Merlys Fernández, Woman of Strong Wood
By: Pedro Quiroga Jiménez Photos: José (Tito) Merino
With her rigueur and patience, it takes her four times longer than a cabinetmaker to construct a bed. She sacrificed more for the audacity of wanting to get wood for herself, and it was long before her talent convinced her prejudiced family. Merlys Fernandez has within herself the Angel of Jiribilla (in Cuba, a sort of patron saint of the impossible for artists). Impatient, challenging and communicative par excellence; she is a staunch enemy of the impossible.
Ever since she graduated - at barely 17 - from the School of Art in her native Holguín (734 kilometres northeast of the Cuban capital), she knew her professional life would proceed by tangled pathways; first taking on the challenge of pedagogy, and later, painting.
It was in 1983 that she was dazzled by Mexican furniture made of skin and rattan and she wondered how to take that expression to sculpture.
"My work cost me dearly," she asserts. "I began with borrowed tools because at home, my parents were opposed to what I was doing. 'Imagine, from a painter to a carpenter!' my father said; while my mother reproached me for my 'mistaken' decision.
What was certain is that I began with that fibrous crust between the bark and the heart of the tree, mostly used to make fences or for coal. I turned it into furniture, a cultural element of daily living."
- What type of wood?
The crust layers of cedar, mahogany, júcaro, that is to say, precious hard and semi hard woods. The furniture is very famil iar and must be something lasting, passing from one generation to another. That idea for occasional furniture is very limited in the contemporary social context, I try to make mine lasting, to be inherited like any other material object.
- That idea to unite crafts with sculpture, how did you think of it?
I love painting, but sculpture is my soul. When I was a student I knew nothing of crafts or popular culture; it was necessary to investigate, and thus I encountered paper maché. So I packed up my brushes and dedicated myself almost completely to crafts.
When I began to study art I surprised myself one day by coming to a standstill in front of a bank, contemplating the model of a mud figure. I tried to model and my wrist let me down, I could not force my arm nor keep hold of a chisel.
-What does wood signify for Merlys?
It is my daily bread. Each type of wood has a different perfume, it seems incredible. I consider myself an empiricist but, although I investigate, I have not managed to learn all its characteristics.
Another thing is the blaze; when I am burning the wood it perfumes my workplace and I discovered that the harder the wood, the smoother the perfume. These are subtle details that you learn over time.
I say there are no good or bad woods; every one has its use. It is only that we are incapable of putting each in its corresponding place.
- There is another aspect: the designs. In order to make a sculpture there must be a design.
In art school they give you paper and pencil and tell you to make a sketch. It is not difficult for me to create a design, I distain repetition; each work is a new experience and if you could take a sample of all my furniture, you would see that each has its own peculiarity and identity. The sketches for my furniture are in keeping with the site where they will be installed.
- It is a study of the architectonic space for that environment, because the furniture is not integrated into a determined space but the furniture is part of the architecture.
I think that if architects worked together with designers, man's habitat would be more pleasant and comfortable. We cannot put too big an element in a small space, because it would be detrimental to function and displace humans. We must take into account not only the utilitarian, but also the environmental harmony of space, color, size and texture. The more you put yourself into the environment, the more subtleties arise.
-And what of the painter?
I've been paint ing again for some time, but on a smaller scale because I must protect my existence. I consider myself an expressionist, of my very own expression. I started with the historic and flora, and with time I was becoming an abstract painter, with a figurat ive abstractionism and my very own interpretat ion of real ism, until at this moment I am meeting myself again with a history forged in crafts. Painting has been my evasion, my escape.
-You have found something new?
Now I try to keep the most excellent designs of my artisan expression, those that have become paradigms in my cultural context and my community.
The painting I do today is very complicated, not only for the social order, but the personal. In other words, I open the window and people take what they wish.