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Coconut Grove Oral Histories and Historical Map

Coconut Grove Historic Map

In partnership with FIU’s GIS Center, the Frost Art Museum presents a digital map of significant locations in Coconut Grove. From bars and bookstores to churches and schools, these sites testify to the rich history of Coconut Grove.

 

Coconut Grove Oral History Project

For decades, Coconut Grove has attracted artists, writers, and musicians. The Frost has chosen to tell a story of a moment in the Grove’s rich history through a select group of visual artists. The creative life of the Grove sprang from the vibrant people who chose to create in this Miami neighborhood. It is not a single artist or group of artists but the spirit of a community that has contributed to the Grove’s reputation as a wellspring of creativity.

In conjunction with the exhibition Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove,the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum presents an oral history project that was conducted over several months with different members of the Coconut Grove community.

Banner: Miami News, ‘Grove Mad hatters are bled hatters now’ The winners in the homemade hat contest in the Coconut Grove Festival display their entries after judging. From left are Selma Magram, third place winner; Ted Peters, a judge: Mrs. Julia Follurd, first place; Joyce Bryant of Porgy and Bess cast, also a judge. And Mrs. Eleanor McCufferty (almost hidden by hats and birds), April 23, 1965, courtesy of the HistoryMiami Museum 

  • Xavier Cortada

    Artist and environmental activist Xavier Cortada and the Frost Art Museum’s curatorial assistant Ashlye Valines sat down to discuss memorable places in the Grove and the ways in which urban development impacted Coconut Grove.

     

    This interview was conducted for the exhibition Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove and took place on April 1, 2021.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Let’s begin with a simple one. Where were you born?

     

    Xavier Cortada: Albany, New York in 1964 to two Cuban refugees who left Miami to find jobs up there.

     

    Ashlye Valines: When did you come to live in Miami?

     

    Xavier Cortada: 1967. I was born in September of ‘64 and in the summer of ‘67 they moved me to Miami and I’ve never left.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Did you live around the grove?

     

    Xavier Cortada: I lived there. So 27th Avenue, it’s called the “Unity Boulevard” because it literally connects all the neighborhoods… There were these 3 neighborhoods the West Coconut Grove, Coconut Grove, and then little Havana just north of the Grove that was clearly a Cuban enclave, and then as you continued north on 27th Avenue, you’d pass Allapattah and then into Brownsville and Liberty City…so Unity Boulevard is what 27th Avenue was named. Most of my adolescence and all of my childhood years was going up and down either 22nd or 27th Avenue, north to south, and Coconut Grove was a major destination for me. Every evening of my life as an elementary school student I spent in the Grove, but not the Grove as you think about it. [For me] the Grove [was] Our Lady of Charity which is the shrine that Cuban exiles built on church property next to Vizcaya, tucked in between Vizcaya, Mercy Hospital, and behind Immaculata High School. There was an empty lot and this priest named Father Roman would convene the Cuban community to this piece of Coconut Grove on the water’s edge and built an entire community of exiles around what is called La Ermita de la Caridad del Cobre, which is roughly translated to “the shrine to our lady of charity the patron saint of Cuba”, so beloved within the Catholic faith and the kind of place that someone like President Obama would go to on “pilgrimages” when he was trying to connect with the Cuban community as he did during his presidency, as well as the pope and everyone else. It’s like a really important cultural, obviously religious, but cultural center for the Cuban community and for a community like my parents, who, in the early ‘70s, were still living in the diaspora without a true understanding on whether or not there would be a return to Cuba. It was a place for hope and a place for community organizing because the priest, who then became a very important bishop and helped at the national level, when Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, in trying to quiet down some rioting that was happening with some Mariel prisoners, he became an important spiritual, civic, and community leader. He would organize Cuban exiles to literally come there and then go into each other’s homes, based on the communities in Cuba from where their families came, as a way of building community. I think the reason I’m telling you all this is because, in many ways, Coconut Grove, not because of its proximity, but because it is at the water’s edge, was a place that would welcome people sailing up from the Florida Keys. It was a place of refuge; it was a city before Miami was a city. So, in so many ways, the same comfort that it provided the pioneers at the beginning of the century, it did so again, seven decades later in the 1970s to another group of immigrants, and there was the huge mural built on that shrine, talking about that experience, particularly the rafters who would, occasionally, in the ‘70s, and dramatically, in the ‘90s, land on our shores seeking liberty.

     

    When we talk about Coconut Grove and we talk about different cultural angles to it from a faith perspective, the Hare Krishna group comes up because, throughout the ‘70s and today, there was a temple nearby, but they would come out dressed in their robes, mostly Anglo practitioners, and literally roam the streets of Coconut Grove. When you think about spirituality in the Grove, indisputably you have to think about the Black churches in the West Grove, [and] when you think about spirituality in the Grove your very keen to think about St. Stephens because, of course, it’s anchored right there at the water’s edge. When you think about spirituality in the Grove you have to go just a few yards south and you start getting into the religious and parochial schools, everything from the Congregational Church, which was scary looking because of its buildings and its dramatic lighting. I remember as a high school kid I was driving by and looking at this church like it was something you would see in a movie in Europe, but there’s spirituality in that congregation and also in the Hebrew and Catholic schools down Main Highway. But I think probably because it’s at the north portion, and there’s a huge divide of residential homes, people forget about the Grove also being the epicenter of the most important, more important than Versailles is, the most important cultural destination, and by cultural I don’t mean art I mean the Cuban American culture, for immigrant families in the 70s and to today and I think the Grove has to acknowledge that the same way it should acknowledge Vizcaya right next to it. Even though when most people think of the Grove their stuck in downtown Grove, they don’t think of points north, like Alice Wainwright Park, like Vizcaya, like Mercy Hospital, and especially Our Lady of Charity Church. So that’s, I think, an important connection because it’s so relevant to the majority of people who live in the city of Miami. As you know, the city of Miami gobbled up the Grove, that’s part of the history... of Miami and the Grove. There’s also the importance, the absolute relevance and importance, of the Bahamian village that was created in the West Grove by a gentleman by the name of Mr. Stirrup who was an entrepreneur and who would, literally, build housing. As we think of the Grove and its role in Miami, think of the Bahamian workers who built Vizcaya, they lived there, think of the streets that built Miami, they were there. Think of the first communities of Miami, they were there, and then think of Miami’s incorporation in 1996, again it was a lot of Flagler’s railroad builders, mostly black, who voted to incorporate the city of Miami, so there are lots of clear connections between our early history and the Grove but both communities continued independently because distance is a real thing when you don’t have a car but then eventually they became one and I think that pattern exists today. People who live in the Grove don’t write Miami, Florida they write Coconut Grove, Florida in their correspondences. So that’s sort of like a historic view with a different Cuban exile perspective of what the Grove is but I have many more stories to tell you that don’t focus on buildings, but on processes.

     

    Let me talk to you a little bit about the Coconut Grove Art Festival. So, my dad, for a couple of years, was a teacher at Ransom Everglades, and he taught Spanish there, so I remember as a kid going to Ransom Everglades, which is clearly a part of the Grove, and seeing this school that has the bay for its backyard, and of course it’s an enchanting and beautiful location. My dad also was an emerging artist back then, as was his brother, who exhibited their works locally. These were brand new Cuban immigrants, and they got the local attention of media and other folks who celebrated their work. And I remember their work was exhibited at a gallery in the Grove…  at the moment in time when Miami was smaller, it was not at the epicenter of the art world like it is today, they were always excited about exhibiting there. I was very young, I was born in ‘64 and we’re talking the early ‘70s so I was 8 or 9 years old here, but I remember my dad and uncle exhibiting at the Coconut Grove Art Festival back when the Coconut Grove Art Festival was not the actual production it is today with all sorts of security and fencing and tickets and booths and rentals and all that. Back then I remember sitting there with my dad, his easels, his paintings, and you’re just sitting on a chair, there’s no tent, just chilling, and people are walking by and buying your art and that. [There was] a place called the Grove House which is an artist’s space much like you would think of an artist residences or an artist co-op. I remember as a child walking through there and, you know, walking through the Grove at a different speed and, in so many ways, Miami and the Grove had a different speed. The Grove was always a special place, right? It’s not that it was stuck in time, it was that it celebrated its time, it understood its historic role and the people who lived there, I think, because of their proximity to the bay and because development didn’t happen in the Grove the way it happened in open spaces were a builder would come in and take a part of a pinewood rock land that had never been developed or build up a part of a Florida Everglades wetland, fill it, and then put houses on it. Because the Grove didn’t experience that kind of instantaneous development of the ‘50s and ‘60s, or the ‘40s, but instead grew organically where streets had names and not numbers, where buildings were built, not en masse production, but organically through time. It kept its charm and its character, and because development was focused in other areas it allowed it to continue growing as a village of interconnected individuals and a place, an absolute magnet, for artists and cultural individuals.

     

    So, during the ‘70s it was called a place where hippies would hang out right? It’s sort of like a free... I wouldn’t call it fluid necessarily, but you know, I think a place we would all feel very comfortable with where there was this, sort of, artsy atmosphere and a lot of music going around. It always, always had its bars, it always did. Some of which I didn’t, I mean clearly, I [was] 8 years old [at that time] but there was the Eternal Taurus, eternal in name only because of course it got torn down to create a development. The bar is still there and maybe the oak tree that I used to swing a little ring on may still be there, and maybe the front of a bar, but for the most part that memory is gone. Clearly the grand dam of the entire area is the Coconut Grove theater, right? That beautiful building which our Department of Cultural Affairs, at the county level, has been trying so hard to preserve even as times change. The utility of a building built [back] then, the audiences, it’s like a store, a ma-and-pa shop, like the Grove was, trying to stay alive in changing times. Especially as a nonprofit. I think there’s a good plan, in fact I know there’s a good plan, it just has a lot of legal obstacles but once those legal obstacles are closed, I’m confident that in a new shape and keeping some architecturally relevant portions of the building but mostly reconstructed, like the Taurus next store, that this jewel will come back. And [the theater] was an important one, that was an important anchor and its absence locally in the community has created a void in everything from restaurants to the programming that happens on that block; again, asphalt has a way of destroying communities so, you know, the parking lot behind that theater, the necessity to build CocoWalk with huge walls that really are just car storage spaces like a garage, the creation of these massive, completely out-of-scale condos on the northern part of downtown Grove does much to destroy that pedestrian, organic, feel to the neighborhood while giving a nod to the absolute reality that high-density is preferable to urban sprawl, giving a nod to the reality that growth happens and change happens and that nothing is eternal, not even the bars. Their buildings may disappear, and the names stay, and sometimes the names disappear and the buildings stay and an example of that is the Hungry Sailor, which, I have no idea what its named these days, but the Hungry Sailor had live music, it had a Jamaican sort of feel, Caribbean bands would always play there and it was a delightful place for me to go as a high school student. I’m the Miami High class of ‘82, the high school down the street on 27th Avenue and Flagler, and then I went to the University of Miami that fall of ‘82 all the way through 1991 because I obtained three degrees. That decade, the Grove was the destination. It wasn’t until law school, until the late ‘90s that South Beach maybe began to have a scene for bars and parties and that kind of, you know, entertainment, the night life that people were accustomed to in the Grove. So, when you’re a kid in Miami, prior to Woody’s, as in Ron Wood from The Rolling Stones putting the first bar on Miami Beach on Ocean Drive, Miami Beach was irrelevant. You know, it was a place where the movie Scarface was filmed for a reason, right? It was a neighborhood that hadn’t been revitalized yet and there was very little, sort of, entertainment appeal. It’s a place you’d go during the day, hang out at the beautiful beach but if you were in high school or college, so I’m speaking to you from that vantage point, you would always go to the Grove and the Grove was always packed, there was always cars driving around.

     

    Let me talk to you about bars now. I’m glad I started with spirituality and history and civic leadership, let’s go party now!

     

     [ I want to talk] about important places of change in that location. There was this New Orleans type bar that was created, and, in some ways, these things do much to change the character, and I don’t know how successful that was. It didn’t look like it ever succeeded. There was this place called the Village Inn that became a place that looked like a Montana cabin and I used to go eat burgers there all the time, but the Village Inn had a different feel.

     

    So, the Grove... so many memories all over the place. Biscayne Baby’s, the Tavern, Calloway’s, Señor Frog’s, Taurus, and the Village Inn, these are iconic landmarks for me as a kid because I was, you know, getting in there with a fake ID, but was also a place for the adults, like the people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s to also go to. So the Grove was a place where was a place where people would come, its where people who had been traveling would come dock, obviously people who wrecked their ships on our reefs would probably need a little bit more gin than those that were just chilling there, but if you think of it as this oasis, as this place of refuge and escape, you know, if you’re working all day at a downtown bank or at a factory or whatever, going through the Grove was this enclave where, organically, there was a restaurant next to a bar next to a ma-and-pa shop next to a shoe store, so it was a really, really comfortable place to go and there were all these characters. One of the most beloved ones was ‘the healer.’ There was this bald man who gave massages, and he looked wise, he looked like something out of a Led Zeppelin cover, he was almost like a druid, and he was called ‘the healer’ and he would literally give people massages for a buck or two or whatever, and he would use his elbows, he was very skinny. I’m sure he was a master of yoga or something like that but everyone knew him and he would go down and do that and as you would walk up and down the streets there were these characters and activities that were fun but there was also this sort of non-franchised appeal to what the Grove was so that when you walked in a restaurant, it wasn’t a Cheesecake Factory which is what it became, you know? There where interesting restaurants offering all sorts of culinary delights. That of course changes with development but, as a kid growing up, you would go there and it would be a place where kids from all over Miami, Coral Park kids, Miami High kids, Coral Gables kids, all of them, would come together and go to the Grove and you would see that. I mean, most of what you do at the Grove because, again, you are 17, is just walk from place to place and, if your fortunate enough to have a fake ID, you’d get in and after you’re 18, because the drinking age was 18 then, you would get to go to the bars. A bar that we would go to then and also during college was the Village Inn. I remember as a high school kid the Village Inn was a primary destination because it played live rock so it was a bar but there was a stage to the right. It had two doors and, to get into the concert area, there was always a line and a bouncer at the door, and it would have great live music and I remember when that closed down everyone lamented it because it was really a place making locale for people. Drinks were pretty cheap, and they had all sorts of cool specials, but it was a really, really good venue. Then it was turned into a place that harkened to one of these cottages in the west, you know, one of these ranches in the west were huge stones were imported and big thick logs and all sorts of dead animal skins everywhere, like a lodge. So that changed it a little bit, you know, it’s trying to take the beauty and greatness of the Grove and do what you do to a golden goose, you open it to get more eggs and you find that what really mattered was the intimate, smoky, dilapidated bathroom and rooms of the Village Inn and all these other spaces. You build these big castles for it, and then all the sudden the public doesn’t come, you don’t have that feel. The same thing happened just down the block there after another developer came in and built a party hall, but this party hall looked like it belonged on bourbon street, right? So one looked like it belonged in Montana and then you walk a few blocks and instead of being to scale, this was a huge building with the most ornate iron work and stained glass and it felt like a mansion, it had all these trappings of luxury but totally out of place and out of scale and, you know, I don’t know if they survived, but for the longest time it was always empty, like nothing ever happened there. Across the street from that I remember as a kid going to a movie theater, it was another building... or simply just one-story retail spaces that had over time taken over what I’m sure were wooden houses or groceries, or whatever Miami’s historic scene was in the 1920s and ‘30s. Someone came in and raised those and created these one-story retail spaces. Many of those spaces still populate the Grove but, over time, they became familiar. But in came the developers who popped in CocoWalk, popped in this place, I think the cinematheque, which was in this white concrete space that was all angular and had a modernist look to it. The place where Calloway Jacks was, which was like this open-air bar, now had a Johnny Rocket’s anchoring it instead of, you know, sort of, a more commercial sort of feel to it. And, like it, places and spaces across the Grove changed. I haven’t touched the Mayfair, it also had bars inside of it, I can’t remember their names, but all I know is that when I went there with my high school buddies, they didn’t care about the fake IDs too much. I know now that it was surrounded by drugs and crime and that it was like a real bad place for a 17-year-old to be in, and the drinks were super, stupid expensive, you know, like “what the hell? Five dollars for a drink”?

     

    Ashlye Valines: It’s funny you should mention that because one of the bars I was researching “Faces in the Grove” was in the Mayfair, and that was owned by a man who was shortly after the 80’s, unfortunately murdered in his home by a drug dealer.

     

    Xavier Cortada: Right. That’s exactly right. It’s Faces, that is the bar. And then the Mutiny Hotel had its own bars and all that stuff. Look, I’m painting a picture of the Grove in the ‘70s, which is sort of more of a hippie culture, for lack of a better word, flower power kind of place, but there’s always been wealth in the Grove, but it’s a different kind of wealth. Miami really was in a bad place in the 1980s. The drug wars in Colombia were now spilling over to our streets. Castro’s prisons, and not political prisoners but criminals were now, literally, in the streets of Miami living under a tent on the Miami River, alongside the other 90,000 of 100,000 people who were honest Cubans fleeing a regime that took everything from them, and their kids were with me at Miami High. That’s what Miami High was, that’s where Mariel children came. And, at the same time police officers murdered McDuffie, literally murdered an insurance agent on a motorcycle named McDuffie a la Rodney King, beat him to death, and an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted the cops and had Liberty City burned. That is 1980s Miami, and it is a place drug lords became really comfortable using machine guns to kill cops and to kill people at large and they would, in many ways, own the streets, so yeah, again, I wasn’t oblivious to Mariel or Liberty City. I kind of new about the drug lords because Miami was the murder capital at that point, 800, 900 deaths, but at the time, I had no idea that Faces, well, I guess I did, like “oh, okay there’s drug dealers here” but what does that mean for a 17-year-old? The point is that, right then and there, you were seeing these transitions happen, you know, they weren’t at the Hungry Sailor, they weren’t at the place where you wear jeans, they were at the place where you had to dress up in your polyester clothes and that’s what those bars were signaling towards.

     

    Over time the Grove continued its changes. I remember spending so many wonderful times at a place called Señor Frog’s, the site of the current burger place, Johnny Rocket’s, and what I loved about that bar, again it’s at that magical intersection you know, facing CocoWalk, but there was a big window, and the bar was in front of the window and it was a restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, but this little bar by the window was a place where my buddies, Andy and I, and a bunch of Lambda Chi, would just go to that location. When Señor Frog’s closed they opened on the other side near Coconut Grove theater next to a restaurant that, my god, how could I not mention? If there’s a restaurant that’s been there eternally it’s the one next to Señor Frog’s, Greenstreet Café across the street from the Village Inn. So, Greenstreet is this iconic restaurant. Why? Because its open air. So, before there was the Lincoln Road outdoor eating thing, you would go to Greenstreet, you would sort of sit there and you would eat, and Greenstreet is another fabulous location. Again, not the kind of place a high schooler goes to eat.

    There was another building, Fuddruckers was a restaurant, I think it closed, again another commercial restaurant like Cheesecake Factory, on Main Highway that literally created this tall building and again, more displacement happened there. They tried to create some courtyards and stuff like that for it to work but something happened with its design, something happened with the CocoWalk design, where the retail spaces just weren’t attractive. What worked was the new model, the big Cheesecake Factory and the movie theater, but this whole idea of a place where ma-and-pa shops would work now has stores like The Gap and huge franchises that really sucked all the oxygen out of it. It was just a regular mall but inside had a faux fabricated structure to look like Montana, New Orleans, or the Mediterranean, instead of having that old Grove feel. And again, this is a conversation for planners, it is the way of development, it is what happens, but I’m glad that exhibits like yours allow us to celebrate that moment of what once was so that we can reminisce and think about it and, I think what’s most important about an exhibit like that is that it lets us chart a course for the future, so that as we sit here today and unravel whatever we have come up with now, we can understand the consequences of that as we continue to scale up and build up. And we have to. We have to adapt to new technologies and new ways of living but there is always this consequence and once you destroy the character of something it’s impossible to bring it back, so that inner network of people that lived there and worked there and interacted there and played there has forever disappeared and now there are new layers that are built on it.

