In the north of the Dominican Republic lies the province of Hermanas Mirabel, where along La Ruta de las Murales are more than 400 murals painted by a collective of both renowned and emerging Dominican artists. Two of those artists, Maximo Ceballo and Carlos Veras, gave me a tour through the province's villas of Tapia, Tenares, and the region's capital of Salcedo, sharing with me the history of the project--and the power of transformation that it celebrates.
La Ruta de las Murales is the brainchild of Jaime David Fernández Mirabal, the Dominican Republic’s Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, and a former vice president of the DR. Jaime is the son of Doña Dede Mirabal, whose three sisters are known as Las Mariposas (the Butterflies), who were involved in clandestine activities against the regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1930 - 1961.
The three Mariposas were slain on Trujillo’s orders on 25 November 1960. The assassinations turned the Mirabal sisters into symbols of both popular and feminist resistance. Doña Dede Mirabal, who had not been an activist, passed away in 2014 at age 89, after keeping alive the memories of her sisters for more than fifty years.
Initially, when La Ruta de las Murales was launched in 2004, creation of the murals was being done entirely by student artists. Three years later, Jaime Mirabal decided to revamp the project and involve professional artists to collaborate with the students and that is when Maximo became involved.
Maximo is from the community of San Jose de Las Matas in the province of Santiago. He was introduced to art in 1984 when he was 10 years old and had a pivotal experience in meeting Juana Gustine Pilates, a 64-year old professor from Ecuador who had come to Santa Domingo for an exposition. After meeting someone from San Jose de Las Matas, Professor Pilates ended up living in the community for a year.
Maximo said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“It changed my life,” Maximo said. “It was what I needed in that moment. I do not believe that things happen just because they happen. I believe they happen because people do something to make it happen.”
“No matter if you’re a man, a child, no matter the age, if you really want something and have faith in it, things happen,” he said. “There was no reason that Professor Juana Gustine Pilates came to my town. It is not possible to explain. He was not just an ordinary artist, he was a real professor, a real master painter--and he ended up in my remote village.”
Maximo explained that his older brother told him about this professor that was going to stay at a friend’s and start a workshop with students. Maximo was very excited about attending, but then his brother told him it wasn’t going to be possible because they couldn’t afford it. However, one of Maximo’s cousin intervened and spoke to Professor Pilates on his behalf, explaining he did not have money to participate.
“The master was silent, then told my cousin it didn’t matter, that I could go for free,” Maximo said. “It was one of the best, happiest moments of my life. I had a lot of dreams and I needed a way to express them. The right person arrived at just the right moment to show the way.”
Maximo said he had never seen a person before with all that talent, with all that culture, that knowledge. His heart has been very influenced by the professor, who had particular expertise in marine painting. He feels he learned more from this master than the other 20 professors he had at the school of arts in Santa Domingo.
After the year of studying under Maestro Pilates, Maximo worked with a classmate from Pilates' workshop until 1989.
In 1987, when he was 13 years old, Maximo participated in his first exhibition, showing paintings of landscapes and still lifes, along with another artist, a 16-year old classmate who had also studied with the professor.
The exhibit was held at Club Santo Serrano in his hometown. Maximo explained that in the Dominican Republic a club is a place where you go with your family to relax and engage in recreational activities for the family--it’s different than a nightclub.
“I was shy and young, but not nervous,” Maximo recalled. “The exhibit was held at the same time as a town celebration, so we had many visitors. It was my first experience of my work being appreciated by the public.”
Maximo spent the money he earned from his first exhibit on materials. From age 13 to 21, he had some art instruction, but he mostly taught himself. In 1994, when he was 21 years old, he entered the principal school of art in Santa Domingo, Escuela Nacionale des Artistes Visuales [National School of Visual Arts], where he studied for four years. He became a professor there in 2004. In between he sold his art but also was a professor at a foundation to develop and support kids.
Maximo feels that teaching kids is part of his purpose.
“What I learned in the free class with my master is impossible to forget,” he said. “It represents the most important time or thing that happened in my career. Because I received that experience, I feel some responsibility to pass it on.”
“When you're teaching, you learn,” Maximo continued. “Now I know that with kids I learn more than with adults. Adults are easier to teach but the kids are more creative, freer, and more imaginative. Watching kids learn is very exciting.”
