A Cuban Artist over Ninety

An Interview with Thelvia Marin Mederos

Irina Pino

Thelvia Marín and one of her painting-mural works.

HAVANA TIMES — Thelvia Marin Mederos is a Cuban painter, sculptor and writer. Now over ninety years old, she is still artistically active. She talks about her life as an artist with HT.

HT: What was your childhood like? Where were you born?

TM: I was born in Sancti Spiritus. I am an only child. My father was a poet and musician. My mother was from Spain’s Canary Islands; she played the piano, painted and read a lot. Until the age of six, I had a “trainer”, a “magician”, as they call peasants in the Canary Islands. I learnt literature and music, almost like a game. Art was very much in the foreground in the life I had as a child.

HT: Did you go to art school? What year did you graduate in?

TM: I completed music theory, solfeggio and piano in 1940 and graduated from the San Alejandro National Fine Arts School in 1940, completing the two majors they offered there at the time: sculpting (in 1947) and painting (in 1949).

HT: What materials do you use in your artworks?

TM: I use traditional materials in my sculptures: clay, stone, wood, bronze, marble, iron, steel, glass and even found objects made of things like fabric, paper, plastic and scrap metal, which I give new forms to.

HT: What artistic movements have you been influenced by?

TM: I am constantly evolving and drawing from as many sources as culture has to offer. I follow Jose Marti and apply his dialectical maxim: “to do, at every moment, what the moment demands.” Existentialism and surrealism as philosophies and aesthetic schools had an influence on me, because they were prominent movements in my formative years, both as a student and human being in general.

HT: You have several degrees. How has this helped you as an artist?

TM: In addition to the arts degree, I have degrees in journalism, psychology and publishing. I’ve also completed philosophy, literature and pharmacy courses. All of them are useful in my work as a writer and visual artist. The confluence of all of these studies is most noticeable in my novel Viaje al sexto sol (“Voyage to the Sixth Sun”), where I place the cultures of the pre-Colombian peoples of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean within the context of the history of Western culture, in connection with the peoples of “our America” – philosophy, religion, quantum mechanics and molecular biology all come together in a 21st century travel narrative.

HT: Tell us about your public monuments, both in Cuba and abroad. Do you work on order?

Thelvia Marín. Foto: www.universocanario.com

TM: I’ve authored three national public monuments in Cuba: one to Serafin Sanchez, in Sancti Spiritus, one to Camilo Cienfuegos, in Yaguajay, and one to Lenin, in Regla. In Ecuador, I have a monument to Cuba’s Hatuey chieftain. There is a collection of fourteen figures of Jose Marti I designed at Cuba’s diplomatic headquarters there and in several other countries. There’s also my monument to Mrs. Leoner Perez, Marti’s mother, in Tenerife. I am the author of the monument to Work, Disarmament and Peace, the largest in all of Middle America and one of the largest in the world. I don’t mind working on order, as I can simultaneously do other kinds of pieces for hotels and collections.

HT: Tell us about your project about Amerindian cultures.

TM: I’ve written works and done small and large-format sculptures, paintings and research work dealing with Cuban and Latin American pre-Colombian cultures. I even wrote a song about these cultures. My son turned it into a symphony which premiered in Cuba, performed by the National Symphonic Orchestra, with Eric Grossman at the violin. It was performed in the United States by the New York Symphonic Orchestra. We must rescue the memory of these cultures, cruelly pillaged during the Spanish conquest.

HT: Tell us about your narrative work.

TM: The publication of my book Condenados: del presidio a la vida (“Condemned: From Prison to Life”) resulted in the creation of the Sociology and Politics collection of Siglo XXI publishing house. I’ve published research and literary works in Costa Rica and through universities in Central America and the United States. Cuba’s Union published a book of short, parapsychological stories of mine. Ciencias Sociales published my Viaje al Sexto Sol and El reitual de la Cohoba (“The Cohoba Ritual”).

HT: Cuban émigré artists were in one way excluded from Cuban culture at one point. Now, this mentality seems to be changing. There are Cuban artists who now work abroad. What do you think of this?

TM: I think there are some brilliant Cuban artists who have emigrated, like sculptor Carlos Gonzalez, painter Tomas Sanchez and painter and photographer Rogelio Lopez Marin, who has works at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. There are Cuban writers abroad who bring prestige to our country.

HT: Can you share some thoughts about Cuba with us?

TM: When you compare it to other countries, it appears to be the product of an experiment, where phenomena are tried out, as though in a test tube, and spring from the diversity and the contradictions that make up our roots, in the geopolitical, economic and social context we’re in. That difference that characterizes us (and makes us conceited) is evident in the way we act, think, in the way we are and believe we are.

HT: How have you managed to maintain your will and continue to make art for so long?

TM: I learned to face up to life’s challenges while working with clay, stone and marble…to respond to the aggressiveness of others with a pen and a piece of paper where I could write down a poem or a book, to say: “you don’t control me, I control you.” This mentality has given me good results, be it to overcome an illness, weariness or lack of will.

HT: Is there a mysterious link between the artist and nature?

TM: From the Mayas, I learnt that we’re a part of nature, not the pillagers of nature, as we have learned from Western culture. It is a genetic link and part of our relationship to mother earth, not only as artists, but as human beings as well.

HT: How would you define yourself?

TM: To “define” oneself is to come to the end, to become stagnant and stop moving. Life, our work and the direction we move in define us. When others begin to predict your reactions to any stimulus, you’ve lost your freedom. If I had to define myself, I would say I am an unpredictable being who loves freedom.

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