By Barbara Galazzo, Rockland Center for the Arts
Photos: Courtesy of Rockland Center for the Arts
Sergio Castillo probably did not set out to be an artist, but he has developed into one. Art became a main vehicle through which he found purpose, meaning and a means of communication with the outside world.
As a healing tool, art has limitless possibilities. It has the ability to soothe and bring focus, to create emotional cohesiveness, psychic growth and change. When Sergio found art, it helped him find a way to heal; it gives him self-esteem, purpose and tools of communication.
Sergio was born in 1955 to Puerto Rican parents and grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A deaf child in a hearing household, he communicated using home signs and American Sign Language (ASL). His mother had mental health issues so communication was difficult, which was traumatic for him. Over the years, he lost deaf friends and mostly stopped using his ASL. His mother died when Sergio was 57, which affected him deeply, leading to a breakdown and hospitalization.
When he first arrived at the Rockland Living Museum (RLM) in 2013, he was reserved and shy and used minimal sign language. The RLM is a gathering place for a very diverse group of people with a wide range of skills and abilities, and everyone is on the psychiatric spectrum. All have experienced some level of trauma and loss. These individuals come together in the studio at an art table with personal stories. Through art they begin to recognize each other as artists and not as patients. They begin to feel like part of a family, and healing begins.
Sergio’s early paintings were of buildings, churches, skyscrapers, airport terminals, mosques, spaceships and futuristic buildings, revealing his skills in 3-D perspective. At that time, there were no people in the paintings. As he became acclimated to the Living Museum community, people started to show up in his paintings. Then there were people on the streets waiting for taxis and people driving trucks. Kings and queens drank coffee in their palaces. Astronauts drank coffee in spaceships. As people crowded onto the canvases, Sergio began to socialize more and went on group trips. He bloomed into a new person who was engaged in life, taking initiative and becoming empowered.
In a vivid palette of color and an often collage-like appearance, Sergio paints a world bursting forth into life. He has created a living pictorial of his life, an illustrative and playful chronicle made into a patchwork type of folk story, mixed with fantastical depictions of historical and even futuristic figures. A trip to the local farm becomes a painting about enjoying the outdoors and having coffee with a pilot from a hovering spaceship.
As an outpatient deaf man living in a residence, Sergio has managed to develop an entire narrative about himself and the experiences of his community that appear throughout his paintings. After five years at RLM, he is now socially active and participates in trips to museums, outings and sports.
He has come out of his shell, smiles, greets people, asks for help and shares his daily experiences with others. He has received glowing acceptance as an artist, which has given him a mirror of his value and reinforced that his story is important. With limited language, creating art has become a primary channel of communication. His paintings are a testament to the deeply imaginative and vibrant person he is. Everything that Sergio’s paintings reveal about himself would likely have remained hidden were it not for art.
Sergio has been invited to the Rockland Center for the Arts to exhibit his work this September in Chronicles of a Life, as an artist who has found healing in his own life through art and can bring inspiration to others. There will be an Artist’s Opening Reception on Saturday, September 7, from 2:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m. Chronicles of a Life will be on view through September 29. For more information, visit rocklandartcenter.org. █