Before she passed away, my grandma called me over to her house and gifted me a blurry painting of a sailboat in a stormy sea. The style, if I had to call it something, was Impressionism and the canvas itself was encased by a cheap golden frame: the type of combination that could have been on sale at a discount department store down from $19.99. “Since you said you liked it so much,” she said, “I’ve decided…well, I’ve decided I want you to have it.” I recalled also having said I liked her Panasonic TV and her car, but bringing those up then would have been insensitive.
The painting sat on my dresser for a few months while I tried to decide what to do with it. The scene was too dreary to display somewhere commonplace like the hallway and it was too sentimental to store away in the basement so I finally settled on my bathroom where it sat hanging directly above the toilet greeting me every time I’d pee. My grandma’s sailboat in stormy waters. It was the first real piece of art I ever owned.
Historically artists determined to find affordable commercial space, presumably like the one who did the sailboat in stormy waters, set up shop in emerging neighborhoods and sell their craft until development sets in and rent becomes too expensive. Casco Viejo has a small handful of art galleries, which run the gamut from small hand-carved knickknacks to paintings that my grandma would go gaga for. I wandered into one of these shops recently owned by a woman we’ll call Carmen. She showed me her favorite piece in the whole shop and I stood staring blindly for a few moments, while chewing on the stem of my sunglasses.
In our youth, we become easily obsessed with things. My grandma’s painting, as ugly as it may have been, represented more than just art to me: it represented window into life as an adult. Whatever it was adults enjoyed so much about artwork became mine to discover and embrace. Galleries, auctions, museums: these would become my domains. I’d stand alone in my towel in my bathroom staring at the painting for minutes on end with the hopes that some sort of hidden message might emerge. With the hope that art, not unlike sunburn, was something you just got. It was this same technique I used to analyze the Casco Viejo artist’s work but I walked away feeling equally unconvinced.
What I like to refer to as the “second piece in my collection,” came soon after my grandma died. It was in St. Petersburg, Russia on a school trip that I told all my friends the joy of collecting art. “Oh, this might go well next to my Miró,” I’d establish, pointing at some vague amalgamation of Russian watercolors for sale on a street corner. By Miró I meant the souvenir poster I had recently purchased at his museum in Barcelona, and by well I meant they’d both look like cheap replicas of some real thing.
Before walking into the Mariinsky Theater, I finally decided on, oddly enough, another dark and gloomy painting. It was done by a starving man named Didier and showed the façade of a building somewhere in Moscow around midnight. I successfully negotiated him down by about ten Euros yet still spent more than I had wanted. When I got home, complaining about the high price tag became an important part of showing off my art – a way of soliciting compassion and avoiding ridicule – until, that is, my mother revealed how much they spent on cellphone-sized the lithograph in the hall.
“That was before we had you kids, back when we were rich,” she likes to say. Both she and my father talk of their little red convertible and numerous romantic vacations the way refugees speak about life before the war: like it was a free and wonderful place to be. It was in that time that they had spare money to invest in things they actually enjoyed (as opposed to us children of course). But of all the famous artwork my parents accumulated over the years, there is perhaps nothing I regard more highly than a piece we like to refer to as “Muchacho.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” another Casco Antiguo art gallery owner told me. “But my favorite piece is right here.” She pointed down to the floor at a foot-long wood carving of an alligator, it’s head resembling a tiny shoe and its body snakelike and unrealistic; arguably the least attractive thing in the shop. “I like it because I used to have an alligator as a pet,” she said. “Kinda makes me feel at home.”
I’m not really sure where he was acquired (or salvaged you might say); perhaps a landscaping warehouse or the side of the road, but compared to the sleek paintings that hung in our dining room or the contemporary furniture that lined the den, Muchacho was what one might call working class. He stood at around two feet tall, this miniature statue of a mariachi guitarist, in the front of our house by the gate leading to the backyard. Over the years, ivy and shrubs had grown around the figurine, giving him an organic and natural look (as if there was something at all normal about a Mexican toadstool in our neck of Princeton, New Jersey). His paint had begun chipping away, perhaps burned off by our dog Sparky who regularly mistook Muchacho for a fire hydrant.
It was the type of thing that, when we moved towns, the moving men could have mistaken for rubble but sure enough, when finally settled into our new house several states away, no one felt fully at home until Muchacho was unpacked.
Casco Viejo has been a quasi home to artists for a few years now: home to the majority of Panama City’s (albeit limited in number) boutique art shops. And while all of the neighborhood’s artists are passionate and enthusiastic about living in Casco Viejo, that’s not to say that all their art is appealing. The formless painting for example, or the alligator figurine. Some pieces of art quite simply appeal to the masses while others would be best hung in a bathroom or guarding quietly your front door.