Pia’s Magical Hands

Pedro Manuel Gonzalez Reinoso

Pia in her old thatched roof home.
Pia in her old thatched roof home.

HAVANA TIMES — Her name is Esperanza Conde, but everybody knows her as “Pia”. She was born in Seibabo (Yaguajay/Sancti Spiritus) however, she moved to the Yaguey district and then to Dolores (Caibarien/Villa Clara) where she has a family, two sons and a husband, who together cultivate, as well as friendships and art, the land. This rural woman is around 50 years old.

Pia was seduced by natural colors when she realized she could use them. She used to look closely at pollen, dust clouds, some flowers and dried fruits, mud, certain stalks that trickled out tones when put in water, and charcoal which left a trail beside the path she used to walk along. Especially when she used to rub them against unusual surfaces or exposed them to sun, wind, rain and they took on wonderful shades.

One day, about a decade ago, her youngest son came back from pre-school and told her at home that he had seen an angel hanging from the classroom partition wall! Pia, believing this to be a divine appearance and not a religious image like it was, told him that she could make him something similar but better. And smug, in her role of the owner of this great discovery, she got down to work.

Asniel, her son who since then has loudly made fun of his mother calling her “Kacho”, started laughing real hard which ended as soon as his mother got ready to straddle the ground, in order to try and scribble down her own version of this angel, and to silence him, without revealing her talent.

The outcome was a majestic trail of colors – an atollo like the rest of her cluttered prints are called-, where you could make out a blurry, sticky face, but warm in its unusual mix of every race. From that moment onwards, every living day on this Earth – that is to say: every night, because she has the impulse to do this when everybody else is asleep-, she always invents with paint, scraping away at it, scratching it, covering, dying, making specks, stains or smudges with it, on pieces of material that have been given to her which can vary from an old sheet, waste of curtains, the walls of her own home or a piece of cardboard.

This half illiterate person who has left her house very little and who has wriggled out of public spaces in order to shelter her shyness on the ranch, turns to release what her fingers command her to do, in an extraordinary abstract creative process, creating a work per day, which she never touches again. (Or per night, as we must stress insomnia’s eternal challenge).

The mess she makes for these matters are called: my “little oil spills” and can contain a variety of chemicals; oils, ground pigment (even from the kitchen), melted crayons, printing inks, and pencil leads, mud, lime and temperas. Of course there are also heaps of ash from the cigarettes she smokes, one after the other, which is sprinkled all over the artwork – unintentionally – so as to give it an air of fake antiquity.

While she creates, crickets and silence keep her company, while an oil lamp twinkles (when there isn’t any electricity) or the dim light bulb in the living room, so not to bother those who are sleeping. She levitates with happiness, under the hallucinatory effects of caffeine. And that’s how she makes an art piece a day, I mean, a night. When she’s finished, already well into early morning, it’s hard for her to catch up on sleep. At 7 o’clock, she has to go out into the fields.

In every hallucination she has, there is one symbol that appears again and again: an elastic and flexible human body. With hard faces and a stony gaze. There aren’t a lot of smiles amongst the people that Pia draws. She prefers the solemnity of deep thought rather than childlike enthusiasm. And her greatest commitment; fingers, on stretched out and sinuous hands; damp tentacles. The ones that symbolize her working vigorously, the spirit which she always has when she embarks on a new piece.

On one occasion, during the tomato harvest, she came across the black root of a tree that had been struck down by lighting in the path between rows of coffee trees, and, believing that she could see a face in this bark, she became obsessed with carving it. She let go of her basket where she collected the harvest, turned a deaf ear to her family who were rebuking her, hurried to get machetes and knives so she could smooth it down – without knowing anything about gouges, sandpaper, perforating punches, etc.- surprised at just how well what she baptized “her first saint” came out (rustically speaking). And in order to lessen her family member’s anger at her for having deserted them in the middle of the picking coffee, she blessed the tomatoes with him, should the next lot of floodwaters destroy them. From that moment onwards, the number of jokes about her decreased greatly, however the water level didn’t, because they never took her seriously, openly or secretly.

