When I had my frame shop across from the Bagelry I came up with a small product about the size of a business card. It was a small picture behind glass held together with metal clips. My friend Aaron took this idea (with my blessing) and made a small business out of it. At first he used pictures cut out of old poster catalogs, then he used color copies from greeting cards and eventually he used copies of original art from local artists. Pedro was one of these artists, I think they met while getting color copies made at the nearest Kinkos.
I liked Pedro instantly, he was polite, good-natured and laughed constantly. He would drop by every so often just to talk. I learned bits and pieces of his life story; he grew up in New York- first in the East Village and then his family moved to the Bronx. He still likes to talk about how nice the Bronx was back then, “The stores were open 9 to 5 only on the weekdays, they were closed on the weekends.” He knew and studied with a few of the big time artists/dancers of the Seventies. He was born in Puerto Rico so he was a native Spanish speaker. I remember Sandy asking him to pronounce “Puerto Rico”. She had spent some time in Puerto Rico and could never get the subtleties of the pronunciation just right, but admired the native pronunciation. I guess he was “black”, he did have dark skin, but I never really thought of him as “black”. I learned this about “race” much later; that we are all more of a stew than an hors d’oeuvre tray. His genetics probably had as much to do with the indigenous population of Puerto Rico as they did with the forcefully imported Afro/Caribbean population. This is also true of many blacks from the Southeastern US.
His claim to fame at that point in life was that he was the boyfriend of the mayor of Santa Cruz, who was openly gay, John Laird. He didn’t talk about their relationship in detail but he spoke as though he was proud of it, but only in a self effacing way, because Pedro was never boastful. It seemed to give him some stature and standing in the larger community, but underlying it one sensed his insecurity.
At that time he was drawing patterns and colors. The above art is a small color copy reproduction of one of his drawings on paper. His originals were about 8×10 inches. The shapes in this piece are very typical of Pedro’s work as well as the colors. His colors are always well worked and textured, never solid and bold. I can’t help but think “tic tac toe” when I look at this piece. He went through a phase in his art where he liked to divide everything into sections, like looking out the panes of an old window. It has always been hard for me to decipher the story hidden in non-representational art (as it is called). I know he poured a lot of energy and design into these colors and patterns so there is something there other then random musings. The thing about non-representational art is that it is the product of a highly intellectualized trend in the art world- Rothko, Mondrian, Kandinsky, etc. Yet it actually seems to appeal to feelings rather than thoughts and is more reminiscent of very primitive art. And maybe that is the point, to get past the story and talk to the emotions. Patterns, shapes, colors and textures speak to the subconscious rather then the conscious mind. Why are we so attracted to the curves and the colors of another’s body? Doesn’t sexual attraction start with recognition of repeated curves, patterns and colors? Isn’t there a recognition of ancient shapes and colors inside of us, which goes back through all the generations of human existence? This is how I view non-representational art; through this lens of shared humanity.
Whenever I saw Pedro walking through the door of my frameshop I felt at ease and looked forward to talking to him. While 95 percent of the people who walked through the door made me feel tense as though I had to be “on”, a little bit like a performance. Maybe he had a bit of a thing for me, but more than that he was authentic, he didn’t put on a performance so I didn’t feel like I had to put one on for him. He was a good-looking guy; dark-skin, large chest, a nice round welcoming face; all the things I find very attractive in a woman. However I don’t cross that physical line with others very easily and when I do, only a woman can get me there. Pedro only ever made me feel that he liked me as a person, that I was someone he could share with and that he had some degree of admiration for me. Most of the time attraction actually takes the form of just wanting to be around someone; looking at their face, wanting to hear the sound of their voice, having something you want to share with that person, all those small things which make us so human.
I remember once when Aaron and I were both single and occasionally going out in the evenings to various nightclubs- basically trying to find women, and doing very poorly at it I might add. Occasionally we went to the Blue Lagoon, the local gay bar. Women often went there because it tended to keep out the more predatory type of guys. We were dancing on their tiny dance-floor with intensely loud techno music thumping through our bodies and there was Pedro dancing nearby. He came up close to us to say hi and Aaron backed off, as if to say, “I’m not gay”. Not that he was phobic but I think his own experience made him want to be very clear about it. Later when I saw Pedro he joked about it a bit, “I know you guys like to go dancing at The Blue Lagoon” and then finished it off with his trademark laugh, a natural laugh but a laugh so common with him it almost ended every other remark.
Pedro still continues to do his color patterns to this day 25 years later. And it has really made me appreciate his style of art. I have lived with some of his paintings over the years and they never grow tiring. I won’t see them everyday even though I’m in the room with them, but about once or twice a month I’ll give them a good look and generally they give me a good feeling. They seem deep and meaningful somehow, even though I know Pedro would give such a suggestion a good laugh. Once while he was living in Watsonville, (which has a large Latino church going population) he joked that he was working on a picture of Jesus because that’s the kind of thing they like in Watsonville. I joked that he should do a picture of a unicorn because those are also popular art/fantasy subjects. Then he decided that he was going to do a painting of Jesus riding a unicorn to capture both audiences in one picture. We both had a really good laugh about that, imagining a painting of Jesus riding a unicorn.
I saw him a few times after that joke we shared, and he brought it up again as a painting he was actually working on. If he ever finished it, I never saw it but would have loved to. It was certainly like Pedro to poke fun at the righteousness of other people. He often seethed at liberal self-righteousness but he hated right-wing self-righteousness even more so. I think he resented it when someone created pre-defined groups of people in their head, and then when they would meet someone like himself, try to fit him into one of those pre-defined groups.
In general, he was always alert for people who felt the need to be contrived about their speech. He told me the story of how Aaron helped set up a meeting between himself and Aaron’s gay housemate (a kind of date after he had broken of with the mayor).Somehow the suggestion of watching a movie together came up. The movie suggestions which came from this housemate of Aaron’s (who was not black) all had black leading characters or somehow related to the subject of being African American. He obviously had no clue about Pedro’s taste in movies and seemed to make assumptions rather then asking. I’m not sure how Pedro felt about that at the time but he did keep it as a humorous story he could retell every so often.
I learned several years after meeting him that Pedro was once a Jehovah’s Witness, and someone who had risen fairly high up in their organization. That was back in his days in the Bronx. He told me a bit about how and why he got into it (his mother was Catholic and his father was not around at all). and why he left. To this day he is a rather harsh observer of the Jehovah’s Witness and religion in general. He likes to say that God was the original mass murderer. And that comes from reading and knowing the bible. From the bits and pieces I read and heard, the statement seems accurate. For some reason God had the need to kill off whole cities (once the entire population of earth- Noah’s flood) and seemingly random people for small offenses. I’m not versed in the world of Jehovah’s Witness but I believe it is part of their existence story that their God is planning on wiping out everyone once again and then torturing them for all of eternity in some kind of hell- except for the “good” people who will get some kind of reward instead. But this myth/story of the Jehovah’s is not the reason he left the church. The reason he left was much more personal.