Our monthly “Quick Chats” with SAGE participants offer a first-person perspective on our community. This month, we spoke with Rubin Gonzalez, a 59-year-old artist whose wide-ranging interests include sculpture, jewelry-making and painting. Despite his struggle with cancer, Rubin is staying active. Recently, his work has been on view at the Casa Frela Gallery in Harlem, and was included as part of the Harlem Art Walking Tour.
I was hoping to get help with computer skills, and I met Reyno Francisco [a SAGE social worker] and he was a helpful and very positive person. I like people who express an emotional connection to their job—he did that. Then Tom Weber [SAGE’s Director of Care Management] contacted Lawrence Rodriguez, who owns the Casa Frela Gallery, and he wanted six pieces of my art!
That’s fantastic! When did you start making art?
My art comes from poverty. I was ten when my dad died, and I was one of ten kids. I didn’t have toys, so I said ‘let me make my own.’ I carved an elephant out of soap in grade school, and the teachers at my school started buying them. So I said ‘ooh I can make money doing this!’
My brothers used to tease me and call me ‘big head’ and ‘martian’, etc. But then I realized I have something they didn’t have. My artistic skills got me noticed. So I kept pursuing it.
You’ve done many different kinds of art, is that right?
Yes, I’ve done sculpture and painting and I’ve cut glass and cast silver. I’ve also done upholstery, made my own clothes, jewelry, and leather bags. My teachers always told me to specialize, and I said “No I can’t, I love everything!” People tell me, “Your work is good, but it looks like ten different people did it!”
My “Harlem Heroes Collectibles” was my first attempt at a business. They were wearable art representing Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.
I also did a series of self-portraits at age 40—me and me alter egos—me as a white guy, me as a Black guy, as a martian, as a cyborg, and as an Aztec king.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I’m an optimistic artist. I work with what I have. Garbage, to me, is like art—I see something different in objects than other people. At Casa Frela I am showing sculptures based on Native American and African American tribal headdresses. It was a challenge to replicate them in miniature.
And what does this show at Casa Frela mean for you?
This is like an answer to a prayer. I am very interested in my legacy, since I’m living with terminal cancer, and my partner of 29 years, Rafael, passed away in May. To give myself purpose, I’m focusing on preserving my artwork.
You’ve struggled a lot recently. I’m so sorry about the loss of your partner. I’m really moved by your strength, and I can’t wait to see your show!
Thank you!My legacy is my motivator right now. I want to give my artwork a home, and make people happy.