I took a venture out today to paint “en plein aire.” I am not a showman when it comes to painting, so I like to find a nice, discreet place to sit and paint. I detest having people walk up and watch me. It’s nothing against the people – it’s just distracting… Besides, the only person I feel really comfortable about looking at my unfinished works would probably be my wife.
The only problem with this reasoning is that – especially in a crowded city like Buenos Aires – it limits your locations.
I headed out for la Boca, determined to find a nice, quiet, colorful corner of port life…
La Boca is a vibrant, old, working class, immigrant portside barrio of Buenos Aires. The predominant ethnic population is Italian (and once Basque) and it is home to the Boca Juniors – Diego Maradona’s home futbol team. La Boca sits on the Riachuelo, a smelly little industrial canal that somehow leads to Rio de la Plata – up where the water is much cleaner and where the warehouses are not abandoned wrecks – but renovated into fine restaurants where affluent porteños hold court at lunchtime with their cellular phones and young mistresses by their sides.
The Riachuelo is a filthy, oily mess that once bred malarial mosquitos causing a plague during the 19th century. It is often joked about – the fact that there is probably much money to be made from simply mining the metals from its dark, mucky bottom – stuff like mercury, chrome and other heavy metals.
Step away from the stench of the river and peer beyond the meat packing plants and old warehouses and you will find a growing artists’ community and some fine little restaurants. The most famous landmark is El Caminito, a little calle where the corregated tin houses are at their most colorful and artists hawk their inexpensive paintings. It’s a little too touristy for my tastes but still quaint – that is, when the tour buses aren’t too heavily lined up letting Brazilian tourists off to take snapshots and buy tango T-shirts or Carlos Gardel key chains. There are a handful of surrounding pizzerias and combined with the glorious Riachuelo across the street, the place puts off a distinct aroma…
La Boca’s architecture is very distinct. But not in terms of high art… Many of the buildings are shotgun houses (some would say shanties) with walls and rooves of corrugated, brightly colored tin.
La Boca is definitely a tough neighborhood, so it was understood that I would dress the part (old jeans and a faded denim shirt, no belt), leave with a minimum amount of cash, and not get out unless I could find a parking spot where the car was in full view. I even went unshowered, unshaven and with unbrushed hair in bad need of cutting. I was actually proud of how shitty I looked. And of course – with the porteños obsession for dressing to kill (that is, outside of la Boca) – the security guy at the front gate gave me a just-where does-this guy-think-he’s-going-looking-like-that look as I drove out this morning.
As I headed towards la Boca past the elegant apartments of Palermo on the wide, tree-lined Avenida del Libertador, and past the picturesque parks of Recoleta, and down on into the thriving business district of Retiro, I thought about the so many potential subjects for paintings. They all required sitting down somewhere and having the world walk by to stop for a moment and see just what the hell this crazy gringo was doing in the middle of the sidewalk.
As I pondered a painting of one of Buenos Aires’ classic, infamous taxistas (these guys are all out of the same mold) in their yellow & black cabs with the broken gyroscopes that cause them to weave all over the road, a new subject matter pulled up at the stoplight: Chica linda? No. This was another being out of ANOTHER mass mold – motorcyclists that drive between the lanes like bats-outa-hell with their helmets safely strapped around their elbows. But this guy really caught my attention: He had a regulation San Francisco 49er’s football helmet – ON HIS HEAD! I immediately thought Joe Montana had come to Argentina to recapture the word, ‘football’! I hope this guy was wearing it for looks because even on astro turf, those damn things come off mighty easily…
I found a parking space in front of the for-export-only (remodeled) wharf not far down the road from el Caminito. Rather than pull all of my painting gear out, I opted to go scout the perfect location first.
La Boca’s draw for artists – or at least for me – is it’s graveyard of rusting tugboats, tankers and trawlers against the backdrop of old steel bridges and portside warehouses. The hulks of ships leaning against one another provides an incredible wealth of interesting shapes and colors. And then there is all of the other stuff floating around… like the literally hundreds of aerosol cans that I thought at first were spray cans from some aspiring graffiti artist. I never could get to one – they were either floating or thrown about upon the rusted decks of some old ship I was NOT about to jump over onto. From my vantage, I couldn’t make out the letters to read the labels, but there was a masked woman in the logo, so I figured it had to be some sort of Carnival spray stuff. Whomever the parent company was had to be lucky – there were more of these cans spread out over the waterways of la Boca than there are empty cans of Medalla Beer along the roadsides of Puerto Rico!
