Art opened the doors of freedom to me

  • April 29, 2016
  • By: Johanna Puyol, María M. Rodríguez
  • Photo: Lisandra Cuesta
  • art, ceramic, sculpture, Studio

Beatriz Sala Santacana is an enterprising woman that does not fear taking risks.

The rise of her career as a ceramist is a reflection of these features of her personality, open to experimentation and to new paths following the course of her imagination.

The Santacana Studio and Workshop

In the refuge of the Santacana Studio- Workshop, in the Flores neighborhood, in the capital’s Playa municipality, this self-taught artist conceives ornamental pieces, murals and varnished ceramic tiles, which already identify her as a figure of increasing recognition in the contemporary Cuban plastic arts panorama.

There she welcomes us in a space full of light and color, the perfect atmosphere for her creations. The ocher, blue, green and orange tones of her pieces contrast with the white walls and the sober lines of the rooms; the richness of colors and textures, geometric designs and figurations, highlight Santacana's work wherever you may look.

When looking at her workshop and the variety of her pieces, we know that we are in the presence of a professional that dreams big and that has managed to start an important project. It comes as a surprise that in spite of her success, the truth of the matter is that Beatriz began her career as ceramist empirically, learning from scratch mainly from books. She discovered clay at the age of 16 and fell in love with what she could achieve with it. Later, she studied law, finishing in 1999 and practicing for a while. Meanwhile, she bought books on ceramics thanks to some very simple pieces that she managed to sell, and she already dreamt of another future. This way she managed to make her first kiln, a little one that she still keeps.

“I studied ceramics until one day I thought that I was not going to get nowhere in life if I kept on that track, ceramics could not continue being a hobby. If you want to have a career, you should make a decision and leave everything to begin seriously. In 2004 I took a drastic decision, after having studied a five year degree course in which I was not doing badly; but I liked art much more and the freedom of creation. However, I do not regret having studied because it has been very useful having a formation that allows me to speak clearly and that taught me to reason”.

It required courage leaving a path already set and jumping to a world in which she was a stranger and where, moreover,she did not have a teacher to guide her in the right direction:

“Ceramics is very hard, it requires a kiln and a series of conditions that painting does not demand; but it was my path. Also, in the world of ceramics they keep a lot of secrets and, sometimes, you cannot acquire knowledge easily, you have to discover it for yourself. If you have a family tradition you have an advantage. I did not have such luck, so I relied on books, the broken pieces, and my family that helped me pay the cost of materials, because they are very expensive. I was lucky to receive my family’s support, that was very important, and with a lot of effort I got to where I am now”.

It is simple to identify a Santacana piece thanks to a very distinct style. But finding her personal style was a long process to which she came to through continuous study, a lot of experimentation, and the influence of the great masters and of admired cultures in which she found elements that attracted her imagination. Her first great influence was Mexico, where she lived a period of her life. The culture of the country, strong and vital, permeated her in such a way that it threatened to impregnate her artistic identity:

“I was fascinated with what I saw in the museums of pre-Columbian anthropology and most of all of the Mayan Art. I saw the sculptures and I was amazed that they would have been able to do something so beautiful. This initial influence was much-criticized in the artistic sectors in which I began to participate; but I could not rid myself of it, because it was my source of inspiration and it transmitted tremendous creative force, although I know it had nothing to do with our reality. It was a crash and a wrong way to begin, because they began to identify me with Mexico. But I got a sculptural sense of the human body, of the lines that interested me, and it was a starting point. Of the pre-Columbian pieces I like that the shapes are not realistic and that its figures seem robots or aliens, and I was left with that influence, because my pieces are not realistic.

“Later, I received great influences from the master Sosabravo, whose work I like a lot – it also moves away from realism and it is a little robotical –. Finally, I made an homage exhibition to Frida Kahlo in her centennial. I dedicated that work to a great woman that did not studied either and that overcame her circumstances, with whom I found a lot of parallels. It was at that moment that I concluded my stage with the Mexican culture and also with the work of Sosabravo. Little by little I evolved and I believe that I have been cleansing myself, getting rid of what's superfluous”.

This way a new cycle began, with a better control of the glazing technique and a stronger creative force. Her next steps were commissioned works, that brought the opportunity to explore the infinite possibilities of murals – some can be appreciated in the reception room of the Beijing building of the Miramar Trade Center – and that made her grow from the technical point of view when making an effort to achieve what the customers desired, although from the artistic point of view they were not so satisfactory.

“Incredibly, they requested works of mine for the Museum of Ceramics, which had been very difficult for me to enter. With one of the Frida pieces I got the Opera Prima Award and an a new opportunity opened. After, they asked me for a mural for the museum and there it is, with abstract forms that no longer look like neither the anthropological Mexican museum, nor Sosabravo, nor nobody else. I have kept on finding my path, making that combination of experiences with what one wants to say, although there are always influences of the great masters. For instance, I am fascinated by Joan Miró”.

Among the works that she exhibits in her Studio, little glazed sculptures stand out, rigid figures without face adorned with aged metal; however, they evoke a range of emotions and a certain innocence. In them she achieves a precise mixture of force and delicacy that seems to be a distinctive feature of her work. In her representations of abstract forms she combines harmonically cold and warm colors, with organic lines and textures that add certain roughness and that contribute to create a more traditional perception of the work. This duality between craftsmanship and work of art is also part of the attraction that has allowed her to keep on winning diverse publics.

