I waited all summer to meet him, this artist of murals. I thought he would be eccentric and look old and maybe a bit weird, he wasn't. I still waited to meet the Puerto Rican mural artist I had heard so much about.
When I finally met Gamaliel Ramirez, who created "The Sea of Flags" over on Division and Campbell in my old neighborhood, it took only about 30 minutes of conversation to feel that I had just made friends with one of the most extraordinary people I would ever encounter.
Gamaliel Ramirez was born in the Bronx, NY, but he has lived mostly in Chicago for the past 55 years. He's tall and thin with not much hair on his head but he reminds me of an uncle.
I had contacted Gamaliel over Facebook after another friend wrote on my Facebook wall and I noticed the art behind her. She was standing in front of a wall, a mural of flags. It was spectacular, I thought. It reminded me of my neighborhood, in Humboldt Park, but I couldn't be sure. I wanted to know where it was. So I asked her where it was and she told me it was located on Division and Campbell. She also told me of the artist.
"He's a nice guy, friend him", she wrote. So I did! After that I felt the need to meet this artist so I wrote him a message: "I'd love to see more. I want to see what it is you've contributed to this neighborhood." I had no idea what I was in for. He had been painting murals for most of his life. He had contributed more art to more neighborhoods than words I've probably written and I was in a trance when he started telling me how he did it, how he continues to do it and how he plans to do more.
Gamaliel has been creating art since was 5 when he moved to Chicago, and he has lived all over the city. In addition to his murals, Gamaliel takes pride in his works of poetry, photography, building websites to bring the Hispanic artists together, and more recently, designing homes on his laptop.
As I said, he's lived all over Chicago-- and in 55 years, that means ALL OVER CHICAGO! Neighborhoods like Douglas Park, Humboldt Park, Eckert Park, Lakeview just to name a few, have helped this man round not only his personality, but his life and he's left his mark behind him in just about in every area he's lived and more.
"Lakeview was not as ghetto, like here (Humboldt Park) back then. I had my run-ins with the gangs and they hassled me all the time," he said when I asked what was it like to grow up back in the '70s while trying to do his art. He described it as being chased by the Italians, Polish, everyone else. "It didn't matter though, that was the culture back then. It was the way of life," he said.
When I asked him about school, he immediately got serious and said to me me that the schools didn't care; they didn't help him at all. The school system tried to push him through high school so he could simply "finish" because he couldn't read. "I didn't stay in school long because I was dyslexic. Back then, they didn't have the tools or knowledge to help me learn." For him, he added, it just didn't work, so he quit traditional high school and went to an alternative school called Logan School. He was unsuccessful there as well because it was a "bad kids' school."."It wasn't to help me," he said. So he ended up dropping out of school altogether. He said his Mom never knew because at that time, the schools would send letters to your home but he would intercept them before his mother was any of the wiser. Back then, you see, you were able to drop out of school after the age of 16 and he did, never learning to read or write.
Art was and still is Gamaliel's savior. When he wasn't able to complete school, he went home, started painting and kept on going. When he produced his art, he said it saved him from a lot of grief. It made him feel good. He said it was like being "high." "There's no other feeling in the world for me than when I'm doing my art. It feels great!"
For money he would take on odd jobs, lifeguard being one of many. He would also move back and forth between Chicago and Puerto Rico during his youth to visit family in Puerto Rico but he would always end up back in Chicago, back to his art.
Gamaliel says his first mural was a gang mural, painted for the Latin Eagles in 1972. "I would not have wanted to have my first mural be a gang mural but in those times it was how you knew people. Because I was an artist, the gangbangers were respectful of what I was doing," he said. "I'm a Hippie when it all comes down to it. Back then, the ghetto was not the ghetto it is today." He described all the neighborhoods having ups and downs. Things like politics, joblessness and even sickness were a part of his life and art.
At the age of 21, Gamaliel became influenced by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and other artists of the Mexican culture. He would travel back and forth to Mexico with mentors, who included muralist Aurelio Diaz, sculptor Richard Hunt, artist and muralist Calvin Jones who created a mural at the old Regal Theater, and muralist William (Bill) Walker, who painted the "Wall of Respect" and helped create the murals in Hyde Park, along with many other Chicago iconic walls, to learn about the art of murals. "The Mexicans were already doing this and there were beautiful murals in Mexico," he exclaimed.
He helped with the creation of "Taller" (now known as "Nuevo Taller") organization in Lakeview. Taller helps support local minority artists. Back in the 1980s when Gamaliel was attempting to help support the organization, he decided he had to learn to read and write. "I couldn't read or write in English or in Spanish and if I was to be the one to do the grant writing, I had to learn", so he did.
Gamaliel's local work includes a mural in Benito Juarez High School. It's a Mexican artwork but he wanted to spread it around. His art is located all over the city. On Division and Campbell, in Humboldt Park, his 1980s mural "The Sea of Flags" was redone in 2005, with the help of Star Padilla. The Sea of Flags is one of his most popular pieces of work. "Everything very political back then," he said. He would sell his landscape paintings to pay the bills so they kept money in his pocket.
