Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Migrant Clay Worker

I love the earth, the feel of the red-clay earth under my feet when it's wet, the smell of the clay-laden soil commingled with decaying autumn leaves, and the way the pebble-encrusted clay crumbles in my hands. I have always loved the soil of my island home. Because my grandfather, George C. Rivas was a migrant clay worker and because my great-grandfather Emanuel de Rivas was a sculptor who immigrated from Peru to be a modeler in the terra cotta industry, I am where I am today, I am at all today, actually.  Both of these men were migrant clay workers. They followed clay beds the way their farmworker brethren followed crops. It might sound geeky, but terra cotta sculpture thrills me. I look at architectural details of  a building that I know one of them worked on, and then I look at the ground beneath my feet, and I feel such a sense of belonging to a place and a piece of art at the same time that it blows my mind.

So, I set out this summer to trace the paths of these migrant-artist fathers of mine, and because I am a sculptor of another sort, a poet, I decided to render this journey in words.

Tomorrow I will set out on a journey that I did not think possible. Tomorrow I am going to start a trip to see the double-headed eagle on which my grandfather worked. The only picture I have of my grandfather with anything that he had a hand in creating is one of this enormous eagle. The photo, in the archives of the Richmondtown Historical Society, appeared in a periodical and in a newspaper story many years ago. I remember poring over this picture, not realizing that my grandfather was in it. I showed it to my father and he pointed to the second man on the left and said, "That's my father." I suppose that's when the idea for this journey began, over two decades ago. However, I was headed this way long before that day. The seed was planted when I was just a child.

I was about eleven and my father tapped the large blue vein of my right hand, a small but strong hand and said, "You have sculptor's hands. You have hands like my grandfather."  It was a moment that I never forgot, one that I thought about over the years each time I thought of what it would be like to sculpt and each time I became intimidated with the thought.

Where I grew up there were claypits where my friends and I used to play. When someone went missing in the neighborhood, the first place anyone looked (usually someone's big brother) were the claypits at the top of Marcy Avenue. It was a forbidden place, a place to go to have an adventure, and a place to go to feel what it was like to live inside the earth instead of on top of it. It was a place my friend, Pat and I used to go to play. to hide,to climb into, and to explore. Once you smell clay in its natural state, and actually end up in this hole in the bed and see rocks, pebbles and roots sticking out of the earth at eye-level, you never forget it.

Oh, I guess this is all jumbled up, but I needed to start somewhere, so I guess with the blood of a Peruvian sculptor running through blue veins and two little girls jumping headlong into claypits on the South Shore of Staten Island is is as good a place to start as any.