Cristina Grajales, gallerist, on her sculpture of a bee.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
CG We just moved the gallery five weeks ago so when you move you reacquaint yourself with things that have been precious to you. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is the bee. I just hung it two days ago. It has a beautiful story. I have a client called Beth De Woody, one of the biggest art collectors in the country. She mentioned to me that she was going to Cuba in 2003. I had always wanted to go to Cuba so when we were having dinner in early March that year I asked her to take me. This was at a time when it was really hard to get to Cuba. She called me the next day and said, “If you really want to go to Cuba, we’re going next week.”
What I didn’t know was that she had been planning this trip for almost a year because she was taking Robert Wilson, the great avant-garde theatre producer, with her. I love Bob Wilson! So it was Beth, Bob, Angela Hemingway (the wife of Hemingway’s eldest son) and me. We spent a week in Havana and it was truly extraordinary. In 2003 the art scene in Cuba wasn’t as visible or as exuberant as it is now. But when all the artists found out that Bob Wilson was on his way to Cuba, they were going crazy – not just the theatre and the dance community but painters, sculptors, you name it. It was multi-disciplinary excitement! On the first day we were there, a cocktail party was given for us and the spirit of the whole thing was just amazing.
A couple of months before the trip, I’d read an article in the New York Times about these incredible art schools that had been built in Havana in the early sixties and never finished. Apparently, in the early sixties, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were playing golf in some very exclusive golf course and they realized that it was very decadent, having all this land just to play golf on. So they decided that this land should be used to build art schools. They hired these Italian architects who were living in Cuba. There were five art schools, for modern dance, plastic arts, dramatic arts, music and ballet. They began building them from brick with Catalan vaults that were very rounded, so a kind of Afro-Cuban, Hispanic Modernism. Then Cuba became affiliated with the Soviet Union and the work stopped because the political model was so different. Construction stopped in 1965. The Soviets were horrified that if you look at the schools from above, they look like breasts. Imagine! So the schools opened but fell into disrepair and the article in the New York Times came out in 1997. I’d kept it for years, so I told Beth and Bob that the only thing I needed to see in Cuba was those schools. It turned out that one of the architects, Gottardi, was still alive and he offered to take us for a tour. The schools are spectacular. In the drama school, we walked into the props department and this man was making props from tomato cans. There was the bee, made from tomato cans and wire, as a prop for their production of Hamlet. I asked if he’d consider selling me one of the props and he offered me the bee so that’s how I got it. I bought it from the prop-maker from the drama school in Havana.
GB What a lovely story. Do you think you’d love the bee as much if you’d come across it in an apartment on the Upper East Side?
CG Oh yes! The bee is spectacular and beautifully made. It could easily be by a famous sculptor. It’s a treasure.
GB You deal with beautiful things every day. Do you prefer the ones that have a story attached?
CG My feeling is that we all like a story and it’s always wonderful to know it. Even if you buy something really important by an artist like Jeff Koons, when you know the story behind this particular piece, it becomes even more valuable and more special to you.
GB You’ve brought together the worlds of fine art and decorative art and your bee doesn’t even really fall into either of those camps. What do you think of those kinds of labels relating to art?
CG I hate those labels. There are beautiful pieces and they exist for what they are, whether it’s a sculpture or a table or a painting. Lately, everybody talks about “art and design” and I find it slightly annoying because this is what we’ve been doing with the gallery from the beginning. You just respond to a beautiful object and it can be anything – if it’s beautifully created, who cares?
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
CG If it makes me happy and gives me peace. If I look at a piece and it makes me smile and makes me feel good, that’s beauty.
GB So you associate beauty with wellbeing?
CG Absolutely! A couple of months ago I had an operation and it was very important to me that I had a room with a view of the river because I felt I needed that for my healing. I just knew that whatever the cost, I needed a beautiful space with big windows overlooking the river. The minute I walked into the room and saw that window, it immediately made me feel better. So this is something I’ve experienced. It’s not negotiable for me. I need beauty for my wellbeing.