HAVANA TIMES — Working in his small native town, wood craftsman Jose Miguel Perez is a self-taught artist who instills his pieces with a charm that evokes the golden age of cabinetmaking. “I knew carpentry would be a trade for life,” he said in his interview with HT.
HT: What did you do before becoming a cabinetmaker?
Jose Miguel Pérez: Like almost everyone else from my generation, I completed basic schooling and learned a bit of drawing and geometry on my own. I also spent long hours in the carpentry shop where my dad worked, first as the owner, and later as an employee.
HT: What drew you to this trade?
JMP: It’s genetic. I was born into the trade. My father was a skilled carpenter. He was also self-taught. He died when I was sixteen. This is still a very painful loss for me and a source of inspiration as well. I was an only child. I like to believe that he passed on his gift to me, to make up for the loneliness he left my mother and me. At that early age, I knew that carpentry would be a trade for life.
HT: Your work has a style reminiscent of the furniture of old.
JMP: It’s not that I dislike the last decades of carpentry, where you come across mostly straight lines that address functional concerns, but, what I’m most passionate about is the art produced from the 18th century until the beginning of the 20th.
HT: Being a cabinetmaker must be something of a challenge in a country with an economic situation like Cuba.
JMP: There are many challenges and not all of them are financial. Financial difficulties are a big issue because, if you don’t have the materials you need, you can’t work – obviously. But there are things that do more harm to your work, like mismanaging your time or not being demanding enough with yourself in terms of quality.
HT: What can you tell us about your native town?
JMP: I was born and have lived in Aguacate my whole life. Aguacate is a small town in the old province of La Habana, today Mayabeque. Like all of the towns that sprung across Cuba in the 17th and 18th centuries, it has a main road that cuts across the entire town, fruit of the development of the coffee and sugar industry.
Unfortunately, the town no longer has a coffee or sugar industry, only the nostalgia evoked by our grandparents’ stories about the former splendor of the Rosario sugar refinery and important personalities who visited the town, like different presidents or scientists, or geniuses of the stature of professional chess player Jose Raul Capablanca, drawn to the town by the versatile Ramon Pelayo, the owner of the refinery.
He equipped the town with a network of railroads that brought jobs, means of communication and much prosperity to the area, turning the Rosario refinery into one of the most successful in the country.
I think the town knew its greatest economic and cultural splendor in the first decades of the 20th century.
HT: Can you tell us something about how the art of cabinetmaking has evolved in Cuba?
JMP: In my humble opinion, this is not a good time for the trade in Cuba. In the first place, we’ve lost many traditions, because great masters didn’t have anyone to pass their craft to. For many years, the country prioritized the training of scientists and young people who enrolled in trade schools were the ones who had bad grades and no real calling.
I taught many of them in the workshop and it pained me to see how little interest, motivation and knowledge they had.
All of that is behind the bad taste, the poor quality of the work we see today and the lack of professionalism with which people work in the trade, even when it’s their livelihood.
I believe there are very few people who actually love their trade, and seeing some institutions, like the Havana Office of the Historian, work to rescue many of these traditions gives me great joy. I would be even more pleased if we could draw talented young people into the trade who are interested in continuing the tradition.
HT: What are your most immediate priorities?
JMP: For me, it is important for the work I do to be a challenge. So many admirable things have been accomplished in the trade in the course of time that it’s almost a necessity for me to do things with the greatest quality possible.
I still have a lot to learn, and plying the trade is the way to do this. Right now, I want to steer my work towards rescuing traditions. I see this as a commitment towards the work of great artists who left their mark behind, inspired by our country’s beauty.
HT: How would you describe yourself, from the point of view of your art?
JMP: To be able to work with wood, as they say in Cuba, I have had to work miracles, everything from making my own tools to learning through trial and error, and through the inspiration God gives me every day. I am simply a man who knows that we are here to overcome difficulties and grow.