When Richard Blanco read his inaugural poem, One Today, one of the friends cheering him from afar was South Florida painter John Bailly.
Bailly and Blanco met nearly 20 years ago and bonded over a shared interest in cultural identity. The conversations between friends led to Place of Mind, a collaboration of paintings and poems that has been on display in South Florida and is now on its way to New York.
Bailly spoke to WLRN about culture, identity and working with Blanco to create the collection of images.
What is your cultural background?
My father’s French. My mother’s American. I was born in England. My wife is Cuban with Chinese and Norwegian. Whenever I was with my French family, I was the American and whenever I was with the American, I was the French part of the family.
What Richard had in common was that whenever he was with his very strong Cuban part of his family, he was always the American, and when he was with American friends, he was always the Cuban.
It was kind of this idea of not really belonging anywhere, but kind of belonging in more than one place, which made us collaborate together.
There’s a portrait, Cienfuegos, that you did of Richard Blanco in the series. How did that come together?
The way it would work is, since it’s much easier to transport poems than it is paintings, Richard would often come to my studio, and we would sit around and drink a little and talk, and then look at the poems, look at the paintings. And then after we were done with that, I said, “Richard, why don’t you come into the studio to continue our conversation?” And so he sat in the studio and we continued talking, but as we were talking, I was painting his portrait. And my studio’s not air conditioned, so we were sweating and I just kept doing portrait after portrait.
In one of them, there was a line of a then-unpublished poem that he had sent me, that I just loved, that reminded me so much of my childhood and of what Richard’s work is about – which is “there should be nothing here I don’t remember.” So I included that, and Richard goes, “Why did you include that?” And I said, “Because it’s everything that you write about, about memories and place and identity.”
Much of Blanco’s poetry has images from a childhood spent in South Florida. As a visual artist, how do you work with or respond to that kind of language or imagery?
Well, for me, as a painter, I’m a terrible writer. I can’t write at all. I always stumble on my words when I try to speak and I can never put my thoughts into words.
From the very beginning when I read Richard’s poems, I said, “This is my voice.” Although the imagery is South Florida, when I read them, I think about the Alps, where I grew up as a child.
I think Richard makes me dream, in a sense – dream about places that I’ve known before or places that I wish existed.
Essentially, the place that we belong is not a physical place. It’s a place of mind. Richard actually said it best once because I always thought, “I never feel like I belong anywhere,” and Richard just said, “I always just feel like I’m on vacation. It’s great.”
How has the inaugural poem affected your life?
As I’ve told you, Richard has always spoken for me, and today I saw Richard deliver an absolutely beautiful poem that was speaking for America. And that to me – I’m just so happy and so proud of him, and I think it was a beautiful poem.
You know, I love the United States, but the perfect union is not a reality. It’s a concept we constantly pursue and have to work for. But President Obama endorsing Richard is, in a sense, a huge step towards assimilation, tolerance, diversity as normal – and I think it’s a large step towards that perfect union.
Place of Mind will be exhibited at ClampArt gallery in New York from February 21st to April 6th.