For over 30 years artist Pablo Cano has dazzled and delighted children and adults alike with the wondrous marionettes he constructs from found objects and performs in front of an eager audience. Broken lampshades, ornate chair backs, pine cones, birdcages, wooden crates, and shiny silver cigarette foils are combined to miraculously give shape to figures so convincing that spectators initially do not spot the common materials that give these marionettes their form. Is that a gaggle of geese circling above? No they are sculptures made of square tissue boxes and plastic spray bottles linked together on a large metal loop. The lusty Busty Galore with her enormous inflated balloons, discrete tassels and rounded tin can bottom actually makes audiences blush, while children weep when a wooden soldier made is wounded.
Few artists can so convincingly transform inert material or provide a transcendent experience. Pablo’s Little Havana studio is filled with objects that he finds or are given to him by friends that he organizes by category, texture and material. There is a box filled to the brim with dolls’ eyes and another with cigarette foils. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with broken clocks, broken kitchen appliances and utensils, porcelain and plastic dishes, fragments of chairs and tables, lamp shades and other odds-and-ends. He carefully selects each element according to the personality of the character and makes them come to life in the annual productions he has been creating for the Museum of Contemporary, North Miami, since 1998. All of these productions are based on Cano’s own world-view in which beauty, knowledge, kindness and, most of all, art triumph. The stories are written by Cano’s friends or family. Over the years, the productions have become more elaborate and complex. In order to provide the marionettes with greater variety of animation he began collaborating with choreographers, initially with Karen Peterson and more recently with Katherine Kramer.
The early marionettes were limited to moving their heads and flapping the hands and legs whereas the more recent characters demonstrate a full range of movement, most notably the amazing break dancing orangutans in The Beginning. Music has always played an important role in these productions whether recordings from his vast collection of records from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the live classical piano performance by Karen Schwartz of Claude Debussy’s The Toy Box, or the raucous jazz improvisational band that plays along with the marionettes in a number of productions. The amazing MOCA staff provides resources, technical support, construction of the stage and sets, and even the voice overs for the marionettes, when needed.
Cano succeeds in these transformations because these marionettes are the incarnation of his own reality. Although he was born in Havana, Cuba, he left his homeland with his family when he was one year old in 1962 on the last flight out of Cuba before the Cuban Missile Crisis. His imagination, however, was enriched by the tales his family would tell of Cuba, which grew in his mind to epic proportions. The underlying sentiment of the stories was the realization that this world was forever lost, even if they were to return to Cuba today. He grew up in a family of artists and musicians so it was natural for him to combine art and performance in his work. His musician father, Pablo Cano, Sr., is a musician who assists his son with the selection of music to accompany his performances and his sister Isabel contributes her sewing skills to fashioning some of the costumes. Cano’s mother, Margarita, is a self taught artist who creates surreal paintings and drawings of the Cuban landscape from memory and illuminates folios of aphorisms like Medieval Books of Hours. As early as the age of six, Cano emulated his mother’s paintings and subject matter. Margarita inspired her son to pursue his art of fantasy. She also wrote a story about a young boy who hangs his own art work on the wall of a museum that she would read to Cano when he was a child. This story became the source for Cano’s most experimental work to-date The Blue Ribbon.
Despite the fairytale appearance of some of these productions, they are sophisticated art happenings that are created by a very knowledgeable and informed artist. Cano majored in art at Miami Dade College, earned his bachelors in Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and received his Master of Fine Arts at Queens College, New York in 1985. Informed by Dada theater, with its assault on logic and reliance on chance, and by Cubist bricolage, and performance art Cano created his first marionette production Animated Altarpieces as his Master of Fine Arts project. Cano’s productions are always filled with surprises that startle the audience. In Cavaletti’s dream, Pegasus descends from the sky above the audience on a flying horse made from an umbrella frame, in To Sin or Not To Sin, the vice Gluttony’s stomach balloons in until it bursts, and The Beginning began with a big bang—a cacophony of metal pans dropped all at once from above . Mayhem ensues and the marionettes breakdown the fourth wall of theater by intruding into the audience. This was most evident in his 2008 production The Blue Ribbon in which the audience sat at large round tables where they could draw during the production while the actors manipulating the marionettes based on art classical and modern masterpieces, dashed from one end of the room to the other, singing and dancing at each table, occasionally colliding and adding to the thrill of this unique art happening. At the finale of each performance, Ring Master Cano would select the best drawing by a child and award the coveted blue ribbon. All children (and adults) were winners though, as all the drawings were hung on the museum’s walls as part of Cano’s installation for the duration of the exhibition.
It takes Cano one year (or as he tells his young audience 365 days) to create the marionettes for a new production. Ideas start as drawings on the paper placemats at Versailles restaurant in Little Havana and are given shape in his studio. At present he is developing marionettes for The Seven Wonders of the Modern World, written by Carmen Pelaez and choreography by Katherine Kramer that will premiere at MOCA in the Spring of 2011. As we eagerly await the birth of these new marionettes we can marvel at the endless creativity of Pablo Cano, who can certainly be classified as one of our Modern Wonders!
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