gauguin?"

[Sierra]: "Yes, by the idea of paradise, which while he painted was already gone from Tahiti--he painted something that didn't exist, but he wished it was true."

[Gracia]: "Which artists have influenced you, apart from Gauguin?"

[Sierra]: "Surely, Goya."

[Gracia]: "Yes, Goya makes a lot of sense."

[Sierra]: "Goya makes a lot of sense doesn't it? And De Kooning, who did a wonderful series of women."

[Gracia]: "Going back to the issue of how you fit into the Cuban-American scene or the art scene in general. First, let's take the Cuban-American scene. You obviously are not a Miami person, you have been out of Miami. How long were you in Miami when you came? "

[Sierra]: "Oh, we were there for a little over a year, and it was a very different Miami."

[Gracia]: "Nothing there."

[Sierra]: "Nothing."

[Gracia]: "Then you moved away and stayed away. Have you visited Miami much?"

[Sierra]: "Yes. I used to visit more often when my parents were living down there, when they were alive, but they passed away. But, yes, I have shows in Miami so I go and visit."

[Gracia]: "But the Cuban thing is not particularly important to you? Or is it important? Is your art unrelated to it?"

[Sierra]: "I have tried to stay away from nostalgia."

[Gracia]: "No palm trees. I don't see any."

[Sierra]: "Though I try to read whatever Cuban literature I can find."

[Gracia]: "You read Cuban-American literature also?"

[Sierra]: "Right, but I also recently read three books, detective stories, from a guy in Havana."

[Gracia]: "Who actually lives in Havana."

[Sierra]: "Yes, and his hero is a lieutenant in the Castro police. He's a very nice guy, it's total fiction. He doesn't ‘beat up anyone.'"

[Gracia]: "Talking about Cuba, have you gone back?"

[Sierra]: "No."

[Gracia]: "And you don't plan to go back?"

[Sierra]: "No."

[Gracia]: "Now about the complicated Cuban politics. There are the people who are very much on the right, and there are the people very much on the left and then there are all sorts of people in between. So it's very difficult."

[Sierra]: "True, but some people are really emotional and involved against Castro. They were hurt so badly, like my parents; their lives were totally destroyed."

[Gracia]: "Shattered."

[Sierra]: "Unfortunately those folks, our parents, have passed away, but with them that attitude is going away, is changing."

[Gracia]: "And of course the government eventually will have to change. When Castro dies things might change. He's the symbol of everything, and there is a kind of personal hatred among the exiles of that person."

[Sierra]: "Yeah, they used to say in Cuba that there is no evil that last 100 years, but it's obvious that Castro is pretty close."

[Gracia]: "He is doing very, very well I must say."

[Sierra]: "Voodoo doesn't work, does it?"

[Gracia]: "Now how about the art scene. How do you see yourself in contemporary art, in not just the Cuban-American scene."

[Sierra]: "For good or evil, the world has become a village, and so has art today, which was not in the past. Today, because of the internet, television, all kinds of print, we can borrow from each other and it's very difficult to have a look that will make a school, a group of artists. I think that in Chicago, for example, you have the Chicago School of Art, but there were only four or five of them and that is gone. Today you don't see anything like that. This drives the art professors up the wall because there was a time when it was easy to put labels and now you have anarchy."

[Gracia]: "It's more individualistic; and some people are going back to Renaissance and Dutch painting. And others are moving forward and there's abstract and non-abstract. Have you ever done abstract?"

[Sierra]: "No."

[Gracia]: "You've always been figurative. "

[Sierra]: "In representation."

[Gracia]: "So you don't see yourself as part of a school or anything of the sort. Does the fact that you are in Chicago mean anything? If you were in New York, would things be different? You've stayed in Chicago and there used to be a time when people said ‘in order to really make it as an artist, you have to do it in New York.' Do you think that the art scene now is still like a pyramid where you used to have Paris, then you used to have New York and so on? Or is it more scattered everywhere?"

[Sierra]: "The art industry – which is what we're talking about – is humungous and of course there is for example the auction houses that sell you known artists that have passed away. But that is a commodity, it's almost like buying pork bellies and the rich use it as a way to – the same thing they did in the Renaissance – look more educated and sophisticated and so on. But, I forgot the question."

