Artist Pablo Cano Makes Toilets Float, Turns Tin Cans Into Treasures

He was far too young to understand what was happening, where they were going, why they were going. 

But all these years later, the date is indelibly imprinted in his mind: Oct. 17, 1962. 

It would be the last flight out of Cuba before the Missile Crisis, and Pablo Cano Jr. was aboard it, one year old and safe in his mother’s arms.

“And I’ve kissed the ground of this country,” he says now, sitting at a long, paint-stained table in South Florida’s Young At Art museum. “I’m very glad to be here and have the freedom.”

That freedom has rewarded Cano many times over: his career in art; his charming home and garage-studio in Miami’s Little Havana; the accolades he’s earned for the work he does, fashioning found objects into found-objets-d’art. 

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His most recent reward is here at YAA, home to Pablo Cano’s Magical Workshop & Theater.

The workshop made its debut the first weekend of May, part of a gala affair that greeted the museum’s reopening in its new 47,000-square-foot space. Since then, 11,000-plus people have visited the museum, and the happy noise level makes it seems as though a good number have hung around to play.

Cano’s mission here is about freedom, too – artistic freedom. 

His workshop has but one rule: No Rules. 

He wants children to explore, to push the boundaries, to be themselves and to express themselves in their own unique way. With his marionettes as inspiration – Matilda the Hippo and Boring Boris and Poindexter the Ant, among them – the children make puppets of their own. And, like his, their puppets grow out of used and discarded materials.

Matilda’s head is a guitar; her front paws are oversized tin cans. Poindexter’s rear end is a toilet float; his legs are black purse straps. Cano haunts thrift stores for castoffs, conducts curbside drive-bys in search of discarded furniture and hubcaps and lampshades. 

Another man’s trash is his treasure.

In his Magical Workshop at YAA, bins-full of materials await children’s creativity: rubber bands and scraps torn from magazines, tongue depressors and skeins of yarn, multi-colored pipe-cleaners and key-ringlets and paper clips and twine. 

They will be transformed into puppet eyes and ears, puppet arms and legs.

“The kids look at these things and think they’re like jewels,” says Ilene Jaffe, a former teacher and principal who, as a Gallery Interpreter, leads tour groups through the workshop. “We try to keep everything stocked with the latest and greatest trash.”

The puppets, the puppet shows, they’re all a nod to Cano’s childhood.

“I was brought up with puppets and I loved theater,” he says. “I grew up with Captain Kangaroo and Henrietta Hippo, all the Saturday morning shows. I began to link music and performance and art.” 

At the age of 10, he staged puppet shows for family and neighborhood friends. 

“I was very shy and very nervous, putting those shows on. I remember a friend holding my knees together because they were shaking so much. Even today, I get the jitters.”

And, even today, he thinks back to the reason he is here, the reason that his family, like so many others, fled Havana when they did.

The Revolution was still new, but already its promise of freedom from tyranny had begun to dim. 

The evidence was everywhere. Cano’s father, Pablo Sr., a guitarist, was arrested and detained overnight for playing jazz numbers, music considered to be subversive by the Castro regime. Cano’s mother, Margarita, an artist who also worked at the library, saw books taken from the shelves and hidden, essentially banned.

The Canos sought to leave Cuba. They applied for visas. For weeks, for months, nothing happened. And then word began to circulate that the departing American ambassador, Philip Bonsal, had entrusted his visa stamp to a man known only as “El Consul.” Pablo Sr. learned about it from a fellow musician. 

In secret, he approached the man and secured the documents that allowed his family – himself, his wife, his son and daughter, his grandmother-in-law – to board a plane and fly to the United States. 

Secrecy surrounded the visa stampings. 

Some years later, Margarita and Pablo Cano Sr. encountered El Consul on the streets of Miami and thanked him: In Miami, Boris Mijares no longer needed a secret identity.

It certainly is no secret that the art world, in which Pablo Cano lives and works, has suffered in the current economic downtown. 

The Rubell Family Collection, one of the world’s largest privately owned art collections, was an early buyer of his work. 

And more of it resides in public and private collections around the country: the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, FL; the Cintas Foundation in New York City; SUNY at New Paltz, NY; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, GA., to cite a few.

Bonnie Clearwater, MOCA’s director and chief curator, has said of Cano’s work, “Each marionette is a complete sculpture in its own right that is exhibited in the museum in its inanimate state; but when their creator and grand puppeteer Cano performs them, the figures take on a life force that causes the audience members to suspend their disbelief."

"It was clear right from Cano’s first productions at MOCA that a truly original artist, who marched to his own drummer, was in our midst," Clearwater said. "In the 1990s, at a time when conceptual art dominated the international art world, Cano followed his heart and passion, seeing treasures in garbage and bringing unforgettable characters into existence.”

Artist Yolanda Sanchez has been equally enthusiastic, noting, “the work has remarkable energy – a sensation of things about to break free. Not just because most of his pieces have the capacity for movement, but because the accretion of divergent parts and the unique way that Pablo fuses them create a tremendous build-up of energy - a whole new entity of reordered parts, bigger and stronger than the individual pieces.”

Reviews like that often translated into sales, and sales could mean anywhere from $500 for a standard-size marionette to $25,000 for a life-size, silvery, red-lipped Marie Antoinette. 

But, with the current economic downturn, even an art critic’s whole-hearted praise won’t necessarily translate into profit. “Sales aren’t what they used to be,” Cano acknowledges, “and commissions are few and far between.”

He converted his living room and dining room into The Red Velvet Theater. He slip-covered sofas and chairs with red velvet. He built a ticket booth and installed it in the entryway of his home. He consulted with musician and dancer friends who helped him put together shows – “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” and “City Beneath the Sea” and “Viva Vaudeville” – starring him and his marionettes.

He sent out email invitations to friends and acquaintances. He placed ads in local newspapers.

And every Saturday, he sold tickets and served refreshments and put on a show. Seating is limited to 14 people, but the shows are sold out through July. So far, he’s breaking even. Come fall, he plans more shows in collaboration with dancer and musician friends – and an uptick in ticket prices.

“For me,” he says, “the most anticipated element of the process of creation is the final step – when the contributors (choreographers, dancers, actors, musicians, producers) sprinkle magic stardust over the tenderly assembled detritus and bring the cast of remarkably unique marionettes to life."

"I am sure the stardust has worked when I see in the faces of the audience young and old the unfolding of their connection with the characters in the production.”

Mary Jane Fine is a freelance writer based in Florida.

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