Erman Gonzalez: Finding the Uncaged Birds

By Sandra Schulman WPB Magazine Arts & Entertainment writer, Music and Film Producer.

Erman Gonzalez
Erman Gonzalez
Erman Gonzalez in his studio

Stepping into Erman Gonzalez’s “cosmos” as he calls it, is a walk through time. From his circa 1940s house with wildly unusual proportions, beams, and bizarre cactus planters, to his highly personal work that adorns the home, a whole world rooted in uprooted childhood opens up.

Erman was born in Cuba and watched and learned at his mother and grandmothers feet as they sewed clothes for a living.

“My mother was the neighborhood seamstress,” he says, sitting in the cluttered studio of his Miami home. “I learned sewing and pattern making from her. When I was about 13 my father was jailed for his political expression and things became hard for my mother. She was pulling suits apart to trade for food. We went from feeding the hood to being fed by the hood. We soon fled for the US and ended up in Miami where we lived in a 2 bedroom apartment with 14 people. I remember signs that said “Dogs OK. No Cubans.” My mother found work with factories and continued sewing but she was changed and bitter until the end.”

“She said to me ‘We are empty cages’. That phrase changed my artistic life, and I now inform all my art by searching for the birds.”

Erman says he was the “strange bird” of his family with his mild manner and affinity for the sewing but felt secure and confident in his pursuits. He developed his own clothing line in Miami under the name Erman and still uses the suit labels by affixing them as the signature of his paintings. Making clothes is adornment, akin to the feathers of a bird. His work took on fantastical imagery, with people turned into birds with human characteristics of saints and people he knew.

Taking the cue from patternmaking he cuts paper clothing and painted strips of paper for feathers. Some figures are literally stitching themselves right into the artwork with giant needles. He sprays through lace for delicate background patterns that become both feminine and jungle like. Large cut paper becomes dresses with cut out roses and leaves.

The works are often overtly religious, with flocks of bird people making pilgrimages to other places carrying swords and staffs and adorned golden cups. One work of this mass migration is titled “They Got Their Visas”. Another image with sewn strips of fabric making a landscape is casually covered with a frame that does not fit that belonged to his mother. His home, where he has lived since 1989 with his wife and two children, carries a melancholy sense of American abundance from an artistic life that was lost to his parents. Artworks hang like ghostly Cuban saints on every wall, large pieces hang from a kooky floor to ceiling cactus planter in the middle of the living room that will soon be framed for his next show.

Erman Gonzalez
Bird people art by Erman Gonzalez

“It is painting but not painting. It is collage but not collage,” he says. “I used to cut paper dolls under the dining room table when I was little and this feels the same to me. I taught fashion illustration in the 70s and still do custom gowns for women who have special fitting needs.”

From a catalog of a solo show he had in 2007 he wrote:

“With the works, I approach issues of the universal human condition as are immigration both physical and spiritual, exile whether chosen or imposed and its consequences – up-rootedness, displacement and transculturation from my personal experiences and perspective as a Cuban-American living globally. I utilize methodologies usually associated with women’s handicrafts such as applique, embroidery and sewing in a conscious effort to blur the delineating divide placed between art and craft concentrating instead on intent, content, context and execution. These methods, integral to the works, combined with a uniquely personal iconography and multimedia are used to investigate various subjects that have impacted me as a person : matriarchy, traditions, indoctrinated religious beliefs, Afro-Caribbean folklore, roots and nationality, among others.”

He created an installation for the Art Unleashed show in West Palm Beach that featured dozens of pairs of white handmade ceramic shoes walking – or waiting – in a line. The work speaks of immigration, each pair of shoes  – from loafers to heels to sandals to Victorian booties (there’s the Grandmother) –  represents a single immigrant or a couple who are arriving or leaving…somewhere. The all white shoes create a ghostly presence, or speak of purity, a clean slate, a new beginning. Or the end of a human journey.

Erman Gonzalez
The Last Mile by Erman Gonzalez

He does all this work out of a small spare bedroom studio in his house. “My cosmos” he calls it, and claims sometimes he doesn’t come out for months on end – except to sleep and eat.

Erman has been exhibiting in South Florida for several decades, and has shown in all three counties. In early February he received a grant from the DVCA affiliated with the Knight Foundation. He will have an exhibit at the High Gloss show at The Box Gallery, and shows at Gallery Casa Mondo near MOCA in North Miami and House of Art in Fort Lauderdale. He has lecture dates scheduled at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and recently gave an hour long presentation at the Armory Art Center in West Palm. He has taught art practices to children and adults living with disabilities and has been the guest lecturer at Edna Manley College in Jamaica, the National Gallery of the Bahamas, FIT in New York, Colorado State University and Lincoln Center in Ft. Collins, Colorado and most recently at Broward College in Davie, Florida in conjunction with his solo, traveling exhibition “Cortando, Cosiendo y Recordando,” a catalogued survey of works curated by Rosie Gordon-Wallace. He is represented in West Palm Beach at The Box Gallery.

His work is in the collections of mega developer Craig Robbins, museums in Brazil and many private collections.