All art instruction—coming from both within Vassar’s Art department and elsewhere—seeks to teach students one fundamental skill. They want you to learn, or, more specifically, relearn how to see.
Photographer Jorge Abel Santos, without question, knows how to see.
His upcoming show at the Palmer Gallery, “Two Worlds in My Heart,” includes photos that showcase both his native home in Mexico’s sate of Puebla and what has become his second home, New York’s Hudson Valley.
Santos may have never had any formal artistic training, but his natural ability to see images in ways others can’t allows him to produce stunning photos that capture his experience of the spaces he inhabits and the people that surround him.
In his village in a mountainous region of Puebla, taking up photography was by no means an accessible venture.
When Santos was growing up, his village had no electricity, and basic needs could be hard to come by. He often had to go without food and got his first pair of shoes, a pair of sandals, the soles of which were made from rubber tires, when he was twelve.
His formal education ended when he was eleven, at which point he began working on farms. Thus, photography only became a possible artistic outlet for Santos once he emigrated to the U.S. in 1989. He began taking pictures when he was in his late teens around what he estimates to be 1990, having been in Poughkeepsie for about one year.
When asked in an interview why he decided to begin taking photographs, he answers, “I [didn’t] decide. I just start[ed] taking pictures,” as if the art was meant to find him.
At the time of his photographic beginnings, Santos was working on a horse farm in the Hudson Valley. This setting led him to his first fully explored subject: fences.
“I like how they divide one side to the other side,” he said. The statement, profound in its simplicity, gains a whole new meaning when applied to the problem of boundaries that exists within his native village. His artistic statement on his website notes, “Back in his Mexican village, though, people had no fences. There lands were held in common. Anyone in the ejido could build a house and have a plot for a garden without cost.” Santos’ specific background allowed him to see physical dividers with fresh eyes, turning what most Americans would count off as a mundane aspect of the landscape into a manifestation of a greater abstract concept worth visual exploration.
Since then, he’s photographed a wide range of subjects, and notes that most recently he’s been interested in photographing people with tattoos and learning about the stories behind their body art.
Santos eventually found himself working as a member of the maintenance staff at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center. There, he met John Schoonbeek, who was currently working at the center with a team on a community support effort. One day, Santos’ family came into the office looking for someone to teach them English.
Conveniently, Schoonbeek and his team were looking to learn Spanish, so they struck a bargain to teach each other their languages. This deal was the beginning of Santos’ and Schoonbeek’s friendship, which has lasted 25 years. Schoonbeek found himself at Vassar later in his career as an administrator of Blegen House (an earlier incarnation of the LGBTQ center).
He retired in the mid 2000s, but still remains an involved member in the Vassar community and brought Santos’ work to the attention of Teresa Quinn, Director of the Palmer Gallery.
Quinn immediately saw Santos’ work as fitting the mission of the Palmer Gallery; to provide a space to showcase the work of both Vassar affiliated individuals and those from the greater community and to provide programming that extends beyond a passive visit to the gallery.
She described his work as feeling entirely personal and intimate while at the same having the ability to resonate with the viewer. Her observations are fitting, as Santos self-describes the exhibit as a tribute to the women from the past three generations of his family. He seeks to expose the viewer to the hard work they’ve done and the difficulties of life they face both here in the Hudson Valley and back in his village in Mexico.
Who Santos is as an artist is entirely connected to his influences: his heritage, background and present life as a photographer living in Poughkeepsie, NY.
He reminds me that he’s never studied art in a school setting, but says he’s developed a collection of photography books. I then ask if he has any favorite photographers, and he replies, “I don’t have any favorites…Every photographer is different. They have a style, and I like everybody.” I further question him about his own style and his favorite subjects.
“I like everything,” he tells me, and then continues, “If you see something, maybe you don’t see [the potential of an image], but I can see. That is why I take the picture.” Santos’ gift for sight seems to extend beyond that of just being able to create visually compelling compositions. He’s a man who seems to be able to truly see into the beauty of the world around him.
Santos’ exhibit will open on Tuesday, September 23 with an opening reception in the Palmer gallery at 5 p.m. that evening. The exhibit—exploring the artist’ present life, living in Poughkeepsie, alongside his roots in Mexico—will show through October 18. Like all shows in the Palmer, the show is free and open to the public.
The exhibit will truly explore the collision of Santos’ two worlds and should not be missed. The exhibit’s location, barely separated from the College Center by just a few doors, allows for students to take a break from the daily bustle to ponder what it means to be living in Poughkeepsie in 2014, considering our history.