[Gracia]: "The question was, whether that pyramid exists now in some sense, you know the issue that Paris was the center of the art word and later New York?"

[Sierra]: "I don't think so. Of course New York is a huge town with a lot of money, bigger than L.A. or Chicago. There is by far more collectors, but the problem is that there are by far more artists and it's a rat's race. You know obscurity can be good up to a degree. You're left alone to produce whatever you want. Chicago is not a second, it's a third city in this country…"

[Gracia]: "In terms of what? In general or in terms of something in particular?"

[Sierra]: "In general."

[Gracia]: "In terms of art where do you think it stands."

[Sierra]: "I think in theater it stands in number one, bigger than New York. People don't like this, but I think Chicago has more theaters than London. You should come back here just to go to the theaters, it's just immense. The city, however, and the politicians don't care as much for the visual arts. And so the visual arts have a lot of problems here. The city could do by far more by getting some of the buildings that are abandoned and make studios for artists, which I believe cities like Indianapolis are doing, and up to a certain degree New York."

[Gracia]: "Now this new Millenium Park is beautiful. I haven't been here for a few years and I see Chicago moving forward incredibly. It's clean, it's beautiful, the buildings are incredible; the architecture in Chicago has always been great. And now there's this park, there are sculptures and things. Does that mean that perhaps there is something in the air? Has the attitude began to change?"

[Sierra]: "I always hope so. But the second city syndrome is still there. If you walk down in Millenium Park, you will not find one American artist, not just Chicago artists, American artists period. There is British, there is Spanish, and that's it."

[Gracia]: "That's very interesting."

[Sierra]: "Why is this happening? Because the governments of Britain and Spain spend a lot of money pushing their artists. And when they know that the city is looking for art and it has hundreds of millions of dollars, they take the curators and they take the important people in the art fields and for the city of Chicago on all kinds of trips and wine them and dine them."

[Gracia]: "Lobbying it's called. We spend a lot of time in Toronto and there something similar is happening. For example, the architects that have been hired to build all these buildings are usually not Toronto, or Canadian, architects, with the exception of the opera house. And I think in art it is probably the same. By the way, do you have any presence in Canada?"

[Sierra]: "No."

[Graciua]: "And what about Latin America?"

[Sierra]: "No, I used to show in Puerto Rico and the gallery closed. I guess I'm getting old and lazy. I used to have eleven galleries out of town, but the shipping and tracking was just too much. So I'd rather deal with a couple of cities."

[Gracia]: "So are you primarily in Chicago and Miami."

[Sierra]: "Yes, and Atlanta. And a good town for me also, strangely enough, is Omaha."

[Gracia]: "Omaha? That's interesting. Now, before we close, let me ask you whether you have something that you would like to add? Is there something that you would like to say that we haven't touched?"

[Sierra]: "I was thinking the other day about the government's cut backs on the funds for not-for-profit, such as small art centers and even hospitals. They ask the artist community to donate artwork and then they have auctions and the artist doesn't get any money but you know the organizations do. And in society the artist community tends to be the poorest. But if you look at any of those auctions, you will see fifty, one hundred artists giving away works of art. But the present government doesn't allow the artists to take off the value of the artwork."

[Gracia]: "Of the paintings as contributions?"

[Sierra]: "On their income tax."

[Gracia]: "That's terrible!"

[Sierra]: "So I'm using you as a forum for that."

[Gracia]: "This is the first person that has said this of the artists that we have interviewed. But I think that it's a very important point. You're donating your work, your effort and the value of what they sell for."

[Sierra]: "I donate this painting and let's say the only thing I can take off is how much the canvas cost and the wood and the paint."

[Gracia]: "Which is nothing in comparison to the value of the painting."

[Sierra]: "Maybe two hundred dollars."

[Gracia]: "That has been the rule always?"

[Sierra]: "No, not always, but the Republicans have made this rule."

[Gracia]: "This is very bad and it's national, you are talking about national, right?"

[Sierra]: "Yes, national."

[Gracia]: "Well Paul, this is a sad note on which to finish the interview but you know what, it's an important one, which I hope to repeat around as much as possible. Thank you very much; it's been a wonderful interview and I wish you the best."

[Sierra]: "Thank you very much."


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