Vernacular Puerto Rico: A Conversation with Pablo Serrano

 

Pablo Serrano at the Vernacular Puerto Rico opening reception. Photo by Logann Fincher, SAI Staff Photographer.

Kayla Goggin:  First of all, thank you for being here.
Pablo Serrano:  Oh, thank you.

KG:  So of course I researched you and checked out your website and all of that.
PS:  My wikipedia page?

KG:  I didn’t! Do you have a wikipedia page? 
PS:  No, not unless somebody else made one..

KG:  I googled “Pablo Serrano” and there was a wikipedia page, but it was like “Born in 1902”. So unless you’re Dorian Gray, it’s not you.
PS:  Haha, yes that’s a thing. That was a problem when I got my domain – I found out there are so many Pablo Serranos who are also artists. I found out there’s a museum named after one of them somewhere in Spain and I was indirectly flattered.

KG:  Haha. Have you ever been to Spain?
PS:  Yes, but it was when I was very young.

KG:  Anyway, I researched you a little bit and found out you’re getting your BFA in photography from SCAD and obviously you have a lot of interest in architecture. So has that always been your focus with your photography? How did you decide to mix the two? Or was that just a natural thing for you?
PS:  Actually before I went to SCAD I did a year of architecture school in Puerto Rico at the polytechnic university. The first year was really conceptual and it was really good for me, I just explored the idea of conceptualizing.

 

Luquillo.
All images from the artist’s website. Click to view photos and more on Pablo Serrano’s website.

 


KG:  So it was very experimental?
PS:  There were really specific guidelines but the end of each project was very conceptual. Later on that year I took a photo class on black and white film technique and I liked it more; I felt like I had more freedom than with architecture. When I saw the grad reviews (you could see the critiques of several classes in architecture in the college) I didn’t really like it very much. I felt very restrained, limited. So I transferred to photography and I thought at first I was doing a huge transition. At the end [of the year] I realized it wasn’t really a big change because I felt like I was still dealing with architecture. I was exploring geometry and anything to do with form. Architecture always applied because it always had to do with form, light, geometry..

KG:  So you were using the same design elements in your photo compositions that you would use in architecture?
PS:  Yeah. Kind of like you learn in foundations classes, it was like design on steroids. I would call that first year kind of like my foundation studies.

KG:  How long were you actually in the architecture program?
PS:  One year. It was really cool. I met the best friends of my life.

KG:  Let’s diverge from that for a moment. I know people will want to know about your process a bit. You said you shoot film. These are 4 x 5 right?
PS:  Yes, these are large and medium format 4 x 5. It’s kind of different from what I usually do because I’m usually more interested in modern architecture and shooting in black and white. Actually, with modern architecture it’s really easy – not to low-brow it, but it’s really photogenic, applying what I usually do with geometry. It’s like a playground for me.

Humacao

 

KG:  I saw your photos of the Jepson Center for the Arts on your website and I feel like that totally applies. All of those lines really lend themselves to your style obviously. But these are very different from that, there’s such a variety of geometry.. Do you think this is more challenging?
PS:  It is. But I obviously fell in love with the subject. From there, it was kind of a process of reassuring myself. Everything that I learned, at least with file management, was challenged when I applied it. [Vernacular architecture] is a really imprecise architecture, it’s really imperfect, and the view camera is a really precise tool. You line everything up, you study it, you make it perfect. So it was pretty challenging to organize this kind of architecture with my terms. I had to fight with it.

KG:  This project sort of evolved then. You came into it with a certain idea and as you were battling with the subject matter and your process.. How did it change?
PS:  There were certain things that I knew I wanted to do because I knew the subject already. So when it was developing in my mind, I knew I was going to end up with something really colorful. I was just imagining everything put together as a palette of colors and shapes.. but that’s about it. My mom would drive me around – it’s easier that way because otherwise I would crash, haha – just kind of looking and seeing all the houses slowly and then it became kind of a conversation with the house. I have to spend time with it to look and figure out how things are going to fit well in the viewfinder.

