Last Friday I had the day off and spent it anchored to a wooden chair grading student essays inside Panther Coffee in Wynwood. Panther is a kaleidoscopic merry-go-round of Miami’s glittery and gritty art scene. It’s where I feel centered amidst the dance of baristas and their giant robotic coffee machines, visual and performing artists and their pets, tourists and their children, writers and their laptops who converge in a spectacular caffeine-fueled multidisciplinary performance — a performance that is improvised and usually ends with more coffee than necessary.
Enter: artist Santiago Betancur. I was sitting by the window when Betancur walked in and approached me. I didn’t recognize him at first because we’d met a few months back under the midnight moon on a sailboat anchored on the Little River. We didn’t speak much then, but this time Betancur opened up about his art.
Through my broken Spanglish and Bentacur’s broken Spinglish, we managed to navigate a conversation that ultimately led us to the Alberto Linero Gallery, where Betancur was installing his paintings for art walk. When Betancur unrolled his canvases on the floor, Leonardo da Vinci came to mind and Betancur came to life. I could see traces of da Vinci running through Betancur’s work and Betancur’s animated gestures revealed a history of histories that led us through a conversation that hinted at what moves him as an artist.
Betancur walked across his paintings and rolled them up so that I could get a closer look at his brush strokes, but what I saw was an artist dancing across a stage that revealed his creative process. What also struck me was Betancur’s choreography and the way in which is arms, hands, head and eyes moved rhythmically as he exquisitely answered questions that I have no recollection of asking. At one point, Betancur grabbed his chest and pulled something out. This is where my work comes from, his gesture said as he pulled something out of his heart — or maybe he was pulling his whole heart out.
The last painting Betancur showed me was “Soldier and Boy,” which is a cryptic portrait of a soldier who had just returned from war. The soldier wraps his arm around his boy’s head seemingly protecting his son from the dangerous world. But the danger lives inside the soldier’s head that languishes just a few inches from his son’s.
In a way, the presence of a language barrier between Betancur taught me two things — I’m not fluent in Spanish and that doesn’t matter. The absence of language allowed us to connect at the chest level — that part of the body we often shut off in the presence of almost strangers. Betancur’s work is personal and primal, historical and emotional. It comes from in there and dances and tiptoes between the absurd and the dark. His work begins with a memory that is a knot of memories which are woven around each other. When the knots become too tight, Betancur reaches in, pulls them out and sets those beautiful monsters free.