What it Means for José L. Santos to be a Portuguese-American Artist

Every year, in the spring, Boston celebrates its vibrant Portuguese culture with the Boston Portuguese Festival. The festival features artists, musicians, and filmmakers of Portuguese descent who are based here in Boston. I sat down with this year's featured artist, José L. Santos.

We talked about everything from his Portuguese-American identity to his artwork, in the comfort of his studio/home in South Boston. Santos grew up in Ludlow, Massachusetts in a tight-knit Portuguese-American community. He works as a teacher and professional artist in the Greater Boston area.

Santos' Portuguese-American identity played an important role in helping him start his art career. However, he challenges himself to grow as an artist by embracing other cultures and using these influences to create ethnically inspired art.

[This interview has been edited.]

Adizah Eghan: So, you are Portuguese American? What was it like for you growing up here?

José Santos: You know, I grew up in Western Mass, I had a lot of friends who were Portuguese-Americans and the children that I grew up with had similar experiences as I did and same cultural backgrounds, and so I was close to them. I related to them.

AE: So, you spoke Portuguese only at home?

JS: I did actually, because both of my parents didn't have an education so there was limited English from my parents. With my sisters I spoke in English–I have two older sisters. But with my parents it was always Portuguese.

AE: How does your background inform the way that you view the world, in general?

JS: When I was young my father wanted to introduce me to my grandparents so when I was 10 I got to meet my grandparents for the first time, and my extended family, which was huge. That had a real major impact on me. They were farmers. They had donkeys and land. You know, all that stuff was just beautiful to me. And, as far as seeing the world, I got to see how, from a distance, Portugal became more global and progressed from when I was a child to how really globalized and contemporary it is now. When I go there now at 49, I'm like, its not all that different. It's different, because it's a different place, different people, different experiences, different foods. There is a camaraderie, I feel like I'm with my extended family when I'm there. I feel like I'm with my cousins or uncles or sisters or brothers its just an extension, its a place of who I am.

AE: Where is your family from?

JS: My family is from Evora, Alcobaça. The town has a famous monastery, it's beautiful. It's kind of north of Lisbon, a couple hours. It's kind of country, mountains and farms, and then you can go into a little town that is really old and castle like, its beautiful.

AE: Does that find its way into your art?

JS: It has, when I was younger I really tried to capture that in my work. It was really important for me to find it, search it, photograph it, sketch it. Even though I was here, I always felt like I was still there or wanted to be there even though I was there for a short time. Its just so exotic to me. So its a good place that I could capture and put in my work.

AE: How would you describe your art?

JS: I like to consider my work within phases, like periods of time. I like to be able to say well okay, I'm done with that, I've worked on that body of work, I've exhausted it and now it's time to explore something new through the medium and through what I'm doing. So when I try something new, I feel like I'm excited by it and I can go about what I was doing. And sometimes I can't continue doing what I was doing anymore because I don't approach things the same way. Things change, I have a different need. But I tend to work in a body of exhausting a topic.

More recently– I always was told: don't worry about it trying to be so Portuguese because your Portuguese ethnicity will come through it anyway. You are trying too hard and trying to make it look Portuguese. Some of that has really settled in with me. I guess when it comes down to it, I love drawing portraits of people. I love the form of the piece, the artwork. I think those strands kind of carry through everything. But I don't know if I am trying so hard to find that identity through my work.

AE: What does it mean… make it Portuguese?

JS: I have some work on exhibit at a Portuguese restaurant. If it has tiles, Portuguese tiles, or if it has elements of the culture of people or objects, I always feel like it will be more Portuguese. But I don't know, maybe just having my name on it… I'm hoping if it says “Santos,” and its a Santos, it will continue to be Portuguese-American because its an extension of me. That is who I am. If I want to explore shapes and color and form and something abstract then that's something I wanna do. That's what I want to do.

AE: You paint your dad right?

JS: With him, he's a character. He's really an interesting individual–beautiful individual–who is just always camera ready. You can take his picture and he always looks good in a picture. Some people just lend themselves to it. It just so happens to be that he is my Portuguese father. So I can always say well you know, I'm exploring Portuguese culture but there's something more psychological about it. I'm looking inward toward my family, exploring, looking at who they are whether it is my grandfather or father.

There's something beautiful about it to me, it stays with me, it's part of me and of course those are always the pieces that always sell too. This one piece for example my dad's holding a rooster, which is charming, and I want to hold onto it. Those pieces are always the ones that go first. And I try to do another one and that one sells. It's always the case, I have a big family I have many aunts and uncles at one point one aunt wanted a portrait or a painting of the front of a church from Alcobaça that I was talking about. It's called “Mosteiro,” and before I knew it, my other aunts also wanted the exact same painting. So I ended up doing, I don't know how many of those paintings of the exact same thing and I was like that's it, I'm never doing another one. But I actually did one for myself. I must have done three, four, five of the exact same paintings at one point.

AE: You do some political work too? What kind of things?

JS: I have done some political stuff, it was definitely during the Bush years. My work just took on a political bend. I took the whole thing of GI Joes and used the GI Joes kind of as a metaphor for war for struggle. They weren't really confrontational I don't really create art that is bloody or gory… I was actually manipulating– taking photographs from the newspaper–manipulating them, drawing on top of them [and] creating large paintings. Actually, a few of them really caught on. I participated in open studios and I had a couple of them on exhibit in my studio and this one person really liked my work, and three of them ended up at the Fogg Art Museum. I did that, but it was wearing on me. I think part of it was really thinking about it and processing it and really delving into it. At the time I remember feeling really exhausted from it, just helpless and, I couldn't do it anymore. I had a few shows and articles. I had to let go of it.

AE: Is there a way to reconcile your identity in this art?

JS: For me there is definitely a story of struggle. Its probably not as seen, as much, through the general public but coming from an immigrant family where struggle of having parents who were…not educated and having to speak for them when they need help, at a bank or something, just doing these things. And now it's more common, I hear different stories from different immigrants. For me its much more psychological I kind of have worked through some of those memories and the things that I have kind of struggled with to be a better person, that kind of identity.

It's, maybe Freudian, knowing your mother and father and working that out, or knowing them and kind of through my work, you know, everything goes back to your mom and dad. I associate an object with my home, something that might be from my parents house, with memories and it has more of a deeper meaning for me. It's not done in a vacuum, it has purpose. I'm always thinking, and I work through it through my work. It is done through my work. Its not something that might clobber someone over the head with or be really confrontational and I don't want it to be that way, but I definitely spend a lot of time thinking as I am working whether it's through the expressive medium of color,and emotion and composition and texture. all that stuff is there for me.

AE: Do you feel like you are part of an international community? Who do you surround yourself with?

JS: I had started a Portuguese American art association with several artists and I was thinking maybe I could have started a movement or something and see if there was something there that was tangible within all of us whether it was here or in California. And it was just too big for me, you know? I kind of had to let that go, I couldn't manage that on my own. But when I was with them or when I had openings or did exhibits with them there was, this camaraderie, with my people, it's not necessarily that everybody is an outsider but there is something there. There is a commonality that we are all brought up whether it's eating the same soup or saying the same words or having the same language or having similar something. But it doesn't happen if its with a different culture.

Now I think during the 80s where multiculturalism seemed to begin to evolve and this whole strength of coming together with different cultures. Through knowing your own culture, you could bond with other cultures who have similar struggle and so you would create this net. I didn't get that far. I mean I wish I could have, I could have claimed some claim to fame there is just not enough time there is not enough money and I am not that big. I didn't want to take that on, maybe someone will some day and I'll join some group.

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