 

Luquillo / Dorado

 

KG:  In your submission document to the exhibition fellowship, you had a bunch of photos that you had taken with your iPhone. I could tell from looking at those – you had a lot of different angles, wide shots of the houses, and the neighborhoods surrounding them – that it had been a long process. “A conversation”, as you said. From the point when you discover the right subject – how long is the “conversation” before you’re ready?
PS:  It takes a while. I’m not sure what to tell you except what makes a house a good candidate to shoot. For me, it’s muscle memory: using the camera and [using my body] like the viewfinder and just moving around. When you use film, it’s not like you can just shoot away like with a digital camera. The Kodak box only gives you like 10 sheets of film so you really, really have to think about it. I move myself around and then I move around with the camera, maybe I set up – maybe I take 10 minutes to set up the camera and a shot. Then I sit with it and decide if it’s good, if it’s there yet. The photo of the red stairs took me a lot of time – just moving back and forth and side to side. I even cropped it a little bit in the computer.

What I try to do when I put the photos together is focus on making a balance between getting close and also giving a little bit of narrative to the viewer, like including some of the objects around like the rooster, the antennae, small things like that.

Dorado #2

KG:  You also have a segment in your artist’s statement where you said (talking about yourself), “His vision constantly links to the architectural form while, with inspiration from Kandinsky, his creative workflow becomes a personal exploration of spiritual balance.” I thought that was really interesting. I assume you’re talking about Kandinsky’s Spirituality in Art. Can you elaborate on that statement?
PS:  Well, you can’t talk about photo history without talking about painting and vice versa. There are different kinds of people that I can relate to or that I can draw inspiration from, but when I read about Kandinsky I got really fascinated – more like identified with the idea of seeking spiritual balance through your craft rather than doing it for other purposes. It was kind of like a craving for creating something and using geometry or drawing inspiration from geometry to see something pure. That’s why I do this approach, I’m just abstracting from the wide shot and getting closer and closer, looking for these pure little elements.. It’s challenging.

KG:  How long have you been in Savannah now?
PS:  About four years.

KG:  So you’re pretty familiar with the city by now. I wanted to ask you – I’m really interested in the concept behind the show, the “vernacular” of Puerto Rico. You wrote somewhere that architecture is like a way of communicating. What would you say Savannah’s vernacular is if you had to define it?
PS:  For me it’s really interesting. Vernacular is very global and at the same time very local. It changes and it’s very specific to the place where you find it. Savannah obviously has this deep historical background. I consider myself to live in a very vernacular house that my roommates and I call “The Shack” because it honestly looks kind of like a shack. It’s also called a railroad house or cottage house, which is a really common structure here that dates back to from when Savannah used to be a huge railroad hub. The people that worked there used to live in houses like “The Shack” and they would be paid for their work by being allowed to live there. That was kind of like the rent system.

KG:  Like indentured servitude.
PS:  Yeah, yeah. Anyway – So, for example, there are so many repeated patterns [in Savannah] like you see on the houses on Jones street. It kind of looks like New York sometimes; it’s a common template that repeats itself and becomes really concentrated.

KG:  The show is kind of contrasted with Savannah just by nature of being here. Do you see any similarities between the vernacular of Puerto Rico and vernacular of Savannah in terms of line, geometry, color…?
PS:  There are certain similarities. Puerto Rico has this colonial history and right now we’re a territory of the United States, so there are certain things that influence the architecture – for example: the international style or the shotgun style (which is similar to the carriage house). What I found interesting is that although there is a lot of that influence in Puerto Rico there’s  also this balcony situation which is repeated over and over again, it’s a really constant element of the architecture.

Dorado

KG:  Like the balcony in that picture [Dorado]?
PS:  Yeah, you guys would call it a porch. You know, porches are a big thing here too even if it’s a really small space.

