Ghosts in the Mirrors
Geraldo Alfonso’s mother lived as a ghost in light and reflection, her soul pure energy made briefly visible if he did everything right, if he continued, night after night, his conjuring act. When dusk came and he clicked the wall switch, the interior of her small cottage glowed red, and she moved again through the ornately decorated, mirrored rooms on Catherine Street in Key West. She was even there at the end of his life, in 1998, after his childhood with her as a Santeria “Voodoo Queen”; after his time as a street percussionist in Cuban bands in the 20s and 30s; after his service in the Navy during World War II; after his return to Key West from the war; after his short, tumultuous marriage and estrangement from his wife and son; after his defeated retreat back to the cottage to live with his mother, his one true love; after his depression.
He was 57 when she died, and he had never made a piece of visual art until then.
That year a heaviness came. It had always been nearby, at the edge of his perception. Now it covered him like a veil, or was like a shadow stuck behind his eyes. He changed, people said.
He began to create a portal between the world of the living and the dead.
And in light, in reflection, in the hundreds of tiny mirror shards he glued to the walls and ceilings and floors, he could reunite with his mother, have his own image float across hers. He could hear her voice, feel her feminine power, and sometimes see the beams and glimmers of her spirit fling around the rooms of ceaseless glass as he paced through the house at night.
“Miracle Home,” he called it. Others would call it an “outsider art environment.” Neighbors called it strange. He devoted the final twenty-two years of his life to it, and it was all for her, so that she would keep talking to him, telling her stories, speaking in tongues, the way she did when he was a boy, when she and the other Santeria women on the street of small cottages sacrificed chickens for their blood and performed rituals to speak with the dead. His Miracle Home, he once told a reporter from the Spanish-language edition of the Miami Herald, gave him a reason for living.
Alfonso was born in 1918. His mother’s name was Sophia Ferrar. She must have come to Key West from Cuba when you could still do that, after the Spanish but way before Castro. She worked in Key West as a cigar maker for most of her life. She had four children: two daughters, Geraldo, and another son, with two or perhaps three different men. They were working-class immigrants in the promised land. Geraldo had no relationship with his father, but it didn’t matter. He was his mama’s boy, her inspired one, her “Makiki”—the powerful little rooster, cock of the walk, strutting along Catherine Street with his black hair shiny and combed.
Here is a story, like many of the stories about Alfonso, which may or may not be true: When he was five, maybe six, his mother became too sick to work for a time. The bills kept coming. The family needed money, needed food. Geraldo took his charisma and his talent and an old oil drum, his bold rooster self, and went out into the streets to play for the locals and the tourists, who were so impressed they paid him, the little Cuban boy, el Santero. Mama was so proud she got well again. He saved her spirit, which fixed her body. He saved the family, Sophia’s special boy.
Toward the end, when he was 78, when he was sick in his body and sick in his mind, when he knew the government was tracking him and he was hearing voices, when he and his pistol started having philosophical dialogues about choices, he still believed in parts of his mother’s religion and its power to open doors between life and death, though most of his art was more directly influenced by Catholicism. He had built a shrine of mirrored glass, Christmas lights, dolls, and framed pictures of his youthful familia. In the center was a black, plastic saint, which may have once been his mother’s.
In Santeria, a mix of African and Caribbean belief, of Yoruba traditions and Catholic ritual, there is a porous border between human and spirit worlds, and sometimes no border at all. The ancestors are always here. The same year Alfonso died, a mother in New York, a Santera, with the help of her twenty-year-old daughter, suffocated her other daughter, a teenager, with a plastic bag. The girl had exhibited signs of what in secular American culture would be called serious mental illness, then diagnosed and pathologized. The mother knew better, though. She was releasing the bad spirits, letting them go back home and hoping, with luck, that she might be able to keep her physical daughter here. What one person—and the state, for that matter—calls murder, another calls a failed attempt to save a life.
Bad spirits. Maybe that’s how Miami came back to Alfonso when he remembered it decades later. He was there in the late 30s, as a percussionist and maraca player in Latin Quarter rumba bands. He was wild, man. Wild. People knew him. People remembered him.
He even played for a while with Desi Arnaz, the guy that was later on I Love Lucy. Life was a dream of night and sound and alcohol and women. Women were everywhere. Whores. Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and even white chicks, real groupies with that mystified, cherished, over-valued Euro-American skin who hung with Desi and the band. Not dark, beautiful saints like his mama. More like tempting pieces broken off the white devil’s soul. All of it blurred through a haze of alcohol.
