Radio Maine Episode 7: Carlos Gamez de Francisco
Carlos Gamez de Francisco knew that he wanted to emigrate from Cuba to the United States when he was 14-years-old. According to Carlos, the generation before him had moved to Cuba for opportunity, and now his generation was leaving for opportunity. After early studies in dance, at age fifteen Carlos began devoting his time to studying and perfecting his art. He would eventually find his way to the U.S. where he took the first available job in a warehouse while continuing to create art. Within months, and after learning English by repeating 100 words 11 times each day, Carlos talked his way into gallery representation, had his first solo art show and sold it out. He promptly quit his warehouse job and became a full-time artist. Carlos' determined commitment to hard work, discipline, and constant learning is an inspiration for us all.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, the seventh episode of Radio Maine. And today, I am speaking with artist, Carlos Gamez de Francisco from his home in Kentucky. It's great to have you here today.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Thank you for inviting me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Carlos, you’ve had a very busy morning. You've been driving all over the place. Cincinnati back to Kentucky. You just had a solo show. It's a lot of effort to be an artist.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Yes it is, but I love it. This is what I love since I was five years old. So I think everything I do is the right thing to do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I was very interested to read about your growing up in Cuba. It's not something that a lot of Portland Art Gallery artists can can say is true. How did you end up making the connection with the Portland Art Gallery in Portland, Maine?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Well, last year, when the COVID started, I wanted to do changes in my life. I spent too much time in the studio by myself. So one of the things I did, I made a vision board with all the things I want to accomplish. In the last 10 years, I always thought that I wanted to work with 20 galleries but I thought it was impossible. But at the end of the last six months, I went from five galleries to twenty. And I did it, I will say sending emails through galleries that I liked for awhile. And Portland was one of them.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Behind me. I have a work called Dogs and Foxes, and it's a very unique painting. It's two, it looks like hunting dogs, on a purple couch with a couple of foxes underneath and some various insects, some of which seem to be stinging insects, some of which do not seem to be stinging insects. Tell me about this piece.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Well, I loved that piece and I was thinking like most of the time when dogs are hunting, they do it because they have a nice sense of smell or they know how to find the prey. But in this case they're going in the wrong direction. So the foxes that are hiding and they're okay. So they will never be hunted by the dogs. So life sometimes it's like that. We think we're going in the right direction, but then we know, after some failure, so we have to take a different path until we find what we really want.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: The foxes don't seem very concerned in this painting.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Yes, they're very, they're very peaceful.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So have you yourself experienced this sort of going in the wrong direction and needing to kind of pull back, redo things in a different way?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I think life is about that. I think everything in life is about trying different things and try it as much as possible until you succeed. And I see success is not having a lot of money or fame but is to get what makes you happy. So for example, I always known since I was five years old, that this was my career, and I have told the story many times, but I think you will enjoy it. So I will sit in my dad's kitchen table, I was drawing with the blue ink and that he was washing the dishes and I asked my dad how the water came out of the faucet. And my dad explained me that water come from the lake. Then, we both purified it and then it comes to every house and it was, after purifying, it was nice for drinking. So I was drawing everything that my dad told me and my dad left the kitchen. My mom arrived and she asked me what I was doing. So I explained the same, that my dad told me, but I was only five years old. So my mom was concerned because that wasn't a normal conversation for a kid. So next day, she took me to see a psychologist and they told her your son is okay, you're the one that needs the therapy.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: That’s what I knew this was my occupation. And I remember the moment and I keep that drawing.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So at five years old, knowing that you wanted to be an artist, that's pretty special actually.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Yes it is. And I started taking seriously my career since I was 15. And I remember in Cuba, that was a very difficult period because we have the embargo and we didn't have no resources. So all the art supplies to stores were empty. So I have to be very creative. I had two choices. I could quit painting or I could find a solution. So what I did, I was mixing toothpaste with watercolor. And that way I could create all the textures in my paintings. And because I didn't have a canvas, I have to take blankets or cardboards. And I was painting. I was using them as support and I was mixing oil with diesel because I didn't have the medium. So all this helped me to be more creative and never find an excuse because it's very easy to find an excuse and quit. The difficult part is to keep trying. So when I was 15, I was painting with toothpaste and watercolor. And I remember it was early in the morning and when I looked through the window, it was already night. That's when I said, okay, I could do this for the rest of my life, And, I will enjoy it every day.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: When you were growing up, your education was very Russian inspired from what I understand. Tell me about that.