Juan-Manuel Alonso is a familiar figure at Palm Springs art events. He is tall and handsome, usually with shoulder-length silver hair and a beard. He dresses colorfully and is quick with an interesting story or witty remark.
I spent some time with him recently observing his newest creation: a new outdoor mural at the LGBT Community Center of the Desert in Palm Springs.
Juan was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1952. Although his family moved to New York City in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution, he retains vivid memories of his childhood in Cuba: The colors, sounds and tastes of those early years are evident in his paintings today. (He pointed out that the memories may only be a personal mythology, but that doesn’t take away from their relevance and power to inspire him.) Alonso was particularly drawn to the Afro-Cuban music and religious ceremonies in his neighborhood. His mother said that whenever she wanted to find him, she would just listen for the drums and follow the sound: Juan would always be there, dancing.
Alonso talked about growing up in New York City. He loved going by himself to Radio City Music Hall, and designing dresses made out of Play-Doh for his toy soldiers. He attended Erasmus Hall High School and later the City College of New York. He decided he wanted to be a fashion designer.
“The arts have always been something I enjoy,” he said.
After studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology under Donald Claflin, designer for Tiffany and Co., Alonso worked for Nino Cerruti and Willi Smith, and had an exclusive contract to design his own label for Bergdorf Goodman. He also did freelance design work in San Francisco for several years while under contract to Bergdorf since he was not allowed to work anywhere else in New York.
Alonso started painting in 1995. Around that time, he moved to Miami to care for his parents. He opened his own showroom for art, upholstery and fashion in Bal Harbour—but after a couple of years, he was forced to give it up for health reasons. The workload and stress of designing six collections a year proved to be too much.
When his parents passed away, he decided to move to Palm Springs and concentrate on his painting. It’s a decision he said he has never regretted.
“Art opened my eyes, to be aware of the incredible energy that flourishes here,” Alonso said. “It has improved my health, and I have become very creative and developed my own style.”
Alonso has had numerous shows and successes in the area, but is not currently associated with a local gallery. This past December, he broke into the red-hot Miami art market with an exhibition at Art Basel. He will be spending the summer in Santa Fe, N.M.
“My inspiration comes from the memories of where I was born,” Alonso said. “I’m also very inspired by the period of time from 1890 to 1930 when the world was revolutionized and brought into the modern era. I’m inspired by Josephine Baker”—the African-American dancer who became wildly famous after dancing in Paris in 1925. “She was so liberated and had a vision of the future that is still to be realized.
“In my own work, I want to have a subconscious message—something of freedom, a message of liberation. I paint lips as hearts, because finally, they are doing no evil to each other. It’s about love and openness. It’s a very strong message. I’m sending out positivity to counter all the negativity.”
Alonso recently dealt with another serious health crisis, and during his recovery, he was inspired to give something back to the community. He said he approached the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, at 1301 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, and asked if he could donate a mural in a restroom there to commemorate the upcoming 30th anniversary of Keith Haring’s mural in the men’s restroom of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City. The Center responded that they wanted to commission an exterior mural on the staircase leading to the third-floor Center.
I’ve been watching the progress of this large-scale painting and am deeply touched by both the subject matter and Alonso’s message of positivity. For those of us who survived the AIDS crisis, it is especially poignant.
The mural covers the two curved walls of the staircases. Between the first and second floor is Alonso’s depiction of what Palm Springs means to him. There are mountains and a deep blue sky, as well as the bell tower of Desert Regional Medical Center rising above palm trees and buildings, complete with swimming pools. One can also spot the tram and multitudes of windows painted in the colors of the rainbow flag. Everything is rendered in a joyful and whimsical style.
As one ascends the stairs, the wall between the second and third floors reveals five life-size dancers floating in the same deep-blue sky, one for each of the letters L, B, G, T and Q.
“These dancers represent all of those who are only with us in spirit now,” Alonso said.
The wall rises up to an open ceiling where the blue of the paint exactly matches the sky above. The dancers are surrounded by doves of peace—and they look like they could float upward to dance across the real sky. It’s a reminder that although many loved ones might no longer be in our physical presence, our memories keep them alive, and they are still watching over us.
For more information, visit www.alonso-art.com.