Walking along the waterway, I spotted a diesel pump churning away on a small barge next to a long-ago half-submerged small freighter. The water spewing out from its hoses sent an extra dose of the river’s aroma in my direction and I was reminded of my childhood and playing along the once filthy St. John’s River in Florida. That oily muck smell with a slight touch of diesel on the nose with a full mouth-filling texture, followed by an acidic, greasy, seaweed finish. Perfect with oysters on the half shell. Serve well-chilled. Great as an aperitif, or complements beef, chicken, fish or lamb…
Yes, this river is absolutely polluted. It is terrible. And it is bound to affect the Rio de la Plata. Another reason why I don’t eat seafood in Buenos Aires.
I had a blast as a chid – playing by the river. We were young and had no problems swimming in it. This was back before pollution’s consequences – other than directly drinking the water – were even considered. At least our parents were insistent upon updated typhoid shots. We built forts along the river banks; ventured up almost-standing-room sewer pipes and lit candles in cavernous culverts where we kissed – for the first time – those girls brave enough to venture with us; We waded in the river, lost our sneakers in the muck and laughed at the floating condoms; We threw clams at each other; We collected bottles thinking they were once property of river pirates; We crabbed with chicken meat tied to a string; We scouted for abandonned row boats and dreamed of finding Machine Gun Kelly’s hidden fortune…
Fortunately, by the time I was fourteen and actively waterskiing in the St. Johns, the water was on its way to a miraculous recovery. Today it is quite clean. The Riachuelo is definitely another story. I don’t think the St. Johns was anywhere near this!
It’s amazing what a foul smell can stir up… As I watched the pump churning and tried to figure exactly what these guys were doing, I saw a scuba diver emerge from the dark shadows of the ship’s stern. Now THERE is a job nobody wants! I’m sure he is paid very well.
I walked further down towards the Avellaneda Bridge, a rusting landmark that carries traffic high over the river. As I watched it give and squeak as vehicles made their crossing, I vowed to limit my future trips across that old thing. Right under it, along the slimy banks, I saw some colorful canopied rowboats tied up to a floating dock. I went down to investigate.
A weathered, smiling man in his late-sixties (he looked like Spencer Tracy) stood in his boat and waited for more passengers. A makeshift sign said trips were fifty centavos. Wow! What a bargain, I thought.
“So, where do you go?” , I asked him.
“Over there,” he answered.
A duplicate dock and several canopied boats next to a makeshift, fifty centavo sign awaited across the canal.
“What’s over there?” I continued…
A young woman passenger in the back of the boat looked straight ahead without making any eye contact. Why is he holding us up? She must have thought…
I knew my question was a stupid one so I didn’t press it. It turns out that rather than climb eight flights of stairs to cross on the Avellaneda Bridge, people can pay these guys to row them across for fifty centavos – a distance well worth the small change.
“So, what would be the charge by the hour to rent the boat?” I asked.
The girl had an alarmed look – like drop me off first!
I figured there was no way he could make forty trips in one hour, so rather than press the issue, I dropped the idea altogether…
As I handed him fifty centavos, I asked,
“If I go over there, can I walk along the riverfront?”
“No! Definitely NOT! You will get hit over the head and mugged!”
I was touched by Spencer Tracy’s protective instincts.
“But just in front of the river – next to the boats?”
“No-No! Stay on this side! It is a bad place over there…very bad!”
He was sacrificing valuable cargo. I guess my gringo accent gave me away – and not my shitty appearance. He probably thought I was some German guy traveling the world on a budget with my life savings in a velcro wallet in my back pocket.
He gave me my fifty-cent piece back. I didn’t argue.
I headed back in the direction I came from. Past the pump, I found a really good boat and thought about painting it. Then I noticed a septic tank truck next to me pumping sewage from out of an opening in the newly remodeled concrete wharf. The smell was doubly awful. I passed on that idea. As I walked by the truck, I couldn’t help wondering if he was secretly pumping sewage INTO the river…
I’ll tell you how godamned polluted this river is: I stopped as I saw raindrops on the water. Oh shit, I thought, there goes my day. The sky was relatively clear. I held out my hand and looked up. Nothing. I wiped my hands on my jeans to make sure there was no oily film preventing me from feeling the raindrops. I held out my hands once more. Nothing again. I looked closely once more. There was one of those floating, catch-all hoses (I forget the exact name) they use in oil spills; You could tell that the water was thicker than water normally is – it looked like it was moving in slow motion. I looked closer at the raindrops. They were NOT raindrops but bubbles floating up from the bottom!
