Andrés San Millán is best known for his work as co-founder and artistic director of the Cocoon Theatre, an educational arts organization working out of Dutchess County in upstate New York.
Born in the Basque Country in northern Spain, he settled in the US in 1983 with a grant from the Spain-US exchange program. In NYC he was immersed in the world of dance, studying with Alvin Nikolais and Murray Louis until 1987 and going on to create his own company with his wife Marguerite.
His work in sculpture and painting is influenced by his training as a dancer and by the renaissance and baroque church art. The nude figure, movement, and drama are ongoing themes in his work. Psychology, Epic, Spirituality, and Sexuality can be seen in many, and most popular are the life size driftwood figures, with some reaching 20 feet plus.
Supported in part by the Lulu and Samuel Scripps foundation his work with Cocoon has spanned a number of disciplines both in the visual and performing arts, often mixing the two. He has worked and created in order of greater to lesser as Portrait Artist, Sculptor, Painter, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Choreographer, Dancer, Actor, Teacher, Prop Master, Puppeteer, Creator of Perishable Plays, Illustrator, Singer, Customer and, Producer and Composer.
Written by the artist.
Woman As Hunter
Andres San Millan talks about his new sculpture ahead of its unveiling ceremony in Poughkeepsie on June 17th
Five years ago in Red Hook, NY I attended a public ceremony that celebrated the outdoor installation of MAN, a large-scale sculpture made of driftwood by Spanish-born artist Andres San Millan. I was very impressed by its grand scale and aura of solemnity. What a committed and brave artist he is, I thought to myself. MAN was exhibited for a year and in 2015 I learnt that Andres San Millan had started to build a new large-scale sculpture, at first called WOMAN, this time in Poughkeepsie. Was he feeling obliged to do it after the creation of MAN? I went to see the piece. Standing tall on the lawn in front of the Cunneen-Hackett Arts Center on Main Street was just the initial lower-body outline of a female figure. It was boldly sketched with the use of his signature material, driftwood, some in natural color, some painted white, reminiscent of bones. Its large scale attracted attention and suggested seriousness of intent. The sculpture was going to help Cocoon Theater, the company that Andres San Millan leads as creative director, mark its new location. It was also going to be the culmination of a project called “Peace, One Piece At A Time” consisting of large outdoor sculptural pieces created by Andres San Millan that link Red Hook and Poughkeepsie. And yes, he felt obliged to do it in response to questions from different audiences after the creation of MAN pictured below.
The figure of Woman stood tall and unfinished for two years. I saw this as another act of courage on part of Andres San Millan – having made a decision to execute his creative process in full public transparency, he was being honest about its pace, not trying to hide anything, or to speed it up artificially. Or maybe he left his sculpture to stand unfinished on purpose – he was opening up space for the public imagination to create its own images of “woman”, before he came up with his own? One day I was going to find “the truth”.
In May 2017 I heard that Andres San Millan had finished the sculpture. Who was “she” going to be, what color, black or white? With great curiosity, I went to see it. Very tall and strong, muscular but graceful, with a long spear in her hands, “she” exuded great confidence and determination. She wasn’t white, she wasn’t black, she was both! My first thought was: Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, protector of small animals, champion of justice, the woman-fighter archetype, the independent woman. I wondered about the spear – where was it aimed? It was a good time to ask the artist all my questions.
What happened for you during the two years of work on the sculpture?
These were two years of trying to maintain a harmonic conversation between my need as artist-creator and what the sculpture needed structurally, and what the pieces of driftwood used to that effect had to offer in terms of form. As a creator, I knew I wanted to build a representation of “woman”, not just a female figure. And I knew I wanted a standing figure, even though it elicited in my mind a countless number of church statuary. I wanted to stay clear of that imagery. Not as denial of anyone's belief, rather I felt that exploring new values might bring new meaning to the work and to myself.
What were the main technical challenges associated with the construction?
I had logistics to figure out. For example, the bottom end of the piece had to stay at least 16" to two feet off the ground to avoid touching snow that would rot the wood. MAN had lasted only one year in part due to the fact that it was built without knowledge or means to make him last. He was the result of deep inspiration and I rode that inspiration to its completion. With WOMAN I wanted more durable construction. My structural decisions may seem very basic to anyone with some knowledge of sculpture or engineering, but I only had, as very often in my career, vision to guide me. Means were also scarce. At one point even some of my materials disappeared from the porch where they were kept. A well-meaning construction worker involved in another project at the building took all my driftwood away as part of his clean up. Fortunately the river is close by. During that time I entertained the thought of building with man-made construction materials. It didn't last. I needed the organic quality of the driftwood.
Is the organic quality of driftwood the main reason you choose it?
Yes. I also like it because as material it is not valued. It is not practical or marketable. I like using the small pieces. I equate them with small, the poor, the weak, the spendable, perhaps all people.
You started working on the piece and then you stopped, what was the reason?