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: So first before it's starting to be a fine artist, I was just starting to be a dancer. And I did it since I was 11 years old until I was 15. And that taught me everything about discipline. It was a very difficult school as schools in Cuba are very difficult to get in because there is a lot of competition. So there were about 300 people taking tests to go into the school. We were the only 26 people who pass the tests. And we have to, in the morning, take the normal classes and in the afternoon we were taking all the dance classes. We were taking ballet and European dance. And after that, I have to go with a private teacher because the school was so hard that the only way to pass was taking classes outside of the school. So my show heard was a lot of training, seven hours a day. And when I switched to fine art, when I was fifteen, I switched, I went to a different artist school. I already had the discipline and painting is, in a way, less painful than dancing because dancing, there is a lot of physical pain, but with painting it's more the emotional side but you're seated. So I think it was a nice, nice idea to switch careers.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You also do work in photography and you have a lot of female forms in your photography and in arrayed and very creative ways. We have one in our studio, it's Casual Decor III, and it's a woman with a mass of auburn hair with different things kind of woven throughout. And this is just one of many examples of the type of photography that you do. What has caused you to get interested in women as a subject for your photography?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: So I start working on photography in 2012, I always enjoy it. But when I take a picture, I don't think as a photographer, I think as a painter and the way I see the composition, the colors, is in the same way I paint. So I think every photo is built. I create everything, the environment, when I do it, then the sand, the grasses and it takes sometimes 400 pictures to select the right one. So, I went in 2012 to Cuba. I did made a whole series of photo. And then I came back, I think in 2018. And I wanted to photograph the youngest generation of Cuban because when I left the country twelve years ago, everything was very different. Now the country is more open in a way because at my time I didn't have internet at home, so the internet was a new thing for me when I came to the U.S. or I didn't have access to a cell phone, or also I didn't have access to American movies.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: So the new generation, they are able to get these advantages. So they have a new frame of thinking, to go to their houses and meet them, talk to them, know how they thought, how they think. I asked them permission to check every room in their houses. So I was checking in their closets in their bedrooms. And I will dress as with found objects that that were in their houses like curtains or blankets or brillo pads, or, even spoons. So I was using everything I could find. And I spent about two hours, building the gowns and after that I took 400 pictures and I selected one. So I'd remember the first time I started taking photos because I didn't know too much about photography. Everything was a trial. I made a lot of mistakes and I couldn't find the perfect lighting. I love Baroque paintings, so my goal was to be able to catch the lighting, like Rubens' or for Rembrandt's paintings. So I want that perfect black background with a light in common to only one side of the face. I tried on, I made about 3000 pictures. I was working for two weeks and one day it was raining and I couldn't get natural light. So I got the lighting very close to the model and I took a picture and that was the perfect lighting. So I deleted the other 3000 pictures and I called the models again. So they were not very happy about it, but at the end it worked, and that's when I understood that in photography, everything is about how you catch the lighting, how the lighting comes through the lens. And then you're able to show that in the picture.
Dr. LIsa Belisle: Tell me about this piece that is behind you
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I love this piece. I think all the details I spend about a week only working on the hairs. With most of my figures you could see the face, but lately, especially in the last year, because of COVID, we have been covering our faces. And so most of my figures faces are disturbed or covered by sunglasses or face mask or flowers. So because there is, I like that people know who the person is, but I don't want to make it everything so clear. I want them to imagine how they think this person is. In this case, I imagine how her face is, and I was thinking to make a second version like this view, but I think this one was, was, it looks so beautiful that I don't want to keep explaining who the person is, so I will leave it in this way. And I love it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How does your family feel about your career as an artist?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I have a funny story about that. My mom, she's very strict and I think it's something about Spanish mothers. She's someone very hard working. I learned discipline and hard work from her, and she supported me a lot, but she always told me I don't want a mediocre son. I want you to try your best in anything you want, do whatever you love, but try your best. And I remember once in a school where I was taking some classes in our artist school, and one of my teachers came and he saw my drawings and he said something that was a compliment, but I didn't see it in that way because he said, "I will never draw as good as you." Instead of taking that as a compliment, I took it as a disadvantage because I went to that school to learn.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Next day I talked to my mom and I told her that I wanted to quit and I wanted to go to a different school. And she said, "That's okay--let's go to the school you want to go, but you need to try your best." So I was painting since I was 15 until I was 17. I was painting for two years, 8 hours a day. And then when I was finally 17, she put one of my paintings in the living room. So imagine how strict she was like, she wanted more from me! And that was the first piece that she loved. So I said, okay, if she like it, that means something. So I took that painting to a gallery and I had my first solo exhibition. So she was right.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So she had high standards and you worked to live up to them. And in the end it paid off.