Of nature and art: Azores Fringe Festival 2018

Of nature and art: Azores Fringe Festival 2018

“I don’t like Munch’s “The Scream,” but I understand its importance from an Art History perspective. Art isn’t about liking or disliking a piece; that’s not what gives value to someone’s work.” 

Manoel Costa, a retired teacher and local artist, told me from across the table at Padaria Andrade on Friday morning.

We had met the day before, a few hours after I landed on Pico Island, outside his workshop/gallery in Bandeiras while he worked on his next exhibition. I noticed him in line at the café and bakery across the street from my hotel and invited myself to his table for breakfast.

I selected that piece of dialogue as an introduction to this blog post because I believe in art’s democratization. This snippet sums up all the meetings I had with artists on these four days in Pico Island.

Stories always find me, but the Azores Fringe Festival pulls me into a kind of vortex I could never prepare for in advance. So I have learned to let it happen.

The following texts are scribbles that mix my notes with my recollections, without any particular order. It’s impossible to be at the 4th Encontro Pedras Negras – the writers’ meet-up that is part of the Azores Fringe Festival – and not feeling touched by each person I met. 

If you’ve read last year’s post, you already know my thoughts about Terry Costa, MiratecArts artistic director and the founder of Azores Fringe, so, for now, I’ll let him be.

Although the following moments were triggered by conversations I had in those four days, these memories are more about stories than people.

madalena pico 2018
Madalena, Pico (2018)


Madalena is a quiet town, even on a Friday morning. Between breakfast with Manoel and Terry picking me up, I had about an hour to kill on my first full day in Pico. So how does one kill time in a quiet town by the sea? You observe.

Near the harbor, a tour guide briefs a large group of tourists. In about 15 minutes, they will fill two speedboats and leave on a whale-watching expedition. I’m sitting across the bay from the harbor, and I have mixed feelings. Are the groups too big? Were they paying attention to the brief? Do they think this is all there is to see in Pico?

From my notes:

Two men – one outside leaning on the wall, on my left, and one inside his car, on my right – contemplate the ocean, but what’s there to contemplate when the view doesn’t change?

What are they contemplating?

The tide?

The men working to dismantle the ferry that wrecked last winter, just minutes before docking?

The Faial island on the horizon?

What are they contemplating?

What does one contemplate when one’s seen this view a million times?

The man inside the car, on my right, starts the car at the sight of the ferry approaching. Is that what he’d been seeing all along?

Windmills, Egypt, France, Iran, and a giant octopus

The evening before, at the local fire department (Bombeiros Voluntários da Madalena), Terry and I took down the previous photo exhibitions to put up the next ones.

Between the airport and port runs to pick up more festival’s participants, we returned to that room on the top floor to put up more photos: the Pico’s windmills by Davide Sousa and Pedro Silva, the Cuban circus by Agathe Catel (France), Egypt by Ahmed Elsakhawy, and the groom ceremony by Milad Karamooz (Iran).

For bigger events (and bigger places), this doesn’t seem that extraordinary. But here, it connects us to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to us.

As for the giant octopus? Let’s just say I’m more comfortable with both my feet on the ground (or something I can hold on to).

encontro pedras negras azores fringe festival 2018
All set for kickstarting the 4th Encontro Pedras Negras and the 6th Azores Fringe Festival

That first event at the library

When I was invited as one of the speakers of the 4th Pedras Negras (the writers’ meet-up) and was asked for a topic, I chose one that (I thought) revealed my struggle to be taken seriously as a writer.

Later that evening (and for the rest of the days in Pico), I realized how I had let a limiting belief take the best of me. Why? Because I made the mistake I advise others not to make – I based my speech on a limited view of the blogging world.

On my notes, I wrote all the arguments that would prove my theory that bloggers are writers, too, assuming I’d be welcomed by a group of people that loathed all influencers of the world and hardly considered myself one of their peers.

Instead, I felt welcomed, respected, loved even. I felt defenseless.
Here was this group of writers of different ages and walks of life, making me realize I had been living with my head up my ass for too long.

And then, when Humberta interrupted my rambling (or what sounded like an incoherent rambling to me) to say, “I have to disagree with you”, I turned to my notes, thinking, “oh wait, I was right”.

But I was not.

She saw influencers as the ones who influence and bloggers as the ones who blog, not like someone using a self-assigned title.

