On Wednesday afternoon, the art movers were running hours behind.
“They should have been here this morning,” Francisco Alvarado-Juárez said from his home and studio in Manhattan. “It’s a lot of stuff, and it’s heavy.”
By the end of the day, the 10 boxes had finally been lifted, loaded and were on their way to the Southampton Arts Center, where the artist’s newest exhibition, “Light of the Ocean,” will make its world premiere on Saturday, October 13 — but only after a two-week installation process.
“There’s going to be an average between 10 and 12 volunteers working with me every day,” Alvarado-Juárez, “and, trust me, I’ll need the help.”
That’s because the primary tool that has made Alvarado-Juárez distinguishable in the art world are thousands upon thousands of recycled, hand-painted paper bags — nearly 5,000 in this case, to be spread across three galleries, making it one of his largest exhibitions to date.
But, first, they need to be unfolded, opened and sorted.
“The paper bags are a laborious process,” Alvarado-Juárez said. “I use them according to their color combinations — because I’m, like, painting with them.”
Unlike many of his colleagues, the self-taught artist was not painting or drawing as a child. Instead, he was working with his hands — building and carving the ships he saw coming into port in Honduras.
“I liked doing things with my hands, but it wasn’t until I left Honduras — I landed in Brooklyn at age 14 — and after I graduated from Stony Brook that I started to really teach myself about photography and, later, painting at the age of 28. I was really working against the clock, trying to catch up with all the years that I didn’t have any art training, and just teaching myself. That was not easy.”
He tapped into the creativity he had as a youth and extrapolated on that, taking what seemed like an impossibility and turning it into his life’s work.
“Everything is built on top of everything else — nothing comes out of nothing,” he said. “Carving that ship as a child? I never thought of that before, but yeah, it’s gotta be in there somewhere. That agility with my hands and coordination, you know? I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing what I have done. I would have been totally intimidated. It’s been a slow process that’s taken me this way, this far.”
The installation process at the Southampton Arts Center mirrors that pace. Each paper bag is carefully stapled into the wall from the back — simple, but time-consuming, he said.
“It’s one staple and it’s done,” he said. “That’s when I’m working with walls that are museum walls. Unfortunately, I have also worked in places, especially in Spain and in Mexico, where the walls were 17th-century, 18th-century walls and they were meant not to be able to perforate anything. So keeping those bags together was a challenge, because I would try to staple a bag and it wouldn’t stay up. Normally, that’s not an issue.”
Once the bags are installed, the artist will intersperse 32 paintings and two video projections among them. Organic material will tickle the olfactory senses and whale recordings will be piped throughout the galleries. Hundreds of seashells and 12 tons of sand will come last, he said.
“The process is very, very intense, like being 200 percent into what I’m doing,” he said. “Number one, I have to keep all the volunteers focused on the work and keep the work flowing. But with each place I work at, I give the volunteers a certain amount of room for creativity and for contribution that could be unique to them. It’s a very tricky balance. It’s two completely different things: letting it loose and keeping it together with a preconceived idea.”
While the final installation will have its own marine feel, it can’t help but resemble projects from the past — given his use of the same paper bags that have been with him since the early 1990s, having traveled across Europe, Mexico and the United States, he said.
In half the time it takes to put them up, the bags will come down at the end of December. A coat of paint will cover the thousands of tiny holes in the gallery walls, and the bags will be repaired before they go back in their boxes, and into storage — until the next exhibition.
“This is about recycling in the grand scale, and about preservation,” he said. “I want people to think about the environment as a whole — the beauty and the fragility of the environment. We have the power to destroy. Therefore, we have the responsibility to preserve, as the only species in the planet that is capable of this massive destruction.
“We have to also be alerted to the fact that the flora and fauna of the planet has to be maintained and preserved as well as we can, so we can leave it to the next generation more or less as we received it, so our grandchildren can see elephants and whales,” he continued. “We have a tremendous responsibility, in terms of safeguarding the planet.”
The installation of “Light of the Ocean,” by Francisco Alvarado-Juárez, will be open to the public to view and volunteer from Monday, October 1, to Friday, October 12, at the Southampton Arts Center, located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. The exhibit will officially open with a reception on Saturday, October 13, from 5 to 7 p.m., and will remain on view through December 30. For more information, call (631) 283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.