There was a landscape painting he showed me at his home, it was of the lagoon, out behind the big rose garden in Humboldt Park. I remember that place well and was always scared to go back there. When I was a little kid, we would hear all kinds of stories about the lagoon in Humboldt Park. The place scared me. But this beautiful picture of what was once such a scary place to me growing up was nothing short of breathtaking. It was the lagoon but in beautiful colors and a vision as I had never seen it before.
Gamaliel now is in the process of permanently moving to Puerto Rico. "I know a lot of people there and it's my time to be there", he said. "I've been commissioned to do 2 murals already in Puerto Rico. The first piece of work will be in Yauco, near Mayaguez and Ponce."
He also informed me that his desire is to introduce the Chicago concept of mural art to Puerto Rico. Brick collages are the new thing to show in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans know about the New York murals but he wants to be a teacher and try to take the organization "Nuevo Taller" to Puerto Rico to help bring awareness to the artists there. For now, he'll help keep it running online.
Almost everything he owns is already packed up in his little basement apartment that he is leaving for his 26 -year- old daughter, Michelle Ramirez and her daughter to live in. "I want to be in Puerto Rico," he said. "I want to start my art over again there."
Gamaliel has had and still faces many new challenges. His most recent battle was with lung cancer that was discovered last April. "It all happened so fast," says Gamaliel. He describes the disease's beginning as "only a little tiny dot". He said he had a small cell of "lunch cancer" and 3 brain aneurisms. The brain aneurisms are not the problem this year he wanted to inform me. Not yet anyway (and for a long time to come, I hope and pray).
Gamaliel was told in the beginning that he had a 15% chance to live. He went through chemotherapy twice a week for 3-4 months and radiation for twice a day. He was dizzy after his treatments and found he needed a blood transfusion to just feel close to normal.
Gamaliel says he's in full remission and that now the only thing left is "a tiny spot." He now only has what he described as "nagging pain" in his wrists and arms so he says he's only been able to begin to draw recently. He says the pain is slowly subsiding. He's also trying to get off pain killers and not take any morphine to kill the pain.
"I want to feel good in Puerto Rico, I don't want to faint when I get there so I must eat and build up my strength to get ready to go," he said. "But the art...the art keeps bugging me. It keeps at me." So he's slowly moving back to his art and doing more now than ever.
He adds that the community is his compensation. They helped him get through this hard time. "The community raised thousands of dollars when I was sick. These people would come over and bring me food, take me out, help me out in many ways. My main cheerleader and support is my daughter, Michelle. And now, I get my steady check from disability to help with taking care of myself. It's not that great but then I'm getting by." This man has so much of a positive attitude on life. He doesn't ever talk like it's the end or the end is anywhere near him. He's got too much to do. Places to go and people to help get their word out.
These days, Gamaliel takes to drawing on his laptop computer. He showed me a drawing of his "dream house." The house he plans to have built in Puerto Rico out of all recycled materials and using metal beams. He doesn't want to do anything political in his art right now and simply wants to build this house. He has an uncle who is about 72 years old, in Puerto Rico who would appreciate the challenge, since he's a carpenter. His plan is to show his uncle his drawing and hope to get assistance in making his dream a reality. He told me that he's afraid people will think he's stupid for starting to draw houses. (I think NOT!!) He draws every detail, the floor plans and all. This artist is slowly becoming an architect. He's developing new concepts to help the architecture in Puerto Rico. By using certain materials, it will keep houses safe from floods and hurricanes, he says. Everything from the beams to the windows being shutters he tells me will help the people there.
Ultimately he also wants to teach art to students of all ages while he's living in Puerto Rico along with everything else. He says he wants to teach anyone who wants to learn his art. Just another thing to fill his day, I guess!!
The mural on Rockwell is considered historic in the neighborhood. The bank did attempt to have someone else do it over but when Gamaliel found out he ended up countering the offer they made to the new artist just to redo his own mural. "Originally, I used house paint when I originally did that mural so I had to upgrade the paints so to keep it nice, now that I know what to use where," he said.
Gamaliel built his own website, which houses all his material, with photos and people connected to it from the minority art community. He told me that the world of artists is ancient. Ancient in the sense commercial galleries do not contribute to minority artists in America. "You get tired of trying to make it somewhere you are not fully recognized," he said. The lawyers and doctors in Puerto Rico will pay him for his art what it's worth there.
Gamaliel plans to return to Chicago in Spring 2011. He hopes to work with children and get a grant for the work he hopes to get hired for next April. I can only hope a person with such a giving heart and talent makes it anywhere he goes.
Thanks so much for taking time to hang out with me, Gamaliel, and show me your beautiful work, which even with all your struggles, illnesses and battles has given you beauty to spread in your life. Blessings to you always!!
Photos courtesy of Gamaliel's website - http://www.gamalielramirez.net
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