A month in Brazil had passed, and we had acquired enough rudimentary Portuguese to express ourselves and hold simple conversations. We started looking to establish a rapport with some locals. This usually (but not always) means locating the artists. A shared enthusiasm for creativity and skills is another way of ‘speaking’. This affinity can fill the gaps—or, sometimes, outright replace—imperfect language skills. So when we spotted the Arte Nomade bus, parked under a tree across the Jacaré riverside park, we headed straight for it. Up close, we saw that the visual impact of the bus was created by a surprising combination of unexpected elements, each layer cranking our amazement up another notch as we came to understand what we were seeing, and how it had been used.
First, there was an encrustation of assorted stainless steel bits and pieces, all skillfully welded together to form elaborate sculptural ‘growths’. These were riding spurs, cooking pots, colanders, forks and spoons, canisters, pipes, twisted cables, rings, screws, buttons, bolts, perforated sheets…a lifetime of saving or scavenging stainless steel from workshops and garage sales, it seemed, had been welded into this gleaming reef of metal.
Tucked into the stainless steel’s nooks and crannies, and creating a remarkable contrast with its metallic sheen, were animal parts (horns, skulls, bones), an occasional cameo of Krishna or some moon goddess, or a baby doll’s head looking soft and pinkly incongruous among the silver pieces;
there were dried plant parts (branches, roots, pinecones, seed pods), large glass globes (marbles, old fishing buoys), hunks and clusters of quartz crystals
(the main crystal, mounted on the front of the bus, was the size of a loaf of bread!), and, perhaps most astounding of all, living plants…succulents, cacti, tiny leguminous sprouts.To a Western eye, perhaps this assemblage would come across as gruesome, or creepy, but from the point of view of Eastern philosophy, this was no more than the way things are: Life, Death, Rebirth. The Soul and the Body and the different elements…that 8-tonne-bus crawled with symbols, like a hippie van that had made it all the way to Nirvana, and then had come back.
We introduced ourselves to its owners. Pardal, and his partner Rosa, were uncompromising artists who had quit their day jobs, decades earlier, and were committed to living solely for the creation of their art. Not only did they support themselves by this work, but they refused to compromise their artistic visions and pander to the tastes and understanding of the general public to make themselves more popular. That would be hard to do in developed countries like the U.S. or Australia…imagine how difficult it would be to do this in a not-quite-stable economy like Brazil’s!
Pardal designed and built one-of-a-kind sculptures, incorporating stainless steel, plants, crystals and waterworks, much as he had on his bus (only the small fountain [!] on the back of the bus wasn’t operational at the time of these photographs!). Rosa handled his public relations, running around and discussing the sculptures with their clients. She also made beautiful one-off pieces of jewellery, artfully distorting spoons and forks (you could hardly recognise them) into settings for semi-precious stones, crystals, shards of rock with tiny fossilised fish or prehistoric plants, a curl of horn, a nosegay of feathers.
We became frequent visitors to the Arte Nomade bus…any time Pardal’s motorbike—also smothered in his signature style—was parked by the door, we knew he was home. He always had time for us, making a pot of jasmine tea to share and then sitting in the doorway of his crazy bus, talking about the effects of art upon life, the meaning of being human, how to live in a genuine and meaningful way, and about his sculpture ideas for an upcoming festival in Europe.
A gentle, ageing Buddhist who’d spent many years in India—vegetarian, non-drinker, non-smoker (also, contrary to the stereotype, he didn’t use ganja)—I remember him telling me, one night, as I slapped at mosquitos on my legs: “You know, every time you kill one of these, you are destroying a really amazing, tiny, tiny mechanical engine…unique in the world and impossible for our finest engineers to replicate!” He never scolded or preached, though, and this was said with a mischievous smile. He had the sort of eyes one would describe as ‘twinkling”.
Most of the time he never spoke ill of anything or anyone. His attitude to the foibles of the world was “It exists, and so there is a reason it exists…we don’t have to know the reason.” He had an incredible faith in the human being, which he didn’t talk about so much as put into practice. He never locked his bus when he and Rosa went away—despite it being all that they had, and full of expensive welding and metalworking tools; his motorcycle didn’t require a key to start. He, too, believed in the “problem with a gift in its hands”, saying that if anything was stolen, it was to lighten their burden of possessions or to prepare them for something better; he also believed in karma.
Once I found him in a slightly world-weary mood, frustrated by the stupidity of strangers who would knock on his door and then seem to want to argue with him, or attack his beliefs and lifestyle, just for the heck of it. As though it weren’t enough for them to live their conventional, phoney, dissatisfied lives; they must also browbeat others into conforming to the same (and then they’d want to take selfies with his bus.) Twice I heard him (mis)quote Mark Twain: “The more I know of man, the more I like animals,” and a tired look would flitter over his face. He’d had enough of the crowds, and he longed to take his mobile home, motorbike, and Rosa off into the empty hinterland, where they could live like hermits, tend a vegetable garden, and be surrounded by only nature. “But,” he shrugged, “it is not always so easy, nowadays.”
Even less settled than we are, Pardal had neither postal nor e-mail address. When we left Jacaré, we lost our only means of communicating with him…namely, to walk along the beach to where his Arte Nomade bus sat, in the shade of a tree, overlooking the rio Paraiba, and call his name through the open door of the mobile home. I wonder whether we’ll ever see or hear of him again.