Here’s the lesson I learned at this year’s Azores Fringe Festival: It’s time to spend less time paying attention to some of the blogging community (the one closed in itself, entitled, with a business-only mentality) and more time around others who appreciate my work.

three cows at lagoa do paul in pico island azores 2018
Three cows awaiting instructions at Lagoa do Paul (Pico, Azores)

On sustainability and cows

On our way to one of the pit stops for the day (since I remember the whole day as one giant dialogue with different people, I have trouble pinpointing which one it was), we were admiring the trees and animals around us.

“None of what makes up the islands’ calling card is endemic or natural. Hydrangeas are Japanese. Pastures are man-made.” Helena, a science teacher, writer, and illustrator, was making me realize this out loud.

And later, on the notes I took before being interrupted by three complaining cows and three farm men (one of them more phlegmy than the other two), I wondered. If tourism in the Azores values sustainability and its cultural identity, why does it portray itself through images that tourists want to see? Why don’t we inform and educate visitors toward what is authentic and makes up our cultural identity?

There, at the dried out Lagoa do Paul, I realized I was more intrigued by the dialogues between cow and men, and between men and men (interspersed by one man’s unmusical guttural sounds), than the natural beauty that surrounded me.

A few days before my trip to Pico, I met with Skift’s Rebecca Stone to discuss Lisbon’s overtourism problem. Her perception and my takes came out beautifully in this article called “Lisbon’s Overtourism Lesson: Living Like a Local Is Not Enough”, where Rebecca believes (and I agree) we should be looking at sustainable culture instead of sustainable tourism.

terry costa and humberta araujo at casa da montanha in pico island azores 2018
Humberta Araújo gifting one of her pieces to Terry Costa at Casa da Montanha

Manicured or wild, nature brings the best in you

I expected the obvious impact of nature on my weekend partners. Inspiration for Pedro’s unsung bucolic poem (potential and comic titles were thrown around), or for a Pico-themed new book of haikus by José or Susana’s fantasy novel on the islands with the twist of 3/4 truth and 1/4 legend.

I expected some sort of reclusion. I expected the soberness of creation (even though I know there’s nothing sober about creating).

I now know I expected too little.

The first surprise happened at Quinta das Rosas when Maria João Dodman shared her academic work on the impacts of reading in human empathy using a storytelling approach. Until meeting Maria João, I thought Ph.D.’s were all dull and lacked passion.

The second surprise was Humberta’s tale of her first impressions of the Azores as a child at Casa da Montanha (the last pit stop before our lunch picnic) and being able to see and feel the work she had told me about that morning at breakfast.

The third, fourth, hundredth, millionth surprise happened at every minute of those four days. The laughs and the tears, the sharing and the teasing, the part everyone played, and the commitment.

Lock us all inside a dusty, carpet-covered conference room, and you’ll get nothing of us except our worst selves. In nature, though, we bloom(ed).

mar introduces us her postcard collection
Mar Navarro Llombart presents us her postcard collection at Galeria Costa MiratecArts

The ever-growing tribe of Azoreans by choice

What does a Spanish photographer and videographer (Mar), a Dutch couple of artists (Rini and Pieter), a French ceramic artist (Isabelle), and an English painter with a Portuguese surname (Judy) have in common?

They chose to be Azoreans, either by living on the islands, or by immortalizing them through their art, or both.

They needed a change of pace (and space), and the islands provided that generously.

At 19, when I left the Azores, I couldn’t wait to turn my back on the islands. I longed for apartment buildings, traffic jams, and crowded buses – a sense of anonymity that allegedly put me closer to civilization.

I returned for two months a year in the next 13 years as an outsider and spent 6 years after that without going back. This wasn’t home. This was a chore.

Then, in 2016, I spent 5 days. In 2017, I spent 2 weeks in Flores and Corvo and one weekend in Pico for the Fringe Festival. In 2018, I already spent 4 days in Pico, and I’m planning on spending 3 weeks in Corvo and Flores.

I reconnected with places I thought I had disconnected from and disconnected from places I thought I was attached to. Surprising, to say the least.

