After Eugene Calderon’s death, his granddaughter artist Melissa Calderon learned that her abuelo, who had been an inductee into the Stickball Hall of Fame, was also one of two Puerto Rican Tuskegee Airmen. Now, the younger Calderon has the opportunity to honor her grandfather and another great Boricua – Roberto Clemente.
Set for unveiling in December, 2016 in the Bronx Hub at 149th street and Third Avenue, Melissa’s public art installation cast in bronze will resemble an oversized chair made of stickball, and baseball bats and balls over shadowed by a canopy of 21 sugar cane stalks. The public will be invited to sit in the Clemente chair, which will be in the new Roberto Clemente Plaza.
If he had lived, Clemente today would have been in his 80s and probably a grandfather. According to the artist, the installation honors Number 21 and Calderon’s grandfather at the same time. She calls the chair and an “abuelo chair.”
“I decided to do a piece that talked about history and memory,” said Calderon one afternoon in the café at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on the Grand Concourse. “As it not only relates to Roberto but the Puerto Rican consciousness of being in the Bronx, being in New York City and the neighborhood that surrounds 149th street. I decided to go for a piece that was going to be very surreal and meaningful.”
Never having applied for the commission, Calderon was a finalist then selected by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs in June, 2016. For her, the Roberto Clemente commission fell from the sky. The name of the piece is called “Para Roberto.”
“This is his place of wisdom and I’m giving him his place of wisdom here in the Bronx,” said Calderon. “…He (Clemente) was a huge part of Puerto Rico and about humanitarian efforts…that has reverberated throughout the community.”
The representation of sugar cane, which Calderon stresses will not be palm trees or bamboo, connects directly to Puerto Rico’s colonization and past economy. She wants to show that Clemente once having cut sugar cane that lead to his dreams of baseball and his success, and would serve as a lesson for others who dream big, she said.
Having once worked at the Bronx Council on the Arts, Calderon’s former boss Bill Aguado (now the director of En Foco), said, “She has come into her own as an artist and a cultural voice…Fabulous concept and so much about the Puerto Rican culture.”
Photographer and friend Marisol Diaz said that Calderon’s work is deeply personal and emotionally touching “…ideas and thoughts that consume the spirit.”
In the past, Calderon has exhibited work at El Mueso del Barrio, The Bronx Museum of the Arts and The Queens Museum.
Calderon grew up in the 1970s Throgsneck section of The Bronx with her grandparents while Eugene Calderon worked in Bronx Borough President Hermann Badillo’s administration.
This is her first public art commission where she wants the public to connect with her work, which combines history and memory; being self-taught, Calderon hopes to create a socially conscious work.
The Clemente tribute also honors Puerto Rico, said Calderon, calling the island a living and breathing place in both reality and in the social and cultural imagination. .
Bronx artist Lucy Aponte, whose current show “Whimsies & Wonders” is on view at the Bronx Library Center, called the upcoming Clemente tribute a long overdue acknowledgement to “a true humanitarian, a man of color and a symbol of good that exists in this world,” she said via email.
Clemente played professional baseball with the Pittsburg Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1970s, he died bringing aid to earthquake ravaged Nicaragua.
“I think it’s a tribute to that man or the men who have come,” said Calderon, “and were inspired by baseball…I’m paying tribute to all those old timers….Roberto was such an inspiration…I wanted it to be an encompassing sculpture of history.”