Born Bogota, Colombia, 1976 / Lives in Detroit
In San Clara Del Cobre, Mexico, where a nineteen-year-old Juan Martinez went to trade school, and where copper working goes back to the pre-Columbian era, they do things the hard way. Standing in a close circle around a hot ingot, typically manufactured from recycled scrap, the copper-workers beat, in turn, to flatten the ingot to the desired thickness before creating the beautiful utilitarian objects for which the city is known. It is punishing labor, but there is a magic in the rhythmic blows, the cascading sparks, and the gradual transformation of the metal.
Fast forward a couple of decades to 2017, and Martinez is gently working aluminum sheets to create the skins and scales of bicycle-powered animals that will roam Detroit’s east side, whisking children to a creative writing school in nearby Eastern Market. The cycle-animals were a collaboration with celebrated author Dave Eggers, who provided Martinez with back-of-napkin sketches and entrusted him with turning them into something wondrous. The Pangolin, in particular, is mesmerizingly graceful, with a rhythmic gait and long, sweeping tail.
Growing up in New Orleans, Martinez always wanted to be a blacksmith. The tools and objects he made in Mexico became a de-facto resume that found him work across the southern United States. But it was falling in with an alternative Mardi Gras crew, and a follow-on gig with a traveling punk rock circus, that provided Martinez with the epiphany that he could sustain a life of his choosing by combining making with art.
Martinez toured with the End of the World Circus for one and a half loops of the United States. Subsequently, he joined a bike circus, which cycled from show to show, recreating puppets and costumes from materials sourced at each location, and converging periodically with kindred spirits at events like the Allied Media Conference and the legendary Bread and Puppets Theatre workshops.
The early 2000s were a time of dizzying globalization. Martinez was a co-founder of the Beehive Collective, an organization that strived to understand the fundamental mechanisms and impact of the new economic models by a combination of on-the-ground oral research, intensive concept mapping, and hand-drawn narrative graphics. The “bees” then turned these graphics into posters, which they distributed in huge numbers as a means of popular education.
The Beehive Collective’s masterwork is a trilogy of posters about globalization in the Americas, a project that took almost a decade to complete. Martinez worked on the second poster, Plan Colombia (2002), about the shadowy US-funded military, counter-narcotic and economic project authorized by Clinton in 2000. During the research phase, Martinez and a colleague traveled to Colombia and Ecuador to interview communities impacted by the plan. The subsequent drawing features leafcutter ants in a central role, cutting away Plan Colombia’s nightmare to reveal the region’s biodiversity and stories of hope.
In 2010, the Beehive Collective came to Detroit to collaborate with the Grace Lee Boggs-inspired initiative, Detroit Summer. During the project, Martinez worked with local youth to conduct oral research and create a photo collage. They eventually transferred this onto a screenprint that they could distribute back to the community.
Martinez enjoyed the cadence of life in Detroit, with its friendly people and strong work ethic, and decided it was somewhere he could settle. He also returned to his original love, metalworking, setting up a studio to manufacture one-off projects, and finding a sweet spot that often involves collaboration with other artists, inspiration from nature, and the joy of problem-solving in the workshop.
The natural world underpins two recent commissions for Henry Ford Health System. Hungry Hippos (2019) references the children’s game of Martinez’s youth. There is a playful aspect to it, but the substitution of marbles with monopoly houses is surely a critique of schemes such as HFHS’s decades-long campaign to devour the Holden-Trumbull neighborhood.
Symbiosis (2021), by contrast, channels the calm, restorative energy of Martinez’s recent two-month residency in the Colombian jungle into a delicate kinetic sculpture located in the lobby of a cancer treatment center.
In some ways, Martinez remarks, he has come full circle. Making large-scale kinetic sculptures is what his sixteen-year-old self wanted to do, albeit without having the maturity required to create works such as Symbiosis. But as Martinez describes the projects he plans to make, interactive sculptures with angel wings and giant dancing marionettes, you sense that despite the greater sophistication of his recent work, there is still a joyous, youthful desire to bring metal magically to life that remains unchanged.
Steve Panton, December 2021