And she doesn’t only draw, she sculpts or carves her surroundings and appearances with this indescribable magic that is already vox populi beyond the town, where her mysteries are sensed or praised, as well as “healing” neighbors in the town and further afield, asking her humanoid saints for advice. With a handy skill for painting, domestic arrangements, also used in many maneuvers, are especially marked for common good, without preventing the exhaustion of many years of work or zero compensation.

When I heard that sick people were standing in line outside the door of the hut in order to be seen by Pia “Somaton”, my bewilderment grew. Because I had already verified the charisma of this creator and the gift that surpassed her without even knowing it.

There’s the testimony of many people whom I’ve talked to, people who were seen by Pia and were then sent to the doctors with a spot on diagnosis. The interesting thing here is that without having finished primary school, this woman can write down, with her eyes closed, what they spell out to her in her ear in her small room-clinic, unknown words like “multiple myeloma” or “sarcoma”.

If the pharmacies are out of medicine or a prescription isn’t right, getting rid of a persistent migraine sufferer’s headache by massaging your head with your hands softly is a regular thing to do and whoever wobbles with indigestion or has animals they have to de-worm, their hearts stop when they see the result. Watching her alleviate terminal illnesses using her bare hands, because here any surprise that comes from these miraculous limbs is proven here.

Her mother is her devoted follower. She suffers from neuralgia. Standing in front of each other, when she doesn’t want to reveal her “gift”, she makes her gravitate, making the woman spin around on her feet that almost lift off of the floor, touches her forehead and she falls into a trance. Later, she wakes up calm, asking questions with her gaze.

Publishing these experiences might stir up understandable doubts: the majority becoming sarcastic which I also form a part of for being agnostic, or believing maybe promotional luck which this artist/healer doesn’t need, …: she doesn’t charge anyone to be seen and offers absolutely everything she has, in such a way that suspicions can’t be justified. She isn’t interested in exhibiting her unvalued creations anywhere in the world, as she’s already been recognized for these skills, nor is she interested in being famous a devoted humanist by nature to her neighbors. As she frequently says: “I couldn’t give a damn.”

When she has had suffocating amounts of paintings and she has nobody left to donate them to, she has burnt them, singing. For lack of space, she explains. However, after a couple more weeks she already has a new pile growing, walls repainted with valances and murals inches thick, the refrigerator, furniture (including the bathroom), all of which are the result of this unstoppable manifestation that will soon be set to flame.

The Provincial Gallery in Villa Clara inaugurated a brief initiation exhibition of some of the works saved from the flames by people close to Pia, friends/cultural promoters intervening and first-hand knowledge, in its room which is dedicated to simple/raw/non-academic/authentic popular painters.

The exhibition lasted a month and was possible thanks to the efforts of specialist Danilo Vega, delighted by the social unveiling of being so generous, who was alerted about Pia’s periodic burning of her works, took to action and was able to miraculously rescue the curable from the pyre for this exhibition. Events which everyone fulfills with pleasure and which would uplift Samuel Feijoo and Jose Seoane Gallo, folklorists-recetologists, who were consummated for being alive.

Moreover, wanting to illuminate those of us who still tiptoe about in the shadows looking for a useful meaning for our dull lives- we are invited to appreciate, via the ordinary and tender image of this incomparable person who is Esperanza Conde, I mean, Pia.

The place where people come to see her.
The place where people come to see her.


[1] The price of some sculpted hands which she received 600 euros for from a collector, were converted into a little hut, which she then gave to a sick person who dared to praise her. Art and vital spaces (forbidden words because Pia cannot give in to the act that they celebrate her for because of mystical reasons) are indifferent to her. She also once gave away her clothes and remained naked in the middle of a field.

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