“The colors of the rainbow / So pretty in the sky / Are also on the faces / Of people going by” -Louis Armstrong
For the past three weeks, I’ve had the privilege of painting in Cochabamba with Mario Rolando Vargas Cuellar. Mario, amongst other things, is a painter, proud grandfather, and one of the sweetest humans I’ve met. He has salt-and-pepper hair, deep brown eyes, and golden brown skin that glows like his paintings. His skin is worn from sunshine and wrinkles cover his face. When Mario smiles, his whole body smiles with him.
I first met Mario in la Rotunda Perú, a busy roundabout in a residential barrio of Cochabamba. He was wearing a yellow collared shirt and a black fedora. He waved me over, and we walked together to his house, a two-story pink building. The product of its artistic inhabitants, it’s a masterpiece. A mural spans the lower flank of the building, its colors bright and alive. Above, the powerful bronze muscles of a miner reach across the building, his heart and lungs exposed to the quiet street below. On the wall out front, political graffiti has been sprayed hastily.
During our first meeting, I was concerned my ISP would turn out to be dull. We did not touch the oil paints which dance and leap to life in the paintings on the walls of Mario’s studio; we only drew. We reviewed the “ejes” of the human face, the guidelines directing the proportions and movement of a human head, and we used a grid-transfer method to recreate a portrait of a mischievous Bolivian girl on a larger scale. Both are exercises I’ve done before; both are not fun to do.
But then, Mario called me outside, where cans of óleos (oil paint) and gasolina (gasoline) rested on the table. He handed me a few paintbrushes, keeping one for himself. With a grin, he dipped it in blue paint and flicked it into the air. The paint splattered on the paper below, rebelling against the whiteness of the page. It was soon joined by gasolina. Mario tilted the page, and the paint dripped toward the edges. “Así,” he said. I began flinging blue, yellow, and red paint about and mixing it with gasoline. The resulting splotches were chaotic and colorful. It was a mindless reminder of art’s capacity to be fun.
From that moment, art with Mario became an adventure. Every other day, I’d take the trufi 127 to Tiquipaya, the 106 to P. Colón, and the micro 6 to Mario’s studio. We began painting at what seemed an impossible pace. The girl we’d drawn the first day was soon colored with golden browns, deep browns, shadows, and highlights. With paint smeared by the edge of a palette knife, her shirt became something textured.
Then came paisajes. Mario had given me a book of Bolivian landscapes to choose from for the next painting. I was particularly taken with an image of eucalyptus trees in a field. They reminded me of a road back home, where the nearby eucalyptus swaying in the wind are prefaced by a “Falling Trees” warning sign. I was amused by the resemblance, and told Mario,“Esto es perfecto.”
Our next meeting, we decided to paint another paisaje. I again chose a picture of a tree, but this time one reminiscent of the flower-topped ones of Tiquipaya’s streets. I rather liked it, with its twisted limbs and fiery orange blossoms. I painted the sombras, medio tonos, and luces, blending as I worked. Mario wistfully told me of his upcoming trip to Virginia for his granddaughter’s fifteenth birthday. His love for his family lingered on every word he spoke, and I hoped his family knew how much their artist loves them.
I hummed along to the radio as I painted, enjoying the eclectic assortment of music on Cochabamba’s Radio Mundial. The croaky, lovely voice of Louis Armstrong crackled on, and recognizing the song, I smiled. “What a Wonderful World” is one of the best songs written. I cannot listen to it without sharing Louis Armstrong’s love and gratitude for our world. Mario sparkled when the song came on. “¿Conoces? ¿Conoces?” he asked me. “Sí, es linda,” I replied. “Louis Armstrong,” he told me. I smiled at his excitement and said, “sí.” Mario’s face slipped into a grin and he asked if I could translate it for him. I smiled back, “Claro.”
We spent the rest of the day making oleo-gasolina splotches with orange, yellow, and blue. I was so in love with the moment, I laughed. On the trufi home, Louis Armstrong’s words echoed in my head.
Since that day, they never left. Life in Tiquipaya continued–Spanish lessons, meals with my host family, clinic visits, and of course, painting with Mario–but my perception of it changed. In the mornings, when I shut the green metal gate to my homestay house, I’d pause for a moment to admire the corn fields across the street rustling gently. I’d crinkle my nose in the sunshine that kisses the houses, cobblestones, dogs and trufis of Calle Collpapampa. Walking past the bougainvillea, morning glory, and sunflowers, I’d think of Louis Armstrong and flowers that bloom “for me and you.” On my daily trufi rides, I’d look at the people sitting next to me and imagine their lives, days, and dreams. I became aware of all that was wonderful in my life. Life imitated art.
Back at Mario’s, we mixed paints, talked, and laughed. From the same colors we used to create tree trunks and shadows, we painted the shadows and highlights of the human faces. And when we needed a break, we would make splotches, not caring how beautiful or ugly they were. Art imitated life.
My last meeting with Mario arrived too soon. Waiting outside his gate, I became nostalgic for what I had not yet lost. Mario, as usual, greeted me with a smile and led me to his studio. Beaming, he told me he thought we should paint a scene “de tu país.” The scene was of a horse-drawn wagon and winter-worn trees in front of snowy mountains.
With the two hours we had, Mario and I worked furiously. We painted the mountains shades of blue, with highlights of yellow-white. We painted a flurry of blue and white below and shaded the tired silhouette of a dead tree in the foreground. With brown and golden mancha, we brought the horses to life. Of all the paintings we made, it was my favorite.
Soon, it was 5:00 pm. Mario helped me roll up my artwork, which I slid into my backpack. Before leaving the studio, I said “Mario, espera, espera, por favor. Tengo algo para ti.” I opened my art notebook and tore out a page with the lyrics to “What a Wonderful World” written in English and Spanish. Mario stared at the page for a moment. Realizing what it was, he nearly hopped with excitement.
We walked outside together, past the miner and the mural and the graffiti. I began to say “ciao,” but Mario stopped me. “This is how we say goodbye in Bolivia,” he said. We shook hands, gave each other a kiss on the cheek, and hugged.
To quote Mr. Armstrong, “I see friends shaking hands / saying, ‘How do you do?’ / They’re really saying / ‘I love you.’”
Mario, te quiero.