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Yes. And even today she still find mistakes in my paintings. So yes, she does have very high standards. And my father, he is more, he likes to have a peaceful life. He gave me a lot of support, but he let me be in the way I want. He let me take the decisions in the way I want.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So it sounds like they balanced each other out very well when it came to raising you. One of the things I was interested in when I was learning about you is the idea of the story and how things aren't always as they seem, especially in growing up in post revolutionary Cuba things weren't always as they seemed. This is something in the United States where I think we sometimes assume that what we see on the news is correct, but you probably always had the sense that it may not always be correct or it may not always be true. Yes?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I love history and I, while I'm painting, most of the time I'm listening to history books or audio books about positive thinking or happiness or business things that I, that I teach me something about the past or the future that I would like to have. In Cuba learn history, and I thought that I knew many things, but when I came to the U S and I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, I noticed there was a different history about the same things. And there are many points of view. And that's one thing I love about this country based like everybody has a point of view and we have the freedom of the speech to be able to share that, and some people don't like it. That's okay. They have their own opinions and some other people like what you said, but we have the right to say that and to think I'm acting the way we want. And so when you have that freedom, and if you use it wisely, you could get any goal that you want.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me what of your recent things you've been listening to. What's one of your favorite books?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Last year when I made my vision board, one of the things that I wanted was to listen to 100 audio books, because in the past, three years ago, I only listened to six audio books. I think one year ago I listened to 23. Then I said, well, if I listen every day, at least for four hours, I will create the habit and I will be able to listen to 100 and I did it. I listened to 103 in a year. That helped me so much to understand. I think knowledge make you see life in a different way, because when we're in our comfort zones we're afraid of so many things. For example, when I came to the U.S., I never drive the car. So the first time I was driving a car, I thought I could see an accident everywhere because in my mind, I thought, that was supposedly. But once you start doing the same and every time, more and more often you are less afraid. And you notice that knowledge and practice give you an advantage. It makes you, it's like painting. When I started painting a painting, like the one you have behind you, took me like seven months to create, but now it takes me only five days because I have learned many techniques and I study all the anatomy. I have been repeating processes for so long that now everything is easier.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And, of those hundred plus books, were there any that stood out for you?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: There is one that I really love and it's very simple. It's called the Little Prince and it's a French book. In Cuba, there is a tradition where parents give you that book when you're a child. And that's the first book I'd read when I was a kid. And I decided to read it again last year. And I did it a couple of times, is a beautiful book. It teaches you a lot about values and about how we should see life. And there is a lesson I learned from that book when I was a teenager. There is a part in the book that says that there was a scientist that wants to give a conference, but he was wearing his traditional clothing. So, nobody paid attention to him. And then he was given a beautiful speech, but nobody cares because of the way he was dressed.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: And so the next year he came and he was wearing a suit and everybody was clapping. Why? Because people, we sometimes judge just because of the way we dress. And I think, that's not a good thing because we are a stereotype and we need sometimes to meet the people that is in front of us. But then when I came to the U S the first time I had an interview with a gallery, I remember that chapter of the book, and I bought a suit. And even because I had a disadvantage at the time, I didn't know the language, I didn't know the culture. And I remembered the first interview with the gallery because my English was very bad. I was learning of memory, what I had to say. And then I said, okay. So if I memorize all this three part up, they won't ask me any questions. I will say everything I'd want. So I know you can do that. And then they asked me questions, but I was okay. So I had my first solo exhibition. I want to share with you the story when I came to the U.S. I came with only $650 and for a Cuban that is a lot of money because a doctor is in my country only make $40 per month. But, that's what I spent in my first day. So I guess I had 600 in art supplies and $50 for shoes because I love the movie Forest Gump. And I remember I watched that movie more than 40 times, and I knew all the dialogues in the movie. And I thought that success could be achieved in the U.S. because Forest Gump did.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: So I came with all my dreams and I bought a pair of shoes like the ones he did. First day in the U.S., I was broke. So I said, well, now what can I do? So I went to find a job, but because I didn't know the language and I didn't know anybody, the only job I found was doing shipping and receiving It was, it will not be the kind of job that I would be my dream job. But I knew that was part of the path. And I always had faith that that was something I had to do in order to achieve my goals. So I was working there nine hours a day. Then I will study in English two hours a day.