It was a long trip, but artist Mario Sanchez finally made it to New York, eight years after Susan Henshaw Jones, director of the Museum of the City of New York, saw his work in a Key West gallery.
“I loved his work so much, but it didn’t fit into our mission,” she recalls. Then Henshaw Jones also took over as president of the South Street Seaport Museum, and “it was a totally different theme: Key West is a seaport!”
A Fisherman’s Dream: Folk Art by Mario Sanchez is finally on display at South Street after yet another delay caused by super storm Sandy. The exhibition features 35 carved and painted images depicting life in Key West and the fish and people who make a living from them.
Sanchez, grandson of Cuban immigrants, was born in Key West in 1908 and died in 2005. He held a variety of jobs, including as clerk, stenographer and janitor at the Key West Art & Historical Society, which is co-presenting the exhibition along with the American Folk Art Museum.
He is best remembered, however, as a chronicler of life in Key West between World War I and the Great Depression.
He began carving his low-relief images in the 1940s. Many of his works depict fishermen and their business, an already vanishing way of life when Sanchez recreated it from memory.
Working in cedar wood and white pine, the artist sketched the scenes of Key West life onto a paper bag, and then used carbon paper to transfer the image to wood. He cut away the wood surrounding the images before applying house paint, clean kitty litter (to provide texture for the streets), and egg yolks and Elmer’s glue (to make the windows shiny).
Among the images of fishermen at work is El Galano — a 1952 tribute to the novel Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, who once lived across the street from Sanchez. Choppy seas and ominous clouds frame the fisherman and his shark-ravaged catch.
Sanchez’s idealized scenes have long been popular with Key West residents, many of whom loaned work to the exhibition, according to Nance Frank, director of the Gallery on Greene in Key West, which represents his work. She recounts that Sanchez has also been collected by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as well as the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art. Cary Grant purchased four carvings while in Key West to film Operation Petticoat (the pieces later appeared in a scene in the movie A Touch of Mink).