Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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Arts & Entertainment

From Puerto Rico, Lessons In Sustainability Before Landfall

Artists who reuse trees are spending time in Dallas to impart a simple principle of survival: "Make furniture for the great-grandchildren."
By William Sarradet |
Amara Abdal Figueroa

A design and woodworking collective that prioritizes the reclamation of disposed materials, mainly tropical woods, seems like a timely practice in light of Hurricane Maria’s devastation. However, MAOF (Materiales y Oficios, or materials and crafts) has been active since 2014, long before the destruction of this year’s hurricane season. Their work in reclaiming a humanistic relationship to material in a late age of capitalist production has proven to be not only prescient but telling. Maria’s fallout — half of Puerto Rico remains without power, nearly 60 days after landfall —  has shown governmental bodies are not reliable in the organization of labor and community; rather, it’s the people who can be trusted to clean up.

“We knocked on those doors a lot, and now those doors have magically heeled to our powers,” MAOF’s Mario Gracia Otero says.

In the basement of the Owens Arts Center at SMU, a small collective of designers, woodworkers and artists working in reclaimed materials in Puerto Rico discussed their practice last night for a bilingual audience with the aid of an interpreter. The speakers established an understanding of what it means to pursue an intentionally slow, laborious line of work. These intentions were in place before the hurricane, but now they seem only more relevant.

The lipservice of the slow food movement in the US at the end of the 2000’s comes to mind, where a shift for locally sourced food devolved into a shift in the food economy towards expensive grain bowl restaurants where the affluent could have Sunday brunch. A “slow” relationship to labor is not new to the industrialized west, but Puerto Rico exists in a different context than its parent state. MAOF is not so concerned with the flashy rhetoric of innovation. Instead, the members seek an understanding of raw materials native to the island.

The intentional use of material at the scale of the human body is one that is fraught with limitations and embalmed by the ceiling of time as experienced by hominids. They exhibit a willingness to emancipate their reliance from a co-morbid and rigidly imposed dependence on trade with the U.S. Their commitment is to rehabilitate disposed materials, including tools and utensils, living a scavenger lifestyle as a means to growing closer to the Earth in a tropical maelstrom.

When asked about their social media presence, Mario says their storefront appears as if it is abandoned. (The ratio of inhabited buildings to those shuttered in Puerto Rico is 50/50.) The product of MAOF’s endeavor is not to create an illusion of success, it is the work itself. No one has the role of social media manager. The activation of their bodies through labor does not require documentation.

MAOF is not a solution for the world. MAOF is a collaboration built on the senses of a handful of cooperative bodies that cared enough to take the time to understand their materials. The importance to set your own pace of creation and discovery come before the requirement to commit your participation to a market of goods. The connection to yourself, and to those around you, is a more requisite goal. Especially in light of the tragedy surrounding us.

“We make furniture for the great-grandchildren,” Otero says, in summary. An idea not so foreign to our great-grandparents, yet novel to the urbanites in attendance that depend on Ikea for their next move. Leave it to Puerto Rico to teach parents what should not be new.

Be sure to come to Life in Deep Ellum to meet MAOF members tonight and see their video installation, along with live music, Puerto Rican food, art auctions, and other festivities. Suggested donation is $10.

Some excerpts of the talk, featuring Diego Andrés de la Cruz Gaitán, Mario Gracia Otero and Gabriel Maldonado Andréu, with translation by Amara Abdal Figueroa:

On strategies for making affordable furniture:

Otero: Diego devised this good solution in terms of the amount of material you need to create a piece of furniture. He got rid of entire planes. In cabinetry in general you just have planes of plywood, you have planes that come into play. Imagine, instead of a plane, you have a square that gives it a frame and gives it a very solid structure. As a user, you will have to accommodate your eye to see inside some drawers but that enables you to make furniture a lot more accessible. The material becomes a highly priced commodity — five or six dollars a board foot is pretty high, if you want to make a full cabinet it’s going to be pretty expensive.

Our relationship [re: MAOF] was formed with this initial perspective. I’ve been practicing woodworking four about four years. Solid wood in cabinetmaking in Puetro Rico is super unusual — it’s mind-boggling, how popular these veneered materials are. So now we’re having this constant communication with the material, we regard it as a very living thing. We’re accessing information constantly through touch, through processes that involve tools, very particular tools, very specialized in many ways. We’re constantly reevaluating these woods through use.

If you look at the lifetime of things you can buy for cheap versus the lifetime of something made with tropical wood, conditioned and grown in our environmental content — so often people would come right to the mahogany trees in the space and say, “I have a table from my great grandma that looks just like this, and it’s still perfect!” It’s really evident, the longevity of building with good material.

On using an artspace to turn people outward and share information: 

Otero: On a daily basis we would have people visiting. Our setup was really odd because we were on an important street, a business street in San Juan. Most people thought it was a ruin, there was wood all in our parking lot. We would have a lot of people just coming in, trying to take wood from us because they thought we were throwing it away. Through those interactions, which were really organic in a way, we would have a lot of input, and output.

I remember this woman coming in and looking at our workshops and talking for a second and saying, “‘Oh, do you guys have guava sticks? Because my mom used to hit me with those when I was young and I know they’re really strong.'”

On the physical work of harvesting discarded trees:

Gaitán: The way we’ve made MAOF work is by carrying it in the shoulders. The resources, we don’t have to invest. We work a lot. Instead of having a cherrypicker or specialized equipment, we use steel bars to move trunks. Sometimes we’re working with a 2-ton tree. Quickly our abilities become really relevant. Our body becomes a tool box. Your body is constantly, the way we work, it’s always telling you the limits. And by so, imposing a scale and a rhythm in our practice, which is in itself is a goal that we have.

Otero: We always joke about this, but it’s like dancing. You gotta dance. You have to know your body to the extent that you won’t put it in so strenuous a position that you hurt yourself constantly. There’s a certain condemnation, almost of the usage of the body for labor. There’s certainly also in our practice a reevaluation of that statement and certainly we’re aiming for bodily labor and craftsmanship to be regarded as something a lot more intellectually demanding and physically demanding and enriching. So you can’t look down on anyone from Guatemala, for example [who is working a physical labor-driven job.] If you look closely at the relationship from that person to whatever he’s doing: in terms of the creative process he’s putting into process tools and methods, he’s solving problems in his own body and mind, and becoming engaged in this idea that this will turn into something – a piece of art, in many cases.




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