     

    As an 8 year old, I remember I grew up in a house that was mostly monolinguistic, we’d all speak in Spanish at home, and we would buy our cold cuts from a Cuban grocery so we would have jamón and jamón cerrado but not so much bologna and salami, so I remember that on the corner of where Sharky’s is, and Sharky’s was across from the Greenstreet Café… Sharky’s was a popular eatery, vintage 1980’s, people would eat outside, it’s a cafe and I remember those brick like cellphones at the beginning of the cell phone era that people would show off, and it was like the size of a brick and you would speak into it. So, I just have these memories, because a lot of the times we would just go to the Grove to chill and seeing those brick phones in front of Sharky’s, and Sharky’s was a restaurant with a Miami Vice flair. So it had the font of the logo and the colors of the menu that were very much Miami Vicey, so at that time it was that but I remember that very same location was a deli, was a grocery store, and my dad had an exhibition across the street with his easels and he and one of his friends from Ransom went there but, of course because my dad worked there, he was familiar to the person serving the sandwiches. So, I remember this, sort of, butcher guy in the back talking to me saying, “which sandwich do you want? Do you want a bologna, or do you want a salami?” And in my head, I didn’t know which of the two I wanted because they were unusual to me but I wanted the one that had the most meat on it so I’m thinking I’m gonna have a big Cuban sandwich and, you know, a bologna sandwich is just 2 pieces of bread and a slice of bologna. So the point is, that kind of charm where a butcher can just know who your dad is and talk to you about what you want and he serves it for you, you know, you’re not reading it from a Miami Vice colored menu, it just had a different sort of feel and not only did the Grove change, but I changed too, like ten years later I was walking into that same place and ordering from the Miami Vice menu and was really comfortable ordering conch fritters or whatever. So that’s one reality that the Grove had.

    The Grove also had a gay history. I came out later in life and I am not as privy to it but I know that as college students we went to this place called the Tavern, which is sort of close to where Main meets Grand, you know closer to the CocoWalk area but on the side, in fact, there’s a building that you could walk all the way through, right now there’s a French restaurant, maybe a smoke shop and then next to it is where the Tavern was because it closed down, but for the longest time the Tavern was a real big destination for University of Miami students and what we loved about it is that they took pictures of us and the walls of the Tavern were covered with our photographs like, literally, everywhere. Those photos were iconic because, years later, a decade after we graduated, my fraternity brother would come to town and we’d go for a drink and, of course we had to go to the Tavern and there’s our little picture there. So, that bar, at least by recording the people, had that feel, that sense of community. Again, different world different people, mostly non-Miami, U of M kids who lived in New Jersey who would spend 4 years in Miami, but still it had that certain charm and feel.

     

    For a minute, I was attending St. Stephens as a parishioner and, again, not the same St. Stephens that I’m sure was there decades before, but still there was a sense of community in that location. I’m sure that the PTA and the parents of that school not all lived in the Grove, but still had that sense of community and connection through St. Stephens. Monty Trainor, and his team at Coconut Grove Art Festival now inhabit a place at the Mayfair and tried putting a gallery there that has had some success but, again. because we have barricaded natural ways, it’s a big wall, the Mayfair is a big wall, and there’s very little foot traffic and the areas above it have been converted into office spaces. People would come in, inhabit an office, and leave, so there’s a lot of loss, if you will, of that sort of granular interaction. But Monty has tried to keep it alive since he became the director of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival by invigorating it with this annual, it think it’s one of the largest, very well-known art festival that brings culture to our city and I think that’s sort of another glue or fabric that keeps it together. He invites a lot of local groups from our Dade-County school teachers to exhibit kids work, like kids from New World’s School of the Arts.

     

    There are some things that are lost forever like Biscayne Baby’s which was this night club just of off Virginia Street in the Grove, right behind CocoWalk. I think by the time South Beach became a destination in the mid-90s and to today, these big, huge, mega bars started losing their appeal. And of course, South Beach is no longer cool, well, maybe it is for spring breakers, but it stopped being cool a while ago, and then Wynwood became the new space. So, I don’t know anything about the excitement that you saw in South Beach in the ‘90s and 2000s or the excitement that we’ve seen in Wynwood in the last decade but if you lived those moments, and you understand how communities come together and enterprises and cultures and individuals and characters organically pop up in the scene, well that’s what the Grove was. The Grove was the precursor to the South Beach and the precursor to the Wynwood that we have today. I think the architecture has really done much to harm that and I’m not sure what the Grove will come to be, I know that the Grove has bigger problems then not having kids partying in their streets. It has other visitors, and, in this case, the visitors are sea level rise and that will hit them first. There’s a good portion of the Grove that sits on a ridge, so that’s healthy, but, you know, all the other areas, our beloved Miami City Hall is at Dinner Key in the Grove. I’m sure you’ll talk a lot about Dinner Key and its importance in Latin America and its sea planes. It really helped put Miami on the map with its flights to Cuba and back. There’s an entire community of boaters living, literally, on the water that’s also an important story.

     

    I think an important story is all the schools down Main Highway. They are like real living communities. With St. Stephens and the Hare Krishna temple that’s still just a little further north of that Italian restaurant. I remember me and my friends lived in something that looked like Melrose Place the sitcom. They lived in this gated, eight-unit apartment, and I remember always going there, hanging out with them, then going into the Grove, hanging out at night, then crashing on their couch or something, so the Grove was that. The Grove was also a place where friends would go, from a residential point of view they had this tight knit community still there, they are residents that I think have the strongest sense of community and bonding. I think particularly so in that area in downtown Grove because you don’t live in spaced-out houses, but there’s a dog park and a sense of community. In fact, our commissioners that cover the entire seashore are civic leaders that became political leaders because of their role. I think another danger the Grove has besides sea level rise and the impacts of climate is the gentrification that’s happening with the West Grove and what that means to the people who, for generations, have built community there. I saw a Walgreens pop up across from the current post office back when that was the venue for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. That was magical, sometimes you would see concerts there. I saw Led Zeppelin documentaries there, but Rocky Horror Picture Show at that cinema was legendary. So, you had the cinematheque, you had the national films, you had the Rocky Horror Picture Show always happening there. You had your drinks at the Village Inn, you had a community where you could walk around. So, it was this really awesome destination. So that’s the heart of the Grove there. The gentrification of the West Grove up Grand Avenue will continue to be a problem and for the same reason they have these Grove houses that they called shotgun houses that are disappearing because these are simple structures, literally you called them shotgun houses because you open the front door and shoot your shotgun straight through and it’ll go out the back door. You know very simple rudimentary homes, but they sit on extremely valuable property. There’s also a community of faith leaders, there’s cemeteries, there’s all sorts of culture there that is disappearing. I also think I want to take you to the Miami Science Museum. For the longest time the Miami Science Museum, before it moved to downtown Miami, lived in the space that were basically the farm and garden space for Vizcaya, but it had Bayshore Drive on the right and US 1 on the left. And it was an important location because it was tied to that downtown area. It feels like it’s not part of the Grove, but I want to acknowledge that it was literally part of the Grove and an essential component of it. And US 1 completely change the character of that. Asphalt and concrete do so much to erase but that, I think, is an important place I’d like to mention.

     

    I want to talk about Monty Trainor’s’ place right now. You know it as this two-story mall. I think there’s a Starbucks there and then there’s a restaurant that’s in the back and it’s an open restaurant with tiki huts. It’s nice, it’s actually a nice view than what we used to have. When we finished, in the magical ‘80s, winning a championship game at the Orange Bowl, another thing that has disappeared, we would all go to this place called Monty Trainor’s and it was a square, one-story building at the corner of Bayshore, right now it’s an asphalt lot but I just want you to know that it was an absolute destination and an eating place and a bar and all that. And it was so good that now it’s franchised in another one of these two-story malls in South Beach. And things happen in society, but all these franchises come from places that were organically created and had a sense of community around them. So, when you go to that parking lot you don’t have the same feel that you had in the ‘80s when you went there. Next to the Coconut Grove parking lot you have that airplane hangar. I know that hangar well because I painted an airplane in that hangar in 2004 when the US Marshals took it over when a plane was stolen from the Cuban government by a family looking for freedom who bought it to the US. That hangar is currently used by a local nonprofit that teaches kids with disabilities how to sail and that is a good purpose for that place. Next to it you had the Chart House, which was an elegant place to go I think, that and a new farmers market that has been developed has changed it a little bit. And a gem of the Grove that was next to City Hall which has disappeared is a restaurant that was literally inside the marina, Scotty’s Landing, we went there all the time for the fish sandwiches, and it was next to the Chart House.

     

    Scotty’s Landing was awesome because it was the only place that gave you that kind of proximity to dining on the water, but it wasn’t really dining. The stuff was served in a plastic bag. Their conch chowder was served, I think for the longest time, in Styrofoam. It’s not elegant. There was Ketchup bottles on the table and there were all sorts of birds, literally, coming and eating the breadcrumbs we left. But it’s magical because the Chart House next door faces inward, they had a view of the bay behind glass, most of it covered, and there was the Rusty Pelican which, again, you’re indoors on the second story over on Virginia Key, but here at Scotty’s Landing you literally had to jump over a chain to get in. You had to run your way through the big tractors that would pull the boats out of the water and collect them on shelves. You had to compete with the smell of oil in the gas pumps that were there fueling the boats. And it was always very chaotic and there was always a line but that was a real magical destination. And what was so good about it was that you knew that it was a local place. It was off the beaten path and you literally had to watch out for these huge machines that were hauling Boats in several times and cross over a greasy, smelly, almost toxic, floor to get to this place under a tent to order your grouper fish sandwich and there was something really, really delightful about that and sadly that is gone because some developer wanted to take the Monty’s model and slice that golden goose open and create something different. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to be. It will be an outdoor restaurant that’s facing the water but that feel is lost. It’s like taking something that was good and trying to make it better but actually ruining it and I think that that’s what I want to say about the Grove is that it’s kind of done that. They are trying to explain what happened naturally but by scaling it up and monetizing it more you actually destroy it. And the reason that happens is because a firm or developer that’s not close to the ground and doesn’t have the same feel for community because they’re not part of it and are just imposing their brand doesn’t resonate with that. And they’ve created a series of structures that don’t work. CocoWalk is the most obvious example of something that didn’t work. It worked for the movie theater and, look, it was the closest movie theater to my house, and I have watched every major movie in that place, you know? I’m not trying to diss it and I drink at the café and I did visit Cheesecake Factory but, as a growth, as a place where community comes together with bookstores and the kind of stuff that would normally survive, that kind of a village disappeared. There needs to be a better approach, and this happens through government, this happens through zoning, this happens through the will of people who can convey their ideas. There’s got to be a better way of protecting these jewels so that transition happens but in a more ordered way. What happens is many lose, starting with the very developers who came to profit from it… but I think I would rather say that our community lost most because that’s not coming back and that’s what we’d like to limit. We could have the same argument about downtown Miami and what happened to it and how it’s having to try to have its revival now and I think the Grove will but I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near what it could’ve been. The Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Coconut Grove Arts Festival and some organized and culturally sustained programs from the West Grove like the Goombay Festival and the King Mango Strut Festival are wonderful but they are just temporal. If there’s a way of bringing that back I think it would be great for the Grove. I’m trying to do justice to the parts of the Grove that I care about and know about, but I have completely ignored South Grove. The reason that happens is because absent these places and making communal spaces, they’re just private locations with their own histories. But the beautiful thing about South Grove and a lot of the Grove is that its lush so what you see is just jungle. But you don’t really understand the fabric of the South Grove community unless you’re in there. I’d like to shout out the Kampong as a really, really, relevant jewel of the South Grove, where Dr. Fairchild, literally, lived and had his lab. So that is a beautiful piece of the South Grove that’s relevant to me.

     

    As you go up the Grove it’s important to acknowledge all those educational institutions. Those institutions have given up their land, their beautiful acreage to make way for big mansions. We know that the spaces that were forested have given way to developers to build homes, like the homes that were built across the road from Sharky’s on Main Highway. And more is in danger right now. I am a little bit worried about the northernmost point of Coconut Grove, Alice Wainwright Park.

     

    For years because, you know you cannot always get into bars but, 7-Eleven lets you buy MD 20/20 and then you do what you do as a 16 and 17-year-old who shouldn’t be doing that, and then you go and howl at the moon by figuring out how to break into a bayfront bar. I remember going through the Hardwood Hammocks with my friends and then taking my college friends later there to the northernmost point of the Grove and just enjoying it. And for the longest time those Hardwood Hammocks had been preserved. They were actually fenced off in the main entrance to the park. So, you go and just cut through the Hammocks and you see parts of the ridge there, you see the bay, it was barricaded with the seawall, but you could see the bay. You look to the right you could see Vizcaya. Rocky or Madonna used to live on that street, it’s a really posh place. There was a lobbyist who tried to close down the bike path there. I used to live across US 1 from that so I would literally walk, or get on my bike, walk to Alice Wainwright and then up Rickenbacker and back, but the lobbyist had Rocky or Madonna, one of those people, hire her and they wanted to close the small little gate that connected that street to Key Biscayne and the Rickenbacker Causeway because they didn’t want people like us to be on that street, but the city of Miami looks like it’s planning to make that park more available to people and I have nothing against it. I think we have we should have more parks. I am lamenting that parks are becoming homeowners’ associations where homes are built between whatever trees they weren’t allowed to cut down. But I’m afraid when they say that they want to open the Hardwood Hammock so more people can enjoy it, what they mean is the very little remaining Hardwood Hammock on the bay so that we could put ecological experiences for folks. For instance, Simpson Park outside of the Grove, much like Vizcaya and Hardwood Hammock, have to be protected and if we can’t save the buildings that are gone at the very least we need to save the very little ecosystem that’s there and that’s what I think is important about that particular part of the North Grove.

     

    My dad’s favorite house was on the corner of 17th and Bayshore. We would have to turn left there. We lived in Allapattah, we would come up 17th Avenue or 22nd and 17th, we would take that road all the way down, make a left to go to La Ermita and, my dad and mom were very religious so it was literally every night, we went to Catholic school all day, then we went to a Catholic daycare center at night, so you spend all day with the nuns then you go to daycare with more nuns and then you go home, but then at seven we go listen to mass at La Ermita. Each of us had our favorite home and I remember mine being this big place and there was a white house in the back but what I loved about it was that the ridge was really exposed and looked almost like a cliff. There was this front lawn to this house, except it actually was the backyard, but each of us had a home and they were these really beautiful mansions.

     

    I think that the community and the people who live there I think that is as intact as we can get in a society where there’s more divide. I think there’s still a good sense of community and neighbors interacting with neighbors. I’ve seen that in my friend’s neighborhoods but it’s these other place-making spaces that I think are in peril.

     

    Thanks for honoring me by giving me an opportunity to share a little bit of my history with a place that, as a child, my dad would take me. It’s a place my dad introduced me to as opposed to my friends, and it’s a place that I could then showcase because I knew it so intimately, to my high school friends. I was the resident expert by the time I am taking my out-of-town U of M buddies, and it’s a place that has honored me. I was a Coconut Grove Art Festival artist in 2008 and it was fun to be there. I depicted mangroves, the same mangroves at the end of Peacock Park, as a way of launching my reclamation project which I launched at the Bass Museum but brought to the old Science Museum in Coconut Grove.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Thank you so much, Xavier. This was incredibly insightful.

  • Lilia Garcia

    In this interview with Lilia Garcia, Director/Curator of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival Gallery, conducted by the Frost Museum’s Assistant Registrar, Yady Rivero in April 2021, we learn about Lilia’s unique relationship to the Grove and the rich path that led her to her current role as director and curator.

     

    Yady Rivero: My first question is, of course, about the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. How did you become involved?

     

    Lilia Garcia: Let me give you a little background on me first. I was an art teacher. I got a master’s degree from FIU. I got my undergraduate’s [degree] in UM, and a specialist from NOVA in Leadership. So, after I graduated from college, I became an art teacher.

    During that stage, this principal calls me up – he was the principal of Coconut Grove Elementary and he said, “I’m on the board of the Coconut Grove Arts Festival that’s 30 years old”, something like that. He asked me to join the board because he wanted me to start a program with the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. He said “We have all these artists come in, for 3 days. Some stay longer or come earlier because they have to do all this set up. And sometimes they stay later for shows. I want to take them to the schools.” So, I say, “Fine! But what is a board?” and he said “Well, you have to come to all the meetings…” And I said, “That doesn’t sound bad, I live nearby. But I want more than just the program. I want money.” “Money? But none of us get paid?!” “I want a scholarship fund.” And he said “Oh that’s a great idea! Let’s work on that.” So, I joined the board that year.

    The first program we started was the Visiting Artist Program. Where I would ask, of the 200-300 artists, how many would devote one day of their stay in Miami to visit a school. And they could choose what grade level and if they wanted a high school – 2d or 3d. I had sculptors, textile artists, ceramic artists. The first year I had around twenty participate. Today we have around 150. And now it’s both public and private schools. And some artists come days before and they don’t do just one school, they do two or three. Especially minority artists. A lot of artists are very shy, so I got an art teacher to go with them until they felt comfortable. And the teachers started calling the artists back “Oh, you gotta come back! You were so good!” And I had a few artists tell me I had changed their lives because from there, they wanted to teach. Every year I had someone say, “Oh my God, I didn’t know it’d be so much fun!”

    So that’s how I started in the board, it was the mid 80’s. The board was small at the time. It was mainly men— it’s still mainly men. And the majority of them were lawyers – people who needed this type of community service on their resume. I didn’t need it. Nobody knew I was doing this in the school system. They just knew I did everything. I started a program with free tickets so I called every cultural center in Miami and said, “If you can’t fill up your program, give me your tickets and I’ll give them away.” One year I gave away 5,000 tickets. I wanted teachers to have access to them. Because with teachers—most teachers are not cultural, they’re blue-collar workers.

    The principal who brought me in, his name was Dr. Von BB. He was not your typical principal. He was always thinking about the family component. We were always conscious about giving parents tickets to the Festival. Even today we have a discount ticket program for Grove residents. With him and me on the board and with a few others that came in when I did, they realized that – even though the festival was running fine – we needed to do more community-based things. And my perception always was that if we wanted to be a strong component of the arts in our county, we couldn’t just be a 3-day event. We had to be ongoing. We had to be a year-round organization so we could provide activities throughout the year. And kids were the easiest things for me to do. So that’s what we started doing. The scholarship program came about easy. The first year was $5,000. Now it’s $25,000 every year. We give them an art show and we do a training for them. There’s an organization of retired art teachers that work closely with us in preparing the kids. So, by the time we give them the stipend, it’s to recognize them. High school seniors. And now they’re artists.

    The beauty of what I do with the CGAF is, I’m retired from the school system, so now it’s allowing me to give back to those kids who were very interested in the arts, who went through the system, and are now emerging artists. So that’s how the gallery came about. They had this beautiful space that included a pop-up near the front, right on the sidewalk. And I opened it the first year that Basel opened here in Miami. And I did it with kids form New World School of the Arts that had just graduated. We had 6,000 people come through the gallery. They told me I could have this gallery for 6 months.

