Monday, May 16, 1994
Who Is That Mask Man?
D.C. Artist Shares His Heritage With Kids
By Eric Brace
If you are getting worn down by the deadly seriousness of all the multi-culti discussions going on in the art world, you’re not hanging around the right people. May we suggest a chat with artist Edwin Fontanez?
Fontanez is a Puerto Rican-born artist who has founded Exit Studio, stating the group’s purpose in its subtitle: “Multicultural Tools for he Creative Child.” He is passionate about sharing his art with the world. “I hate the word ‘tolerate’!” Fontanez says. “To me, that means to live with something you don’t necessarily like. That attitude creates contempt for each other. It’s exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do.” Fontanez prefers the word “understanding,” something he has tried to foster through workshops, and most recently through a self-produced video and coloring book.
“The theme of the book and the video might be a little unknown in the States,” he admits. “It’s the legend of the Vejigante, who is a Puerto Rican folkloric character. I wanted to introduce people to my culture through the art.”
Working part time at the Kennedy Center, Fontanez saved enough money to create an educational video that includes film of the festivals in his homeland and step-by-step directions on how to make the mask used in the celebrations. A bilingual text in the accompanying coloring book explains mythical characters and their traditional role in Puerto Rican society.
“I didn’t have a publisher for the book, and I couldn’t seem to find anyone, so I said ‘to heck with it,’ and decided to do it myself. I wrote the text and did the illustrations. I had no grant for it. Like an artist, I chose to put my money in my art and not food,” he says in his rich accent, with a laugh. “It’s not a huge project, but it is something that has some warmth, is very honest, very direct.”
Two years ago, Fontanez started the program Up With the Arts, with a grant from the D.C. Commission of the Arts in conjunction with the Institute of Puerto Rican Affairs. “It was during the upheaval in Mount Pleasant, and after seeing all the social, how do you say, turmoil, as an artist I just wanted to do something more than merely creative. I wanted to do something more substantive. I designed workshops for children to create some sort of understanding. Some context. Some historical background of people from Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Central America.”
The workshops, held in schools and community centers around the city, lasted two years, and Fontanez hopes to bring them back soon. “The art workshops were merely an excuse to learn about what is important about meeting other people,” he says. “It would open them up. We really created some kind of bridge of understanding.”
Fontanez is also searching for a venue for his next creation, a multi-media work based on photographs of his Puerto Rican ancestors, with text, video, paintings, costumes and choreography. “My last show was two years ago,” he says. “This one is almost ready to go but it’s so hard to find exhibit spaces in Washington. It’s such a political city, even in the art world, and everyone has their own agenda. But it’s a labor of love. I couldn’t do anything else but my art.”