Miami: Sleep all day. The roar of the band at night. Sweat. Booze and red lights and applause. Band members waking up in strange rooms, a new woman on the other side of the bed. A life of brilliant debauchery, a life, as his Mama would say, of sin. Bad spirits, man. Enough, after a while, to make you dread the dark.
There is no evidence that he saw heavy action in World War II, when he served on a Navy ship in the Pacific. But you might have thought he had if you ran across him in the 1960s, when he was back in Key West with his mother. If you had known him when he was a boy, that little confident kid with the shiny hair and the smile and the drum, you might wonder what happened. Makiki, huh? Dude seemed a little off.
He rode around Key West on a tricycle with big, fat beach tires, along the same route usually, and he worked moonlighting as a musician and selling tickets at Cuban numbers games—an illegal but tolerated form of gambling. He lived in the same ramshackle cottage where he grew up with his aging mother, who people called that old “Voodoo Queen.”
You might have seen him in his matching tropical print shirts and pants, his homemade knit fisherman hats, a new one almost every day.
“Guy with the macramé hats?”
“Mr. take-my-time on the tricycle?”
“Señor tropical threads?”
By the 70s, tourists had found Key West—found it big time—and it was a different place. Young people and college students were walking up and down every street during the summer. Drugs were a regular part of American youth culture by then, and an even bigger part of the scene in Key West. Forget about all that idealism and mind-expansion of the 60s. Narcotics now were inseparable from our consumerism, our narcissism; they were quick routes to hedonism and escapism, a new and acceptable subculture based on wrecking your mind. Alfonso—Makiki—was just another trip in that context, as funny as he was sad to the tourists, a bit of local color, all dressed up on a tricycle with a blown-out mind.
People get old. Their bodies fail. They die. Everyone knows this but something about the human mind won’t let us fully accept that it will happen to us and the people we love.
But what if you get imprisoned by grief?
When someone you love dies, it’s like the grief is deep, dark, cold water, and you’re in it. At first there is an anchor, a very heavy anchor, attached to your ankle. You sink, you struggle, you can’t get out, but most people find a way to keep their nose and mouth just out of the water, barely, to keep breathing and stay alive. Normally, the anchor holding you there gets lighter with time, dissolving like a slow-fizzing Alka-Seltzer, so you’re still in the water for a while but your head is up, and then your shoulders, and then, miraculously, you are up on the shore, a new shore. You can look around and try—even though you’re exhausted and confused—to imagine what to do next with the life you have left without your beloved, which you never imagined could even happen. Not accurately, anyway.
But what if it didn’t work like that? What if the anchor got heavier, the water darker and colder? What would that turn you into?
After his mother’s death—she must have been around 80—he began to turn her room into shrine. He went to the dumpster of a local glass company. He painstakingly cut out pieces of broken, discarded mirror glass of different colors and began to attach it in intricate patterns to the wood paneling in his mother’s bedroom. He worked at this all day long, into the night, and into the dark morning, spending months and then years and then more than two decades creating and recreating a mirror-house of art. He wrote “GOD IS LOVE” in different-colored mirrored glass on one wall, and left no part of the inside of the house undecorated.
From the outside—if you were a neighbor, say—it looked spontaneous, bizarre, maybe even something to be concerned about. But it gave him purpose, a way to try to defeat death and his drowning sorrow.
He cut out religious images from cards and pamphlets, Jesus and Mary and Charlton Heston as Moses, framed them in wood and glass, positioned them on the walls near portraits of Mama to protect her. Everything at first was about his mother: a saint, Saint Sophia. He created a visual eulogy of glowing, glimmering personal iconography with the mirrors as a framing device. Through reflection—this is key—he kept himself with his mother. He had found a way to be in every piece of his devotional art. All he had to do was return to it and look.
I have a copy of a photograph of Alfonso toward the end of his life in front of one of the shrines he made for his mother. It was taken sometime in the 90s by a photographer named Ted Degener, who has documented many outsider artists and outsider art environments. I’m looking at it because I’m trying to fathom the final, dark turn his psychology took toward the end, when even the art stopped giving him purpose. The mind of another is a writer’s conjecture, and biographical writing is always flirting with fiction, a speculative stab at truth propelled by the available, sometimes-scant facts. And the poor and marginalized have less of everything, including, especially, a traceable history.
Maybe, as I write this morning, I’m trying to see if something is detectable in his eyes, his stance, and the artwork around him. The art—and this is true of most so-called outsider artists—was the one thing able to channel his roiling mental and emotional discomfort, and it became the only way for him to transform, for a time, his loneliness, isolation, anger, guilt, shame, and pain. Perhaps artistic expression pulled from the deepest levels of the psyche should be understood, first, as a physical manifestation of a struggle for transcendence, a fight with death.
