"Sierra continues artistic love affair with Chicago"
Friday, September 14, 2001, Chicago Sun-Times, Weekend Plus
By Mary Houlihan
Staff Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
Artist Paul Sierra's first impression of Chicago was a chilly one.
It was in the early '60s. Sierra was a teenager and had recently left his homeland, Cuba, with his parents and older brother-the Bay of Pigs invasion had failed in May of 1961 and the doors to the country were about to close. After a short stay in Miami, his father, a lawyer, found a job with a corporation in Chicago. The family stepped off a plane here in February and got its first chilly taste of a Chicago winter.
"When you are in the tropics and see pictures of people in coats and hats, you think that might be nice for a change," Sierra said, laughing. "But when you really step out into it, it hits you like a tone of bricks. It wasn't like the movies. I remember looking a frozen Lake Michigan for the first time. I was just amazed by it all.
"But then there was the Art Institute, and I was like a pig in mud there."
While Sierra has resided in Chicago for the last 40 years, his many paintings have been created in a tropical state of mind. For decades, he has been considered one of the nation's leading Latino artists. "Sinews," a 1993 oil painting by Sierra, is included in "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum," on view at the Terra museum of American Art through Nov. 11.
Take one look at "Arte Latino" and it's evident that Latino artists stand out from the pack. From palette to presentation and style, no two works are alike.
"A lot of artists with a Hispanic background have a strong palette," Sierra said. "But as far as themes, I see myself as an odd bird. My work is not religious, nor is it political. I'm left with the adventures of the mind."
Leaving Cuba was like giving up an entire life, said Sierra.
Sierra attended the School of the Art Institute in the mid-'60s. He never graduated but he did meet Rufino Silva, a Puerto Rican artist, who served as a mentor.
"Rufino was one of those teachers who changes your life," said Sierra, 57. "I got to see artists actually working and living with their art. To be under his wing really made a difference."
Up until the mid '80s, Sierra was artistic director of a Chicago advertising agency, where he spent seven years designing billboards and television, radio and press ads. But he never stopped developing his own vision in his artwork.
"Like most artists, I had to subsidize my painting. But eventually, I knew that the only way to be happy was to concentrate on my own work. The best hours had to be given over to it."
Sierra's richly textured figurative and narrative landscapes shimmer with a mystical spirit. Locally, his work can be found at the Aldo Castillo Gallery and Oscar Friedl Gallery.
Sierra's visual style at times seems to match the magic realism of Latin American writers and at the same time contain splashes of European surrealism. In "Sinews," the faceless figure of a man emerges from what seems a fiery body of water. The tropical colors are vibrant and dark at the same time.
"The idea was to try and portray the landscape as dramatically as possible," Sierra said. "To show it as a place where life begins. A primordial soup which gives birth to both human and animal life."
Sierra said he was not a very good student at school in Cuba. He began drawing and painting at a young age. Never interested in math and science, he was instead drawn to visual pursuits: painting, photography and film.
"I loved comics and adventure stories," Sierra said. Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Archie and the gang were favorites. He would spend hours tracing comics and drawing scenes from World War II. "It was a good way of training your drawing," he said.
After living and working in Chicago for nearly 40 years, Sierra has a veteran's eye view of the local art scene. Never lured to New York, he believes that survival in Chicago allows you "to be your own person." But he believes the local art scene is not without its problems.
"I remember the '80s as a far more dynamic time. Currently, I don't think the city does a good job of supporting its colony of artists," Sierra said. "It's not easy supporting yourself s an artist and I don't think Cows on Parade or a yearly Art Expo is going to solve the problem.
"What you want to do is create a supportive community so that artists will continue to work and thrive here. I believe that building a strong and vital art scene will have its paybacks."
©2001 Chicago Sun-Times / Mary Houlihan