Just as a tornado whisked Dorothy away to the land of Oz, hurricanes help take viewers of Pablo Cano's works into a world of fantasy. His whimsical marionettes are made from street trash, and the pickings get better right after a big gust of wind blows through.
"Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Irene helped out," the Miami resident says. "I was able to find a lot of debris and plastic. I started using plastic signs after Andrew. I love letters and cutting them up and making shapes out of them."
The puppets in Once Upon an Island, a combination exhibition and marionette performance, were just being completed when Irene blustered in and blew quite a few plastic signs from their posts. "Suddenly you see this fish that says 'For Rent,' and it's in black and white," Cano explains. "And another one says, 'Motorboats Prohibited.'" A myriad of sea creatures and other characters appear in the 40-minute puppet play.
This year's show, an annual event at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, focuses on relations between Miami and Havana, Cuba. The maritime adventure opens with Prince Miami vowing his love for Princess Havana, and the story of the rocky relationship between the two is told through scenes based on actual events, such as Cuban rafters arriving in Miami, and purely imaginary scenes, like an underwater rendezvous between the princess and a seahorse.
As is appropriate for someone who turns garbage into puppets, Cano designs his pieces by employing an odd mixture of found objects. Princess Havana, for example, wears a large black lampshade adorned with bottle caps. The curlicue-shape seahorse was cut from the baroque-patterned headboard of a junked bed, and its fins are metal flaps that were once part of a vegetable steamer. Also appearing in the show are a razor-toothed shark fashioned from discarded gasoline cans; Archangel Michael, made from tin garbage cans decorated with baroque prints; and a rafter whose body is a coffee urn. A baby cradled in the rafter's arms is actually an espresso pot with a light bulb for a head.
The elaborate set for Once Upon an Islandwas actually the genesis of Cano's marionette fixation. The Cuban exile was born in Havana in 1961, and when Cano was 24 years old, a friend who worked at the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., took him on a tour of the museum's vaults, where workers were restoring one of artist Alexandra Exter's marionettes from the '20s.
"It was a harlequin made out of plastic, metal, and wood and other things that she put together," Cano explains. "I got to feel the textures she used. I was fascinated by the scale and the imagination she had to turn these shapes into moving sculpture. I always wondered what a stage for these would look like, and I took it upon myself to create it."
At the time he was working on his master's thesis at Queens College in New York. "I went into the painting program, and I tried to fit my marionette work into the painting program by painting the sets," Cano recalls.
Once he'd built the sets, he began making his own marionettes from found objects and taught himself how to make their limbs move. "I learned very soon that they had to be lightweight," he says. So he uses plenty of aluminum, plastic, and thin wood.
"It's a real challenge to maintain simplicity and yet make it very complex as a design," admits Cano. "It's just part of the whole process of using these found objects, and you just never know what you're going to get."