    My husband, who died 5 years ago, was the founding art teacher at New World. He started a program at the gallery, that we still do, which is to give New World a free booth, and they give one student artist the experience of what it is to be a selling artist. They have to create at least one painting and it has to be something about Miami. And the kid was responsible for everything. Bacardi was a sponsor, and they’d donate mats. And the kids would have 2 hour shifts at the booth, and they sold the pieces for $100. The students would keep half. They sold $30,000 worth of art. They had to do inventory, they had to watch the booth, count the money, represent themselves, everything. Sometimes teachers from New World would get upset because the work would sell so fast, so now they do a presale.

    … I also recruit artists by traveling to different fairs across the region and country.

     

    Yady Rivero: So, let me ask you about Coconut Grove specifically – were you raised here, or did you move here as an adult?

     

    Lilia Garcia: I don’t live here. I live in the Gables. Three minutes away on LeJeune, where Merrie Christmas Park is. I moved around.

     

    Yady Rivero: What has been your impression of Coconut Grove throughout the years?

     

    LG: When I was a kid, Coconut Grove was something special. I would never think of living there, you know I was a refugee little girl. But it was always fun. We drove around it and through it. I don’t think we often stopped in the Grove. Now, I went to UM on a scholarship. And of course, all the kids wanted to go to the festival. The boys to pick up girls and the girls to get picked up. I remember coming in with friends, and the boys would drive around Grand Avenue for hours! Honking their horns, it was the thing to do! And I would say, “Boy, what are those boys looking for!” Even a few years later when I was in my twenties, they’d still be doing it. For a long time, it was the thing to do in the Grove. So, I would come to the Grove when I wanted to be cool.

     

    Yady Rivero: Were there bars you liked or music venues?

     

    Lilia Garcia: When disco came on, I loved to dance. Discos here, you know places to dance, the one I liked most was right here, it was called Ginger Man. It was owned by Monty [Trainor] who is the director of this place. It was a private club so men that were there were higher-ups. And the women could get in without paying, without being members. So that was a lot of fun. And then my other favorite was Regine’s, in one of the hotels. That one was owned by a French woman. And, they had happy hour with free food! And me, I would go anywhere. I’d go to Coral Gables; I’d go to Fort Lauderdale. But Coconut Grove was the place to go. I don’t think there was a nightclub here that I didn’t go to.

     

    Yady Rivero: Would you say that prior to joining the CGAF, you were interested in a lot of the art spaces here?

     

    Lilia Garcia: Oh yeah! I’m an artist! Look at what I did this morning! [Ink doodle on tablet cover]. I went into education for survival because I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a well-paid artist. I have a background as a commercial artist, and I hated it. I didn’t like the atmosphere. I still do a lot of marketing though, because life is marketing. I used to tell my old teachers this, that if you’re in the arts, you have to toot your own horn. You need to say “I’ve done this! I’ve done that!”

     

    Yady Rivero: Especially as women.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Yes. And I’ve done the research. If you look at administrative positions in the arts, you see that as you go up, there are less and less women.

     

    Yady Rivero: I know that you’re a Board member of Oolite Arts Miami. I’m curious to know what you’d say the state of the arts are today.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Coming from my background when there was so little. There were maybe 2 or 3 art galleries here, and they were only for a particular few. I have seen it grow beautifully. The talent has always been here, but the talent has become stronger. And I think one of the reasons is that the make-up of this community is from so many different places and coming from so many different strata of income and all that. It’s like a pool of great art – and one feeds the other. I know that in most schools you have kids who hate each other. It’s like, “Oh, this is a black kid” or “Oh, this is a Hispanic kid who just came over. I don’t want to sit with him.” In an art class, you don’t see that. In an art class, kids are just looking to see what work you’re doing. And if you’re good, who cares what color you are? They want to see what you’re doing! I see that and it’s exciting to me. I had a kid in my class who was legally blind, and the other kids would come and say, “Oh my God!” Nobody would talk to him – he was very tall and black. But when he started painting, kids would come from everywhere and ask for him, they wanted to see his work.

    Art is expanding. Art used to just be painting and sculpture. Now it’s everything! Now it’s illumination and sound and projection and ceramics. So, what I’m working on, for the future of CGAF is installations. I want to bring large installations. Like music festivals, like Coachella or Burning Man. We are also working very closely with the Chamber of Commerce, since there’s more interest in working cooperatively. We are working with BID and the Women’s Club. We want it to look beautiful so it’s very high cost. We also hire private security. I am responsible for the jurying and the judging. We have a blind jury, that evaluates the work of artists who apply. We use ZAP, the online platform for people to submit their work. We judge it here in this room, at this table. We use 5 monitors. We get around 1,000 applicants for the festival and we choose around 380 artists. I like to do this part together in the same room.

     

    Yady Rivero: The jury is comprised of artists…?

     

    Lilia Garcia: The jury is artists, curators, university professors. Each year is different. $50,000 of our budget goes towards awards.

     

    Yady Rivero: Do you make an effort to get diversity candidates?

     

    Lilia Garcia: No, it’s whoever. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. We have artists of different backgrounds. I do share application deadlines to Black artists through the Black guilds.

     

    Yady Rivero: To wrap up – you know, this exhibition is essentially providing an art historical narrative for this area of Miami. I wanted to know what you think about the importance of that. Not just for this exhibition, but in general.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Telling Miami art history is so important. First of all, I think it’s so important to tell every history. And a lot of this stuff we know as history is a lot of rumors that actually didn’t happen. I’ve been listening to this podcast on a study they did about being Black, and it hurt me for a while to even listen to it. The history that I was taught – there’s so many nuances within that history that aren’t taught. It was shocking to me. So, the same thing is the case with the arts. History is important because of that. Those little stories… especially for a community like ours that is so fragmented. It’s hopeful for some kids to see. Like, “Hey, look! This guy made it. This Gene Tinnie gut.” Gene Tinnie and I go back many years.

     

    Yady Rivero: That’s great! I’ve seen his work. I’m a registrar so I help with the loans and it’s great to hear stories about the person behind the art, since registration is very object focused. But now I am getting a picture of the artist.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Gene’s background is Foreign Languages. And he traveled a lot. He interned for me. There was a special program for people in Miami interested in the arts. They would take them and put them in different places to experience the art world. And Gene Tinnie was with me for six weeks. And he loved teaching. He’s very calm and wise. I love being around him. Everyone thinks he was a basketball player, but he never played sports.

    So those connections are important to keep. Because if you don’t write them down, if you don’t show them, they’re lost.

     

    Yady Rivero: That’s great, and you mentioned earlier you wanted to start a curatorial program?

     

    Lilia Garcia: Yes! Three major projects. One is my baby – called Oolite Wheels. Which is a revamped truck so it’s going to be a maker’s space for artists with a 3D printer and other technology. It will be completely equipped for artists. On the back it will open up and there will be a screen for showing films so people can sit in the back. It will have a gallery inside. We can take a whole art program and bring it around town. We’re thinking of bringing it to Homestead, Doral, Opa-Locka, those communities.

     

    Yady Rivero: Oh, that’s great. Bringing it to the suburbs.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Yes, we can also rent it out. The first thing is to buy the bus.

    The second project is a journal about art in Miami. And we’ll start with coverage about artists at Oolite and we’ll try to get the New York Times and the Chicago Times to run the articles. It will be virtual, but we will have an editor. The idea is to boost our artists.

    Th third project is a kit, a skills kit for curators. Each day do a different research category on how to put up a show, how to do artists visits, all that kind of stuff.

     

    Yady Rivero: And that would be for college students or high school?

     

    Lilia Garcia: It would be for whoever wants it. Mainly artists who want experience with curating or young curators who want to up their skill.

    Oolite actually started at Coconut Grove. Which is kind of interesting. Nobody knows that because they don’t have the history I do! But Oolite – there was a place in the Grove and then later where Johnny Rocket’s used to be. It was a place to do art. It was full of artists and classes for adults. And if you wanted to try something new, it was a community for artists. And I went when I was at UMiami because I was interested. I met this woman there whose name was Eli Schneiderman and she was working – she was a psychologist at UM who took a class there on ceramics and loved it. She took classes with Juanita May who was a master ceramicist. And then the place where the Grove House was located was sold.

    They sold that space and then they moved to the Johnny Rocket’s space. And then that place went up for sale. So, two women went out looking for a new space. Eli went to South Beach, on Lincoln Road. And the other woman, whose very popular (her husband was a major landscape artist), she went to the Bakehouse. I am friends with both. I’m 18 years old at this point. They both come back to the Grove House and they say “We have to make up our minds. Which one do we want to take?” And both of these women explained what they were doing. Eli said “I have right now, under contract, I can get 7-10 store fronts where we can put artists and pay very little. We can change that whole space.” This was the early 70s. South Beach was a derelict area; you did not want to walk around there. But then the other woman said, “Oh but the Bakehouse is a bakery that’s been around forever! Marita’s Bakery. And it’s empty, in the outskirts of Wynwood. We can take that whole building and have it to ourselves and put studios and all that.” The board was divided between the two! So, one group went to South Beach and one group went to the Bakehouse. They opened them both up with artists and that’s how both spaces started. The Bakehouse didn’t have air conditioning for the first 5 years. Look at them now! And in South Beach – when Eli started bringing in all these artists that were producing great work, they started bringing in all the collectors. And they wanted restaurants, places to buy things, so that’s how things started developing. And then you have Wynwood. Now those artists are being pushed out and going to Little Haiti.

     

    Yady Rivero: Okay I have just one more question. And then I’ll leave you…

     

    Lilia Garcia: Oh, we talk too much.

     

    Yady Rivero: No, no. It’s been fascinating. My last question is since we’ve been reflecting on the art community here in South Florida. What are some lessons we can learn in terms of improvement, or things that have happened in the past that you keep in mind?

     

    Lilia Garcia: Well, considering my background and my interests and my purpose for joining the board – I think, not losing the Arts. Keeping them important and as a part of our lives – it has to be through education. I think that the Frost will show this in its exhibition. All the local artists in the show became the guides and the mentors for those coming up. The show can show that when it brings people in. So, I think that’s something to keep in mind. You don’t want an exhibit that just…especially after a pandemic where no one wants to go anywhere – you have to bring in people and come up with events. Especially history people.

     

    Yady Rivero: Like an education program.

     

    Lilia Garcia: Yes. It’s not just doing the event; it’s bringing people to the event. I would like to see it documented and accessible.

     

    Yady Rivero: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me.

     

    Lilia Garcia: You know I had a friend that would say, if it’s about the arts then it has a connection the Grove!

     

  • Renée Ransom

    As opposed to an oral history, the following text comes from email conversation between Renée J. Ransom, artist, and Amy Galpin, curator on May 22 and May 23, 2021. Ransom was active with the Miami Black Arts Workshop and two of her works are included in the exhibition, Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove at the Frost Art Museum FIU.

     

    Amy Galpin: Where were you born?

     

    Renée Ransom: Winter Park, Florida. I went to Webster Elementary School in Winter Park, Florida and Hungerford High School in Eatonville, Florida. I also studied at Orange County Vocational School and Jones Business College in Orlando.

     

    Amy Galpin: When did you move to Miami and why?

     

    Renée Ransom: I moved from Winter Park, Florida, to Miami, Florida on May 3, 1979. Before moving on to Miami, Florida, I created numerous art décor craft creations during high school continuing to adulthood in the areas of “plaster crafts,” I participated in several art exhibits and shows. I obtained contracts in decorating parties, special events, weddings, and teaching specialty workshop classes.

    On May 3rd, 1979, my sister Cynthia, owner of Flowers by Cynthia Floral asked me to come to Miami, to help fulfill creating 150 floral baskets for Mother’s Day. After fulfilling that event, she begged me to come to Miami to reside there and to help run the floral business. I did end up moving to South Miami, to help Cynthia. Upon coming to South Miami, I was introduced to Mr. Jack Dunn, the owner of Jack’s Place: Jack’s Famous Steak House on Grand Avenue, to sell my artifacts. Jack’s Place was two doors down from the Miami Black Arts Workshop.

    Being at Jack’s Place, I was curious of the people coming in and out of this place a few doors down. I introduced myself, the first person I met was Dinizulu Gene Tinnie. Then Ernest Cason, Oya Besis, George Wrentz, Robert McKnight, and his brother Donald McKnight, Rubie Laffin, Roland Woods, the Director of the Project, and a host of others later. I was granted space to work there at the workshop. I began taking ceramic classes and basket weaving classes at the Web in Coral Gables. I started working part-time at “West Miami Ceramic Shop” in West Miami. I attended Helen Alteria painting specialty classes and ceramic pottery, learning hand building techniques, clay lifting, scrafetto, (a method in drawing designs into clay while moist). I begin taking ceramic tile pouring and pattern design classes.  During this time frame, I was busy learning other skills and crafting, that truly helped me to advance.

    As time moved on, one year, later my sister Cynthia passed away. I then moved to Coconut Grove, to reside on Charles Avenue. After a few months passed, I was hired to work at the Coconut Grove Girls Club. I was hired as the arts instructor to teach creative art décor/craft projects to summer camps and afterschool girls on Williams Avenue.

    I would come by the Workshop to visit daily to say hello and to see what projects were going on in the community, I learned that the community highly depended on the artists at the Black Arts Workshop. Occasionally I would bring my art to work on. One day, I was approached by Roland Woods, the director, who told me their secretary is leaving, and the Workshop will be in need of a secretary. I expressed to Roland, that I have secretarial skills. He was not aware that I had those skills. He knew me only as an artist. I completed an application and took a typing test and a filing test indicating the different filing systems. He asked if I would like to have the job. I said “yes”!

    I served as part-time secretary. I formatted proposals for grant funding to continue artwork throughout the community and helped Roland structure contracts for the artist for modifying and beautification projects improving the outer facing of businesses and homes. 

    The Miami Bahamas Goombay Festival was started by The Miami Black Arts Workshop. Yes, the Miami Black Arts Workshop was the home for artists that migrated from abroad to Miami – Coconut Grove, Florida. Roland Woods inspired me to structure my first proposal for a grant to teach: Arts for the Handicapped. A project I desired to teach as a home-base motivational project.

    The proposal was submitted and returned approved from The Counsel of Arts and Science, the City of Miami. Roland, Dr. Ted Nichols, Dr. Marzell Smith and I, structured an overall afterschool project for the community youth sponsored by the Workshop.

     

    Amy Galpin: Please tell me about your life in Texas.

     

    Renée Ransom: Texas, is where it all started with health and well care for me.  I attended A.T.I. Institute for massage therapy, North Richland Hills, Aromatherapy Chemistry I, II in Dallas, Reiki in North Richland Hills, Certified Herbalist in North Richland Hills.

    I create "All-Natural Essential Oil" Body Care, Skin Care Products to balance the skin pH factor. I am a licensed massage therapist, a certified medical assistant, and a licensed esthetician. I am a therapeutic pottery specialist, a ceramic tile designer, a therapeutic art therapist, and I design interior and exterior art décor.

     

    Amy Galpin: Thank you for sharing with me your memories of Coconut Grove and for telling me more about your life in Texas. We are so happy to present your work in the exhibition.

     

     

    Renée J. Ransom, Clothespin Art Creation II (Dining Room Set), clothespins and fabric, 1981, courtesy of the artist, photography by Zachary Balber 

  • J.S. Rashid

    Coconut Grove Resident and community leader J.S. Rashid and curatorial assistant Ashlye Valines sat down to discuss his work as a community leader and urban developer in the Grove during the ‘1980s and today. Rashid is the President and CEO of Coconut Grove Collaborative, now the Collaborative Development Corporation, whose mission is to rebuild the civic fabric of South Florida Communities.

    This interview was conducted for the exhibition Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove, 1968-1989 and took place on July 14, 2021.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Where were you born?

     

    J.S. Rashid: I was born in Chicago Illinois.

     

    Ashlye Valines- And when did you move to Coconut Grove?

     

    J.S. Rashid: 1985

     

    Ashlye Valines: What were some of your most memorable places in Coconut Grove?

     

    J.S. Rashid: Well, it’s in what was called, at the time, West Grove. There’s a couple of them, it’s hard to choose, like your children. “Which one is you favorite?” We have many favorites, or secret favorites. In this part of the Grove, they do the Goombay Festival. It’s right here on the strip and years ago, before I helped along with others, this was a four-way highway with no median strip and one of the things we changed… the business guru said, “if you’re going to have business you have to have traffic coming.” And the cars were going pass too fast because of the perception of crime. The perception was greater than the actual crime, but it’s always accelerated when it’s in a minority neighborhood because every incident here just has a multiplier effect. Even though the statics sometimes belie the associated fear, it was just as valid. It was something that you had to do something about. But the Goombay Festival takes place here, and the last Goombay that was held, I did it with the KROMA [gallery], I put on the last one, it’s kind of demised. The first year after they completed it, they suspended it while they were doing this work on the road and then one year they had it but the quandary was, you were kind of going in one lane when it used to be the whole street and they never surmounted that.

    The other thing is, when I first moved to Coconut Grove I lived in, what is now called, the Village West, and I lived on little bit of the north part, close to Bird Avenue but in the Village West, and some Saturdays you would wake up and you would hear the sounds of some kind of festival, you would hear music and it really embodied, to me, the sense of village life. It was just really a simpler time, a simpler pace and really organic and natural, that’s just the lure of Coconut Grove. One of my favorite places was going to Peacock Park and around Bayshore Drive with whatever festival… I won’t say du jour but, whatever festival, and they used to seem like they had a lot of festivals. Every other month there was some kind of festival. It was really fun to, kind of, just stroll over there. Whether it was the Barnacle Fest, or the Mad Hatter, or the Art Festival or the Taste of the Grove, all those kinds of things, and that’s what Grove life was really like, and it was really good and the simplicity.

    When I moved here in August of 1985 it was a time where, being a Chicagoan, it was very hot. It was hotter than Jamaica. I was in Jamaica because I had left Chicago to escape the corporate circumstance and open up a tourist shop, and because it got hot and slow, I did all my homework, and it was going fabulous, but I didn’t realize that, as a northerner, vacation season started in June after school was out. I’m definitely from a different place, mid-westerner, but when I got to the Caribbean, high tourist season is November, the high rollers come in. So, the season really gets started in November and then by April it slows down. May gets slower, and the slower it got the hotter it got. June was slower and hotter, and July was like standstill. I said, “oh my goodness! My family chided me for this adventurism, I don’t want to go back to Chicago so they can say ‘I told you so!’” And to the people of the Caribbean and Latin America, Miami is Mecca. I was pretty much familiar, I had been to a lot of metropolitan cities across the United States and they had the same formula, pretty much. Once I got emancipated at my house, I moved to an area, it was Hyde Park in Chicago, which is in the shadows of the University of Chicago, and that kind of neighborhood is diverse and its cool, and, back in the day, I’m old enough when pre-hippies were beatniks, coffee houses and beatniks, and so when I started asking around, I was asking people, “where is anything like a university?” And they said, “oh! You’re talking about Coconut Grove.” And I said, “Coconut Grove? Okay.” So, I came here, I had some friends that were going back and forth from Jamaica and Negril, and a lot of folks from Negril would come to Coconut Grove that would come through Miami. So, we came here and said, “Huh. Okay, this is good.” That’s how my journey started with Coconut Grove and Miami is that I came to a realization, I said, “you know? I need to come to the mainland to resupply.” Sometimes you get cabin fever or island fever, and this would be a good back and forth. I see why the folks come from the Caribbean, you come to get provisions and then you come back to the idyllic paradise, and so I said, “yeah, we should do this.” So, my first way in trapping myself is I bought a raggedy car, and then we got this bulletin idea, “why don’t we buy a place, a duplex? We could rent out one side and then anytime we come we don’t have to do hotels. We could keep supplies here.” So, I got a mortgage, and just before I closed on that the real estate agent said, “you know the house next door is encroaching one foot onto the property you’re trying to buy.” I said, “oh well.” He said, “but wait! I can give you a great deal.” And it was an outstanding deal, so I bought that one too. Then it was one of those ‘oh [no] moments’ and I said, “I’m in debt!” Well, we were definitely committed to keeping the store but to try to make some money one of us would go down back and forth keeping the store, and I got a job at BellSouth Advertising and Publishing, and they published the yellow pages. I had an advertising background, but that was what I was trying to escape from, the corporate circumstance, and trying to do that was schizophrenic. So I got another one of those bulletins in my head, instead of doing that… well I needed the money, I needed a job, so I worked there for two or three years and it was really rough… trying to go back and run a store in Jamaica and work corporately was schizoid and I said, “well, wait a minute! This is not congruent.” So, I said, “I’ll open up a store here.” So that’s the slippery slope. That was 36 years ago, I never came here to stay, I thought I was passing through. So, while I was here, I got a store on Main Highway and I was one of two blacks. There was a Jamaican lady who had a store, but I was a novelty, and, somehow, that store just took off and got a lot of tension and got front page coverage in the Herald. And CocoWalk was just being built, and the developer of CocoWalk and the guy that was head of the local development corporation, a non for profit concerned about affordable housing and economic development, came to me and said, “why don’t you move your store to the West Grove?” So, I moved my store to the West Grove and then I was invited to join the board of directors of the local development corporation. I’m kind of fast forwarding a lot of thing… and then the next thing I know, after several years, the director resigned, and they appointed me the director. They locked me in Coconut Grove and then they threw the key away.

