“Here it is.” Artist Felix Semper dramatically pulls a plastic tarp off of a nearly four-foot-high sculpture and stands back.
A bust of an elderly gentleman wearing a Basque beret stares somberly to the left, his expression one of deep thought, like he owns all the wisdom in the world and is just waiting to be asked the right question.
Below the face, the man’s neck transforms into thick tree roots, forming the base of an ancient, twisted olive tree.
It would be interesting enough to glean the sculpture’s meaning as is, but then Semper throws a curve ball.
He walks behind the piece, grabs the top of the man’s head and pulls, revealing his signature kinetic style.
The face fluidly bends, stretches and twists, revealing that this sculpture is not made of copper or stone, but instead, thousands of stacked and glued sheets of paper, delicately carved, shaved and etched.
It expands like a slinky, and just as quickly as it began, Semper contracts the piece back to its original form.
Still, the question looms: Who is the man? The truth is, there’s no simple answer.
One could say the face is inspired by Semper’s Spanish grandfather, who lived with him in Miami when he was a child, regaling him with stories of the Basque country while wearing a Basque beret that Semper still owns.
These stories of his grandfather’s homeland stuck with Semper for decades, so when the opportunity arose for him to travel anywhere in the world as a part of the Marriott Storybooked documentary series that examines the connection between art and travel, he didn’t hesitate. He chose Spain.
A desire to reconnect with family and converse with the Basque people inspired his journey to San Sebastián, Yancí and Barcelona, Spain, where he embarked on a discovery of his past and in turn created a sculpture that may change the direction of his future.
Born in Cuba, Semper and his family lived there until he was 9 years old and then moved to Madrid for four years. His time in Madrid sparked his love affair with art.
While there, he started painting religious-themed watercolors in Catholic school, sketching and taking trips to the Reina Sofia art museum, Spain’s national museum showcasing 20th-century art.
Eventually the family settled in Miami when Semper was 14, and he found himself with a new roommate — his grandfather.
“His bed was right next to mine and he used to tell me stories all the time about the village where he was born, Yancí,” he says.
“It’s next to France, and I always wanted to go there, but for some reason I never did, even though I’ve gone back to Spain many times. Because of him I acquired my Spanish citizenship. Spain has always been very close to me.”
Although he continued to dabble in art classes into his late teenage years, Semper eventually followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the construction industry.
After following his sister to Greensboro in 1999, he launched a construction business in 2003, introducing home designs very unique to the small town.
As a human being, I went deep into my roots, and that was art.FELIX SEMPER
The connection to Spanish architecture and art perhaps had more of an influence on Semper than he realized.
Many of the homes featured hand-laid stone and brickwork reminiscent of rustic cottages in the Basque country or terra-cotta-roofed villas along the Mediterranean. His building business thrived until the 2008 recession when he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
“Filing for bankruptcy made me wonder how was I going to find myself not only as an artist and architect, but as a human being, I went deep into my roots, and that was art. I started drawing and teaching myself to paint, and suddenly the house was filled with hundreds of drawings and paintings. My wife thought I was going mad.”
AN ARTIST IS BORN
A journey to Spain connects the artist to his roots
The pivotal moment when a hobby transformed into a career shift came during, of all things, a snowstorm.
“I went outside and started making a sculpture out of the snow and sent some pictures to my wife, and she told me to sign up for sculpting classes as soon as possible. I had never sculpted before in my life.”
While the classes helped developmentally, Semper was unimpressed with working in the typical mediums of plaster and clay. He remembered a brief stint at a print shop in Miami as a teen, where he cut stacks of paper and noticed how it moved and created a design.
Thus, a new medium was born, and he began gluing stacks of paper together and carving them like wood, eventually developing a template to create movable paper sculptures that expand and contract. It took him a year to finish his first piece, Red Head with Cigar, a cream-colored bust where the top of the hairline expands to reveal a red underside.
Over the years Semper has created sculptures inspired by pop culture, including busts of Bob Marley, Notorious B.I.G., Andy Warhol and inanimate objects like a Coca-Cola can, Converse shoe and cheeseburger, but his commissioned piece for Marriott was his first in-depth expression of his Spanish heritage through sculpture.
He saw this trip as an opportunity to take his art to the next level and possibly in an entirely different direction.
“Traveling is like hitting a reset button. I return home seeing life in a new way that I hadn’t seen before because my eyes have been opened to a new culture and inspirations,” he says.
“Travel inspires me because it’s something I can experience with all my senses and translate it to art. In northern Spain specifically, I knew my experience would come not only visually but also through taste and through conversations with Basque people I interviewed on my trip.”
Perhaps that’s why Semper’s final sculpture is grounded by the roots of an ancient olive tree.
Traveling is like hitting a reset button. I return home seeing life in a new way that I hadn’t seen before.FELIX SEMPER
A symbol of not only centuries of Spanish culinary heritage, but also one that represents history, family, solidity and passion. Forming a connection between the olive tree and the Basque people was his ultimate intention with this new work of art.
“When I walked through the olive groves near Monserrat, I saw one particular tree with its branches spread out like hands, and I saw the soul of a person. I wanted to take that tree and bring it into my sculpture,” he says.
“To carve an ancient tree with the face of this wise, old Basque man was an attempt to combine the wisdom of those two worlds. Many of the people I spoke to, you can almost read the lines of their faces and see the history, culture and wisdom there. My goal was to translate what was in those faces into my piece of art, and I think I did it.”
It was a journey of self-discovery that initially brought Semper back to his roots as an artist, but it’s the transformative power of travel and connection to his rich family heritage that will inspire his work for a lifetime.