by Thea Daniels
Rubén Guzmán had had it made. He had established, after college, a small lucrative graphic design firm that had been wildly successful, even challenging the big Mexico City firms. Then the industry started to change, becoming ever more computer-driven and Mexico’s economy started to change and Rubén began to change. What had been a hobby, the traditional art form of cartoneria, became a passion. This pursuit led him to submit pieces to the Oakland Museum for an exhibition. Which is how he found himself without U.S. currency, personal contacts, or a place to stay in the middle of the night in 1997 at Oakland International Airport. From that lonely curb he was led by a sympathetic Latino taxi driver to a squalid Fruitvale room for what was to be a very short stay during the weeks of the exhibition, Some Well Behaved Bones. But as Rubén’s serendipitous life would have it, the press glowed which helped land him a temporary teaching job at UC and he has never looked back, still Oakland based fourteen years later making art and teaching. Whether it is a comfort in risk-taking, living life fully or an utter faith in process, Rubén believes all will unfold as it should as long as he works with his hands.
When the knock at the door in 1998 came from two men in suits and ties, he thought perhaps it was immigration. Instead it was Disney knocking. They wanted fourteen foot dragons for their new Cal Adventures theme park and had heard Rubén Guzmán was the man to craft them. Although he had never fashioned large dragons before, he was utterly confident that he could and equally sure it was an offer one didn’t decline. Sponchi was crafted and remains at the theme park as evidence of something Rubén often tells his students. “You can create ANYTHING with cartoneria… You come with all of your self-doubt and fear and face a pile of recycled newspapers and glue. You insert your magic and now we (the world) have a thing of beauty.”
Rubén loves working with students who feel they are inartistic and unable to even draw a straight line let alone fashion wondrous objects. He observes that children are fearless in their use of materials. In utter surety they use their hands to make art. Most when young will jump in and be proud of doing so. By the time children are adults there is often enormous anxiety about creating and people’s hands seem frozen in place, retracted and hesitant to engage. He takes enormous satisfaction in the teaching process; helping students enjoy the moment and seize the joy of the process rather than be obsessed with the finished product. “People don’t come to my classes for technique. They come for the human tradition of passing skills down through generations, from father to child. My goal is not their finished piece. I want them to fall in love with cartoneria and for them to know they are at the receiving end of this tradition.” He frequently is humbled by his students who come sometimes from long distances to take his classes and grateful to the Crucible for providing him with a creative environment for many, many years. Among his many projects and art forms (he has a beautiful way with wood and has created exquisite environmental art installations in the local area), he is currently writing a book about the Crucible and its founder.