    The other part about the Grove, is it’s 12, 15 minutes from everywhere. You could get to the airport in 12 minutes, you can go down town in 10 minutes, you can go to South Beach in 15 minutes, you can go west to the Palmetto in about 15 minutes and be on the western end of everything, and it’s just the scale. I’m from a big city, Chicago, and, I mean, whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to travel three or four miles. Here, it’s a very walkable community, and I used to walk all parts of the community. So, the favorite, we loved Merrick Park, we loved Kennedy Park and things like that, so these are some of my favorite places.

    Coconut Grove is a supreme destination. In those days, it was the only game in town south of Orlando, South Beach hadn’t been developed. When I used to go, back in those days, to South Beach, it was recent arrivals, immigrants from Cuba and Latin America, and retirees, one step from eternity, and Lincoln Road was like a little, dead, yesteryear kind of thing. I mean it would be hard for any person of contemporary times to imagine South Beach like it is, all that stuff before South Point Towers. Joe’s Stone Crab was there, that’s requisite. It used to be that you really haven’t been to Miami unless you went to Joe’s Stone Crab, you haven’t been to Miami yet. The Mayfair was bustling. The Mayfair had all the tony shops and signature stores, Ralph Lauren and a lot of couture, and I had my store. Barbara Walters walks in, Whitney Houston walks in, it was just great. From Thursday to Sunday, you couldn’t pace down the street. It was about a hand’s length between you and the person in front of you, and behind you, and beside you, and it might even get tighter It was just really eclectic, people roller skating. I mean, you’d come and get entertainment. Just watching the people was worth the price of the ticket. You got these characters, and they were really serious about the characters, they’d come in their little get ups, people with cars that are all tricked out, riding around. You had street vendors, just little spots and things like that. So, the village center was one of my favorite places you would go. It was great and living in a place that would come alive like that on the weekends, there was just so much going on at one time until it dissipates, you don’t realize what you have until its gone. So those are some of my favorite spots, there we’re so many nooks and crannies and the Grove is so multifaceted. We got the South Grove with the big estate type lots, we got the center Grove where they got apartments, we had the West Grove where you had the Bahamian, African American culture, with a lot of unfulfilled potential. So, it’s very textured. Now I’m seeing this instance of, what I would refer to as, convergence. Now if you check the history out, the early settlers from the Bahamians… actually, its three parts from the African diaspora, it’s not just Bahamians, it’s those folks from the Carolinas, North and South Carolina, and Georgia that came. But everybody defaulted to the Bahamians. One time they wanted to call us the Island District and that’s were the folks from the Carolinas and Georgia would say, “I ain’t from no island.” So, I came up with this name of Village West because I didn’t like the terminology Black Grove. Yes, we’re black, but your culture… you don’t have to have eyesight, you don’t have to be visual, we are who we are just by being and, plus, if we had a place that was more-or-less, officially-unofficially called White Grove, that wouldn’t make sense, you know? We can do better than that and my vision said we had to create a cache, and everything down here is village, the Village of Merrick Park, villages, and the village life. So, lets exemplify this village. One of the things that disturbed me, if you’re, for example, coming from the airport going south towards Coconut Grove on 37th avenue, when you get to Coral Way or South West 22nd Avenue, there’s a sign that says ‘Coconut Grove’ but it diverts you to the east. If you just continue on that route, you hit Coconut Grove. Well, that made me feel like, “so what are we? Chopped liver?” And then I found out that the Florida East Coast Railroad, that original site, is where the metro rail is coming down. That use to be the Florida East Coast Railroad track line, so that’s where the metro rail is. So that 37th Avenue used to be the Coconut Grove stop, but when they put the metro rail stops in there, they made the Coconut Grove stop 27th Avenue, and then all the folks in Coconut Grove were referred to as, downtown, the mercantile district, the Village. So, I said again, “we’re chopped liver? Okay then we’re the Village West.” And I didn’t like so much that the West Grove terminology was associated with the times when there was a lot of crime and a lot of drugs. The folks here that were associated with the drug trade were actually the mules, because we had a lot of famous people that are not from the Grove. We really found it’s not so much Grove folks in this business and trade, it’s a lot of people coming in and setting up their own franchises, and the reason this is a convenient place, is because you could get to US1 going due west, you can get to US1 going north, you could score and get out and a lot of well-heeled people were waving the money. So, it’s not so much that it was the usage of drugs among us, they were answering the demand, just like capitalism. So that was the demand and because of the institutional, historical inequities and injustices, this is how you survive. And I think the way society’s constructed, it conspired to keep people marginalized so you can have those things fulfilled. If you let too many people get an education, who’s going to be cleaning the toilets because everybody’s going to want the same thing you want. When you wake up and make some progress economically and education wise, you had to find somebody else to be your mule. So, you invite immigrants here, you dangle the promise of dreams and they come here, and you keep them marginalized and they have to default to those things that are needed and that was the story.

    One of the things here, being a guy from the north, is just exposure, plain and simple exposure, and one of the things I began to realize was that Florida is a peninsula. No state to the east, or the west or the south, and you’re bordering southern Georgia and Alabama. Not to disparage it or anything, I can safely say that it’s not the most cosmopolitan. So, there was a lot of lack of exposure. If you don’t have the exposure you don’t have any examples or anything to aspire to. If you’re isolated, you do what you can do to survive. But the prospects and the possibilities grew and it’s an activist community. And we find out that we are a whole lot alike. A lot of people of different ethnicities, they’re in their little corners of the world and we kind of quibble and point out the differences but, actually, we have a lot in common. But one thing about Grovites: we’re Grovites, we’re independent and even if you weren’t born here, you feel the dissatisfaction of having been conscripted into the city of Miami and the fact that the city of Miami took us. Every Grovite really, in their heart, wants to be an independent municipality. So, back in 1993, there was a group of Grove activists that put a measure on the ballot to secede from the city of Miami and I worked on that committee. We’d established a Coconut Grove village council, so we were on our way. The council measure passed but because of the county intervening to veto, they forswore our aspirations. So, I served on the second village council, I served two, four-year terms, I was vice chairman, that was a great experience. I started out working in the central district. The first place I moved was on Virginia Street, I could throw rocks from my house to CocoWalk. And then I moved to West Grove and coming to the West Grove is like pledging a fraternity, it’s a social construct that I had to get my arms around. The people of diaspora in Chicago, we didn’t make a distinction. You could be born in Los Angeles or Port-au-Prince, Kingston, New York, but here, it was a little bit more tribal and us northern folk really had to go through something to get accepted, and the Grove is really particular, it’s always that social construct. Somebody, whose local, that has both Bahamian and Georgian roots, told me, “well, the way they look at it is, you come here as an outsider and, being a man of color, they feel like they’ve been foreclosed [on by you, because they’re] not successful. Now contrast if you were white, or Latin, and did what you did, well [that’s how it’s supposed to be. So, it’s okay.” And so that has been challenging at times and I’ve not had the sense to leave, you know? I’ve stayed here and persevere. My role at the Coconut Grove local development corporation… I worked on the board and I was like a floor leader on the board, helping out this guy, David Alexander, whose a visionary who had similar challenges because he was Jamaican and he was of fairer skin, and he was very good, he accomplished a lot of things. I worked with him on his leadership when he established about 45 houses. He built 45 affordable houses in the area, but this community, actually it’s called Grove-Gables, this one community is divided between two municipalities so the historic Black Gables and the historic Black Grove is really one family living on the other side of a map line and so the county had designated this area as a targeted urban area. So, if you were going to do some housing or economic development initiatives, you would include that area. He built 45 houses on that side because the opportunity was there and it was celebrated but there were some naysayers that would say, “well, that’s not in the Grove, that’s in Coral Gables.” So those are the kinds of things you’d have to deal with.

    Because I knew the procedures of how to get measures passed because of my upbringing in Chicago dealing with the daily machine and getting votes, I could help David Alexander get measures passed and that didn’t endear me to a certain faction because I was supporting him and he was looked at as an outsider, just kind of resented. So that’s just something that we were really working with, that’s just a little problematic area. When he resigned, I took over the reins and, fortunately, I was able to continue projects and get grants and funding and things like that, but the board really wanted a favorite son or favorite daughter to represent them. I was running it for a while, ostensibly, on an interim basis, and they wanted to formalize this but they put out a call to interview 40 people and they narrowed it down to eight, then three, then they said they were going to score them and I got the highest score, then they said they wanted to ratify it… they expected me to continue as the project manager, and I really didn’t want to do that so I took a job with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, but things didn’t take off, things got to a standstill, and the University of Miami had been working closely with this community, the University of Miami Center for Urban and Community Design at the School of Architecture. They were modeling community developments, form follows function, so that they could do architecture based on the needs of communities and underserved communities. I started working closely with them and some other entities and things start happening, affordable housing, public policy initiatives and things like that, just building a framework for this community with a decided mission to help the folks here maintain their tenure, their handhold on this. It calls for a whole lot of creative things, not just narrowly focused on the textbook economic development concepts. You have to have some rhythm and flow, and some flavor, and some steps to make that happen. For instance, one of the things that always kind of got me was when [people would say], “we need jobs! We need jobs! We need jobs!” And someone would say, “Okay, we’re going to do something about it. We’re going to do a job training.” And I’d say, “But [then its] a job training for no jobs. You’ve got to create the jobs.” “Well, the people don’t have the background and the skills. They need resumes.” First of all, you have to address people at their level. You have to make and find jobs for folks that don’t need a resume, that don’t have a Ph.D. or high school education or barely a G.E.D. That’s not the issue, it doesn’t work that way, its scalable. So, I come on with the idea of building on the culture of the community, and to make it walkable, let’s have these retail kiosks, and it will accomplish a couple of things. It’s just like the law of physics, two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time, so if you have some proprietary activity, then the negative activity can’t take place. If I put a kiosk on the street, I got eyes on the street, I got light, color, ambience, and a sense of security, then I’m building it on that culture. So you’d go to this kiosk and you can buy some Goombay Festival souvenirs, like a headdress, you can buy arts and crafts, its colorful, it creates the ambience, you got light, you got people, you got rules. These operators are responsible for a 200-foot radius of eyes, your communicating with roving ambassadors that are dressed up like Bahamian police in a stylized way, then people will feel good about walking. If you’ve got people stopping and walking, you’ve got critical mass, a critical mass that will support retail, but you can man these booths with people that don’t have all this background. Then we can put them in the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau Hospitality Training or the hospitality training at Miami-Dade College, then you can begin to do things like that. So that’s the vision I had been crafting and working from. I was working to do this and how I got involved to put forth that vision and to make it work, and it’s still what we need to do. We need to create that critical mass, but that kind of fell by the wayside.

    When I left the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation which we referred to as the L.D.C., things were at a standstill and the University of Miami Center for Urban and Community Designs started doing a study. So they began a focus group and they convened community stakeholders to put forth a vision to, kind of, restart the efforts that had become sedentary and then they decided to formalize it, and started the Coconut Grove Collaborative, and then they put it out to the community to vote for a chairman and somebody nominated me and I was made the chair. I was chairman for about two years and out of that comes Gibson Plaza (affordable housing in Coconut Grove), and part of that was identifying funding. There’s so many funding sources that, even sometimes the government and our elected officials don’t know, and that’s okay, because it’s the job of somebody that was in my position to say, “Mr. Commissioner, under your signature you got 13 million dollars in general obligation bonds. You can use that for housing and its debt free, you don’t have to pay it back.” So I tapped into this fund under commissioner Xavier Suarez who, when I first approached him about it, he was aspiring to the office of commissioner, and when he got in, true to his word, he tapped that money and then we had plans. That’s the other thing I would tell people who want to be in this business, you have to have it all thought out pretty much, you have to have it pre-chewed, and then you bring it up. You don’t make your commissioners and your elected officials the all-knowing geniuses on these things, you’ve got to bring the plan and if it makes sense, is tenable, and within the guidelines of ethics, then you have a better chance of enduring and that’s how I would attribute the success of being an instrumental developer of such things as the 45-plus single family houses and the Gibson Plaza, and some other initiatives like the kiosk project, which ultimately didn’t take off but, again, it’s a model and something that could still be applied. I’ve been off the scene as an operative for about two and a half years and things haven’t happened so I’m just getting reengaged so we can reignite that. Coconut Grove is a fertile ground. The part of the area, the Village West, West Grove, Black Grove, the Bahamian enclave, is still a good place to do things but some people come in here and put efficiencies, maximize by building to the lot lines, no regard for the history and culture, just for profits, so we have to hasten our pace to make sure we get something institutionalized. In and of itself, gentrification is not bad, so long as we’re on the manifest. So if this ship is sailing to prosperity, I don’t see our names on it, that’s the issue more than gentrification itself, because if you’re sailing to the land of prosperity, there’s nothing wrong with that, prosperity is not bad, but it’s that they’re leaving us off that ship and this is the area we couldn’t leave out. Now we’re fighting the forces to stay here, and we have no illusion, we’re not going to be one hundred percent our former population, we’re not going to be fifty percent, we’re not going to be thirty percent, but we have to draw a line in the sand and say, “dammit, this is it.” This is aspirational. So, I pressed the politicians to make a stand… make a stand, use the pulpit, let’s begin with a quantifiable, measurable standing that we want to inspire to, and I’ve been pushing them. We want to build 1500 units of affordable housing, which 50 units of that would be single family houses, and establish 50,000 square feet of retail space and have an initiative called Disadvantaged Businesses Enterprise where you can get subsidies form the federal government to help subsidize to energize them. That would counter all the social cost as a consequence of not having it, but they keep on drawing the slide rule and the micrometers and measurements, and they’re just being a penny wise and a pound foolish on those things. Get people enfranchised because some of the benefits of having a development like that is that you tamp down social disfunction, so you don’t have gang problems, early teen pregnancies, you boost education, you promote job sustainability… affordable housing is for the mercantile district because we’ve been having problems in our mercantile district. All our workers come from ten miles away and if a mother’s kid gets sick at school they got to stop and go, they can’t make it back to work, they have a hard time retaining competent staff, have a high turnover, it’s bad for the bottom line. So, you have to have mix income, mix use neighborhoods so that, even though we’re not going to be the one hundred percent population, we’re going to be fifteen percent. If you watch outside right now and see the mix of folks here, now this place is the danger line, you wouldn’t cross McDonald Street, it’s like going through the twilight zone. In economic social measures, if you cross the street, you drop 3,500 feet in economic contrast. It was a very uncomfortable contrast, but because of displacement and the erosion of affordable houses and the people that would live here, now we got all these vacant lots and we still haven’t addressed the issues. Buts it’s not as stark as it was. Saying all that, the Grove is still a great place to be, it is beautiful.

     

    Ashlye Valines: You are involved with development of the Coconut Grove Hall of Fame, correct?

     

    J.S. Rashid: I’m a supporter, a patron, but I’m not part of the organization, that’s Anthony Witherspoon. It’s right across the street, that’s where we’re commemorating all the great sports figures that came out of Coconut Grove. I mean, Olympians, major league sports players from baseball, football, and basketball and track that made some accomplishments. My role in the development corporation, all those things were elements and constituent activity that needed to be developed and explored so we can get that critical mass, but it’s been like herding cats, you can get something over here, and over there it might dissipate. And the years that we had an appreciable number of merchants, we didn’t have the funding resources, but then when we got the funding resources, the business had dissipated. It’s really just trying to get all this stuff at once and the powers that be scratched their heads and I said, “this is triage.” Somebody’s out there drowning you don’t say, “oh should we build a bridge? Let’s have a conference and see. Should we take a boat out there? Should we take a helicopter and drop a thing? We can come back the next week with a new acronym program to study this, we’re going to do a study.” Meanwhile, “Help! Help! Help!” And that’s the approach that really riles me up. Instead of dealing with stuff, be resolute. A lot of points I start up and I don’t tie them up because I tend to digress and one of the things I was trying to get through to the powers that be, the elected officials, if we want 1500 units of housing and we end up with 600, that’s okay! We made an effort. It’s a “dammit do something” kind of thing. Every initiative needs units of housing. I can demonstrate to you that we lost, over the last 20 years, 5000 units of housing. Why do I need a study to prove that we need 1500? You can go ahead and do the study but do something in the meanwhile. Anybody that wants to come and displace a bunch of folks and put a structure there that’s out of character to our stated design, somehow that gets done, but just for sustainable housing it’s, “ we have the XYZ study and the MNOP initiative” and then there’s a distinction between affordable housing and work force housing. We need affordable housing. They’ll say, “oh we’re going to build a building with so many workforce units.” Well, the people barely can afford to live in the affordable housing, if you use workforce its market rate. You’re not addressing the issue, and they just take too much time. So one of the things is that, in my tenure at the Coconut Grove Collaborative, which became the Collaborative Development Corporation because we started doing things outside of Coconut Grove, was this [Gibson Plaza], and there was a whole lot of machinations thrown in. They were like, “you’re going to swim in the English Channel.” And I was like “yeah. No problem. I can do that and be back in 15 minutes.” “Well take this bowling ball with you.” “Ok, I can do that too.” “Here, take this other bowling ball with you.” “Alright, I’m ready to go.” “Hey, here’s an ankle chain but…. Wait, you ain’t swimmin! You said you was gonna swim it!” So that’s a kind of analogy of what we had to do, just a whole lot of stuff that gets put into place. So, it’s a love and happiness, hope and despair kind of scenario, but there’s an abundance of love and opportunity and aspiration for this area, and it still can be done, it’s not too late, its only too late if I die. Coconut Grove is still beautiful. So it’s a matter of a shared vision and a shared place, besides sharing the vision we had to share this place, and task ourselves to find ways and means to make something palatable that makes you say, “Yeah okay, I can live in approximation to these folks, rather than move them out.” They just don’t want to be in the same pool, they’d rather drain the pool than share the pool. We used to watch these old western movies, and they always had this gold prospector, old, wise, gold prospector, and he’s just like the guy that plays the lottery, “I know I’m close to that vein, That vein of gold!” He’s panning for gold and he goes down to the little mine and he comes back enthusiastically, and he works there for decades and finally he makes a strike and he comes up with the gold, “hey, I got it!” And then the desperadoes are there and say, “okay we’ll take it from you.” I’m full of analogies. But anyway, I came up with a slogan “Coconut Grove: A Better Place to Be.” It was a slogan that was aspirational and declaratory at the same time, a better place to be, a better place to be, a better place to be at. Well we couldn’t say ‘be at’, my mother was really strict on that. I’d say, “mom where’s my socks at?” And she’d say, “behind the preposition.”

