We visited Alfred Mira to know how he reinvents his job. For him, time stopped while painting nice American gardens. He drives an old automobile from the Sixties, painted white and pink with the slogan “God Bless You” all over it, and he lives with memories of his Italian aunts and his Sicilian father.
A monk in the Sixties, Mira later married twice. Now he’s a superintendent of a student housing building, where he lives in a basement with exposed sewer pipes. He prints bookmarks and religious postcards with an old printing machine and he sends them in the mail to people who send him money. He’s a man with a lot of culture, but he has two daughters that can’t afford to go to college.
Even though it’s trendy to have a garden behind your house, Alfred admits he wouldn’t even be able to plant basil. Nevertheless, he has always been an old dreamer: “Since the start of century,” he says, “American people have changed a lot compared with how other populations changed. In 1945, my Italian family lived in New York and my aunt had a hen house behind her home, in the street. But now the law says that you can’t keep hens and chickens. There’s a lot of economic interest by corporations. All has to be enlarged, big, consumed in big portions. You know, when we were children we used to have fun shooting fake bullets at my aunt’s chickens and then when she cooked them we would find them in our dish. Now we can’t have a hen house in the garden also because neighors would complain about the noise and smells.”
“My father was Sicilian: he told me about his participation in World War I and when he went without water for one week. But he was lucky: after one month the Army laid him off and sent him home. After all these sacrifices, it’s normal to forget where we come from, especially when you live in prosperity and plenty. Perhaps this is a good thing and a misfortune at the same time for the American middle class: they want to have it all and now, to be comfortable on the couch and have everything nearby, in fact a long time ago I used to paint still-lives and food more often than I do now.”
Why do you paint pictures of these sometimes opulent Massachusetts houses?
“In the beginning, I did portraits, I painted faces… of all of the creatures in the universe, I love people the most, they are the most beautiful things, and so I painted their portraits for many years. But now people are always in a rush, they can’t manage to keep an appointment for a sitting, and they make me crazy. A very personal thing to them, however, is their house, and so instead of painting them, I paint what they like, their home. So that’s how I make a living… I like seeing faces when doing something important, even eating. This is hard for an American to see, since food isn’t that important to them.”
I think there are faces in your paintings that seem sad or worn out, but that hide happiness.
“Well, in the past my paintings were rather serious. Today there are always people that have a forced smile showing their teeth, they aren’t spontaneous, and I don’t paint those types of people. When a person is posing, we are communicating… and while I paint you, you are changing expressions and I capture the movements, the looks, and the varied expressions, maybe one eye has a certain expression and the other doesn’t, and then when I see the portrait it seems partially alive with many expressions, and in that moment a portrait is successful. I remember one person said that there were 15 different expressions in a painting I did of their son.”