“I like mixing colors and shades of color in the pieces, I find it difficult to use a single tone in my vases. I have a good time, even making an ashtray, and for me it is as important as a sculpture because I consider that when you work with artistic quality there should not be differences in the result. Every artist is a craftsman in his origins. Of course, there are those who cross the threshold when their work is unique, different and original.

“Utilitarian ceramics do not call my attention. I am doing some plates for the restaurant of the Art Factory that interest me because I am going to decorate them with my style in that precise context; but commissioned works, as in this case, become routine and if there does not come a time when you decide to stop, you spend your whole life doing that. If you do it well, you will have one contract after the other until you become a factory. I do not want that, because I have other creative interests and I can generate much more. I do it when I need it for an economic reason, and I would want to keep on making sculptures, murals and vases, but decorated with my own style that would allow me to keep advancing creatively”.

The textures and the polychromy that already identify her sometimes come from her own work experience, but they are also the fruit of experimentation, even of chance, and of a creative interest in which each interesting detail is worthy of exploring. Of these tests come out suggestions of colors and tones, and with them she has kept on discovering what no book has been able to teach her.

“They are fascinating tones created by an angel inside the kiln that helps me. Other times they are the fruit of intentional experimentation that is necessary to evolve and to not keep doing the same thing. One expresses oneself through the composition and forms, but also through color. I have attended lectures where certain sculptors have brushed color aside; but I believe that it is an error, because color is as difficult to control as the form. It is also a part of the occupation trying to express oneself through the combination of colors. For instance, I see it in Sosabravo, who has control of the colors and of the glazes different to other ceramists. In his works he uses semi-mattes combined with textures, never plain colors, but with a lot of nuances. The result is fascinating, of a quality and a concept that you can identify it as a Sosabravo only by looking at it.

“As for me, I have tried to find, from my style, the colors that identify me, the ones that best fit my pieces and the ones that best express my ideas, be it from sadness, anguish or joy.

With her exposition in the Cuban Art Factory, Beatriz opens herself to uncertainty with her usual energy, and bets once more on her talent and determination to discover the reach of her new creations, ones that evoke the human figure.

“I began a new stage with an exhibition in the 12th Biennial of Havana and I had the good luck that X Alfonso came to the workshop, that he liked what I’m working on, and that he offered a space in the Cuban Art Factory during the Biennial. I have a privileged location for the work, at the entrance of the photograph gallery, in the first floor. It is about a sculptural installation that I had not accomplished before, with figurative forms that I have never presented, inspired on human beings and their vicissitudes.

I have the need to create sets of figures, in this case seven adults and two children, which I recreate like a parade. I like the fusion between the metals I find on the street – old pipes, screws and wires – and then insert in the ceramic piece. I feel attracted by the combination of the roughness of the piece with the harmony between metal and glaze. I can make an absolutely crestfallen figure, with these forms, and according to the position of the head or the arms, of the composition, achieve an angelical or pessimist expression of life and society.

“Moreover, I love large format sculptures. I managed to make a big kiln of 1.80 m – a great feat – because I want to work a single piece in large scale, without assembling. It is harder work but it results in a greater richness. These figures of “The Parade” are the first batch that will come out of this kiln, and for me it will imply to really expose myself with a change of concept and a very personal work. The presence of metal is now very strong, and I believe it is what gives these pieces the differences of expression and the final character”.

Among her recognitions, the one she is most proud of is the National Museum of Cuban Contemporary Ceramics’ Opera Prima of the 8th Ceramics Biennial “Amelia Peláez” Award, because it came from a very selective and closed institution. She has also been entitled several awards by theCuban Craftsmen and Artists Association (ACAA in Spanish) and a FIART 2014 Award. With close to 40 personal and collective exhibits, Beatriz Sala Santacana has earned a name as a ceramist.

“I have made it here by working every day, with a stricter discipline than if I’d have worked on the juridical consultancy. On holidays I am here, creating, because I love it. It is my world and I need it. However, it is an occupation where a schedule is needed and it demands a lot of time and rigor, and you need to improve yourself constantly, learning from the works of other people.

“Taking on two roles, that of mother and artist, is a challenge. I am lucky to be surrounded by good people, and of having a supporting family. If I did not have them, I couldn’t have made half of what I have. I demand too much of myself, because I believe that’s the only way to do a serious job. I’m stealing moments of affection from my children because this work and dedication will also benefit them. Love also comes from the pride one can feel toward ones parents and the best lesson I can give them is that you have to work in life.

“I am happy to have studied law for the knowledge I acquired, and I am happy to have dedicated myself to art, because it opened the doors of emotional and creative freedom to me. I prefer this life in which you do not have schedules but you create the toughest ones, and where you are more slave than ever to work but you do not realize it because you enjoy it. At the end, I do not feel that I work: I feel that I fulfill myself every day. I am my own challenge”.

Interview published on Pauta magazine, of the Cuban Cultural Heritage Fund. No. 1, 2016.