     

    Ashlye Valines: Thank you for sharing your knowledge and nostalgia about Coconut Grove with me.

     

  • Eileen Seitz

    Artist Eileen Seitz and the Frost Art Museum’s curator Amy Galpin sat down to discuss her life as an artist and the ways in which Coconut Grove inspires her work.

     

    This interview was conducted for the exhibition Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove and took place on June 15, 2021. Seitz provided additions to the text to further contextualize her practice.

     

    Amy Galpin- Were you born in New York?

     

    Eileen Seitz- Yes, I was born on the island of Manhattan, New York City.

     

    Amy Galpin- I know earlier you were mentioning that you have spent a lot of time living in the Caribbean and, from 1972 to 1977, you were in Key West. When did you move to Coconut Grove?

     

    Eileen Seitz- The first time I came to Coconut Grove was around ’75. I did not like it, there were too many cars and too many people. I said to myself, “Let me get back to my island.” (Key West). In 1977 I had left Hawaii and moved to Eleuthera in the Bahamas for 10 months. When we left Eleuthera in 1978 I moved to a fruit farm in Homestead. For two months we lived there, then came to south Miami, and finally to the Grove, where I found an acre piece of property from an owner looking for a caretaker for his property. Perfect for me.  I lived in a screened in hut, 8ft x 8ft off the ground, and was lulled to sleep at night by the music of nature.  I made friends in the Grove and in early 1979, left when an opportunity to move to Costa Rica arose. For 5 months I lived on a papaya finca, riding horses, walking up rivers and reaching waterfalls, living on the earth in a house on stilts. One afternoon, late May, I was sitting on the beach, loaded with sharks, and received a message from Holy Spirit. “Call ____ [a friend of mine] in Coconut Grove.” When I did, he said, “I’ve been sitting here meditating for you to come back and move into my house.” So, I did, to a house on Kumquat Avenue.

     

    Amy Galpin- You have shared with me some different works that you have made, and I see the influence of your travels and other cultures in your work. Do you trace that back to childhood? Where did you develop this incredible interest to travel? You have been to many places: Mexico, Fiji, and you have lived in the Caribbean. I would love to know more about that.

     

    Eileen Seitz- As a kid I was very curious and had a sense of adventure. I was fearless, raring for change, always knowing I wanted to see the Wild West, the Marlboro country, with the red rocks and gorgeous landscapes. Growing up in the city surrounded by brick and granite buildings, all I could see was the sky above. [ I did go out to Arizona and rode horses for 8 hours through the red rock canyons of the Anastasi community called Keet Seel].

    At 13 one of my classmates let me try his rapidograph pen.  As soon as I began to draw with it, I knew this was my destiny. I felt it. “Oh! This is what I want to do the rest of my life!” My mom saw that love that I had and that passion and started me on private art classes.

    Around 1967 when I was in high school, I took a trip to St. Thomas Virgin Islands. My eyes and heart opened up to the beauty everywhere. “Oh my God! Look at the light! Look at the colors! Look at the nature! Look at the land!” I stayed for a very short holiday and then back to high school. Then in 1968 I began at Pratt Institute to study Fine Arts. Another holiday and a different traveling surfer partner took me to St Thomas. Again, I merged with the beauty.

    I returned to school and, one day around 1971-72 in a graphics class, I was drawing a series of Kabuki dancers, I had a vision of me living in an upstairs studio apartment eating fruit.

    After two years at Pratt, and remembering the islands, I told my mom, “mom, I want to take a year off and be an artist. I’m going back to the Caribbean.” She replied, “Okay, go be an artist.” She was a free spirit too. So now with two musician/surfers we all lived in St. Thomas for three months, and in 1971 found a house on the west coast of Puerto Rico for a few months. That summer I lived in Long Island. I have always been attracted to creative souls as traveling mates.

    Fall of 1972 my life changed again. I was always connected to the higher spiritual realms, for as an artist I go within.  One early evening, sitting on the park bench in Manhattan with two male friends I used to talk with about spiritual things, I looked at each of them, then looked to the sky and said “Lord God this is not my life, do with me as you wish, I am your Humble Servant”

    and then God instructed me, “Call Marion in New York State.”

    I called the lady I met the winter before and when she heard my voice she said to me, “Oh, I’ve been wanting you to come and work in my new gift shop I am building in Monticello, NY!”

    So, here I was, with some experience of the Caribbean islands, the light, the beauty, the ocean, the surfers, the musicians, and I asked myself, “What am I doing in New York City? The drippy rain, the grey, the concrete” and thought, “remember What’s going on down south?” So, I told my mom I’m leaving. I packed some clothes, took the money I had earned and my art portfolio, trusting with faith it was going to work out. I took a Greyhound bus to Monticello, NY to meet with Marion but, the Spirit had a different plan for me.

    Instead, I ran into a friend in the same mall parking lot, and he invited me to a lake where he rented two log cabins for the summer. (I thought, “God, how many times you have given me a fork in the road, a choice”). Well, of course I went with him. We chatted and he told me he just ran into a friend in that area and invited him as well. Immediately, the friend and I connected.  Well, we lived in a tent together instead for the summer. One of my first revelations was when looking up at the trees thinking, “wow, I know now what wind looks like,” and marveled that trees had branches low and I never knew that where I grew up, for in the apartments I lived in everything was manicured.

    After two months with my new partner and summer coming to its end, he decided we were going to walk across New York State, taking his horse Poncho and a puppy Charley, given to us by the fellow who rented the cabins. One of us walked while the other road the horse, and all the time, I was completely absorbing nature, from camping by streams and rivers to cooking out on campfires. Always in the arms of mother nature. We used a compass and just walked east, headed for Cape Cod. We walked through corn fields, through forests like two American Indians. We met all kinds of folks and saw small little towns, and always the rivers and streams were clean, until we approached the cities.

    Eventually Charley the dog ran into a barn and cut his leg, so we sold the horse and gave the dog to the same man. After reaching Cape Cod, the boyfriend and I were invited by his friends to move to Key West in August 1972. After four months, living and working in Key West, waitressing, saving money, we decided to go to buy land in Mexico.

    January 1973, we flew to Merida and hitchhiked through Mexico. Wow! Wow!

    The land purchase did not happen, so he said, “let’s go to Guatemala.” We found an older man with a Volkswagen van in southern Mexico, and he took us with him all the way to Panama City. For three months we were traveling. Before we left the USA, God told me very clearly, “Don’t take your camera, draw every day. I want you to be there fully.”

    So, I took a little black sketchbook and every day I drew and drew. People, marketplaces, jungles, etc. Every night we slept under the stars. During the days we feasted on fresh fruits and corn and beans and tortillas, visiting ruins and villages filled with marvelous Mexican woman, villages where boats were being built on coastal shores. Colorful Architecture, houses made from trees, and thatch, metal with boats and pigs, and horses. Everywhere it was so simple and natural.  In Panama we took trains through the jungle, and I saw so much of how people lived. We said goodbye and flew to Colombia. So much to experience there anew. In Colombia I met an elderly woman, an herbalist, and she invited me to her home, where they grew cashew trees. I saw how they roasted them over open fires. Children, dogs, family members, all simple and kind people.

    They gave me an upstairs room to sleep in. Try to envision these are simple people, no house screens, no fans, maybe transistor radio. The room I was sleeping in was crooked, the floor, the walls, it reminded me of Van Gogh’s painting, The Room at Arles.

    All these experiences were to be conveyed in my paintings then and in the future.

    When we returned to Key West, I had a book filled with daily illustrations of my life amongst all the marketplaces, people, jungles, trucks, locomotives, birds, huts, buses, everything and anything that captured my soul.  I was open. I knew and saw that I was a channel for God. Through my hand working on paper and canvas, God speaks as his instrument, bringing back to the people in the cities His beauty and harmony that is all around us

    Little by little, opportunities, commissions and more travel came and still comes to me. It’s now 1974. The next three years I was living the vision I had in 1971, of me living by myself in an upstairs attic apartment in Key West receiving commissions to draw pen and ink illustrations of gingerbread houses and street scenes all over Key West. Some for private residences, and others for restaurants and shops.

    One day a new client came and asked me, “will you draw my house with my bronco pickup truck parked out front?” After seeing his concrete block house and vehicle, I knew the answer was a firm “no.”

    Being true to myself, God sent another fork on my path. A friend came and asked me “want to come to Hawaii? A few of us are going.” So, I giggled and said, “God, you are so funny,” There was no question about this fork in the road. So, I told my landlord goodbye and, “I’m moving to Hawaii.”

    I lived on Kauai. I lived in a little room in a communal house and everyday I’d walk 3 miles to the beach picking up mangos, starfruit, gifts from the trees on my path. I painted and painted. In two months, I lived in two different houses, one at sea level, the other was up in the hills with a musician surfer I had met. Then I moved into his mail Jeep truck for three months, traveling around the island for fruits and surf.

    I was so close to nature and saw so many majestic and ancient parts of Kauai—amazing beaches that most could never get to, walked down and through many sugarcane fields, pineapple fields and cow pastures. I drew and painted every day, many watercolors. I wanted to draw and paint everything I saw. I was so happy and excited by everything on Kauai. I saw beauty everywhere. Eventually I had created 15 watercolor paintings.  

    One day a letter arrives, and I was invited to go a friend’s wedding in NJ. My Kauai boyfriend’s family lived in NJ too and I felt it was time to leave the island. Unlike Key West where I walked and rode a bicycle for five years, on Kauai I was always in a truck or car. A few days before I was to leave the island, a family saw three watercolors I had hanging in a health food restaurant in Koloa.  The restaurant owner eventually bought the watercolors and she contacted me about the family’s interest in my work. I made an appointment with the family to show them my collection. I went to their apartment in Poipu and laid out the 15 watercolors. They were so happy and excited.

    After my meeting was finished, I rejoined my boyfriend who was waiting in the mail Jeep truck. Seeing me smiling he asked, “what happened?” I said, “They bought them all, I sold them all to the family.” Now I had money and so we left Kauai and flew to New Jersey.

    For three months I endured NJ and finally I told the BF, “I have to get out of here! It’s grey, its cold, its drizzly. Yuck.” My sister lived in Orlando and after calling her she said, “why don’t you come down here?” So, I went to the sunshine again. Two days later, the same boyfriend, called me and said, “I’m going to Eleuthera, are you coming?” I asked God, “you mean, God, it’s not over yet?”  So, January 1978 we moved to Eleuthera in the Bahamas for 10 months. We lived in a house up on a hill with no running water, no electricity.  For me it was fine!! I could do it!  I had walked 125 miles through New York State with a horse and dog, drinking from the rivers and eating off the trees and whatever we had in our backpacks. I had hitchhiked through Central America for three months sleeping on the earth for many, many nights, bathing in rivers, etc. Life on Eleuthera was going to be “another adventure” in getting healthy and strong and bringing down the celestial beauty to Earth. God was priming me in my spirit, mind, and body. Keeping me fit and strong and healthy for whatever I would encounter then and in the future. He told me, “to be able to live off the earth, be simple. Stay close to nature, she’ll always protect you.”

    So, from 1968 through 1980-1981, [I was] living and hitchhiking through so many countries and islands, nature became my best friend, teaching me. One time the Spirit said to me, “Look at this tree. One leaf will grow this way and the other leaf will grow that way. The sun will be on one side and then on the other. Each grow at different angles and different sizes. That is how humans are. Never identical, not machines, but like snowflakes, and every snowflake is unique and so is every living creature of the land, sea and sky. We’re all limited editions, though not limited in any way.”  

    Through all my travels, when I am with nature, I merge with her colors, movement, patterns, textures, sizes, shapes, reflections, and sounds. My passion to bring it to life on paper and canvas is why I am here. I want to share this beauty from God that I know and feel. Though I live in Coconut Grove, my spirit body is still traveling in and out of all my experiences. Living here in Coconut Grove gives me great peace to be surrounded by tropical nature with all her uniqueness. Born and raised in a concrete jungle—New York City—I had the freedom of merging with so many cultures. Italians, Polish, Asians, Jews, French, Caribbean, European—I had everybody, I had a smorgasbord of culture in my life. My mom taught us to respect people and recognize and love God and that we’re all one big family under God.

    When I lived in Key West riding on my bike, I’d feel, “Oh I really want something red to eat,” and I’d come home and there’s a basket of red tomatoes in front of my door and I said, “thank you, God.”  And so, as it is written, “Ask and ye shall receive.” The Holy Spirit talks with me and guides me what to give and when.  All of us have a telephone to the Spirit, but how many, when it rings, pick it up and listen and respond? The Lord supplies all our needs. My heart is guided to share this with people through my paintings, this life force I feel and know. My paintings are doorways for people to enter, to connect to their own inner timeless, endless eternal love, beauty, and life force. God is alive, living. God is living love.

     

    Amy Galpin- Thank you, so much insight into your practice and your approach to life. I was going to ask you about some of the things you brought up, like your connection to nature. I see these sumptuous colors, this powerful evocation of light in your work with nature as a through line in your practice. The way you stated, “nature will protect us” and the connection that you feel towards nature is spiritual. Thinking about climate change, hurricanes, the way in which our shorelines are eroding, can you talk about if you see your paintings of nature as something that almost protects or seals these natural spaces. Do you create them for us to revere nature?

     

    Eileen Seitz- Yes! Definitely. I think one of the big purposes God gave me to do on this earth is to remind people of how sacred and how harmonious she is and how beautiful she is, but most importantly she is living, she breathes, she hears, and she sees. Nature responds just like when a person strokes a dog or kicks it. She will calm us or rebel, she is very emotional like us.

    Her land is our body because she feeds us. Her rivers are our blood flowing through us. Her trees breathe life into our lungs. When we take care of her, she brings us bodily and spiritual health. It’s more than her physical beauty, it is her energetic vibration that speaks to our souls. She is alive… she gives all of this beauty to us for free. We cannot keep polluting her, trashing her, killing her by reckless consumption and disposing of manmade material products. There are people that are cleaning the oceans and land, gathering the pollution on the planet, and turning it into usable and functional products. Natural, not synthetic, products are available and last for a lifetime with no pollution. Bamboo, hemp, seaweed, and mushrooms instead of plastics and polymer things that won’t disintegrate. People have migrated from the land into the cities, people live up rather than close to the earth. They don’t feel the pulse or hear the beautiful sounds of the nighttime critters in nature singing them to sleep. Lots of people have cut down trees because they’re messy. I have met these people who sit inside their homes all day. It starts with the individual. How many people respect and love themselves? Those who do also respect the natural world and know God created Mother Nature and breathed the breath of life into each of us. Many people don’t see themselves as part of the natural world.  God created nature for us, he gave us this paradise, and now what are we going to do with it?

    As far as climate change I think nature has been screaming at us for a long time, “what are you doing to us?” (The air, the water, the soil asks). Nature will balance itself out if we just let her breath. When we create imbalances, the pendulum has to swing the other way for people to wake up. Human beings are given glimpses of their own self destruction if they choose to look.

    Human Beings always have a chance to change. Look at the Eskimos, look at the American Indians, they don’t waste anything.

     Every day I collect my peelings and seeds of my cutup vegetables and fruit, and I’ll put them into my backyard.  I heard the Spirit say to me years ago, “Feed it back to the Earth and you will be growing dirt”. So that’s what I do, feed the soil. When we eat natures gifts from the trees, from the earth, and then feed back the scraps, she grows stronger and richer. As it is written “those that love the earth, the earth loves back.” I want to put this into my paintings.

    The garden in my backyard keeps changing because all plants have their cycle, and then new sprouts of something else pops up, and that’s how we are. We never stay stagnant. If you do you will die. We are each our own gardener, sowing and showing the beauty of God’s creation, in thought, word, and deed. The Spirit told me a long time ago, “eat the colors of the rainbow, know these colors, feel their joy and it will flow into your artwork.”

    Often, I have worked on paintings of gardens I was attracted to and then a few months later I return looking for the plants and they are gone. “Where did all those plants go?” “Oh, they had their time so look and see what is there for you now.” One year I had planted three frangipanis on the side of my house. I thought I planted three pink ones but now one is white. I asked, “how did that happen?”

    Bottom line, all these surprises are gifts from the Creator. Hold no expectations, but always gratitude. That’s how I look at it.

     

    Amy Galpin- Your attitude towards life and nature, and your work is very inspiring. Can you tell me a little bit about what Coconut Grove has meant to you as a community and what it has given to you and to your art?

     

    Eileen Seitz- The reason why I moved here was God said, “Go to the Grove because of the trees.” In 1981 I finally returned from Costa Rica. Now, after 40 years living in the Grove, I own my own home three blocks from town. I can walk or ride my bike into the back streets, absorbing the abundant tropical foliage. There is so much artistic inspiration every day feeding my soul. Everybody’s friendly. I have many long-term relationships with people in the Grove.
    Over the years I have been given many art projects and am able to share my life’s experiences.

    In 2010 I was asked to paint my vision of the Coconut Grove information booths. I painted three information booths through 2010, while also painting two peacock sculptures. One sculpture is in front of Milam’s Grocery Store and the other was purchased by a Grove private client.

    At the same time, I was part of over 200 volunteers who worked on the Children’s mosaic mural led by lead artist Cyndy Hill. This mural hangs on the Coconut Grove Post Office. After creating her concept, Cyndy had a dream where I was involved. “I see Eileen Seitz coming in to do the color.” The next day I went to a meeting she was having and when I walked in, she smiled and told me about the dream. A match made in heaven. It was a two-and-a-half-year project and while I was working on cutting tile and painting the patterns from the children’s donated artwork, I was also asked to be the Artist in Residence on cruise ships for a five-year period with Holland America, traveling to Central America, Royal Caribbean to Alaska, Hawaiian Islands and the Caribbean and then Oceania Cruise Lines for seven weeks in Southern Europe, Greece, Italy and the Mediterranean. Then another five weeks crossing the South Pacific to Easter Island, and then onto French Polynesia with a destination in Australia. God was truly bringing my dream to life, taking me around the world to carry out my mission.

    I participated in the Coconut Grove Art Festivals from 1986 -1996. I was never invited to make the Coconut Grove Festival poster. However, I was blessed in every show as my paintings would sell out. In 1988 two ladies on the committee for finding poster artwork for the Beaux Art Festival came to speak to me about being their poster artist for the upcoming show. I told them I would be delighted, and they could choose anything in my booth. That was 1988, after 10 years of participating in the CGAF, I noticed that the crowds began to change, and I wanted to reach a bigger audience. When I was 16, I knew I was meant to touch the world with my paintings and that’s been my aim.

    I decided to apply for a booth at the Miami International Boat Show. People often categorize me as “you’re a Coconut Grove artist.” I’d say, “yes I live in the Grove but I’m a national/international, award winning, recognized, self-published, artist.” I exhibited at the boat show for eight years with a dream to get to Japan. And, don’t you know, I meet a festival coordinator from Japan who bought $2,500 worth of my prints and said, “we’re doing a boat show in Japan, and I’d like for you to be there.” [But] then Fukushima happened… so I did not go.

