The Volcanic eruptions on the Azore Islands in the early 1950s were devastating to Portugal. To assist, the United States, at the urging of Senator Ted Kennedy, loosened up its immigrant quota and Azore islanders poured into the country, in California joining already established Portuguese-American communities in the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area, or establishing themselves individually.
Joao de Brito's parents came in that later group, refugees from the volcanic eruptions on the Island of St. Michael. Nathan Oliveira, Mel Ramos and John Mattos were born in this country, their Portuguese grandparents having immigrated decades ago. What the four men have in common, in addition to their Portuguese roots, is that they are California artists.
The Portuguese go way back in California. A Portuguese may have led the first expedition of Europeans to California. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is credited with the discovery of California in 1542, but though the expedition was Spanish, many believe Cabrillo was born in Portugal. He is also known by the Portuguese name of Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho.
But Juan or Joao, the commander chose among his crew members those who had artistic talent to record the new land in drawings and paintings. Those images were taken back to Europe. If Oliveira, Ramos, Mattos and de Brito had been born four centures earlier, and given seagoing talents, they might have been among the chosen. (Oliveira, Stanford University professor emeritus, does hold the seafaring title Order of Henry the Navigator, Portugal's highest civilian honor for contributions to the country's culture.)
Today work by all four is being shown at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, a California coastal town tucked between precipitous hills that break off to the sea to the south and north on Highway 1. The Sanchez Art Center is housed in former school buildings decorated with murals and looking out over a baseball field. A long hallway features art of the people of Pacifica; a simple, square gallery the work of the four artists. It's a good place, straight forward, no frills, a kind of gritty quality.
The grittiness works with the exhibit, which is titled ``Ashes to Life: A Portuguese-American Story in Art.'' It is curated by Phil linhares, chief curator of the Oakland Museum of California. The title refers specifically to the volcanic eruptions, and symbolically to the Portuguese presence in the United States.
It might also work in the case of one or two of the artists. Oliveira, for example, has come back from deep personal loss. With work in the Met, Smithsonian and The Tate, London, his haunting figurative paintings might be to art what Samuel Beckett's isolated characters are to the theater, although at the Sanchez Oliveira is showing landscapes with a kind of abstract . . . volcanic . . . energy.
The other artists have also been successful.
John Mattos has cut a fine career in illustration _ where he is very well known _ as well as in fine art.
Ramos' satirical pieces of pop culture are known nationally and have easily sold for six figures (if you've been to the Oakland Museum you're not likely to forget his Browned Bare, a voluptuous nude blonde leaning against a California grizzly). When someone recently compared Ramos to Jeff Koons, I said, and firmly believe, Ramos is much better, more authentic.
De Brito, the youngest of the artists, has a gift for inspiring others as well as being a fine painter. It was from de Brito I learned the wonderful Fernando Pessoa quote that begins this piece. Pessoa is considered by many to be one of the truly greaty poets of the Twentieth Century.
A book has been published to tie in with the exhibition which runs through July 12 (go to www.sanchezartcenter.org for exhibition details, days and times). Also titled ``Ashes to Life,'' the book features the artists' work and vintage photographs of the volcanoes as well as the Atlantic crossing from the Azores to the United States. Text and interviews are by Paul Karlstrom, a writer for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
The book is published in English and Portuguese. I wrote a brief forward and its odd to see your words in English and then, on the next page, in Portuguese, beginning with the ``Forward'' becoming the ``Prefacio.''
``The Irish came to America to escape famine, the Pilgrims religious persecution, the Jews the Holocaust'' becomes ``Or Irlandeses vieram para a America para fugir a' fome, os Peregrinos para escapar a perseguiqao religiosa, e os judeus o Holocausto.''
Or, ``Da vida e das cinzas fizeram arte'' is the Portuguese translation of ``They've made art from ashes.''
Alas, while a few advance copies of the book reached these shores in time for the opening of the exhibition last week, the full shipment of hardbacks and softcovers have yet to arrive. Symbolically, at least, the books are still at sea, ``On a slow boat from China,'' de Brito shrugs.
When you or your ancestors have traveled halfway around the world to make a new life, as is the case with these four artists, some books being a few more weeks at sea is no big deal.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...