Her arthritic hand gently traced the oblong scales and swooping contours, softly smiling at its whimsy. “It’s lovely,” she whispers,” the artist must feel the spirit of the ocean as much as I do. Even at its most terrifying, I’m always drawn to it…but I guess that’s true of most Portuguese.”
Adjusting her bags, she twists her body to the right, away from Hazul’s famed fish, to reach out for my hand. Just behind us, cars frenetically ebb and flow in a desperate attempt to merge into the Boavista Rotunda where a toppled food stand has blanketed the street with hundreds of freshly roasted chestnuts.
Cupping my hand inside her own, Catarina tells me that she’d prefer to travel the world than become an artist. “Meñina, if I had the money, I’d love to get on a plane to India. I’ve always felt connected to those people; the type of people you could curl up to a bowl of curry and share your life story. But I don’t have that money. Plus, I’m too busy with my grandchildren, and my husband to worry about such frivolities.” Patting the top of my hand in a slow methodical rhythm, 71 year old Catarina Daniela Santos Soares whispers, “Art is for the carefree, the creative and the sensitive….I’m just a grandmother.”
I can’t express how saddened I was by those four words. They felt heavy and suffocating, as if society took a baton over her head and executed her fate. From the point of motherhood, she was deemed a caretaker – no more, no less. Her dreams, her personality, felt secondary, if not nonexistent.
Ironically, it’s women like Catarina that make up the social fabric of Portugal. It is she, with her vibrant, bubbly personality and wicked sense of humor that bring life to its textured streets and sandy beaches. It’s her smile, her shaky hands and her tangled ball of interconnected memories that retain Portugal’s past, a past consisting of mass immigration, family, resilience, poverty, oppression, warmth, self abatement and empathy.
“What truly inspires me is watching the psychological and emotional transformation in our elders through Urban Art! Their self-esteem and confidence increase. Their passion and personality come forth. And their desire to learn not only about art, but about their own city is absolutely breathtaking. They want to create!”
Lara Seixo Rodrigues is the cofounder of WOOL, a festival in the town of Covilha, that aims to unite both urban art and Covilha’s textured past. Located in the center of Portugal at the foothills of Serra da Estrela, Covilha was known as the Portuguese Manchester for its vast textile production, mirrored in more than 200 factories and 8,000 workers that labored until the 1974 Revolution. Hence the name “Wool”.
“From the beginning of this project, I watched the city come alive through art! Decaying cement walls were transformed into a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. Abandoned factories breathed new life. ‘Water cooler conversations’ moved to walls that told stories and emitted light. But more interestingly, it gave our elders a new lens. While our youth remained numb and bored, our elders wanted to jump in and participate! So, we created Lata 65.”
Admittedly, every time I see a photo, or remotely think of this project, a broad and toothy smile sweeps across my face. I involuntarily become giddy and happy, because it proves a theory I’ve always believed in: regardless of your age or personal struggles, learning keeps you young! The more you push your boundaries, and get uncomfortable, suddenly, life takes on new meaning.
Much like a 2013 Vintage Port, Lata 65 plays to those people 65 and older who want to pick up a can (lata) and tag! It encourages Covilha’s elders to get up and out of their worn recliners to create, express and celebrate their dreams! Provided with gloves, spray cans and dilapidated walls, over the course of two days, they have full authority to design whatever they want. From simple tagging to more comprehensive murals, they work side by side with talented young urban artists to let their imagination’s loose.
“With WOOL, over these past 4 years, I’ve worked with more than 60 artists (national and international) in 9 different Portuguese cities, under 13 different formats. We also took the 1st group of Portuguese urban artists to participate in both TOUR PARIS 13 and DJERBAHOOD in Tunisia, both of which were huge successes. Urban art not only transforms a city, but gives people a vested interest to care and make it beautiful. I only hope that this idea will spread, giving our cities new life and our elderly new hope.”
Staring at the gray, drab cement wall of the cooperative, nestled just across from my window in Porto, I completely understand her passion. I too have craved to transform this wall into a climbing garden or an urban art scene full of bright colors and textures. I want my city to be the hub for Urban Art, the epicenter of creativity and artistic expression! I’m thinking it’s high time that Porto steps up encourages its elders to tag, paint and graffiti their way onto our aging walls and crumbling exteriors that need a touch of love and restoration. It not only gives new life to a city that’s already going through a rebirth, but it allows these wise souls to put their skills to use! Lord knows, they may very well become the next graffiti Gandalf of Porto!
If you’re keen to participate in Lara’s projects, or want a custom tour of Portugal’s urban art including pieces by Hazul, Akacorleone, Daniel Eime, Dheo, Miguel Januário, Paulo Arraiano, Odeith and Gonçalo MAR among many others, drop us a line!