    I did meet a man with properties from Bocas Del Toro, Panama, and he commissioned me to do paintings for a project he wanted to create to sell houses and land. So, I went, and he gave me an apartment of his for two weeks. I did commissions. After finishing his project, I had a few days, so out I went on an adventure. One day, I took a colorful little fishing boat to a nearby island, Bastimentos, Panama and explored that island. I also noticed that the people on this island loved football and, physically, they were mixed from the Caribbean as well as Panama

    [I did an oil painting called Ladies of the Village of the people and their houses].

    Bastimentos, their most important conversation piece was their poured concrete sidewalk It was the only sidewalk on the island alongside the houses that sat on stilts over the water. It had no special beginning and ended at a house (I did a watercolor of it called Stilts Beach House) where the cemetery began.

    Then another day I took a dug-out wooden canoe and went across the water to a nearby island. I pinched myself saying, “wow! I’m really here!” There was an invisible boundary, one side was very, very poor, and the other side was incredibly prosperous and filled with beautiful homes and gardens.

    In 2000 I had the invitation to visit a friend on Taveuni, Fiji. Four airplanes later and 16 hours’ time difference, I landed. One day I went out looking for inspiration and found a dirt road with an amazing energy, I sat down and started drawing the view in front of me, so prehistoric, so ancient. Suddenly I spoke to God and said, “Wow! Here I am, in the middle of this great South Pacific, on a tiny little Island called Taveuni, Fiji and I’m just a small dot on the earth in the middle of this vast blue Pacific Ocean.” I lived 21 days on Taveuni and Bega (smaller island) and I created 10 paintings. I sold all of them and it was another magnificent experience that I thank God for and for my adventurous spirit.

    I was welcomed to come back, but would I go back? No. My mission is to touch as many places on the planet and absorb and give back. God said, “Let the people feel your energy, let the people feel your light, let the people know your joy.”

    In 2013 when the several different cruise lines invited me to be Artist in Residence, I traveled through Europe for seven weeks on an Oceania cruise ship through Italy and southern France and Spain and up the Costa d'Azur. After seven weeks I said “God? I’m ready to come home now. I’m tired.” I’d had enough stone; I was walking on stone streets and in stone buildings and I had to wear [a lot of] clothes because it was drizzling and cold and rainy… I did some really great work in Italy, France, and Spain drawing the little buildings, but I needed to come back to the nature and the trees, to be with my earth. So, I came back to the Grove.

    Now 2014, this time I left for Chile then across to Australia and South Pacific. I wanted to follow Paul Gauguin. And here I am looking for Gaugin on Papeete the capital of Tahiti. I was on Tahiti and I couldn’t speak French, and I didn’t have francs, and I couldn’t get on a bus because I didn’t know where to get off, and I was on a schedule, I had two art classes a day to do on the ship, so, I never got to see Tahiti outside of Papeete… And the island Fakarava, it’s an atoll. That’s the first time [ I learned] what an atoll was, it’s a collapsed volcano and just the crust, the outer rim is visible and that’s what this island was. I did a painting of that. Three times my cruise ship went there and each time I landed on Fakarava the ladies recognized me and greeted me with a “Bonjour! You come back!” Those were my experiences on the earth.

    So, what did the Grove give me? Friends, home, community, nature, trees, work, passion. From the many places that I’ve traveled in the world, Coconut Grove has the best gardens, and the best tropical landscape and people respect their properties and the beauty we have here. People plant the trees, take care of her. Fall of 1979 I lived in Jamaica for 10 months and I was walking up the hills and rivers and waterfalls and I would think of Coconut Grove and say, “the Grove has more variety of plants and trees than Jamaica or the West Indies.” Jamaica has the ocean and land, it has the rivers, and it has the waterfalls, but it’s missing the energy of the people, the aesthetic love of tropical gardens from the people and the variety of flowers and trees and gardeners, like here in the Grove.  

    Over the year’s things have changed a lot, my garden is very lush and most of it is from cuttings that I’ve gotten from other trees because when you cut a frangipani branch, three new branches will start to grow. Whenever you share a little bit of nature, she gives you back threefold times. I love the village and my home paradise.

     

    Amy Galpin- I’m curious, could you tell me about the picture behind you?

     

    Eileen Seitz- It’s called Our Tropical Garden. It was commissioned by a couple that lived in the Gables and were moving from their beautiful acre property, with a tennis court and a swimming pool, to Iowa or Idaho, to a house made out of brick with little surrounding trees, just lots of land and sky, like in the plains. They asked me to do an oil painting that would include all of their bougainvillea and hibiscus and lush gardens to take with them with a building that had shutters and shadows.

    So, I found various subjects in the Gables and Grove and created this 36” x 48” oil painting.

     

    Eileen Seitz, Our Tropical Garden, 1990 ©Eileen Seitz.

     

    Amy Galpin- Is it from 2020?

     

    Eileen Seitz- No, 1990.

     

    Amy Galpin- Is that a study of the painting?

     

    Eileen Seitz- I published it as a poster and as postcards for my art card business.

     

    Amy Galpin- Do you do a lot of sketching before you do larger paintings?

     

    Eileen Seitz- When I am creating for myself, no. When I am doing a commission for a client that involves architecture, I will do a small watercolor for my client to make sure they are happy with what they are asking for. If it’s just nature, rarely. I let God guide my hand and he tells me what to put where, step by step. I’m a completely free spirit. Let me tell you about this one.


    Eileen Seitz, Serenity Beach, ©Eileen Seitz.

    When Hurricane Irma was going through the Bahamas and it sat stationary over the Bahamian people for days and days, I felt for them so strongly, so this painting was born and is a tribute to them. I put a small wooden boat with several Bahamian people out in the ocean going from island to island. These are the crotons that are growing in my garden. I lived in Eleuthera in 1977, so I know the colors of the water and have been to other Bahamian Islands over the years. The boats are from photographs from my days on Dominica. The theme of the painting is “Even after the storm there is a calm.” It’s called, Serenity Beach.

     

    Amy Galpin- I love the sense of movement with the foliage and the water.

     

    Eileen Seitz- Thank you! I love this one too. Thanks. Another one that I really love is called A Clear Day. I was thinking about my friends in St. Thomas, and I said, “I want to be up on the hill on St. Thomas looking down.”


    Eileen Seitz, A Clear Day, oil on canvas, ©Eileen Seitz.

    In 2015 I was commissioned by the Business Improvement District to create five drawings and watercolors to be used for a walking map of Coconut Grove for the locals and tourists.

    This is my watercolor drawing of Coco Walk, 2015. This is before it was torn down and rebuilt.


    Eileen Seitz, Coco Walk, 2015. ©Eileen Seitz.

     

    Amy Galpin- What is the date of those drawings?

     

    Eileen Seitz- 2015. This is Florentine Plaza with Revolution Bicycle Shop when they had the palm trees. These are historical paintings because they changed the courtyard and CocoWalk has also been redone.


    Eileen Seitz, Florentine Plaza, 2015 ©Eileen Seitz.

    And this is Fuller Street, 2015. In the past year they’ve closed it off and put pink picnic tables there, hopefully the city will keep it closed from traffic. I drew these lovers in and that’s my friend Nancy, she’s a dog walker.


    Eileen Seitz, Fuller Street, 2015. ©Eileen Seitz.

    There’s a lot of inspiration here for me from the old and the new.

    This is a watercolor/drawing of Commodore Plaza with Greenstreet’s and Lulu’s.


    Eileen Seitz, Commodore Plaza, 2015 ©Eileen Seitz.

    And then here’s the Engle Building, this was before Harry’s Pizzeria moved in. That was like right before.


    Eileen Seitz, Engle Building, 2015 ©Eileen Seitz.

    Then Coconut Grove Business Improvement District asked me to do an aerial of all the shops, streets, and businesses that would be for the inside brochure. It took another year to create for there were three stages of construction that had to take place.  

    The first drawing was done on a 25” x 40” watercolor paper to start. I started with the commercial part of town, then easterly construction began, and I was asked to add buildings east of 27th avenue. They gave me architectural renderings and I had to figure out how to draw the Grove and the Grand Bay towers that were being constructed. I remember going to the site and counted every floor so that I could draw these two twisting buildings correctly.

    Again, construction was taking place and three Park Grove buildings had to be drawn in. It took time but I made it happen. Then the Spirit told me to colorize the streets and all the businesses on the correct streets were added. Over that year, there were people coming and going in the Business Improvement District. Everyone was great to work with. Every time I added a new drawing section, I had to have that scanned then added into the big drawing. Here is the final detail map drawing.


    ©Eileen Seitz.

    In 1994, I was creating watercolors to be hung in my booth for the upcoming Coconut Grove Arts Festival. Watching the sunset off my porch my mind lit up. I sat down and painted the sky. When it was finished its name became Sophia’s Rest.


    Eileen Seitz, Sophia’s Rest, 1994 ©Eileen Seitz.

     

    Amy Galpin- The colors are wonderful, very rich but sensitive and nuanced as well.

     

    Eileen Seitz- Thank you. This was the sky when the sun set off my house’s 2nd floor porch. I just drew the horizon and the water and the sky. I began to draw the buildings on top of the sky background and “saw it” and left the reflection showing. Not too long [ago], I received a phone call from a client telling me she wanted to visit and buy one of my lithographs. She also shared “I have this blue and white, striped wallpaper and I’m looking for a piece for this wall.” She came down from Stuart, Florida to meet me and after looking at her wallpaper I knew. I said, “I have the right painting for you.” And I took her to the framer’s where the piece was being framed. She bought it while it was being framed.

    [In terms of] Sophia’s Rest, as soon as I made it, I made posters of it. I said, “I had to print this one, I know it.” My work, thanks to God, is in a lot of hospitals, doctors’ offices, places of healing and restaurants, cruise ships, and banks, etc. God told me when I was 16, “you need to get your work into places where the work will heal the emotions of souls, sending them love and color, sending loving light, sending living energy, of harmonies.” I published Sophia’s Rest as a poster print and 10 years later I receive a phone call from a man in the Keys who said he wants to build Sophia’s Rest in the Exumas on his property. And I said, “what do you mean?” And he said, “well, I have property in the Exumas, and I want to build it.” Ten months later I received blueprint photographs and he explained, “I’m almost done. Do you want to come down and sign the wall?” So, I said yes and when I arrived on his property with him and his wife and a friend of mine, I said to my friend, “Pinch me. I am standing in my painting.”


    ©Eileen Seitz.


    ©Eileen Seitz.

     

    Amy Galpin- What an incredible story--as an artist, that someone was so inspired by your work that they wanted to live in it!

     

    Eileen Seitz- I know, I keep thinking how amazing all the things that God has given to me are. Filled with grace, wonder, and gratitude. All my life, Nature has taught me that nothing is permanent except God and the Spirit. All else changes. My life of travel and adventures, meeting so many people, leaving joy and beauty as remnants where I go. Life is always new, unfolding before me, and each step I have the opportunity, the choice, the free will. Sometimes there are forks in the roads as you have seen in my interview. Paying attention within, listening within, seeing how I feel, guides me to make the choices that bring joy into my paintings and for all who set their eyes upon His work.

     

    Amy Galpin-Thank you, Eileen, for sharing so much information with us.

  • Onajide Shabaka

    On May 1, 2021, Curator Amy Galpin sat down with artist Onajide Shabaka over lunch to talk about his connections to Coconut Grove. Shabaka, an active artist who has recently exhibited at Bridge Red Studios, Emerson Dorsch, and the Frost Art Museum FIU, among other locations, finished an artist’s book with IS Projects during the pandemic. A longtime resident of Miami, Shabaka visited the Miami Black Arts Workshop and was an active member of the Kuumba Artist Collective. The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

     

    Amy Galpin: Could you tell me about when you moved to Coconut Grove?

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I moved to the Grove in 1978 to work at the Coconut Grove bike shop, Dade Cycle. I was actually staying in one of the rooms there in the building because the owner of the bike shop had the building on a 99-year lease. I had gone over to the University of Miami to find an apartment from their student availability list for off campus housing to find a place to live. I located and went to this house near Miracle Mile and closer to the Grove, which was owned by an older woman who broke down and started crying because she did not want to rent me a room. She would have rented it to me, but her family would not have tolerated it being that they were racist and would not have accepted it. So, I had to stay in that building and I was there for a while until I later on moved into the Black Grove.

    I was in the Grove for a few years until I was working at both the bike shop and Cozzoli’s Pizzeria, both part time. I had a friend who would come by Cozzoli’s Pizzeria all the time and told me there was a boat for sale I could live on with fewer expenses. It wasn’t really a sailboat, more like a live-aboard that stayed right there moored in the shallow open water. It was not very expensive and so I said, ‘maybe.’ Then, it became a thing of, “you’re not man enough to live on the water.” So, I bought the boat and ended up living on the water for three years. The only inconvenience was having to row back and forth to shore. I had to take all my water, fresh food mostly every day, and ice. At 37th and US1 there used to be an ice making shop where you could buy a solid block of ice and I would go down there and get a block.

    The boat was not really far from shore, but it was okay. I could go fishing any time of day I wanted. I used to fish quite a bit. I had a friend who had a small Boston Whaler and we went to different fishing spots in Biscayne Bay mostly for mangrove snappers. I had local people, and sometimes restaurants, I would sell fish to. I used to play with the sharks at night by hooking a chicken neck that the sharks would get. I would reel it in and see what kind of shark it was and then I would release it.

    I have been interested in animal bones and stuff like that long before moving to Florida. I used to go out to Southern California deserts such as Joshua Tree Monument Park to explore, and there are dead animals out there. I picked up a few animals’ skulls to keep. Today however, it is illegal to remove bones, rocks, animals, and plants from National Parks.

     

    Amy Galpin: Were you biking at this time?

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I was racing when I was living in Fort Pierce. I moved there before Miami in 1976 and raced for two years. I wanted to go to Miami, but I didn’t have a job, so the owner of the bike shop said, “whenever you’re ready to move to Miami, I have a job for you.” I was in Tallahassee when he said this, and that’s how it happened. I’m still in touch with some of those people from my bicycle racing days.

     

    Amy Galpin: You once mentioned to me that you took a break from the art world due to racism. Could you share more about this?

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I stopped with the art before I moved to Florida. I started a men’s and women’s clothing line. I was at California College of the Arts and working a full-time job (midnight shifts). My last semester at California College of the Arts was morning to the afternoon, three days a week classes, and the other two days I had afternoon to evening classes. Every day I had to sleep at different hours, on the weekends I would sleep for 20 hours trying to catch up. I was visiting the art or photography galleries in the San Francisco area, and it was a bad experience. So, I started making clothes because it was fun, and I could do it. I did that for a while until I decided to move to Florida. Then I kind of stopped doing it with the clothing and started racing. In some ways racing is like the art world in the sense of traveling around the U.S. and the world.

    For instance, I was going back to California for 6 weeks to race and somebody who I knew from Miami, José Diaz, who is deceased now, offered me a six-month expense paid trip to Treviso Province, Italy. In exchange I was mechanic for him and his partner’s, Dorino Vanzo, bike training camp, but I was also able to race myself. In that area there was a lot of racing; every weekend and during the week there were races. I enjoyed racing there much more than here. They had a different style of racing; they have circuit races. Most of the races are about the same distance which takes about two hours.

     

    Amy Galpin: Thinking back to Coconut Grove, I’ve really enjoyed learning about the Barnyard. Are you familiar with the Barnyard?

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I’ve been over there a number of times, but not lately. When Kabuya [Pamela Kabuya Bowens-Saffo] was there, I was still living in Fort Pierce. When I was racing, I went by the Black Arts Workshop and have been heavily involved with printmaking and I used to talk to Gene Tinnie, Roland [Woods Jr.], Robert McKnight, and whoever was there.

     

    Amy Galpin: Do you have prints from this time period? Was printmaking a part of your life?

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I had done some printmaking before moving to Florida. One of the prints, Message from the Ancestors, (the black, white, and red one) I created a second edition after having my original 1968 print in my father’s belongings. I had a stone lithograph that my father had saved. It was more so the events of the day I remembered, of Ladybird Johnson and Eartha Kitt’s falling out. Eartha Kitt got blackballed from the industry because she disagreed with Ladybird Johnson about ending the Vietnam War. At that point when I first moved to Coconut Grove it was—"I used to be an artist, but I’m racing bicycles now.” Although I still had interest in it.

    The printmaking I thought at the time, in the 70s, was really a great introduction for community arts; it’s the process and collaboration. Especially if you are doing it as a collaboration and people add different elements together and make decisions about what’s going to be on the image. When I was in San Francisco, there were some people that I was hanging around with that were doing some community printmaking projects, mostly more precision alignments because they were all professionally trained adults and not beginners and children.

    Policing and racism were some of the main things I’m remembering during my time in the Grove because there were a lot of drugs, and alcohol too. For the majority of the Black Grove, people were doing things outdoors because if you were living in an apartment; you would not want a lot of people in your apartment and you wouldn't have a yard of your own. The same drugs, alcohol, and some of the same people who were partying in the Black Grove were also partying in the white Grove. In the white Grove it is indoors or behind a fence, so people weren’t being hassled by the police; in the Black Grove people were being hassled by the police all the time.

    I remember a lot of stuff about that time because at that time the bike world was being used as a vehicle to bring more drugs into the States. I was right in the middle of it. I had a lot of (non-biking) friends who were addicted to drugs then who are mostly deceased now.

    I was mostly around people who had that similar bohemian lifestyle, it was all pretty fluid. My memories of a bunch of different people were mostly based on personalities more than anything else.

     

    Amy Galpin: Was walking a big part of your life at that time? I think of it in relation to your artistic practice today. 

     

    Onajide Shabaka: I would walk often, but every once in a while, I would rent a car to go back up to Fort Pierce. I’ve owned cars over the years and would drive to various rural locations to explore. I’ve done it [walking] as a formal thing, but it hasn’t always been like that. I’ve had a walking practice since about 1965, although I didn’t call it a practice until about 1998.

     

    Amy Galpin: Thank you for talking with me about your practice and about Coconut Grove.

  • Glenn Terry

    Former Coconut Grove Resident and community leader Glenn Terry and curatorial assistant Ashlye Valines discuss life in the Grove during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the history of the infamous King Mango Strut Parade held in the Grove every year. Terry was one of the founding members of the parade, which started in 1982 and has become a nationally known phenomenon.

     

    This interview was conducted for the exhibition Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove, 1968-1989 and took place on February 11, 2021.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Where were you born?

     

    Glenn Terry: I was born in Miami, a long time ago. I’m 73.

     

    Ashlye Valines: When did you move to Coconut Grove?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well, when I became an older teenager, it became clear that all the neat stuff was happening in Coconut Grove. Because I was a budding hippie in the mid-60s, and the flower children gathered there and serenaded each other and smoked dope in Peacock Park, I thought, “Well this is pretty interesting.” [We] flew frisbees, danced around.

    Then when I went to college in Gainesville, University of Florida, I’d come back for the summer, come back for breaks and my friends and I would gravitate to Coconut Grove, which seemed like the most interesting place to be. Especially if your drawn to creative things and the arts, which I am.

     

    Ashlye Valines: What were some of your favorite places in the Grove? Are there any places that you miss?

