Hurricane Irma has left Hermés Castro feeling lucky. Before the storm, this stocky former butcher turned outsider artist had to scavenge far and wide for the shells, scraps of string and pieces of bark and branch he uses to build his multicolored, multifaceted boat sculptures. And now that the storm has come and gone and man-high piles of refuse litter Miami’s streets, Hermés is enjoying a bit of a bonanza.
“I’m inspired now because I wanted things from trees, but they were too high. Now I’ve been able to achieve many things because of this hurricane, because so many things fell here in the street, so it’s been an opportunity to improve my work,” he said.
Not that Castro enjoyed the tempest. He swears he’ll never try to stick out another storm in his North Miami mobile home. But building symmetry out of chaos comes naturally for this former Cuban rafter who now ekes out a meager living weaving art out of trash.
Hermés tried to cross the Florida straits in 1994 on an improvised raft he had built himself. He was at sea for four days before the U.S. Coast Guard found him and took him to Guantanamo. The U.S. government kept him there for two years while it decided his fate, eventually granting him permission to emigrate to Miami. Now he proudly hangs an American flag at the entrance to his tiny art studio.
Though he probably wouldn’t characterize them as such, Castro's many-colored woven boats might very well be considered outsider art, a term used to describe art made outside the artistic establishment. Castro's skills at weaving and cutting are self taught, rather than the product of an art school. He learned during his time as a butcher back in Cuba and here in the United States. And he doesn’t exactly have the ear of Miami’s artistic establishment, never having exhibited his work in a gallery or show. Though his sculptures take weeks to build, he often sells them for as little as $15.
“I make these sculptures with a lot of love and kindness, and that’s I love giving something to people.”
Sometimes Castro donates his bric-a-brac boats to political figures or organizations he admires. Marco Rubio got a boat, and Castro is now busy building one for 102.7 WMXJ, The Beach, the radio station he says helped him learn English. One day he hopes to see his sculptures in a museum. But for the moment, Hermés keeps weaving, collecting and creating, scratching out a living in the United States with the same skills that let him build the makeshift raft he used to escape an authoritarian regime.
“The only way I’d ever go back to Cuba is on a boat I’d built myself,” he jokes.