Gregorio Marzán

 

Marzán was employed as a doll- and toy maker for more than three decades, using the skills developed on the job for the creation (after his retirement in 1971) of a distinctive,often whimsical body of folk sculpture. Born in Vega Baja, a town in the fertile coastal flatlands west of San Juan, north central Puerto Rico, he worked as a field handand carpenter from very early in his life, leaving school when he was only nine years old. The economic pressures of the Great Depression brought him to New York in1937, prior to the mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the city after World War II. By the time of his arrival, small communities from the island had been formed in EastHarlem and Brooklyn. The Works Progress Administration found employment for Marzán first as a sewer worker and shortly thereafter in a factory that manufactured toys.
Obviously possessed of an inventive spirit and unusual technical proficiency, Marzán transformed his retirement into a period of intensive creative endeavor. Workingalone in his small East Harlem apartment, he fashioned miniature houses, fanciful figures of animals and birds, striking portrait heads and busts, wry interpretations of theStatue of Liberty (with beaded necklaces and working electric light bulbs) and models of the Empire State Building. He used plaster and found materials in his work,sometimes employing wire coat hangers to serve as the inner framework of sculptural objects that he built up with cloth and secured with plastic tapes. Indeed, it is theuse of tapes in a broad range of contrasting colors, including silver, that gives his figures of animals their distinctive character. Some of Marzán’s work may beinfluenced by the mask-making traditions of Puerto Rico, especially the caretas de carton associated with festival parades and processions on the island and in NewYork.Although Marzán originally created in obscurity, he was fortunate that a community-based arts organization was located within a short walk from his East Harlemhome. Among its other institutional objectives, El Museo del Barrio was dedicated to encouraging the arts in its immediate neighborhood. The museum began to acquireexamples of Marzán’s work, which in turn brought it to the attention of a wider audience. In 1987, a selection of the artist’s animal sculptures was chosen for inclusionin “Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters & Sculptors,” a major traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.