One reason is that I couldn't find a sane way to move upward. I tried long stepladders on stage platforms which is what I had, but was asked to remove them because they would hurt the grass. It takes resources to do this. I have very few. I didn't know anyone who could lend a scaffold and had no budget to rent one. At the same time, other work had priority especially if it brought income. The winter also was no help. Working outdoors in the cold or snow is impossible. One has to be able to move around and look from all angles repeatedly, over and over. Thankfully, I also had everything. I had a persistent vision and the confidence that it could be done. I had learned that with MAN.
How did the image evolve?
I had many thoughts come and go as time went by through the two years that took me to build the sculpture. I was asking myself: “What makes a woman?” I became very self-conscious about it and realized that I didn’t have an answer. I was trying to reach within myself, to find a starting point by answering the question about “man”, what makes a man? From there, I was looking to define the distinct features of the psyche that define a woman. But I wasn’t getting anywhere. I came to an impasse. I looked in different directions. At some point, one of my children contributed the news that Transgenders constitute one if not the highest number in youth suicide statistics. That touched me and I felt the need to create in that direction, perhaps a hermaphrodite, a man-woman. Though I did let go of that idea as the final representation, some aspects of it remain. WOMAN as Hunter shares the male based action determination and the graceful movement associated with the feminine.
How did you arrive at the final image of “woman as hunter”?
As I was struggling with the question, I asked my daughter Magdalene about her definition of “woman”. She told me to read “Women Who Run With the Wolves”, a book by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian analyst and a storyteller. This book opened my eyes. It was very influential. It gave me a perspective to which I could relate. The book presents myths and stories about the archetypal wild woman. “Wild” is defined not as uncontrolled behavior, but a kind of savage creativity, the ability to know what tools to use and when. The wild woman is close to her instinctual nature, she is free and spontaneous, but she is also a fighter who would fiercely protect herself and her own. These qualities have been undervalued, as Dr. Estés says, in a society that over-emphasizes the quality of being “nice”. This is how “Woman as Hunter” emerged for me as an image. She is our ancestor, a previous image of ourselves. Her DNA carries a long linage, and all the information about us is there. She makes us conscious of who we are and where we come from. She gives me a sense of connection to parents and ancestors, and how their history is actually not so far behind.
What about the spear, where is it aiming?
After discovering the writings of Dr. Estés, I continued with exploration of female archetypes and this led me to the re-discovery of Carl Jung and his concept of “animus and anima”. He defined anima as the feminine inner personality of a man, whose role, as described in the “Man and His Symbols” is “to lead a man into his unconscious, and thus to force him to deeper recollection and increased consciousness”. I realized that the sculpture played the same role for me – it was taking me into my unconscious, helping me to bring to the surface what I have forgotten or suppressed, and helping me to become more conscious. The spear represented “the hunger to know”, and it was aiming at truth. The spear was about naming things in the soul, in the inner being. The spear was a symbol of honesty – about one’s feelings and thoughts. I have a wife and 3 daughters – they have taught me a great deal about expressing feelings and being honest. For men, this is not easy. As a young man growing up in Catholic Spain, I was closed to myself. I didn’t know. It took me time to learn. I now know how to look for insight in my dreams. The spear may also represent pain and suffering - The Virgin Mary has a spear going through her heart. Women carry great pain.
What about the sculpture’s color? You started by using pieces of driftwood in natural color and painted white, and later you added black pieces.
I am intrigued and shocked by the dualism of black and white. I am fascinated with the symbolism of light and darkness. I am saddened and outraged by separation and racism. I wanted to bring black and white together, rather them to keep them apart. I felt it was important, especially in Poughkeepsie where things are so separate, or at least this is how we perceive them. Black and white can integrate more easily in a woman. The feminine principle allows for that more easily because “motherness” is all about nurturing and accepting. I am reminded of actress Helen Mirren speaking about feminism at Tulane University: “no matter what sex you are, be a feminist”. When women do well, the whole society does better. We hurt ourselves by keeping inequality. At the same time, you may notice that the black and white pieces in the sculpture remain separate, not fully integrated. This is another idea of importance to me - fragmentation, and how vulnerable the human psyche is to it, especially when subjected to the “onslaught of unchecked emotions”, as described by Jung in “Man and His Symbols”.
What are your hopes and wishes for “Woman as Hunter”?
Carl Jung hoped that his book “Man and His Symbols”, co-written by his students, may stimulate the readers to continue “the investigation and assimilation of the unconscious”. He said that this always begins by working on oneself. My hope is that this image of “Woman as Hunter” may contribute to the exploration of our conscious and unconscious feelings, assumptions, and understanding of “woman”.
The sculpture was unveiled on Saturday, June 17 on Cocoon’s front lawn, 9 Vassar St., Cunneen-Hackett, Arts Center in Poughkeepsie, NY. Entrance to the site remains open and free to the public.