The Artist of Napkins
English Version proofread by Judith Levine
While "jangueaba" (Spanglish for hanging out) with friends in a tavern in Takoma Park or Silver Spring, Maryland, Alfredo Ortiz drew the scenes that he saw around him, while people ate and talked. Now he does the same thing, after 23 years, when he meets with his colleagues from the Latino Art League of Greater Washington DC. His medium: pen on paper napkins.
Ortiz is excited when he says "The world is my frame and the people, my models". The scenes he paints are spontaneous, improvised, and calm, with men and women talking, watching television, playing the guitar, "jangueando," he says as a good Puerto Rican. He has also drawn the funerals of his grandmother and uncle. His scenes are not festive or with people in hectic situations. His compositions are capricious. What Alfredo does is fill the spaces with figures. He does not try to reproduce an exact situation, but it transmits the moment, the gestures, and the environment. He then immortalizes it in his work without much respecting the perspective and the proportion of the elements. His work is a whole, a single emotion.
The artist was born in Río Piedras de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico at the end of World War II, "in circumstances of extreme poverty on the island and around the world," he emphasizes. "I was taken to New York City when I was 5 years old and spent all my youth there. That's why I consider myself from the Bronx, NYC. "
Ortiz, in the past, painted in pastels and oils. At that time he used to exhibit his works in group shows at the Del Barrio Museum in New York City, when this was not yet located on Fifth Avenue. In 1980 he sold one of his works for a thousand dollars to a friend he met in that city, but he liked his own painting so much that after a while he offered to pay two thousand to have it back. The offer was rejected and Alfredo lost sight of the collector. Now he wants to look for her through this strange and magical world, which he does not understand very well, called the Internet.
Ortiz has his own language. He calls his drawings scribbles, however each of his characters has a proper name, with maternal and paternal last name, as all Latin American use. In the spaces between the figures he writes dates, names of places and of people, events and also writes his thoughts and impressions of the moment. Ortiz is a documentarian on foot; one might almost say paparazzi at hand of anecdotes that have happened day or night, in a determined place of the world. He also calls his work "rock and cave art" because drawing on napkins with any ballpoint pen does not take hours, nor does it cost money, but, "napkins must be of good quality for the work to last," he says. What worries Ortiz is, "How long will my work last?” So far, his oldest paper napkin drawings, which were framed in 1995, are in excellent condition.
Ortiz has visited the most important museums on each continent and remembers exactly where each work of the great masters is located, and what emotions it caused to him to feel when he saw it. He admires Aldo Raimundi, Cezanne, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Sorolla, Guayasamin, Miguel Angel, among others, whose impressive original masterpieces he has seen. The one who he admires more is a Dominican named Isidro Aykbar, whom he met in the Latino Quarter of NYC. In New York City he also ran into Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat several times, but did not say a word, "Because I had nothing to say to them".
"Art is the most immediate and primitive form of communication between humans. It is easier and acceptable for a child to draw a landscape, a sky and the sun than to explain it", he concludes. Thanks Alfredo Ortiz for such an enjoyable and interesting interview!