At some moment they must have confused him with a restorer of furniture, a carpenter who had just gotten to the city or a timber merchant. A man walking through cobblestoned alleys with pieces of dilapidated doors and windows under the arm was not a very common image 15 years ago in Trinidad.
With the patience of the cabinetmakers of yesteryears, Lázaro Niebla Castro scanned the wood with a chisel and hammer. Later, the face of an elderly woman, an old man with a straw hat, the figure of a woman at the window would appear on the boards. Common people.
That at some moment he could consolidate his work as a creator, that he could climb the complicated ranks of the world of art under a distinctive seal were more or less probable dreams. In any case, the extinct Oscar Fernández Morera Academy of Visual Arts, in the so-called Museum City of the Caribbean, had given him tools to polish his gift, and he always knew he preferred sculpture to brushes. But what wasn’t part of his dreams as an adolescent was that his work would get to the United States, much less that he would make that journey for three consecutive summers.
The US Cuba Artist Exchange organization, headed by Mariesa Sun-Saenz, which connects the communities of the United States and Cuba, fostered Lázaro’s insertion in the international arenas. Thus, in 2016 this artist from Cienfuegos and adopted by Trinidad was conquering spaces outside the island.
“It’s the dream of all artists,” he confesses. “My first exhibition was in the Thirty-Six Gallery, under the curatorship of Mike Bishop. The second was a year later, in Los Angeles, and we set it up in the courtyard of the Central Library. This time it was a traveling proposal of 10 pieces, which pass through Venice beach, the Hollywood mountains, until they reach the Public Functionary Gallery.”
Always with the same thread: to bring the face of the unknown. Lázaro doesn’t prefer the grand intellectual or public life characters but rather those who go unnoticed among the daily perseverance. The maker of straw baskets, the vendor, the coffee grower, the lady without a past…, common people, those who have simple dreams, as Ana Belén would sing, “to those who surround us and we don’t know how to see,” as an art critic in the southern city once described it.
“The title of each work bears the name of those I represent. Without the persons who so kindly let me take pictures of them to later take them to the piece of wood, without the conversations to find out about their experiences…the magic people say the pieces have would not occur. When they die, almost no one remembers them.”
Perhaps because of that constant exercise of giving dignity back to those who have lost it, Cristina González Bécquer, advisor of the Cuban Association of Artist Craftspeople, mentions that Lázaro wanders between reality and nostalgia, between wakefulness and dreaming. “While contemporary statistics aim to write about the progress of the touristic Trinidad, the ordinary people continue bearing witness to what was and has been the secluded township founded by Velázquez,” she explains, “Lázaro moves among the scenery that greeted me on the way to school, going or returning. The faces that he later interprets with his ingenious hands are found through streets and places. But years have gone by. His faces are from today, although they could be faces from half a century ago. The simple people continue being the same and I could place them as part of my experiences and they wouldn’t be out of place. They could accompany my childhood gestures. But the truth is that they can dialogue with an artist of today.”
These characters also cover the studio-workshop from where the artist wins over the hearts of hundreds of tourists who arrive to discover this carpenter of the unknown. The travel agencies – especially the private ones – identify the place as reference of a genuine art, unique in the township.
“Everything I have done during so many years is there,” says Lázaro. “Thanks to my gallery I have met persons interested in my work. It is also my livelihood. I sell my pieces and I live off of that, I don’t have to fool you, but that space has especially been a window to the world.”
Why old doors and windows?
My grandfather taught me that you had to put away things because you never knew when they would come in handy. The doors and the windows form part of Trinidad’s life. In those very doors and windows the life of my friends, of my family, of those I represent on wood takes place.”
On one occasion a U.S. traveler by the surname of Clauter asked Lázaro what his dreams were. “To be happy,” he answered. And he found happiness, he says, devastating wood from previous centuries and telling on them the story of the forgotten.