KG:  I’ve lived in a few different places in Savannah and it seems to be a really strong community thing here. People want to congregate on a porch. I remember reading the text beside that photo in your submission document; you were talking about how it’s a really important intermediary space between the private and public. I thought that was interesting because there is that mood to a lot of these images. As far as I can tell these are all private homes, or they were.
PS:  Yeah, especially with this one. The owner asked me if I wanted to open the gate but I kept it closed. I liked the idea of being able to open up the house while keeping the balcony as kind of a safe membrane. When you study architecture there’s a lot of specific elements like climate, political status, gender maybe, different things that effect it – basically vernacular is about more than just bringing shelter to a family or a community, it’s about the social interaction [a house provides]… The fact that there’s a balcony and people can come onto the porch, or into a living room, and in other countries people congregate where you cook or where the fire is.

KG:  So the architecture is really guided by the lifestyle of the house’s occupants.
PS:  Yeah.

KG:  A moment ago you used the word “membrane” when you were talking about the balcony. You’ve spoken a few times about these houses as living organisms – like there is something organic about a house. I don’t know very much about vernacular architecture personally, but I think that’s an interesting philosophy. And there is such life to these photos too – even though there are no human subjects.
PS:  I was a bit concerned about that, about viewers just craving people.

KG:  Where does the international style originate from?
PS:  It’s part of a movement that originated from the Bauhaus.

KG:  That makes sense. It’s very utilitarian.
PS:  Yeah. So that explains why it’s a design that excludes decoration and exudes minimalism, keeping everything very simple. I think I mention in the book that it’s interesting to me how influences from each individual country [are applied], like in Puerto Rico they can put make-up on it – they throw paint on it. Because that’s how they want it to be. It’s part of the culture there when people buy or build their houses – that’s kind of their sense of fulfillment: not just moving up into a more expensive land area, but instead finishing their houses or paying them off completely. That’s where their sense of pride lies, having that kind of ownership. So it makes sense why they want to make their home stand out from the other ones.

 

Bayamon

KG:  It seems much more intwined with their personality or identity. You don’t see as much of that here.
PS:  Yeah, you won’t usually see the house next door painted the same color. It wouldn’t make sense to them. “Why would I do that? I want to be different,” so they add more and decorate [the home] and they spend more time and money on it.

KG:  In your submission document you mentioned that a lot of these houses were government issued. They cost $1,500 and people pay them off 60 cents at a time; they’re full of really strong color and interesting variations in line. We talked a little bit about Savannah earlier and I was thinking that there’s a really big disparity in what you see in the design of low income housing in Puerto Rico and what you see in Savannah. We talked about the historic areas where there is a lot of color and vibrancy, but then you look at an area like MLK Jr. Blvd. I think it’s really interesting in a sad way. Like you said, people take a lot of pride in their houses and it becomes a big part of their identity, whereas here we lack this kind of conversation or commune with those dwellings.. I feel like there’s some tough societal things that come out of that.
PS:  That’s a good question. There weren’t very many – I couldn’t really point out which houses in the show come from that. It was only after I printed the show that I found that information on the public housing. It was like a stimulus package for Puerto Rico (from the US) to develop housing and infrastructure, and part of what it did was also build the University of Puerto Rico.

KG:  What time period are you referencing here?
PS:  Around the 1950’s probably. It’s a peculiar topic too because some of the government housing is in really nice places. The houses are more vernacular and more informal than what you expect from a really uniform set-up. The one closest to my house in puerto rico – I like it a lot – is really square and there are really long international style rows of houses. At the very front of it there is a wall with no windows and on it is a huge mural by a local painter. I always liked it because of that. The paintings are beautiful; he likes to work a lot with the indigenous roots from Puerto Rico and he has a kind of Picasso vibe going on. It’s really colorful.

KG:  I think it’s great that they’re bringing so much life into the space… So, to wrap things up – What’s your next project? Are you going to continue on with this?
PS:  Well, yes. I graduate this quarter so I want to explore more in both an intellectual sense and with my photography. I would love for this to be a bigger thing so I wouldn’t doubt that I would go back and shoot more, talk to more people, and keep working on it. Maybe take the exhibition to Puerto Rico too. That would mean a lot to me. I’m also looking at opportunities in the publishing industry.

 

Vernacular Puerto Rico will be on view during the Friday, February 7 Art March at Fresh Exhibitions on DeSoto Ave. The exhibition will be up until February 15.

Kayla Goggin

Author: Kayla Goggin

Kayla Goggin is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer.

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