I contemplated what I would do if some guy tried to rob me (even though I had no money) at gunpoint; OK, Robert, would you dive into that mysterious water to get away? I’ll take the bullet…
As I looked at the many rusted ships on my way towards el Caminito, I happened upon a group of guys in their late twenties looking out over the same ships and doing the stereotypical Hollywood director’s hand framing – fingers of both hands extended upwards with perpendicularly extended thumbs touching each other. They scanned the scene. The one that appeared to be in charge had perfected his frame – he made a monocular with one hand rounded into a ‘C’. My sense of humor tempted me to do the rotating crank of the old silent movie camera but I thought no, I may be sharing this space with them…
You see these guys all over Buenos Aires. Argentina has an excellent film industry, but like doctors and lawyers here, there’s a real glut. I think it has to do with the fact that you can go to college completely on the government’s tab. So, Johnny, what do YOU want to be when you grow up? Why, a doctor, of course! Or a lawyer, or an architect or maybe a film director…
The directors had scoped out a pretty good scene. I admired it with them. Then I remembered I was painting incognito. I walked on by.
Fifty yards down it struck me! The perfect place! JUST what I was looking for! I hurried back to the car and got my paints.
My subject was three ships leaning upon one another. Stern view. I especially liked the sprayed-on graffiti over the heavy rust. It had almost a timeless hieroglyphic feel. From my angle, the ship’s contours overlapped each other, making for an interesting composition. And the blackness of the water below them added richness to the rusting colors of the old hulls. The sun was blaring and there were interesting contours formed by the shadows. Ladders, railways, lifelines and portholes created fascinating negative shapes. And they just happened to frame the Avellaneda Bridge in the distance.
I knew the drawing would be a nightmare, what with all of the intricacies of detail. I figured I could rough out a design, record a few details in pencil and bullshit my way in paint. Besides, I was more interested in shapes and colors and a general feel rather than recording a specific point in time. These three babies definitely needed some artistic license!
I was right across the street from the pizzerias near el Caminito, so I had a continual audience, as I feared. Fuck it, I thought. I got to work and only thought about it when someone’s distinct shadow of their head slowly orbited my watercolor paper.
Once you get into the almost meditative-like concentration, it’s no problem. But when you first start, you feel like you are naked and scheduled to do a fifteen minute performance of the macarena in front of crowds of thousands.
It is fine to work from photographs but to really get the essence of your subject, you really need to work from life. Or at least spend a good portion of your time working at it live.
After I had claimed my stake, the director’s guild came walking over with hands and thumbs extended. This time they had equipment and cameras. I think they were only rehearsing shots. They were looking at MY scene. They walked back and forth, all the time with hands extended. Great, just what I need…
The drawing got off to a good start and I broke out the paints. As all of my paintings start, it looked like shit from the beginning and I fought myself over the option to break my concentration, slash a few red ‘X’s across it and wad it up for good. I hung in there and little by little, it started coming together and becoming interesting. After a while, if your meditative concentration keeps up, your body succumbs to a powerful inner force and your painting happens without you. It’s a weird but very satisfying feeling…
At one point, I felt a non-human presence around me. I think it was the shadow of the wagging tail – out of the corner of my eye – that caught my attention. It was a cute little mangy stray pup that decided to come over and see if I needed company. He insisted on drinking out of my bowl of rinsing water, that by now, had turned to a violet-green color. I had a bottle of fresh water and I offered that to him by pouring a bunch on the sidewalk. He had a proud look on his face as to say, “No thanks – if this bowl is good enough for you to use, then by golly, it’s good enough for me!” He sat himself down in a smitten manner and looked out over the surrounding port life as if he was proud to finally find a friend that would share the view with him – without shooing him away. I went back to work and I guess he got bored with me because the next time I looked up, my little wandering friend had moved on.
After some intense painting, I noticed the sun was going down fast. I packed up and headed back to the car hoping it would still be there.
The painting is unfinished and I plan to go back. This risky business of watercolor may produce a good painting or I may have a muddy abstract with red ‘X’s on my hands… Either way, la Boca, despite its polluted waterway, has charmed me and I will not go out of there until I have pulled off a GREAT painting.
As I turned down our street, another film crew was shooting a commercial in Stinky’s little park. This is where all the dogs go to walk. A guy had a television set on a leash, I kid you not! Art directors, photographers, and assistants broke from the action and consulted one another while the poor guy with the TV on a leash looked like a complete idiot.
I extended my hands, connected my thumbs, framed him and smiled.