Sculptor Don Jose Lugo Arroyo spent years carving and fashioning nearly 100 tableaus that depict scenes from his childhood — life for cane workers in Puerto Rico in the 1930s and 1940s. His carvings range in size from around 3 inches tall to around a foot in height. His daughter Sonia Badillo explained that many of his earlier carvings are smaller. Don Jose began making them larger, painting them, making the figures more detailed once his wife started saving and preserving them.
In the most obvious way, these sculptures are memory objects, which Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1989) describes as functioning to “materialize internal images, and through them, to recapture earlier experiences.” Don Jose made these objects to capture and illustrate his personal memories. But Don Jose said he was remembering his younger days in Puerto Rico while carving them. The objects are both the product of remembering and physical manifestations of memory.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (using the work of Ray Faust) notes the memory objects bring moments of the past into the future when the items are displayed and viewed in one’s living space. Looking at Don Jose’s collection, viewers feel the sense of the past converging with the present, especially because we have the opportunity to ask Don Jose about his work. The presence of the creator adds almost another layer, offering viewers the tableau memory, the memories in juxtaposition to our contemporary understandings, and these objects as touchstones to access additional information from Done Jose’s memories.
Sonia explained that her father go into the room in which these works are displayed and uses them to think about his childhood. In this way, the memory objects are tiny moments in time frozen for observation. On the other, they are used to reawaken and recall the past.
For Susan Stewart, the miniature, as a genre, functions to magnify and increase the importance of the object as well as has the ability to make its context remarkable. Certainly, this is true for Don Jose’s collection. The moments he captures are moments of everyday life, like feeding the chickens. This is a moment that would not be as difficult for a younger audience to understand (whereas some of depictions require explanation). And yet, despite its familiarity, the miniature form asks viewers to lean in. It casts a magnifying glass over an everyday action. It draws our attention to the tiniest details of the action — the position of the figure’s left arm as if he is sprinkling grain, the chicken legs positioned as if they are moving forward in a flurry.
The context and positioning of the miniatures in Don Jose’s collection also magnify their meaning. They are grouped in sub-collections or ensembles based on categories. The man feeding chickens is part of a grouping called “Doing the Chores.”
Taken together — women cooking, milking a cow, sweeping the floor, feeding animals, churning butter — the carvings have a more clear purpose. In their grouping, we get a sense they are meant to help viewers make sense of the memories and provide categories that help viewers understand daily life. It is the grouping and categorizing that helps these memory objects function as objects that educate about daily life in 1930s and 1940s Puerto Rico.
For Stewart, the miniature inherently causes the viewer to focus on the materials themselves. She notes that the text and functionality of miniature books are stripped away and the focus becomes what the books are made of and the skill displayed in their making.
Don Jose’s skill to create these scenes is on display alongside the miniatures, especially the way he captures movement and expression in human forms. The material is also on display, especially those moments of difference when he uses something besides wood.
I was instantly drawn to his depiction of a cockfight because the material used was different than most of his sculptures. Here he used palm leaves, and it so aptly captures the movement, kinetic energy, and feather details of the roosters.
Often works of art that depict the past are considered in terms of nostalgia. Inherent in how we culturally understand the word nostalgia is a sense of sadness that comes from longing for something past. It’s important to stress that Don Jose does not verbally express any sadness about the past. He said he felt happy carving the miniatures and feels happy now looking at them. And there is an overwhelming sense of hopefulness in his work in that they capture small moments of joy alongside depictions of hard work.
In “Coconut Drink,” for instance, we see a celebration of the coconut. It depicts the celebration of the thing itself. One coconut is broken open to show the milk inside. We see the action and method needed to break it open. And we see how it can be drunk from the shell itself. The men seem almost secondary in the sculpture, which celebrates the coconut.
Don Jose is also a painter and Sonia was kind and gracious enough to allow a group of material culture students to wander through their home and look at artwork hung throughout the house. Among the paintings, one photograph captured my imagination. The photo is of a large-scale nativity Don Jose made from felled trees and objects they cleaned up at his Puerto Rican home after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
This image maybe best speaks to the inherent hopefulness I see reflected through his collection of sculptures. Even in the aftermath of a frightening storm, Don Jose created a sculpture and scene that (in the most novice of interpretations) is about rebirth, beginnings, and hopefulness.
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, ed. Elliott Oring (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989), 329-338.
Susan Stewart, “The Miniature” from On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, pp. 37-69. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
With additional background information about Don Jose Lugo Arroyo and his collection from:
Julián Antonio Carrillo, “Fieldworker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History in Wood and Words,” in Folklore, Art, and Aging, edited by Jon Kay, 55-79. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.