My personal transformation? I understand these Azoreans by choice. If one day I return permanently, I will too be an Azorean by choice.

artisanal tiles at azulejos da ponta da ilha
Artisanal tiles by Isabelle Clerc at Azulejos da Ponta da Ilha

Embracing art outside the tyranny of liking and disliking

It peeves me the trend of some to separate professionals and amateurs as if that label valued one’s work over another’s.

On my last day in Pico, Manuel Lopes Azevedo opened his Paim Bookhouse Gallery to welcome us with some local wine, a delicious meal, and live music by Pieter Adriaans (the Dutch, São Jorge Island-resident, painter and philosopher who is even musical in his sleep; I won’t elaborate on this).

The day before, we visited the Handicraft School in Santo Amaro (Escola de Artesanato de Santo Amaro – ERASA). We were guided by the twin sisters (and artisans) who keep the project going. Alzira and Conceição are not just two sisters interested in preserving tradition – they’re entrepreneurs, experts, teachers, keepers, and a hoot. We were privileged to meet them on the day they celebrated their birthday.

It was also on that day that we met Isabelle and her “shack” of tiles. The word workshop didn’t entirely suit it, so Azulejos da Ponta da Ilha’s creator was comfortable with calling it a shack. 

Remember how I said before that the Azores seemed to portray themselves with the images tourists want to see? In here, the “Azoreaness” comes through in tiles with the classic sperm whales, whalers boats, and pictures of the mountain. But also through images of bottles of passion fruit soda, Kima, because everyday objects and local pop culture also build up one’s cultural identity.

The same “Azoreaness” is captured in Mar’s collection of postcards.

But back to Manuel’s gallery (that is now richer with a painting by tattoo artist Pedro Júdice called “Pico no Copo” or “Pico in the Glass” in English).

We sat on black basalt walls as writers Diana Zimbron, Susana Júdice, Gabriela Silva, Nuno Cabral, and Pedro Paulo Câmara shared some more of their writing – caused by or inspired by those three days of the 4th Pedras Negras. Although Helena da Ponte and Humberta Araújo had left a few hours before, I didn’t feel they were gone.

Later, inside the gallery, Manuel went around the room, showing us each painting on the walls. Sitting next to me, Maria Guiomar Gaspar said: “I never studied to become a painter. I just like to paint.”

Her words would prompt me into a reflection about creativity which I haven’t resolved yet. I went back to that conversation with Manoel at the beginning of this post and the photos he takes of his creative process (to serve more as memory aids than documentary shots). I went back to the conversation I had with Pieter before leaving on how he thinks maybe people don’t care that much about the process.

Do you?

For years I focused on understanding and interpreting the finalized work and never bothered to look into the creative process. When I write, I know the most challenging part is always the creative process – that can be built upon or destroyed by the readers of the finalized work.

jose efe reads poetry while susana judice dances to her own coreography
José Efe reads poetry while Susana C. Júdice dances to one of her original choreographies (Madalena, Pico)

On democratizing art

It’s been two whole days since I left Pico, and, of course, the Azores Fringe Festival continues with events every day. Only I am still stuck at that moment in time.

Saturday was our most packed day that ended with a reading of erotic poetry at CELLA Bar. Although it wasn’t a private event, the bar customers passing through behaved like they were invading our space, tiptoeing around us, eyes on the ground, shoulders shrunk in apology. 

That bothered me, but I said nothing, which makes me feel like an accomplice of failure.

Shouldn’t I work harder to demystify what the Fringe Festival is all about beyond this blog post? Should I grab them by the hand and bring them closer, or should I let them be? 

How long does it take (and WHAT does it take) to convince people that art is for everyone, that those who only intellectualize it (that said tyranny of liking and disliking) don’t understand squat about art?

sorriso de pedra by helena amaral
One of the "Smiling Stones" by Helena Amaral at Museu do Vinho do Pico

My partners in crime during these four days in Pico:

Art is food for the soul but the body needs nourishment too. Here are a few places to eat in Pico:

Padaria Andrade – Avenida Machado Serpa 23, Madalena

Tasca “O Petisca” (Check out their lunch buffet daily menu) – Avenida Padre Nunes da Rosa (Areia Larga), Madalena

Atlântico Teahouse – Areia Larga, Madalena

Bar do Lajido – Lajido da Costa, Santa Luzia, São Roque do Pico

Pastelaria e Padaria Linu – Largo Jaime Ferreira, Madalena

Read more posts about the Azores Fringe Festival:

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