     

    Glenn Terry: Oh, I miss them all. So much of its gone, but, you know, things change. Before hippies there were beatniks, and there were the vestiges of a beatnik bar called The Last Word on 27th Avenue near US 1. I used to go there. It was like a coffee house for folk music. And then, in the Grove there was just a lot going on, a lot of public events that were, sort of, spontaneous. Like, one day I went down to the bay just to hang out by the water and Richie Havens was there with a guitar case. And he took out his guitar and sat down on something like a soapbox and just started playing. It was just an impromptu concert, and I said, “Wow this is really magical.” The movie Woodstock had come out couple years before in 1972, or so, and Woodstock was mid-69. Anyway, I said, “Oh my god! I’m sitting at the feet of Richie Havens and he’s playing music for thirty-five of us.” I said, “This could only happen in the Grove.” Sometimes I’d go to the Playhouse for plays. There were folk clubs there. The Grove Cinema showed experimental and foreign films. They would have, like, double features, a different one every night. There were a lot of bars with live music, so, there was a lot to do for a young single person like myself. `Lot to do. And we were by the ocean, by the bay. A lot of us didn’t have a sail boat, you had a friend with one, so, we’d go sailing, we’d have parties out on the bay, we’d dive into water filled with luminescence that sparkled when you splashed the water. There were just so many amazing things about the place but mainly it was just it’s liberal artistic atmosphere and its proximity to the water.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Did you know any of the artists who worked in Coconut Grove?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well I knew local artists. I didn’t know famous people or anything, I’d go hear them. Once the Channel Two TV people said, “We have an artist coming down to give a concert on Saturday afternoon. We need some people for the audience.” So, I went down, this was around 1977 or so, and they let us into a studio and we sat on hay bales and this guy named Jimmy Buffet came in. And he sat on one of them and gave a concert, sort of like the Richie Havens thing except Jimmy was on a hay bale. And I had heard a song of his; he had had a hit song called Come Monday by them and that was pretty cool, it was very cool, but the live music was just fine. Bobby Ingram was a Grove legend who passed away a year ago, he was in his 80s, but he lived a whole musician’s life through the Grove. When he started out, he was a duo, he sang with David Crosby who later became very... still is very famous, you know, the singer with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Bobby knew him well. So, when he was in town playing with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, he’d come to the Grove, and go over to Bobby’s house and visit him. Twenty years ago, and these are all old musicians I’m talking about to you, Neil Young would be out there washing his car because he was a big car guy, you know, and Bobby just knew all these people. He went on a sailboat trip with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash because Bobby knew how to sail boats and he knew so many people. So, I would hear, like, secondhand stories from Bobby. I lived across the street from him for the last 15 years [I was] in the Grove. I moved up to North Florida last year, but I lived in the Grove for about 40, 45 years. So, a lot of artists and musicians came through the Grove, mainly in the 60s and 70s. David Crosby, for instance, he lived in the Grove way back when, and a lot of them got their start there. Bobby ran a folk club downtown on Main Highway, and people like Jimmy Buffet played there, and Crosby played there, and Fred Neil played there. Steve Martin performed comedy there. In Steve Martin’s autobiography, he recognized the night he performed in Coconut Grove. He got the audience to go crazy and then he said “Oh, well, you know, enough of this place. I’m tired of this place. I’m out of here.” And he just walked down through the crowd and they followed him out to the street. And he did comedy in the street and walked down the block just doing crazy comedy. A writer from Miami Herald was in the audience and he wrote the first glowing article about Steve Martin, the comedian, that took him to his first level of success. So, a lot of things started in the Grove, but, its changing now and it’s been Gucci-ized and there aren’t so many creative people there anymore because the atmosphere has changed, and artists can’t afford it anymore. It was a sleepy fishing village for many, many years. From its inception in the early 1900s all the way up to the 1960s and little wooden houses started getting torn down and turned into condos, and big mansions, and big concrete ugly boxes, cutting down trees. So, I know things change and I’m fortunate to have lived there during that period. That being said, there’s still many wonderful people and wonderful things in Coconut Grove. I’m happy about that.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Were there any fine arts studios or galleries during the 60s and 70s in Coconut Grove?

     

    Glenn Terry: Sure, sure. Artists came to show their work, and, on the average, we had, maybe, a dozen galleries there. They had, like, gallery night were the galleries were open at night, and there were musicians on the street and people would go from gallery to gallery. That occurred for a number of years. There was a people’s gallery next to the Coconut Grove Playhouse just north of it on Main Highway and when I moved to the Grove in the mid-70s, early 70s, that was still open. I’m not remembering the name of it, but it was created by artists for artists. And artists could go in there and show their work, they could make art, they had a ceramic studio, they had a gallery space to show your art, and right behind it was a woman named Penny Praig. She’s gone now. She was a stained-glass artist, she made big stained-glass art, but in the Grove, you could afford to live there and make art there and be around people who encouraged that type of thing as well. And the Grove Art Festival, that was a big deal. The Grove Art Festival used to have Grove artists in it, used to have Miami artists in it, that’s completely changed over the years. Now they have 350 artists in the Grove Art Festival and maybe 2 will be from the Grove, maybe 5 will be from South Florida. It’s a big commercial event, I don’t go anymore. But, things happen, good things still happen. Some people were tired of the Grove Art Festival and what it had become, and they started their own art festival called the Gifford Lane Art Stroll. It’s kind of a secret, but once a year, this one street, just north of the tennis courts across from Coconut Grove Elementary School, that one street has its own arts festival. And everybody that lives on that street parks their cars in other places and their front yard become areas for 50 artists to show their artwork. I’m an artist; I showed my artwork in the show for the last 15 years and its free. Its everything that the Grove Arts Festival isn’t. Some of the artists aren’t the best… but, so what? They’re people doing their best, showing of what they create and there’s magic in the air. There’s live music being played about every 100 feet. They give out cucumber punch that’s pretty crazy, pretty toxic. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s kind of a secret in the Grove. Probably where 300,000 people go to the Grove Art Festival, maybe 3,000 got to the Gifford Lane Art Stroll. It’s kind of hard to find too. Anyway, I guess I’m saying that there’s little secrets in the Grove that, if you live there, you get to know them and enjoy them, appreciate them.

     

    Ashlye Valines: So how did the King Mango Strut Parade begin? How did that come about?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well, we used to have this big deal parade called the Orange Bowl Parade led by a guy called King Orange and that started, like, 1930s or so, and I was a kid. I was growing up in, like, the 50s, and my parents would take me down there. It was like New Year’s Eve, certainly a holiday parade, like the Rose Bowl Parade, and we’d just sit on Biscayne Boulevard and watch these floats go by, and they were so bright and colorful. Pretty women, marching bands, it was just amazing. I’ve always loved parades and then in the mid-70s, they started a festival in the African American part of Coconut Grove, called the West Grove. They started a Goombay Festival and I went to the first year and it was a festival for people, African Americans of Bahamian decent, which there are many, and they had a parade. And they had the Nassau Police Marching Band and Goombay dancers and Goombay bands. And the parade only had, like, three or four units in it but it was great, and they attracted us like lemmings. I was marching behind them, dancing in the street, and I was one of the few white people there having a great time, and I thought, “This is great! I’m gonna be in this parade next year. I’m gonna have my own group.” The problem is, I’m not a musician. I’m kind of a clown, but not a very funny one, which means I’m not an actor, but I started a band called the Mango Marching Band, a marching band for non-musicians. And we played conch shells and kazoos and wore Hawaiian shirts and straw hats and we entered the parade, and we just had a great time. We just played When the Saints Go Marching In, Stars and Stripes Forever, and the people loved us and it was just really fun to be in a band in a parade, or just to be in a parade doing anything probably. And so we marched in this parade, had a great time, and then we decided, “ You know the Orange Bowl Parade needs us,” and we applied to be in the next Orange Bowl Parade, which was like, 1979, 1980, whatever it was. And we went through this whole application process, and they rejected us, and I was kind of downhearted by that, but I thought, “Aw, to heck with that! I’ll start my own parade!” And I called up the police department, [because] people said the cops have to be onboard for that, so I called up the Miami Police Department and I said, “Who is in charge of parades?” And they said” Oh, special events.” So, I went and met with them and they said, “This is how you start a parade, you fill out these forms.” So, I did all that and got permission to have a parade, but it was only like 4 blocks long. And so, we had our first King Mango Strut Parade in 1982. And our budget was $300, we just put in our own money for that and, like, we’d block off the street with refrigerator boxes that said, “No entry. Parade.” They weren’t even that big, [probably] television boxes. We put one at each end of Commodore Plaza, which is just a mile long, and we all lined up on the street. And we had to hire 3 police officers for $50 bucks each and one of them was gonna be at the back, one at the front, and one was gonna hang out. One didn’t show up so that only cost me $100, and we blew a whistle at 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and started marching down the road led by the Mango Marching Band and we had a great time. And the thing is, like, 4,000 people showed up to see it because we got some publicity in the Herald: “There’s gonna be a weird parade in coconut grove on Sunday afternoon.” The sun was shining, you know, the sun kept shining. You know, the parade’s gone on for 39 years and its never rained on the parade? It’s incredible. God loves King Mango, and I do too. And so, we thought it would be, like, a one-shot deal but, we got a nice review in the paper and people said, “Oh, we can’t wait until you do it next year.” So, we did it again, and we did it again, and we did it again. And that’s how it got started and if you’re not familiar with it, it’s a weird satirical parade. Makes a lot of fun of local, state and national politics. A lot of it can be just really strange and, some things you don’t understand but its real edgy humor. Most people don’t do costumes in a big way, they just come up with this crazy idea and do it in the road, and its street performance. We encouraged you not to be in a vehicle, we didn’t want anybody there waving from a car. We didn’t let politicians in the parade. We didn’t want marching bands in the parade unless they were really weird or marched backwards or did something unusual. We encouraged blues bands and rock and roll bands to be in our parade, and that’s who we got, so. Some bands would say “I’ll be in your parade if you give me $500,” and we said, “Aw, screw you. We want garage bands. We want the real people who want to be in the parade. Not to be paid to be in the parade.” And so, it just picked up momentum and I was the cofounder of it. Actually, I met a fellow named Bill Dobson who, I was told, was interested in putting on a parade in the Grove and I met him and got along great, so, we were the cofounders of the parade. Unfortunately, Bill died 15 years ago. And I was the director of the parade for 30 years. Other people run it now. The parade marched every year for 39 years, 38 years, and then with COVID coming on in 2020 we made it a virtual parade, and that was stranger than the one in the street. But the parade usually cost, like, $35,000, and the one online was free, didn’t have to raise money. It’s a noncommercial parade so you didn’t see sponsors with floats and all that other junk like most parades have. We sold t-shirts. This was the first t-shirt. That’s the logo, King Mango, that I came up with.

     

    Ashlye Valines: Did you come up with that or did you draw that?

     

    Glenn Terry: Yeah, yeah. I’m an artist. I’m a retired art teacher now. So here, King Mango’s stepping out and every year I came up with a different t-shirt design. I designed about 9 out of the 10 t-shirts over the years, and the posters as well. We had some pretty cool posters.

    There’s a couple of posters I created. This one was our parade after 9/11, it was our 20th parade and Janet Reno was gonna be our grand marshal... that’s Janet in the blue dress. Janet was a friend of mine. So, it’s Janet and Joe Carollo. I was dressed as Uncle Sam, that’s me over here. Statue of Liberty and firefighters, the flag, so it was very patriotic. That was our 20th parade.

     

    Florida got a reputation for being stupid, fairly recently, it became Flori-duh and so this was the 2002 poster and it’s a King Mango poster, but it looks like a placemat. You used to get placemats when you go to restaurants, way back when, and they would be, like, the state of Florida with different tourist attractions. But, this has (things like) “O.J. Simpson lives here”, “the dead can vote”, “the terrorists learned to fly in Florida”, “Elian floated into Florida”, “hanging chads”, “most alligator attacks”, “most lightning strikes’, “most shark attacks.” Here’s a shark with a leg in its mouth.

     

     Anyway, so we’d come up with these posters and we’d make money for the parade by selling t-shirts and posters and sometimes a business would throw us 500 bucks. Parades are expensive, the first one cost $200. and then, 10 years later, they were costing $10,000, $15,000 and $20,000 and whatever. It’s strange to me still that you might have to pay $35,000 to put on a parade that’s an hour and a half that closes down a road for three hours. But then, you know, you have to hire 15 cops, you have to have insurance, and you have to pay for the parking meters, and they require you to put up barricades that cost $5,000, so the price keeps going higher and higher. Makes that virtual parade look better all the time. So, we had a lot of success with the King Mango Parade and there’s a long history of silly parades that probably goes back thousands of years. I was inspired by one in Pasadena, California called the Doo Dah Parade. It started 45 years ago, and we helped start one in Columbus, Ohio that’s also called the Doo Dah Parade, that’s gone on for about 25 years. I was in that parade about four years ago. I happened to be there on the day of their parade. We started one in Orlando called the Queen Cumquat Sashay and one in Washington D.C. called the Gross National Parade, so we’ve had some spin-offs. The King Mango Parade was started by a bunch of hippies, like myself, who are now old hippies, and some of us have died. We haven’t been real successful in passing off what we created to younger generations. And that might be a sad thing or just the way things go because the younger people don’t wanna do what we did, or their looking for other forms of entertainment, who can say. We’ve had 39 years of this and that’s a great run. We lasted longer than the Orange Bowl Parade. In fact, the Orange Bowl Parade Committee marched in our parade once after their parade had closed down with a sign that said, “We started this parade,” so, that was cute. So, I guess we’re part of Miami’s history, having done this for so long and I’m proud of that. King Mango still marches on. I put on a King Mango Halloween parade up here at my new home in Gainesville and a friend dressed up as King Mango and put on (the papier-mâché king mango mask).

     

    Glenn wearing the King Mango mask.

    This is kind of my art; I make papier-mâché sculptures. I put on a King Mango Christmas concert here and King Mango did the King Mango strut across the stage and raised $400 for the local homeless shelter. So, King Mango marches on in different ways. And after COVID passes it may reappear in Coconut Grove, but that’s not a sure thing because every year it’s gotten harder to do the last 10 years. Just because we haven’t found younger people to take responsibility to put it on, it’s a lot of work putting on a parade.

     

    Ashlye Valines: What were some of the more interesting grand marshals that you had at the parade?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well, Janet Reno was pretty interested in coming at first but then she got cold feet and her campaign manager called and said, “We noticed your parade poster had Janet Reno marching next to a naked guy. We think that might look bad in our campaign that is going on now.” I said, “No, the naked guy’s behind her, and it doesn’t even show his privates,” and she said, “Well we’ve had some second thoughts and, I’m sorry, she can’t be the grand marshal.” So, we came up with someone else. We got a woman who had been fired as the manager of the airport because she was honest. We look for unusual people and found them. We got Austin Burke, which was a guy who would appear on tv for 40 years selling clothes, and he wore, like, eight jackets, different sizes, and said, “I’m Austin Burke. I’m going to sell you this cashmere jacket,” and he took it off and there’d be another one. He stood in the back of a Cadillac convertible taking off his jackets, this little squatty guy in his late 70’s when he did this. And then he died the next year and his obituary said one of his proudest moments was when he was the grand marshal of King Mango Strut because so many people loved him. We had a sports figure, Ted Hendricks, who is from Miami, he played in five Super Bowls. The next year I worked out a deal with Janet Reno after she lost her election, and I went out and said, “We don’t have a grand marshal this year. We’re just gonna pick somebody from the audience. Raise your hand if you want to be the grand marshal this year.” And I said” Eenie, meenie, miney, mo,” and of course Janet was planted in the audience, and then, “catch a tiger by the... toe!” And pointed to her and she stepped out and I asked, “What’s your name?”, “Oh, my name is Janet Reno.” And so, she was our grand marshal, she was great. There was a guy who electrified his front store window with electrical wires because he got tired of people breaking into his shop. Someone broke in and, unfortunately, was electrocuted, and they took him to trial, and they found out that he did it accidentally. He was just trying to protect his shop and was found not guilty. He was our grand marshal and he got a hero’s welcome too for fighting crime in his own weird, tragic, way. So, every year, we didn’t pick politicians, but we would pick unusual people that you wouldn’t expect that’d give people a nice surprise. I tried really, really, really hard to get the guy who played the creature from the Black Lagoon. He lived in Ft. Lauderdale, but he said he was too old to do it at the time. So, I can’t remember them all. I wish I could and if I did, I’d say, “Gosh, I was proud to put these people in the convertible.” They were the people that were waving. Oh, we had a stunt man who was in Thunderball, Ric O’Barry, and he blew of his thumb doing one of the stunts in Thunderball. So, he’d hold up his hand with his fake finger then pull it off and wave. They were all unusual, they made you wonder, made you laugh. So, yeah, we had a lot of fun with it.

     

    Ashlye Valines: What are some of the most memorable groups who have participated in the parade?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well, there was this terrorist named Osama Bin Laden, no one could find him. During the George W. Bush administration, they were hunting for him and spent millions, and millions, and millions of dollars trying to find Osama Bin Laden. So, this woman, Gina McFall, marched down the road in a big southern bell dress, and a friend of hers marched behind her and she would open a sign, like, every 50 feet saying, “We know where Osama Bin Laden is.” Then she’d pick up her dress and he would be between her legs. You know, like, there was a dummy, with a photograph of [his face] being dragged on the ground. You see, in this parade you’re performing for the audience, you’re not just marching around waving, you’re, like, performing to the people around you. We encourage interaction, we don’t allow cars because you had pedestrians. You had signs that were funny, signs that made sense, and every 50 feet you tell the same joke, basically. Ted Kennedy’s son, one of the Kennedys, was arrested for rape of a women in Palm Beach about 30 years ago, it got national publicity, and international publicity. He was defended by an expensive Miami lawyer, and found not guilty, and, so, I formed a group called the Marching Kennedys, and we dressed up like we were yacht club guys. Yacht club hats, and blue blazers, and wore white pants, white shoes. We marched down the street with a big banner out front [that said] the Marching Kennedys. We marched along drinking champagne and then I’d stop about every 50 or 100 feet and I’d turn around and yell. “Who are we?!” And they’d go, “We are the marching Kennedys!” And I yelled “And, what do we do best?!” And they screamed back, “Drop trou!” And then they’d unbuckle their belts and lower their trousers down to their knees. “Drop trou” is a phrase 30 years ago taken out of context, and you don’t see that in your average parade. We had a bunch of guys dress up like airline pilots who were flying on llamas, they had fake legs off the sides of these, maybe they were giant ducks, like flying ducks, and it looked like guys with airline captain uniforms flying ducks around the street and the ducks had wings, and it was like, “Woah, this is really strange.” People throwing fake cocaine into the crowd, dealing with the latest cocaine bust. The powder is, like, [actually] flour and all that. We had a grand marshal once of a guy who ran the parade for a couple months named Wayne Breen, we had his ashes in the parade as the grand marshal and then we threw his ashes out into the crowd but they weren’t his real ashes. His real ashes were there but we threw some barbecue leftover ashes into the crowd. You ever heard of Lorena Bobbitt? We had the Bobbitt Brigade and she was famous for cutting of her husband’s, you know, thing below the waist on a guy, and then she threw it down the street or something like that and later he recovered it and had it sewn back on and became a bad porn star. It’s just this horrible story. But we had these women, the Marching Bobbitts and they had knives and hot dogs and they would slice them and throw them out in the crowd. We had some pretty strange stuff in our parade. A fake O.J. Simpson was selling murder memorabilia, you know, bloody knives and all this other stuff. So, a lot of it was in bad taste, but a lot of it was just good humor, like, there was a mad cow disease that went around 12 years ago or so. And this group bought black and white cow costumes and they looked like cows and they were just really angry going down the street as mad cows and they’d scream at the audience and whatnot. So, the list is long, but I think from what I told you, you can get a pretty good idea of what we have done in the King Mango Parade for years, and years, and years.

    Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived in the Grove forever, died at 109 years old. She left her house in the South Grove, that she had built in 1929, to the people of Florida to enjoy, and when she died about 20 years ago, we just figured it’d be turned into, like, a little museum. But the state never did, it was falling apart, and they turned it into a residence for park rangers. It’s really stupid. Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a grand marshal when she was 102. About 14 years ago, the state was making plans to cut this house into pieces and reassemble down at Fairchild Gardens, out of the Grove. If you know historic preservation you know that any structure moved from its original spot to another place losses half of its authenticity and what it means to the world. Anyway, we fought that really hard and we had a group of people dressed up like Marjory Stoneman Douglas who wore these long dresses, and big hats [like she always wore], she was a short person. Including me, we were all dressed up like Marjory and we were, like, a chorus line marching yelling, “Don’t take our house!” And my children were Marjorys too, and the Marching Marjorys were a huge success and it got a lot of publicity and we were part of the reason they decided not to move the house. So finally, they’re turning it into a museum to promote her legacy. Most of the things we did in the parade were just to make fun of stupid politics, crazy things that had happened in the world, and we liked to get people thinking about how to make things better by publicizing these things.

     

    Ashlye Valines: What were some of your fondest memories of living in Coconut Grove, or with the parade or anything?

     

    Glenn Terry: Well, with the parade, what I’m proudest of, is that we entertained so many people, we made so many people happy. People would say, “Oh god, it’s like taking a bath in laughter!” You could just walk from your house, your apartment, and see this parade once a year. A lot of people would march down in costumes and be in the parade and while we probably had, on the average, about 8,000 people come to see it, it’s hard to see it because it’s only five blocks long. It would be in the Miami Herald the next day. So, it was like this: 8,000 people came to see our parade, 3,000 people would read about it and laugh in the Miami Herald the next day. Then, it was picked up by a lot of other newspapers and local news media would run it on the news and, so, we entertain a million people with our crazy parade every year. And just being a part of that and being a part of the group that put it on, and being cofounder, is something I’m proud of. In Coconut Grove it can be like living in a tropical island. I could walk fifteen minutes from my house and be on Biscayne Bay. Most of us aren’t fortunate to be able to do that in Miami, but we had access to the bay. I taught for many years in inner city schools with kids that’d never seen the ocean, never seen the bay. So, I had field trips to take them to see the bay. But I just loved being by the sea, being around boats, being around creative people, people that are different. Some people would say “crazy”, but their creatives, and Coconut Grove had that, a lot of diversity too. And when I lived there, which most of my life has been in Coconut Grove, I was promoting community, bringing people together like with the King Mango Strut Parade. I had a raft race one year, I’d put on little festivals, little concerts. I helped create a little park in the South Grove. So, I just loved having so many friends, being around so many people that shared their lives, shared their love for Coconut Grove, and enjoyed being with each other. Yeah, Coconut Grove was special, you got parrots flying through the air, and peacocks, and guys walking down the streets wearing dresses and you’d think, “Oh, that’s Coconut Grove.”

  • Dinizulu Gene Tinnie

    Over a Zoom call, artist and community leader Dinizulu Gene Tinnie and curator Amy Galpin sat down to continue their ongoing conversations about art and life. Tinnie, represented in the exhibition, Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove by four works, played a key role in the development of the exhibition and advised on the checklist. Tinne was active with the Miami Black Arts Workshop and the Kuumba Artist Collective.

     

    This conversation between Tinnie and Galpin focused on three essential questions and took place on December 16, 2020.

     

    Amy Galpin: Tell me about your interest in art evolved?

     

    Dinizulu Gene Tinnie: It seems like a roundabout way to get back to art and I say back because I think it’s fair to say that my career as an artist, if you will, might’ve started around age three. My brother and I loved scribbling prolifically on the walls of the house.  In school, like elementary school I got to be the class artist who drew pictures of the pilgrims and the like. By the time I graduated high school— naturally if you come from a home where people encourage you to “go on and be something”— I was giving serious thought to dentistry. I went to community college in Long Island, Suffolk County Community College the year it opened. I did not think when I applied that I would actually be one of the first six students to be registered. That was kind of a groundbreaking moment and I started down the path of being a bio major. That was always an interest of mine.

    After graduating from community college and transferring to Stony Brook University I was on the pre-dental path, but then I was realizing maybe this really isn’t the path because some of these courses were kind of kicking my butt. I thought maybe I should really invest my time and energy into something I’m much more successful at. I had not studied French until I got to community college, but it was something that I took to like a duck to water. I realized that I always did have a fascination with language and foreign languages. I became a French major and from there came the idea that I really wanted to do my graduate work in France.

    In 1957, the Russians beat us into space and then all of sudden the Congress decided ‘well we need to start educating American citizens.’ So, the National Defense Education Act went into place and one of the great things that came out of that were these NDEA summer seminars. Some of them were these language immersion programs based on a model that Middlebury College in Vermont had where you could do a summer of just immersion and then you can do a year studying abroad. I applied to Middlebury and was not accepted, but then I ended up being able to get the equivalent of it. I was fortunate enough to get a Fulbright grant to study in France and get the French equivalent of a master’s degree. While I was there, I had one of these interesting, life changing moments. During the breaks in the school year, I would travel by hitchhiking, as we had no great wealth as students. On my way back to school in France from having gone to Spain, Morocco, and a few other places; a gentleman gives me a ride and he asks me an interesting question, he asks, “So, what do you do?” I said, “Well, I’m a student studying language.” He said, “OK, but what do you do?” I said, “In the United States I’m a teacher.” He said, “Let me explain: you see all this stuff in the backseat?  Those are school supplies. I sell those, but what I do is I compose music. It may never get published, but the family and I sit around the piano and have fun. So, what do you do?” I told him I used to do art and he almost runs off the road and says, “Are you telling me you know how to do art, but you’re not doing it?” I thought, “OK, this is one of those moments.”

    I find myself in this awkward moment. By the time he drops me off all I could say to him was, “Being a salesman may not be what you do, but you are quite a salesman, because this conversation was very important.” By the time I got back to the University and the serious business of my graduate studies, I’m still being haunted by this art thing. I decided one day to just pick up a pencil and do a drawing. (I discovered a few months back I still have it.)  It was like you never forget how to write a bike. This is something that felt right, and it led to another drawing. Before I knew it, I was kind of taking more and more of an interest in that.

    From there I got back to the States, taught French as a graduate teaching assistant, finished my Master’s, got involved with the linguistics at the time inthe early 1970s with the whole issue of Black English and its impact on education was very much the academic fad. It was something that I felt that I could apply my linguistic interest and talents to. I got a job at one of those educational research laboratories that was studying that issue and sort of began going down that professional path. All the while this attraction to art was getting stronger and stronger, so it went from an interest to a hobby.

    ­­­I then relocated to Boston and was involved in a lot of activism of one sort or another. In the process of that, I really came to this realization that for those of us who are thinking about who we are, what we are, and how we are as a nation and about making some kind of change, it was impossible to understand the United States without understanding the South. I had a few opportunities to travel to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  It was then I realized it was a whole other part of the world that, coming from New York, you would not understand without seeing. I knew that in some kind of way that I wanted to get to the South and spend some time in the South. Then the love connection came.

     

    Amy Galpin: Can you talk to me about your engagement with the Miami Black Arts Workshop and the type of work you did there?

     

    Dinizulu Gene Tinnie: I met this young lady in Boston. She was from Florida and returned home to Miami. We correspond and I figure I need to do some travelling anyway. With that, I thought relocating to Florida would not be a bad idea. I kind of knew that I didn’t intend to spend the rest of my life in Boston, but at the same time I really had this notion that with this relocation I’m just going to have to make a commitment to art. It turns out that when I got here, she introduced me to this place in Coconut Grove, the Black Arts Workshop. Our love connection didn’t last very much longer, but it was kind of like a mission accomplished. She ended up relocating to New York where I was from and so we traded places. Through the Black Arts Workshop I met Donald McKnight, he was the first artist I met, and he just passed away this year. Then I met some of the other artists. They invited me to one of their meetings and it turned out that up until that very point, they had been receiving some funding from the United Way. There was a question in terms of the next month's rent being due and the discussion was how this can get done.

    As fate would have it, a gentleman came to the meeting who was starting a company producing t-shirts. He had done this market research and he had an article called, “Get if Off Your Chest by Putting It on Your Chest.” He was inquiring about having an artist make samples and it was an interesting conversation. I asked him if had any promotional materials. He said, “we have a logo, but we do need more.” I told him “Why don’t we make some sketches? You look at them and if you think that’s what you want, we can do that.” I was able to do that and with the deal we made I could say that I got this job from the Black Arts Workshop. We just split the income 50/50.  There was the next month's rent taken care of and we could go from there. That was my introduction that allowed me to join in a way of being able to contribute.

    Coconut Grove was this epicenter of art and creativity. We had a few well-established artists that I got to know, I never actually got to know Tony Scornavacca very well, but he was kind of an iconic name. I did get to know Gene Massin and his son Barry. Barry and I became friends and allies in a number of ways. His shop was the go-to place for any artistic problem that could not be solved by a common hardware store.

    The Black Arts Workshop was a gallery space and workspace, more so a workplace, but we would clean up the place now and then and we would put up a show that would run for about 10 days. We got to do quite a few interesting shows, a prison art show that was, much to my surprise, successful. The premise of it was not original, because a lot of the art that was coming out of these penal institutions was very politically and socially conscious. What we got was not quite that, but what was very telling, and why that particular show. stood out was because we put the word out and the idea was that we would have a soft opening at 4:00 pm for the press and the real opening would be at 7:00 pm. At 4:00pm, cars are parked all over the street, people were outside the door, and I remember one gentleman in particular who literally had his checkbook open, ready to buy. It was this understanding that folks had, that here was a place where you get pretty fine quality art at a bargain price.

     

    Amy Galpin: Can you share more about the role of printmaking?

     

    Dinizulu Gene Tinnie: Printmaking was one of the real advantages of having the Black Arts Workshop, it was almost like the difference between exercising at home and exercising at the gym. If you're exercising at home, you can be easily distracted, when you're at the gym you’re with kindred spirits and you're there with a common purpose. One of the things that developed was this cross-fertilization process that would happen. Whether we thought about it or not, we were inspiring one another, and we would have these waves of activity so if one person decided to do painting using old master’s techniques or carving wood then we would all kind of get into that. So, it happened with screen-printing, I had always heard about it and didn’t quite know what it was. Then I had gotten into this rhythm that was really a good one, I didn’t maintain it as long as I would've liked to, of taking adult classes in the spring. Right down the street at Carver Middle School there was a class in silkscreen printing. Coincidentally it took me back to when I first got to the Black Arts Workshop where Donald McKnight was commissioned to do those t-shirt samples, so we got into screen-printing and it became a very rich moment because it allowed us to learn from both ends: We were learning from the technical side about the best way to produce screens and the images that we wanted, and there was also the creative side such as aligning and overlaying colors for special effects. The most fascinating thing about printmaking is the fact that you can create an image that is reproducible as a whole edition, so that the original work is in multiples. Which if you value the idea of art having some sense of popularity, where the idea is for it to reach many people, printmaking has a lot to offer. One of the things that I looked forward to with the opportunity to go to Europe was seeing the Gothic cathedrals. Not just how they were built and the dynamic tension, but also the fact that there was this collective act of profound faith that went into that.

     

    Amy Galpin: Some amazing connections to thread together. Thank you, Gene, for sharing time with me today, and for all of your advice for the project.

     

  • Freda Coffing Tschumy

    On the afternoon of June 6, 2021, curator Amy Galpin sat down with artist Freda Coffing Tschumy at her home in Coconut Grove to talk about her art. The Frost Art Museum’s exhibition, Place and Purpose: Art Transformation in Coconut Grove, features a painting by Tschumy, but the artist is a noted sculptor. Active in Florida since the 1970s, Tschumy ran the foundry at the University of Miami for about 12 years. An expansive 2016 exhibition at the Bakehouse Complex titled Strong Paintings focused on her bronze and resin works. Deeply knowledgeable about the history of art and art-making techniques, the artist frequently uses wax to create her organic and lyrical works.


    Freda Coffing Tschumy, Autobiographies, 2012, bronze, cast stone, 8.5 x 10 x 5 feet.

     

    Amy Galpin: Thank you for having me over today.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: You are very welcome. Thank you for coming.

     

    Amy Galpin: My pleasure, my pleasure. I was looking at your library and I saw books on Barbara Hepworth and Beverly Pepper and Isamu Noguchi. And I wondered if you could share with me some of the sculptors who have influenced you?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Well, all of them!  If I think of just a few, I think first of Henry Moore and Noguchi.

     

    Amy Galpin: And when you were in Rome, were you also looking at Bernini and Michelangelo?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Of course, of course! (laughs) Yes. The wonderful sculpture there was really a very big part of it.

     

    Amy Galpin: Wonderful

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: It was great and, aside from the fact that there was studio space and Italian professors, there were students from all over the world that I became friendly with. A couple of British women became friends, and we took an apartment together which was just around the corner from Piazza Navona which was fabulous.

     

    Amy Galpin: But thinking of being abroad and I know you mentioned that you and Ted [Freda’s husband, Ted Tschumy is a highly regarded architect] are very interested in Japanese art and African art, can you just talk a little bit about what draws you to non-Western art?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Western art, I mean every flavor of it has very specific rules. In the Renaissance they made rules, well in practically every era they made rules. It is still beautiful to look at, but it interests me to see art that comes from other cultures that don’t have the same rules. They still have rules, of course, but the art looks different and expresses what that culture thinks is important. So, I think it refreshes one’s vision to see differently. When you look at figures for instance, from Japan as opposed to figures from the Renaissance, it’s a very, very different understanding of the human figure. And it really interests me; it’s very informative, broadening.  


    Freda Coffing Tschumy, Mad Hatter’s Tea Garden, 2010, cast bronze and wrought iron.

     

    Amy Galpin: What about being here in South Florida? Could you talk a little bit about Coconut Grove, the community of artists and whether that was a source for inspiration or whether it was more about being in this nature space and having this beautiful studio as an oasis away from distraction?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Probably, well really both. I have volunteered at Fairchild Tropical Garden now for more than 25 years, I’ve lost count after that. I’ve always been focused on nature. In fact, I was born in Danville, Illinois and lived there when I was very young. The house we lived in had a very big lot because half of it was a ravine, so, it wasn’t buildable. There was more space on the other side of the ravine, and there was a major street. I always just loved the trees and the plants. The forest was right at the edge of town and started right at the back of our property.  My brother and I spent a lot of time in the woods. Particularly in the summer. And then of course after some years we were in Miami in the wintertime. But there are specific people that I met in Miami. The man that I studied with when I got my MFA was Bill Ward. And he was an influence not exactly on my aesthetic, but he is the one that built and ran the foundry at the University of Miami. I learned foundry from him and then just before I graduated with my MFA, he said “You know it’s just about time for me to retire and I wonder if you would stay on and run the foundry?” I said, “Yes! I’d love to.” So, that of course was another way that he was a big influence. But I really liked him. He moved up state and I kind of lost track of him. I don’t know whether he is still alive. He was at least ten years older than I am. He may not be on the planet anymore. But anyway, there were a few other people. Juanita May, when I first came here, she was such a great person, and she was also a great ceramist. I also studied ceramics with her. We became good friends. I taught at the University of Miami the Sculpture Department for a number of years. And some of the people who studied with me became really good friends. I am trying to think. As far as other artists. There were other artists who influenced me, just because they were enthusiastic, and they worked hard, and they did really nice things. Like Ann Sams.

     

    Amy Galpin: I was thinking about Juanita May when we were walking through your studio and looking outside and seeing your work and just thinking about how she would take ceramics outside and do these installations. That’s so interesting. I am always thinking about gender. As a woman artist here in Coconut Grove, did you feel just as accepted? Were there any limits in terms of exhibitions or gallery representation? When you think of that time, 1960s through 1980s, were women artists getting as much attention?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Of course not. One of the things that I really loved when I was living and studying in Rome was learning about the Etruscans. Do you know about the Etruscans?

     

    Amy Galpin: Just a little bit. Like survey of art history knowledge.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Well, they were really unusual because Etruscan women, unlike the other cultures—the Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians—the Etruscans respected their women. The women had their own identities. Whereas in the other civilizations in that time, in the Mediterranean when you got married you didn’t even have your birth name anymore. They could own property, they could inherit property, they could eat dinner with their husbands. (laughs) And others, the Greeks and the Romans thought they were all hussies because they ate with their husbands. Anyway, so, learning more about that really made me feel more empowered as a woman.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yes, yes, I love that. That is a great historical reference. When we were walking through your studio. I saw a through line of nature. Can you talk about how nature has impacted your work?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Well as, I mentioned when we lived in Danville, and I was very very little. Nature was always a big part of my life and you can’t live here and not be taken by nature.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yes, it’s true! Especially for me as an outsider too, I’m always struck by seeing an iguana, just walking down the street. Well, one thing I think the exhibition has made us think about is the development of an art scene here in Miami. Our exhibition reminds more recent residents of Miami that there was a vibrant cultural scene here a long before the advent of Art Basel.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Yes, good point!

     

    Amy Galpin: And we also were talking a little bit about the impact of real estate development and gentrification. What are some lessons that we can learn from Coconut Grove, specifically from the 60s, 70s, 80s in Coconut Grove?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: That is a very good question. The city and/or county does not do a good job of protecting it. When I walk in the general larger neighborhood. It seems like, anybody can build anything, tearing down these charming little houses with the beautiful trees and plants and cover the lot with something that’s really ugly and has no relationship to the history here, to the trees, or to the plants or anything. It makes me very upset.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yes.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: It really changes. I mean Coconut Grove has this certain character, but if they keep doing that it won’t anymore.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yeah.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: And I know that, the developers say, and I guess the politicians say, “Oh well, you can’t stop progress.” But it’s not progress if it’s down the drain.

     

    Amy Galpin: Right.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: You look at those buildings in the middle of Coconut Grove now. Just big, glass boxes that are still empty.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yes! I always wonder about this too. Switching gears, you know the subject of your painting in the exhibition chooses to be anonymous, so we won’t name him. Did he commission you to make that portrait?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Yes.

     

    Amy Galpin: Very nice, yes. In the 60s, when the portrait was made, there was so much social engagement in the Grove. Do you still feel a lot of social engagement here in the Grove between people or was it much more so then, in terms of gathering and community?

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: That’s hard to think about. We have really wonderful neighbors on the street. Neighbors that we get together with, we go out to dinner with, we go to their houses, they come to our house. So, that part of it is better than it used to be. Ted and I both have very deep roots in this area. His dad was an architect. He was the architect who converted the Coral Reef Yacht Club from a mansion on the water to the clubhouse. But then from there it became what it is today. And as a founding member, he was given a lifetime membership. Sometime later they specified that it can be inherited once. Ted inherited the lifetime membership. We’ve had that membership and it’s been wonderful.

     

    Amy Galpin: Nice.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: And a lot of Coconut Grove people go there. So that’s really a community kind of thing.

     

    Amy Galpin: That’s great, that’s really wonderful.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: As a matter of fact, my father was a very early member too, but he wasn’t quite as early as Bill. But Bill Tchumy also designed St. Stevens Church right in the middle of Coconut Grove. And that’s where Ted and I were married.

     

    Amy Galpin: Nice!

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: So, after our wedding we went to Coral Reed Yacht Club for our reception. (laughs)

     

    Amy Galpin: Beautiful! How special.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: So, it’s all very very local.

     

    Amy Galpin: Yes, oh that’s so wonderful. Freda, thank you for sharing your art with me and for telling me more about your time in Coconut Grove.

     

    Freda Coffing Tschumy: Thank you!

     
    Freda Coffing Tschumy, Triptych, 2003, wax and metallic powders on wood panels, 47 x 46.5 x  1.75 inches.