The Altos Years

With Celia Cruz and her husband, Altos de Chavon

With Celia Cruz and her husband, Altos de Chavon

Altos de Chavón was an artist village located on the edge of the Chavón River in La Romana, Dominican Republic. I say “was” because it is not longer an artist village. When the Fanjul Corp bought it from Gulf & Western, they discontinued all art in the village that wasn’t associated with the Art & Design school and the education trust. Apparently, art is not one of their things. So sad. The village is now a silly tourist villa. Although there is still some art because of the Art school, it is nothing like the cultural and social center that it was in the early 80s! Those were the days…concerts, gallery openings, fairs, a discotheque, celebrities, and the beautiful people.

A little history: The village was a present from Charlie Bloudhorn, CEO of the, now defunct, Golf & Western Corporation, (Paramount, Miss Universe, Catalina, Sega, Simon & Schuster, and much more) to his artsy-fartsy wife. It served two purposes: please his wife by bringing culture and artists to the area, and a hook to sell real estate in the area being developed by Costasur, the real estate company responsible for the sale of Casa de Campo Real Estate. He was successful in both. The wife was thrilled by the artists that followed and the real estate sold like hot cakes, bought primarily, by the artsy-fartsy. (Artsy-Fartsy: These are the people that follow artists everywhere they go. They buy paintings and boast that they know artists. But, their friends are gallery owners not the artists themselves. Think of Soho. Artists moved there because there was cheep space to rent. They turned it into an artist mecca. It wasn’t long before the jet set was buying lofts in Soho. Soon artists the artists had to leave because the rent was really high and they couldn’t work in peace. This is the usual lifespan of an artist neighborhood. )

Roberto Copa built movie sets for Dino De Laurentis and was brought to Casa de Campo to design and build the village based on Italian medieval cities. However, although the spaces were beautiful, they were built more as movie sets and less as living or work spaces. There weren’t any of the comforts you would find in a space that was meant for people. There were living and commercial spaces, 5 art galleries, many boutiques, restaurants, a disco, and a 5,000 seat amphitheater with state-of-the-art sound all built out of or surrounded by rocks.

I arrived in the Dominican Republic in October of 1981, after separating and later divorcing my husband Tom. A couple of months later, my sister, who had been studying in London, came home for the holidays. She decided to not go back. Our friend Vivian called us to let us know that she was working in Altos de Chavón and they had job openings. So we went to visit her and check out the place.

My sister and I arrived at the village and were blown away with the beauty of the location, the architecture and the cultural center that it was. Not to mention a group of very good looking single men, some Italian. We were hooked! We were also hired. I was assistant to the Gallery Director and Jackie as an events promoter.

We were totally exploited by Gulf & Western because we were Dominicans. The US employees were paid in US dollars and at US rates. We got paid in pesos and as slave labor (normal US corporation exploits). However, the fringe benefits made up for the money. Most of my jobs have been like that. The experience, fun and fringe benefits made up for what I didn’t make in cash. We lived in one of the most expensive, high-end resorts in the Caribbean and paid very little rent, had free access to the tennis courts, golf courses, and a private beach. I was totally disconnected – I didn’t have a car, a TV, a radio or a telephone and loved it! Since most of the restaurant chefs were our friends and/or lovers, we ate for free at 5 star restaurants, then danced in a disco with the best sound system in the island. Great food, great lovers, great life. What Fun!

One of the best perks was our proximity to famous musicians, artist, writers and celebrities who would hang with us “locals” and share with us the excitement of being in a great hideout where they could be themselves, surrounded by people who didn’t want anything from them, except to have fun. There were many artists, writers, musicians and celebrities living and working in Chavón. At any given time, you could run into the rich and famous. Jerzy Kosinski was living there, writing a book, when we first arrived. Oscar de la Renta, one of the first to buy a home in Casa de Campo, also had a small a boutique in Chavón, and hung out there with his posse of beautiful young men, when he was in town. You never knew who you might run into: Diana Ross, Isabella Rossellini, Merv Griffin, or Geoffrey Holder (The Un-cola man, Annie.) There were the Berliners – a group of neo-expressionist artists that had come as Artists-in-Residence before the village was ready for them. Most were very good artists, but very angry and ready to start sabotaging the village because they were promised a studio, canvas and art supplies, and had not received any of it. In contrast, there was an older Italian painter, named Vivaldi, who was full of himself and ready to buy a gun to kill the Berliners since they drove him crazy. They went out of their way to entice the Italian. It was an all out war between them. A few Dominican artists were also staying and exhibiting there, such as Aurelio Grisanty, a great artist and one of my greatest inspirations. Then there were the Italians… these beautiful men had been brought there by Dino De Laurentis to work in the village’s high-end Italian restaurants. They were a great part of the Bohemian flavor of the village. Great chefs and restaurateurs and beautiful men to add to the ambiance. They all went on to own great restaurants.

