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Creación de la Playa de Ponce
(Creation of Ponce Beach)
Antonio Martorell

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Project Biografía Espacio Tangente


Sea Loves
By Silvia Alvarez Curbelo



It is one of those old sea-port warehouses that in days of yore bustled with trade, exotic goods and the tall tales of sea wolves. Transformed into a multiart workshop, it welcomes youngsters from the Playa de Ponce (Ponce Beach), stowaways from other regions, and occasional visitors who find their way among mock-ups, sketches, sculptures and improvised installations that unroll from ceilings and walls, or twist around the floor like playful waves.

In this environment, Toño Martorell literally glides as a fish in water. Sometimes he performs as an architect, a mason or a stone cutter. He may also act as a craftsman or calligrapher, or appear in one of his best known roles: painter and stage-man. Also, I dare say, as a magician. For the boys and girls he coaches and agitates, he is the Master. However, above all roles, he prefers that of apprentice. “I don’t do anything that I already know how to do.”

Restless and insatiably curious, Toño is not short on discipline. In the workshop of Madrid-born painter Julio Martínez Caro, bathed with a light reminiscent of a Velázquez painting, where he would arrive panting after climbing several floors in a building without elevators, he was a privileged apprentice to the secrets of medieval and Renaissance craftsmen. Since then, his favored working mode has been the workshop.

In the sixties, holding a degree from Georgetown University, and avidly seeking a sentimental education, he returned to Puerto Rico and found another workshop in San Juan, that he remembers as “a cross between a French literary salon, a cigar-making workshop, and the loud gossip of washerwomen in a river.” Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño where his mentors, and José Rosa one of his co-apprentices. There were constant and endless discussions, and art with a purpose was conceived as the only possible form of art. There was no choice. “By force we became both cultured and political.”

In the make-up of a good workshop, everything gets blurred. There are no clear cut differences between learning and teaching; between the model and the copy; between tradition and innovation. This Playa de Ponce workshop, a public art project, casually mixes oppositions. The apprentices initiate the master into new arts derived from rap, graffiti, and a whole computer-based “sensorium” that is second nature for turn-of-the-century youth. The master reveals to them the arcane twists and turns of letters, the color and textures of rumors and legend, the occult stories. Such an exchange follows an inverted arrow line, or, better yet, records the collapse of lineal time schemes. Perhaps this is the only way to express, in a nutshell, the meaning of art.


The sea touches him in many ways. Martorell was born in Condadito, Santurce, a nondescript stretch between el Condado and Trastalleres. In those years, before television, the sea had not yet become an alien environment. That happened later, “when we turned our backs on the sea and the archipelago.” Thus, Toño got acquainted with San Francisco and Prague before discovering Ponce and the Dominican Republic. The Puerto Rican Caribbean was a late discovery. A sea without beaches. A distant horizon. Not the cozy sea of a love song by Sylvia Rexach, he remarks. The Caribbean is a sea of mythical densities; it opens the way to lost memories.

Corroded by the effect of sea mist and time; wandering and drifting, the most diverse objects are stranded around the dock. The workshop team obtains its inspiration from such abandoned debris. This is liquid history, unstable, moved by the urge to return to the open sea. It has to be grasped and latched onto. The workshop members ask their elders. Memories hide. Stories begin to emerge from the voices of grandmothers, aunts, old sailors. Oral history, transformed into land and sea imaginaries, takes the shape of burned schooners, bewitching sirens, sea monsters. They are the indelible tracks of many centuries of travel, commerce and sunken memories.


With multicolored mosaics, the workshop members reopen paths leading to the sea of memories. Stories rescued from the depths are embedded in the steps of the square facing the sea. But these stories are not alone. The opposing marks of official history are also present, proposing a stimulating and challenging contrast. Recovered from archives, newspapers, and texts about the city; they are the characters, events, processes and statistics of a History writ large, and their letters seem to be the equivalent of truth.

However, the sea has witnessed that other letters, the letters of marque, are usually more daring documents, embracing imagination and poetry. The Caribbean of smugglers and buccaneers always has its own way. After all, the city of Ponce was born by grace of defiance and will power. No wonder this is the sea of Cofresí, the pirate.

Surrounded by an impoverished settlement of deserted warehouses, Cofresí’s descendants, the members of the workshop team, recover common memories from the sea. And although master Martorell was born in the proximity of another ocean –the northward looking Atlantic– by learning from his apprentices he returns to the Caribbean missing from his childhood. Only art performs the miracle of time.