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: And then I was painting at night and I'd remember, I was only sleeping five hours a day during the first four months in U.S. One day I sent an email to a gallery and they call me, but because my English was so bad, I couldn't understand their questions. And I hang up the phone and I said, this is the last time that something like this will happen to me. I will learn 100 words per day. So my dad, he was a professor in a university in Cuba. And he told me that when you repeat the same thing, about 11 times, your brain will remember that information. So I repeated 100 words per day for 11 times. And then after four months, I had my first solo exhibition and I sold all the show. Next day, I quit my job. And I said, okay, now I can do what I love. So I believe when we do, when we have passion and discipline and would work hard, we can achieve any goal we want.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What do you do for fun? It sounds like you're very disciplined, but on your off time, what do you like to do?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: So painting? I have the discipline, but I enjoy it. So it's not that I'm doing something I don't like. When I'm painting, time flies. And I feel peaceful, and I feel that everything is positive. So, and I like to work hard or have a lot of fun. I don't like to be in my bed watching Netflix. I think it's a waste of time. And so I work very hard. And then after two, three months, I take a vacation and I enjoy it for all the months that I was working. I like to travel. I like to go to different countries and in my vision board, one of my goals is to visit every country in the world. I like to spend time with friends, but also some of my friends, we have many things in common. They love art. So when we connect and we talk, we're talking about things that we love. And so it also works because we share ideas and then, from that conversation, many paintings come after that, or, they tell me something I experienced, they enjoy. And then I said, okay, this could be a nice painting. So I get an inspiration from everything.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Where was the last place you traveled to?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: This month I was very busy because I had several shows. I went to Raleigh, North Carolina. I had some pieces there. And then I went to deliver some paintings in Lexington and South Carolina, Indiana. So I had a show, a solo exhibition, and yesterday was the opening at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So a lot of your travel right now is focused on the work that you do.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Yes. Especially because with COVID we cannot travel. But, last year before the COVID, my goal was to travel to two country every two months. And then I only went to Spain and Portugal. My family is from Spain. And so I go there and visit them very often. And then I was planning to go to Colombia and South Korea and the Philippines, but then they cancel all the flights. So I'm waiting on maybe one more year until we're able to go back and travel.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What part of Spain is your family from?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: My grandfather was from (?), but then they were living in Barcelona. My great-grandparents and my grandparents, so they went to Cuba trying to find new opportunities. And then all my generation left Cuba trying to find new opportunities. So immigration, I think when people go from one country to another one, because they have so many dreams and they know how difficult life could be in another place. And especially they know that this country has so many advantages. This is a country of opportunities. So when I came, I was ready to work as hard as possible to be able to get all the things I want, and then I think the only limitations we have are in our mind. When we take action, things start happening.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do you have any advice for other young artists who are behind you on the path?
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I believe they should be trained. I always heard that there are three types of people: the one that thinks a lot, the one that talks a lot, and the one that takes action. So if you want to be an artist, it doesn't matter what other people think about your paintings, because we all have different opinions about paintings or art. So, maybe 50% of the people would like your paintings. That's okay. Or maybe 30% or maybe 70%, and that's okay, just follow your heart and your intuition and keep doing it. And then if you practice as much as possible and you spend 10,000 hours doing one thing, you will be able to understand that technically and everything will look so good. You will see the difference. Because when I started drawing, I must say, I wasn't good.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: I thought I was good, but I wasn't. And one of my teacher told me one day in my drawing class, I was showing one of my drawings, but I was finding excuses because I didn't like the drawing. So I told my teacher, I was 15, I told him, "I'm sorry, this drawing is not good enough because I feel sick and that I wasn't in a good mood to draw." And my teacher said, "I don't care, because one day, you will exhibit in a museum or a gallery, and you won't be next to the painting telling all your excuses to the audience. The audience wants to see a good painting. They don't care what is happening in your life. They just want to see a good painting. And that changed my way to see my work after that. I tried to make every painting as good as possible. And when I'm not satisfied with the piece, I put it in the garbage. So every 10 paintings, one goes to the garbage, and I know it happens and sometimes I'm working for six days, 10 hours a day and I know there is something missing.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: When I'm doing something with watercolor, they all go to the garbage because with that technique, you cannot make any mistakes. With acrylic, I have the advantage that I could come back and try to fix it in the future. I had a painting in the basement for two years--a painting that I didn't like. And last week I decided to see the painting again, and in three hours I fixed it. So two years of wait and three hours fixing it, and now I love it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I've really enjoyed our conversation today, and I appreciate your taking the time to connect with me from your home in Kentucky. I also encourage people to take some time to learn more about you, to visit the Portland Art Gallery website, to perhaps connect with you virtually. I've been speaking with Carlos Gomez de Francisco. I really learned a lot today. So thank you.
Carlos Gamez de Francisco: Thank you so much. It was my pleasure.