That headline should read: “Miami’s crazy and wonderful art life, as told and lived by Carlos Suarez de Jesus.” My colleague and former editor of new times Chuck Strouse once wrote an eloquent and heartfelt obituary on Carlos, who left this world far too young on February 3. Chuck described a Miami renaissance man, an art critic who helped shape Miami’s art landscape, brilliant and Cuban-American at heart. . True, and it’s hard to add much to that, but I will.
I first moved to Miami in 1999 to become associate editor for new times overseeing the cultural arts, just as Elian Gonzalez was rescued by dolphins (or inner tubes) and sparking intense and emotional conflict between families, local and national government, and countries. It revealed a unique and complicated Miami to me, just as I explored a burgeoning and equally unique art scene that was bubbling up in Wynwood and Little Havana. It was an explosive time.
It was then that Carlos Suarez entered my world – someone who would weave a form of political and cultural commentary into his own work and writing. And in its vibrant stories, which were often based on real escapades – in politics, in relationships, in the art world, in 1980s Cocaine Cowboys Miami. Looking back, it was Carlos who helped me see the funky, dirty, comedic, passionate layer that underpinned so much life here.
Back in the turn of the 21st century, Little Havana, when I met Carlos and his wife Vivian Marthell, at their alternative art space near Calle Ocho on SW Sixth Street called Lab6. There was performance art in the front window, complemented by more improvised performances on the street thanks to the neighborhood – like a slow rickety bicycle balancing six people on it and rumba beats. The crowd gathered was as eclectic as the surroundings. This small section of street also included the 6g music studio of musician and artist Adalberto Delgado, the studio of artists Carlos Alves and JC Carroll, and the performance space PS 742 of Susan Caraballo.
It was raw, bouncy and cozy all at the same time, a time before Art Basel, the Wynwood Walls, gleaming museums, over-mediatised art. Carlos was describing to me – no, spinning a thread – some of the visitors and the art, with a telltale hoarse laugh and an appreciation of the weird and the wonderful. He sprinkled them with tidbits about Santería rituals and orishas, memories of his days as a speechwriter for Miami mayors or being a kid in a small town in Missouri, and always a mention fond of her own family.
But I’ll let others offer their own memories of this formative period in contemporary Miami history, with Carlos as the linchpin.
Vivian Marthell, now co-director of O Cinema, remembers those beginnings. After opening a bottle of champagne and smashing its ceiling tile with the cork during one of their first meetings, she returned home with a single new tile wrapped in a large red bow. The two artists got married three lightning months later.
“We were inseparable! We inspired each other’s energy and creativity and that’s when we started working on…creating an organic diaspora in a mechanistic world.” They decided they wanted an experimental living/working space and opened Lab6, where this street would “meet for events like Café Neuralgia and the annual Babalú-Ayé [the Santería orisha of healing] party. It was around this time that Carlos, Susan and I entered into a polyamorous relationship and moved into the big palace studio above our sixth street [now Brigid Baker’s dance studio].”
Lab6 would move upstairs and PS 742 would open downstairs, showcasing both local and national performances and visual arts that pushed all kinds of boundaries. Both were closed in 2005 and the instigators went their separate ways.
It was, says Vivian, “an over-the-top, juicy, creative time, and Carlos Suarez de Jesus was at the epicenter.”
Susan Caraballo, now curator and artist-in-residence at Deering Estate and MDC Live Arts, also remembers a creative and daring spirit that Miami exuded at that time, when, she says, “Carlos was a force of nature.” . It was a very special moment, she says, existing “on the cusp of Art Basel Miami Beach coming to South Florida. I remember us putting together elaborate press kits for shows, talking for hours, endless nights imagining projects, and so many other memories.” Carlos blended his love for art with his love for presentation, both visually and verbally. “When we closed PS 742, he made these wooden blocks [paintings] as gifts for some of the people who helped shape the space.”
Gustavo Matamoros, who among other things produced the festival of experimental sound Subtropics for decades, stumbled upon Carlos around the same time. He remembers meeting a really creative mind and a great mind. “I was running iSAW – a public access project for artists wishing to work with sound and other media – and at some point Carlos arrived with his collaborator Jasmin [Kastel] working on a piece of alphabet soup that blew my mind forever.”
More recently, he and Carlos “discussed ideas for collaboration around his project ‘Petunia: The Canine Art Critic’. He had a great sense of humor.
Finally, recalls Matamoros, Carlos was full of surprises. “Yes, he was. Full of spectacular and useful surprises. And he was generous at heart.”
After Lab6, Carlos landed in Detroit for a while and continued making art and began writing art reviews for new times. Old new times Writer and music publisher Celeste Landeros — now a professor at Barry University — was perhaps the most fond of Carlos the Storyteller. “No one had more stories and no one was a better storyteller than Carlos,” she wrote. “After listening to stories about… this time in Detroit [when] a would-be burglar beat him up because he only had to steal books, I hired him to write his first articles for the short-lived Category305.com – from there he moved on to writing amazing items for Miami New Times and more. I will miss seeing him around town, but I will never forget his stories.”
Little stories endeared him to elders new times theater critic Mia Leonin, now an associate professor at the University of Miami. Carlos was one of the few Cuban-Americans who grew up in rural Missouri, just like Mia. He was from Sedalia in central Missouri, “a little town of Podunk 30 miles from Marshall, my little town. He was the only person I ever met in Miami who knew where Marshall was!”
Combined, the old tales of Cuba, Sedalia, Detroit, and especially a relentlessly wild, fertile Miami provided rich fodder for the stories I remember. With the laughter, the oversized mustache, the underlying sweetness and the eyes that exclaimed, “You’re going to be amazed by this.”
Yes I was, and I still am.
Carlos sought out the unusual and the strange, the foreign and the overprivileged for the subjects of his Art Brute column and critique, as Miami-as-art-hub began to gain international prominence. For me, it’s the outsider who took the plunge: the introduction and the polemics of street artist AholSniffsGlue; the interview with the artist despised for smashing Ai Weiwei’s ceramic vase at PAMM; performance artist Miru Kim’s pig wrestling, who rolled naked in the mud with pigs.
He gave us insight into the rise of Wynwood and its Second Saturdays, and the hyperactive growth of Art Basel into Art Week (both the exciting and ugly facets); the opening and closing of established and alternative galleries; the flight of popular local artists. He continued to create his own art while occasionally showing others in pop-ups, until a stroke took him down in 2016 and he struggled to regain his health.
But his personal adventures in art, in the art world, in various jobs and places, have made him a unique presence in Miami with a unique voice, a shining light for many, whose flame will not be extinguished. not by death. As Matamoros said, “Carlos, if you listen, be well. You will be remembered.”
There will be a Carlos-style Celebration of Life at Cinema O on Sunday, March 6 (his birthday), from 1 to 5 p.m., with an open mic, art installation and music. And of course, pets are welcome.
Anne Tschida is a writer and editor who has contributed stories of local cultural arts to the Miami Herald, new timesand Biscayne weatheramong other publications.