Frank Sinatra performs in the Chavon Amphitheater

Frank Sinatra performs in the Chavon Amphitheater

In 1983 the amphitheater was inaugurated with concerts by Frank Sinatra, Santana and Heart. This was a 5,000 seat theater inspired by Greek amphitheaters of antiquity. Other great concerts, included Joan Jet & the Blackhearts, Bob James, Spyro Jira, Paco de Lucia, Chick Korea, The English Beat, French Toast, and many more. On any given day there were gallery openings, or a local band playing, or a crafts fair, or a concert in the amphitheater, or the disco would be pumping. On the weekends, if there were no events, the whole group of Chavonites came to our house for pancakes, then went to the beach. If there was a concert, everyone came from all around the island and we would have 10 people sleeping on the floors.

I got a job as assistant to the gallery director (who wasn’t and artist or cared much for it). I was also the director of the Artist-In-Residence program, a job that fell in my lap because, in an artist village, no one wanted to deal with the “flaky” artists. Go figure! An artist village full of flaky artists! Amazing. I became the liaison between the administration and the artists. It was a job made in heaven. I had a ton of fun and gained the trust of the artists. I resolved most of their issues and created cultural exchanges between Dominican and foreign artists. The blending of ideas, art and culture between artists from all over the world and Dominican artists was one of the major achievements of the village. I may not be remembered for this and I didn’t get any of the credit, but a lot of my ideas were used and I had the best experience of my life. I took the artists on excursions around the country and they loved it. Up to the mountains, the north coast, and around the south east. We called it color scouting. I introduced foreign artists to Dominican artists, and all sorts of cultural exchanges ensued. I know a lot of artists benefited from their experience in Altos, and I am proud to have helped.

When there were concerts or events, our job stopped and we had a different job while the events lasted. When the acts came to town I helped with the VIPs. I took Geoffrey Holder on a shopping spree to Santo Domingo, Hung out with Santana & his wife and the band, gave Diana Ross a tour of the village, and much more.

Because of the need to advertise all the events at the village, I became the first Graphic Designer in Altos de Chavón. We didn’t have much money, but I had my father’s drafting table and all the passion in the world. It all started with Aurelio Grisanty creating silkscreened posters for his exhibit. I found out there was a silkscreen studio in the village. No one else was using it, except for the artists that wanted to play with it. So, I started pulling limited edition silkscreened invitations and posters for all the gallery exhibits, concerts, fairs, and parties in the village. This was pre-computer so they were all hand made. Half of the posters would be used to advertise the event, the other would be sold in the local gift shop and would pay for the production, materials, and more. The posters became a novelty on their own. People started collecting them by purchasing them at the village, or stealing them from the light poles around the cities where the events were being advertised. The fact is that the posters helped to sell all the events and the invitations got people to the gallery openings. I am always surprised and delighted to still see whole collections of the posters framed and displayed on the walls of restaurants, hotels, shops around the island. There were even articles in a few US magazines about the fabulous posters coming out of Altos de Chavón back in the 80s.

Jackie and I in Macao with the Chavon group

Jackie and I in Macao with the Chavon group

Even now I have fond memories of the time I spent in Altos. It was the early 1980s. I was 30 and alone for the first time in my life. I had never had a “real” job – other than I was an artist – never been on my own, never made any decisions for myself. I was a woman raised in a Latin family. This meant the you lived at your parent’s home and obeyed them until the day they got married, even if this meant 40 years old. So, I went from my parent’s house, to my husband’s house, to being on my own, at 30, with a two year old daughter. Very scary. But, I was lucky enough to land in the most magical of place to work out my demons and get over my divorce.

My sister Jackie, who was 19 years old and 11 years younger than me, had me beat in experience in all matters of survival. Jackie was worldly, sure of herself and a genius at what she did. At that young age she sold out all the village events. I was much older and had no life experience of any kind. I had been sheltered all my life until I ran away from home at age 23. I know, who stays that long? Watch “My Big Fat Greek Wedding so you can understand how I grew up. Her father was a socialist-liberal compared to mine.”

Altos provided me with a “safe” playground to work out my lack of survival skills, learn working ethics, and get my divorce out of my system. There were plenty of mistakes to be made – and I made a lot – but I was not in a big city with lots of vultures. I was in a very small community where everyone knew and looked out for each other. I was in a safe place, surrounded by beautiful people and living a magical life. I had never dated and I certainly didn’t know how to play that game. I sure learned. There were many lovers: roadies, artists, and non-artists. Many memorable moments and some not so memorable. But every one meant something to me and at the end of the day, they all helped me become the person I am today. The ones that were nice to me, I am forever thankful and will always hold a special place in my heart. The ones that weren’t, I am even more thankful to, because, from you I learned the harder lessons. All lessons helped mold the person I am today.

By the time I got to the USA I had resolved to get back to the important thing at hand: raising my daughter. She was in the hospital with what they thought was a type of muscular dystrophy and there was nothing else in the world more important to me than to see her healthy again. A few years later we figured out that she had been misdiagnosed and never had MS, but it was the cosmic 2×4 that I needed to get me on the right path. After that I had a series of amazing jobs in amazing cities.

Altos was a very special part of my life that I will always hold dear. We lived the life!