It happens. Struggling artist in a strange country just about making ends meet working in a warehouse by day and painting by night pictures that he can occasionally sell, gets a creative block. Can’t paint any more. Disaster. Body and soul threatening to fall apart. Loyal and loving wife goes to London, to Covent Garden, and discovers Cabaret. Comes running home to New Cross armed with a leaflet. ‘This is what you should do, Carlos,’ she tells the painter, and the rest is…
Well, a fairy story, isn’t it? Doesn’t really happen like that. Except that in the case of Carlos Zapata it is exactly what happened, and today his work is in private collections and galleries all over the world, and he even had a piece in the RA’s Summer Exhibition a couple of years ago. And in November Cabaret is opening a show with some new, unexpected, work by the Colombian-born Carlos at El Parque de las Ciencias in Granada, Spain. All in ten short years.
It was in 1999 that he plucked up the courage to walk into the Cabaret shop with some of his drawings after his English rose wife Penny’s discovery. Sue was out but he left his portfolio and the next day she contacted him, said she liked his ideas and suggested he work for her for the same money he was getting at the warehouse with time for his own work, and pick up a few tips. He spent a year sweeping up, dealing with customers, mending broken automata and working his own ideas. ‘It was the best school I could have had, meeting people, artists, and learning the art’ he says. Then when Cabaret decided to close when the rent went vertical, he was at a loss. ‘I said to Sue that I didn’t know what I was going to do. She said ‘You’re a professional now, you’ll sell your work’. And I did.’
Self-taught Carlos Zapata came to London to escape the civil war that has been raging in Colombia all his 46 years and more, but its the folk art of not only South America but of Africa and Asia that inspires him. His early piece, Transpacifico, is a delightfully comic bus, 18 inches high and laden with exotic fruits and comestibles on the roof and equally colourful passengers happily entertaining themselves inside. The passengers on the London bus he made at about the same time are altogether more sinister…
He also gets inspiration from old-fashioned museums like the Museum of Mankind that used to be behind the Royal Academy, the Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the Horniman in South London. ‘I like the stories and the way they’re told,’ he says. He’s had commissions from a number of museums, including the Natural History Museum this year.
Family is important to him, though he can only rarely get back to Colombia. The critic he pays most attention to is Thomas, his nine-year-old son, ‘who tells me exactly what he thinks, whether a piece works or not, if it’s funny’. Despite being a native Spanish speaker, having his work on exhibition in Spain will be just another adventure – the Unites States felt much more like home. When he exhibited in San Francisco he met his late grandfather’s sister for the first time; in Baltimore he found a lost cousin. He doesn’t know what to expect from Granada, where he will be showing much larger work than before, some of the pieces six feet tall, ‘really big guys’.
He’s not afraid to tackle political issues, either, and one recent one is of a sweatshop. He’s working on a large elephant now, with a comical array of Europeans safari-ing on its back, but in his mind is a much darker piece with a theme of African child soldiers.
‘Mostly the Granada pieces are not political, but an artist cannot ignore what is happening around him,’ he says. Something of the revolutionary about this Zapata, and I don’t mean turning handles.
For those who will be in or around Granada this winter, the exhibition opens at El Parque de las Ciencias from November 1 to January 31.
Adam & Eve ride again! Yes, the surviving element of CMT’s great Ride of Life extravaganza, Ron Fuller’s Adam & Eve Public Bar, is to get a new lease at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. In January it goes on display for three months. A&E is the only complete tableau left of the 25 that were created in 1989 for the Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield but never installed. The project management of centre changed, most of the scenes were lost or destroyed and there were only this and elements of pieces by Tim Hunkin and Paul Spooner left when CMT finally extricated the remains.
Interesting that the people behind the Fourth Plinth are the same as those that brought us the Sultan’s Elephant in 2006 and last year La Machine, Liverpool’s giant spider. They’re called Artichoke. They admit that the Gormley business is a bit out of their territory, but it seems to me that it needn’t be. Why is there no automaton scheduled for an hour in the spotlight? Come on, boys and girls, we’re only just over half way through the 100 days of the project so there’s plenty of time.
Sarah had what we coyly call a significant birthday last week – see Gary’s gorgeous pic of the gorgeous creature – and, still seven at heart, she needed an entertainer to go with the jelly, cake and fizzy drinks (OK, small concession to adulthood, Prosecco) at her party. But who? No contest. Step forward Matthew Robins and Tim Spooner, fresh from their successes performing on top of the National Theatre’s fly tower. They gave, of course, the piece Sarah herself had commissioned, Cabin Doors to Manual (‘an adult fairy tale’), and it had the audience giggling and clapping their little hands. Good job there were no kids, they wouldn’t have got it. You can watch it here Cabin Doors to Manual on Vimeo