Manuel Sierra, the painter of landscapes and Historical Memory whose work was erased in Medina del Campo

A word. A conversation that triggers a memory that is captured in a sketch that helps keep “schizophrenia at bay.” Drips of paint on the floor show that the creative process “neither begins nor ends”. The workshop of the painter Manuel Sierra is a faithful reflection of his personality: full of brushes, acrylics and careful paintings but leaning against a table. Books everywhere, figurines full of stories and projects that expectantly await his fate. A workshop —and a figure, that of Manuel Sierra— in which it is impossible not to stop for a long time —or more— to contemplate.

“Creation is not taking something out of nothing, but combining elements that have been around since the beginning of time and ordering them in a certain way. That gives rise to style, ”he explains from his workshop with a boiling carcadé in the kitchen. The hibiscus gives off a sweet and bitter smell at the same time, as life itself is sometimes.

“The color is very pretty, huh?” I like the carcadé for the color it has. He takes me to drink… What is this called, which is a small pink bottle? A Bitter Kas!

The painter’s creative process —unmistakable for its figurative style, its colors and its birds— resembles human relationships. “I like to earn it, that he admits me.” “The creative tension caters to everything, it’s like you have a radar that’s going around all the time,” Sierra explains. The style of his inherited from his pop makes him want to move towards a more “juicy”, “fluffy” and “touchable” painting. Over the years, he has traded shoeboxes for black painted canvas or chipboard, which requires a lot of ‘coating’ and texture.

Sierra’s mind resembles her home; agile but chaotic: as soon as he talks about freedom as about his allergy to white spirit, his childhood or social tension, how he lived through the forced closure of the University in 1975, what legacy his parents left him or his painting, of course . She prefers to stand first, then she sits. —”Be careful with that chair, it moves”—. She quickly goes back to anecdotes from decades ago and remembers names and surnames even of her university professors, when he lived in a commune and had a very long beard and very long hair, with a braid.

“Lost analog”, is still learning to use the mobile, which he believes causes “stupidity” because it does not help to have time “to think”, but rather for “nonsense”. “Thinking is a property that we humans have but you have to practice it. And that is lazy, like going to the gym, ”he points out. The quick strokes —for those who hold their breath— and that direct and figurative language quickly identify him, although he admits that the style can become a prison. “It’s a golden cage, but a cage,” he confesses.

The reality of my time is that landscape of Tierra de Campos but also what happened in Medina, in the Balkans, what is happening on the Russian-Ukrainian front

“There are murals that are to celebrate life and being alive, and how united we can be and the desire for a better world. These are comfortable, exhilarating murals. But there are murals to denounce things, as in the case of Medina del Campo. He had to talk about the concrete repression of the Republican dead hidden in a rotting well and a cellar that he walled up because dogs and rats ate it up. That is not comfortable, but the way is not to threaten … ”, she reflects. Manuel Sierra’s mural lasted four days until the owner —who said he felt “cheated”— erased the painting that was intended to commemorate the 63 people who were shot and thrown into a well on the Los Alfredos farm, whose remains were recovered by the ARMH from Valladolid.

It is not the first time that his most political paintings have been attacked —although they have also cut some still life and circus painting. Last year in Castronuño (a small town in Valladolid) they crossed out the text relating to the republic and freedom. He has lost count of how many murals have been damaged over the years—while others remain undamaged. “But the case of Medina was even sadder, because the person who gave up the wall said that he did not dare to continue, that he had received such threats that he was going to send a painter. And that seems to me a qualitative leap of impressive gravity. The fascist international is here, installed throughout the world, ”he protests.

The painter believes that the attempt “for art not to tell reality” and for the political discourse in art to be “underestimated” is evident. “The reality of my time is that landscape of Tierra de Campos but also what happened in Medina, in the Balkans, what will be happening on the Russian-Ukrainian front. You have to tell that”, reflects the painter, who is not very in favor of political art entering the market. “The task of political painting is not a moment of complacency, it is the forum for debate that can be opened and then for that it has to move”, he defends.

If there is something that characterizes Manuel Sierra’s painting, it is his birds, whose romance was born in his childhood. “We were always in the mountains and our parents taught us everything related to ornithology,” he recalls. The muralist later discovered the birds in pastoral painting —in the cayadas and zurrones— and in Mexican painting.

There is no culture in which the bird is not a reference to freedom

The first time the artist used the figure of a bird in one of his works was in 1977, when he was asked for a poster announcing the legalization of the CNT. “The mural had four windows. The first was open and behind it was a wall. The second was open and bars could be seen. The third was also open and in the background you could see some very dense flags. And the last one, the only one in color, represented a window with a landscape and a bird. The motto was: ‘CNT is for the freedom of all prisoners’”, recalls the painter. “There is no culture in which the bird does not represent a reference to freedom,” says Sierra. The muralist usually includes the birds with the colors of the republican flag. “They are small tributes to all the people that what happened to them happened to them,” he points out.

Ten years ago Sierra also generated a lot of controversy. In 2012 she painted a mural in memory of the teachers who were retaliated against during the civil war and the Franco regime, which was vandalized on numerous occasions with praise to Christ the King and insults. “It was made of shit, with ‘reds, sons of bitches’ and everything is ghosted… When we consider that it had already fulfilled its function and we decided to tell the story of the teachers and it has been attacked less,” she recalls.

The beauty of the murals lies precisely in the fact that they bring art closer to the citizen. And when they are vandalized, they are also a reflection of this society.

—It is a response to a systemic social approach that causes a lot of frustration. Being an adult is accommodating frustrations, making them yours, avoiding them and weathering them. But young people translate frustration into anger and that leads to whatever. If on top of that they have their ears set to listen to bullshit and that stimulate hatred… they have it white and in a bottle. Maybe there is a political cut in the murals, but it is not very different from the attack on Sunday night on bins, banks, kiosks…

When vandalism is motivated by protests, like the climate activists who broke into the Louvre or El Prado, it has another aspect. “Its coherent. You alert the world. It annoys me that they do it as co-owner —like the rest of the world— of the pieces, although they attack them carefully. Is the frame important, no matter how old it was? ”, he wonders. While he caresses the palm of his hand, he assures that the ones who end up “screwed” are the ones who stick their hands to the painting.

At times he looks away as he remembers his parents. “My father was a judge and despite being a judge, he was a very good person. My mother had a degree in Philosophy and a professor of Philosophy and History”. Sierra was one of the young people who experienced the closure of the University of Valladolid in 1975 due to student riots. “Most of the professors risked it and followed the course in bars, parish premises, neighborhood association headquarters… accumulating knowledge to take exams at the time,” he recalls.

—What legacy would you say your parents left you?

“How would I say?” Generosity. I think they taught me to be generous and to be grateful at the same time. And… try to be brave.

He cannot help being moved when he remembers how in 1978 his parents and his brother went to see him at the police station after an interrogation with “a trip of blows”. “I would go out with my face like a moon and my mother would bring me a sandwich and a blanket. And I told him: ‘no no, don’t come near’. And she began to cry and I told her: “Don’t cry in front of these people, never cry.” And when she was leaving she said to me: ”I am so proud to have such a brave son”.

A red and blue swallower clown watches over anyone who enters the workshop from the top of a bookcase. Stacks of books of different sizes accumulate on various tables and on the floor, several glass bottles enclose wooden ships like Captain Hadoque’s Unicorn. They seek freedom. Break the glass and be able to navigate the ocean. Just like the birds on the murals, even if they are erased and damaged, they will always fly in search of freedom.

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