“It is important to let kids be creative, and do whatever they want, do what they have in their minds,” he said. “It’s a real challenge because you tend to teach your own personal technique and style.”
“Society teaches us to feel fear and as a result, a lot of adults have problems being expressive,” observed Maximo. “The kids do not have that problem. They do not feel fear, they are open.”
Maximo has created three murals as part of La Ruta de las Murales--one in Salcedo, Tenares, and Tapia. His first was in Tenares in 2008. The director proposed an idea and Maximo executed the idea with his own personal concept.
The intention was to create a mural that represents the Mirabal sisters.
“The mural shows women riding horses,” Maximo said. “It’s because everything in town and in the province is related to the Mirabel sisters. The idea was to show the importance of women, the importance of the three sisters who tried to control the dictator. Horses represent the dictatorship. The meaning of the painting is the Mirabal sisters trying to ride wild horses.”
Maximo said the experience of working with other artists to create a mural is wonderful; most of those he collaborates with are his friends so there is an easy atmosphere.
Maximo explained an office was established in Hermanas Mirabel to support the mural project. When a new mural is being planned, the director of the office gets permission from the owner of the property and makes the arrangements.
The residents of Villa Tapiar requested a mural at the entrance of the town, along the road coming from Santa Domingo; they were particularly interested in something colorful.
The woman that he painted represents Mother Nature in the act of creating life. The name is Estella de Colours. Estella means “wake” or trail, so the mural is an image of a wake of color.
Carlos Veras is from Salcedo and he has loved art since he was a kid. Like Maximo, Carlos had the experience at the very beginning of his artistic career to study with a master artist. He met Hector Blanco when he was 26. Mr. Blanco became his master, his professor.
“Art was only a hobby before that," Carlos said. “Mr. Blanco was the one that saw talent in me. He had a painting class in town and he taught me the basics. Over the years, we became friends. It motivated me to continue my career and become professional.”
In 2007, when he was 27 years old, Carlos joined a group of artists who had started a mural project in Salcedo. While working on the project, he met Maximo.
“I learned not only techniques from Mr. Blanco and Mr. Ceballo, but also the artist’s way of life,” Carlos said. “I didn’t know anything before I met them. I learned you need a peaceful atmosphere to have ideas. I need to be in harmony with the environment and with myself.”
“When I met Mr. Blanco and Mr. Ceballo, I needed to re-learn,” he explained. “I had to forget everything that I learned, because I had learned wrong ways of thinking. For example, most humans fear dying or death. Now I do not.”
Carlos said he tries to fuse different techniques, taking a little bit of each to create something different--but also easy for people to understand. He described his first mural as a mix of different techniques--graffiti, Surrealism and Cubism. His technique now is freer and more organic.
Carlos said that the experience of creating his first mural and having such a big canvas was really hard.
“All artists in general feel fear when starting a project,” he said. “But once I did a project of this size, everything afterwards seems small.”
“It is quite different to paint on a canvas than to paint a huge painting,” Maximo said. “The one I did in Tenares at its largest is around 12 meters.”
Maximo explained that creating public murals is challenging for other reasons as well.
“People are looking at you as you're working, which you don’t have to deal with when you work at home or in a workshop,” he said. “It makes me self-conscious--normally I show my art when it is finished.”
“People see mistakes if you make one—and sometimes they think they see a mistake but it’s not one,” Maximo said with a laugh. “For one project, I painted green horses. Someone who sold horses talked with a minister to say I was making a mistake because horses are not green.”
“It’s important to know when you're working on a big project that you start to see the beautiful art when you're close to finished,” he continued. “This may be a challenge for an artist, because people like to see the beautiful results from the beginning.”
Maximo said he enjoys the creative process when he is painting, but the moment he finishes, he separates his human and personal feelings for the artwork and gives it to the people, the town. He does not feel bad if his work is restored or not, because in the end, as urban street art, it’s not his work anymore.
“Peace and harmony are the two symbols that you can see that repeat and repeat and repeat in many of the paintings,” Maximo said. “That is not finished yet. It’s in progress.”
I think peace and harmony are probably always works-in-progress, whatever the locale. But Maximo and Carlos certainly personified some universal rutas to reaching those desired states: eliminating ego and fear...and embracing open-mindedness, collaboration, creativity...and the belief that people will be put in our path who can help us fulfill our potential...and our dreams.