Here he stands to the left of the shrine. He is wearing a pink, hand-knitted fisherman’s hat, a blue, three-button polo covered by a lighter blue short-sleeve dress shirt that seems to be used as an artist’s smock, white khakis, and a weathered brown belt, the end dangling from the buckle. He is a small man, short and stout. His face is thick, fleshy, and deeply grooved, his nose that of a boxer’s—pulpy, broad, and almost loose-looking, as if it could detach from his head. He is unshaven, stubbly on his cheeks, with a slim, once-groomed mustache above his thin lips, the kind still popular among older Latin men. His eyes are glassy and bloodshot. He looks either drunk or hungover, though I have no idea whether he was drinking heavily at that point in his life. All of this is in stark contrast to other photos of him that he hung in his house, near his mother’s portraits, from the time he was in the Navy. In those he is smiling, dazzlingly handsome, with a head of black, wavy hair, a looker like Desi Arnaz in the early seasons of I Love Lucy.
The shrine to his right, if that is the right word, is a corner bookcase, which was once a simple part of the cottage’s interior. But over the years Alfonso covered every part of the wood with carefully-cut mirrored glass, which he decorated in waves and swirls of green, red, blue, and yellow with permanent magic markers. In the shrine, on each of the three shelves, are Catholic religious figurines—Jesus and Mary mostly—trinkets one could find at a flea market. The other pieces, however, are small, intricate sculptures made of clothespin pieces, paper, artificial flowers, and cardboard, each like something from the top of a cake for a wedding in an asylum. The photo shows his otherworldly obsessive love and devotion even while evoking his real-world sorrow and disconnection. He looks terrified.
MTV came to Key West in the 90s. Drunk, half-naked coeds everywhere. Like a filthy dream. He couldn’t stop looking out the window. Maybe that’s what started the explicitly sexual art. After Alfonso’s death, a room in the back of the cottage was found to contain perhaps hundreds of pornographic drawings and multi-media pieces. He had traced photographs onto glass or, sometimes, drew freehand scenes. The works often depicted lesbian sex, but several of them show men with engorged penises either hiding from or going after loose women.
After those early years of religious iconography and votives to his mother—one shrine in the center of the entry room reportedly took him three years—he turned to an obsession with presidents and other political leaders, producing many small works for the house’s interior walls—marker drawings, wood frames, magazine photos, and more mirror glass—devoted to the greatness of America. By the end, though, he was paranoid about the government intervening in his quiet life. He was drawing coeds who had been cast out of the Garden of Eden (which he believed was in Virginia), obsessed with fucking each other, all of them heading for hell, all of them in need of ultimate punishment. In the end, madness becomes its own world, shedding every trace of what you would recognize as sense. It is a kind of drowning.
In 1998, just before starting his ninth decade of life, Alfonso went into his small yard—which was not much bigger than a room in his house—sat down in a dilapidated vinyl chair, and shot himself through the heart with his pistol.
Suicide is often banal when investigated, when pondered, and this one was no different. The world is a very lonely, despairing place for many. People suffer, and get stuck in their suffering, and then, after a while, they believe that there will be no end to this suffering, this exhausting hopelessness about everything. His late art points to dissociation, incoherence, self-loathing, and paranoia. But I’m trying, as I sit here, to turn this around. I’m thinking that if you were a person who, like Alfonso, concocted a shrine to the dead in which your own reflection constantly figured, and was always part of this wall and that wall and the ceiling and the floor, then you were familiar, in your way, with walking among them. It would seem that you are already dead, and have been for a long time. Death isn’t as frightening as people tend to think. So maybe he thought of the pistol-shot the way that woman in New York, the Santera with her sick daughter, thought of the plastic bag: as a simple way to get rid of all these intractable mortal problems and pain, these bad spirits.
After his death, one of Alfonso’s sisters, also a resident of Key West, took over his estate, if you could call it that. Local gallery owners and the county arts council were all aware of the Miracle Home by then. As an outsider art environment it was highly, if not widely, regarded.
Several people in the Key West art community worked to preserve the Miracle Home, which was in very bad shape, but it was difficult to find the money to do so even with media coverage spreading word about the house. Finally, because of her own financial situation, Alfonso’s sister sold it. Most of the work that could be moved was. It ended up in museums, galleries, and private outsider art collections.
I assume the people who bought the house from Alfonso’s sister wanted Key West. They wanted the location, the sunshine, and the laid-back attitude. They don’t seem to have had any interest in art, or if they did, they didn’t have any interest in preserving the idiosyncratic, lonely vision of the previous owner, who killed himself in their new yard, in a soiled chair that ended up in a landfill. They gutted the place.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.