I have had many pleasant encounters with folk artists over the years, most of them on dusty back roads many miles from the nearest population center. As you know from previous posts on Malcah Zeldis and Ralph Fasanella, some of my favorites were right in Manhattan. Gregorio Marzan is another urban folk artist that I recall with great fondness.
He may as well have lived in the middle of nowhere, at least as far as my experience of New York is concerned. Gregorio was an immigrant from Puerto Rico and lived in a housing project on 104th Street in Manhattan in the neighborhood of East Harlem.
I knew from reading books on contemporary folk art that he was born in Vega Baja, west of San Juan in North Central Puerto Rico in 1906. He came to New York in 1937, a refugee of hard times during the Depression and years ahead of the great Puerto Rican migration that followed World War II. The only work he could find was through the Works Progress Administration, first as a sewer worker and later, thankfully, as a maker of toys and dolls in a factory. He remained in this line of work until his retirement in 1971.
Like many folk artists, he did not become idle upon retiring. Gregorio instead used his talents and his penchant for finding objects to work with to create fantastic sculptures. He made portrait busts, colorful animals, and one of the best renditions of the Statue of Liberty ever made (the ones shown just below are from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a private collection). He began to show his work at El Museo del Barrio nearby and became well known, at least in folk art circles.
It was Lady Liberty I was after when I visited Gregorio with my friend Lee Kogan (seen with me and Gregorio in the photo above) in the winter of 1991/92. His neighborhood was quiet if not posh, but his building was quite run down. Wallpaper peeling in the halls. Garbage here and there that we had to step around. Smells I can't describe. And yet Gregorio's apartment was immaculate and he appeared to maintain a steadfast dignity in his old age despite the decline of the world around him. We talked for a while, with his daughter helping to translate. Gregorio didn't flinch when he told me that a Statue of Liberty would cost $800.
Neither did I. We agreed on the price and I left there not entirely sure he had the energy left in him to do another large piece. A few weeks later I received a call from his daughter. The piece was ready. I went back down to New York and back to 104th Street, where I went back into that building and up the elevator to his apartment door. I knocked, and there was no answer. I heard muffled noises coming from inside, but couldn't tell what was going on.
Gregorio finally came to the door and let me in. To my utter astonishment, he had created an elaborate setting in one whole room to showcase his new Statue of Liberty for me. On a pedestal. With special lighting from a single bare lightbulb. The wall behind it cleared to eliminate any distractions. And the Lady - made from plaster, fabric, glue, and even the Elmer's Glue caps - was gorgeous.
I'll never forget the pride on his face; the pride of creation, of course, but also the pride in being American. I told him it was perfect, paid him his money, and gently carried the piece out to my car.
When I first heard about Gregorio's Statues of Liberty I was surprised to find out that he had never actually visited the Lady in person. After that afternoon I realized that it didn't matter, for it was obvious that he carried her with him every day.
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