Gamaliel Rodríguez looked out at the hills shading into a dark twilight purple on a winter afternoon. It took him a year to draw them by hand. They could be the hills of his native Puerto Rico, and they could be here, outside the long glass wall of the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA, where he has just seen his 60-foot-long mural installed for the first time.
He enjoys taking time, he said, watching the afternoon light burnish his slopes. He enjoys the feel of paper and the depth in shades of ink and strokes of the pen.
He drew these hills from above, and the light and shadow ripple like dense leaves in humid weather or bare trees in the snow.
“This is like a bird flying, close,” he said.
Buildings are glinting in the woods, not always in proportion, dreamlike, organic.
Rodríguez came from Puerto Rico to North Adams in the middle of winter to see his work come together; La Travesía / Le Voyage has just opened, and the museum will celebrate it at their annual free Community Day on Saturday.
He was an artist in residence at Mass MoCA when he first met curator Susan Cross. She came to his studio, she said, and they talked about the depth of his work and its connection with industrial buildings.
He was working on a large-scale drawing, she said, inspired by mills and manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico that have been left empty and overgrown. U.S. companies came in the 1950s, in a movement called Operation Bootstrap, drawn by tax breaks and cheap labor. Many of those mills lie empty now.
North Adams can understand that history, Cross said. She invited to create a site-specific work here.
At the center of this mural, a long, lean building echoes Mass MoCA, surrounded by smaller buildings and courtyards.
They are realistic but not real, Rodríguez said. Chinese and Japanese ink brush paintings come into his mind; the landscape and the buildings are recognizable but abstract. Growing plants merge into courtyards. They could be tarmac returning to forest, or they could be gardens. A rippling surface could be the cement flood chute encasing the Hoosic River or the broader surface of the river in the sun.
“These buildings look as though they are still working,” he said, “but you don’t see human traces. I wanted to evolve the work.”
He wanted something more than empty buildings for the people who are absent from them. His central mill here blends into fantasy in towers and stone steps, gilded roofs and a rooftop terrace.
It also reminds him of an aircraft carrier.
“It’s like a vessel,” a boat, he said. And it is vast.
Between these military and industrial structures, between humanity and the natural world, he looks ahead.
He feels a tension between them. He has served in the military, and he remembers wearing a suit to protect the body from chemicals.
“It disconnects you from nature,” he said. “You’re in a bubble. It’s difficult to breathe or to see. You become a new entity — if you looked in the mirror, you wouldn’t recognize yourself.”
But disconnecting from nature may have costs and limits.
“Here, in 50 years,” he said, “maybe the weather will change so much we’ll have to adapt. I hope not. I hope we’ll still be able to go down to the sea, swim in the rivers, fish.
In Puerto Rico, the sea is rising, and salt water is flowing higher up tidal rivers.
“We have a lot of fresh water … but you can lose it.”
He has found others questioning the future as he walks through Mass MoCA, he said. Ledelle Moe’s colossal heads, in her exhibit When, struck him forcibly.
“When you enter,” he said, “it’s as though it’s a civilization you only see traces of.”
“You don’t know whether Ledelle is looking back or forward,” Cross agreed. “In yours too, (we could be looking at) the past or a speculative future.”
And in North Adams he sees the local economy re-created, and museums playing a role in it. He thinks about how to give Puerto Rico’s industrialized buildings a new shape, a new beat, a new career.
“Many buildings on the island are ruined,” he said. “You could put a museum there.”
And it could large big and beautiful.
He asks how museums will adapt to the 21st century, and how artists will. He loves drawing as a medium.
Cross compares him to a monk illuminating a manuscript.
“The work is so clearly hand-drawn,” she says. “There’s something incredibly seductive about that, when the world is so fast and not as tangible.”
He has experimented in this mural with ink, colored pencils and ballpoint pen, acrylic paints and gold leaf. Working with gold is new to him.
“I love how difficult it is to work with,” he said, “and how beautifully it reflects the light.”
It took him a year to find the right materials, he said, to handle the weather, light from the long windows, heat in summer, and another year to draw.
He created the mural on large panels. In his studio in Puerto Rico has has room to work with them.
He lives in the country, in a town like North Adams, where it is quiet in the mornings except for the roosters singing. Many people would choose to live in the capital city, he said, but he knows that if he moved there, he would be working faster, and the quality of the work would disappear. In his studio, he can concentrate.
Walking across Mass MoCA’s courtyard in the dark, he looks through the lighted window at the full scale of his work.
“I could do this quickly on a computer,” he said, “or pay someone to do it for me.”
But he would lose the depth in it that he loves.
“It’s like training for a marathon,” he said. “I like to run, and you have to train your mind — we’re going to go so far today, and then tomorrow.
“I started from the center and worked outward.”
If you go …
What: Gamaliel Rodríguez’ La Travesía / Le Voyage
Where: Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams
When: Ongoing into 2022
Admission: $20 adults, $18 seniors, $12 students, $8 kids (6 to 16), $2 Mass EBT / WIC / Connector Care
Information: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org
This story originally ran in the Ats and Entertainent section of the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to A&E editor Jeffrey Borak.