Swampspace's Oliver Sanchez on Collaborating with Art Stars: "I Was Creating Architecture to House the Paintings"

Categories: Art

Karli Evans
Oliver Sanchez: "Growing up, there was not a hammer in my house, but I loved building things."
In 2006, Oliver Sanchez transformed the implausible into reality. "I tarred and feathered a classic Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible," the unpretentious and soft-spoken 55-year-old Cuban-American recalls. "The hardest part of the job was finding the right type of feathers, but we finally settled on goose down after going through a bunch of samples ranging from plain chicken feathers to the more exotic and ornate."

Sanchez defiled the Rolls for a Wynwood exhibition by two Scandinavian artists, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, who aimed to erect a monument to art-world avarice. In the years since, he has become the go-to guy for making artists' visions a reality. He has created works for big-time locals such as Daniel Arsham, Bert Rodriguez, Naomi Fisher, Bhakti Baxter, and Typoe, as well as established international names.

No one would have predicted Sanchez would play such an important role in the art world. Three weeks after he was born in Camagüey, Cuba, dictator Fulgencio Batista's soldiers executed his father. When he was 9, he moved to Miami with his mother, Martha, and older brother Adolfo. "I grew up in a house about ten blocks from here," the artist recollects as he sits at a small table covered with playing cards and dominoes inside his new studio at North Miami Avenue and NW 39th Street. The place also houses Swampspace, the alt-haven Sanchez founded nearly a decade ago to showcase emerging and underrepresented artists.

Nearby hangs an ornately framed painting of a Spanish bullfighter and another showing Clark Gable staring out from behind a frame shaped like a stopwatch. In the background, Rubén Blades belts out merengue on the radio.

Sanchez attended Miami Edison Senior High and later earned an architecture degree from Miami Dade College. "Miami has changed drastically since my family first moved here," he says. "We were a cultural desert in those days, and I felt I had to leave town if I wanted to become a serious artist."

So in May 1977, Sanchez followed his brother Adolfo, who was also a budding artist, to Manhattan. They arrived as the city reeled from the Son of Sam murders and were just in time for New York City's famous blackout. The brothers found graphic design jobs with Condé Nast and also worked as freelance designers and illustrators for high-powered Madison Avenue advertising agencies and Wall Street brokers.

By the '80s, Sanchez was working as an art director for High Times during the day and creating pie-chart presentations in the afternoons for brokerage firms. "My day often began by visiting growers to pick up these gorgeous buds of pot," he recalls. "I would then deliver them to my photographers to shoot for the magazine's centerfold. Later, before I returned them, I would pinch a sample and go back to the studio to work on the presentations for Wall Street."

Sanchez and his brother also immersed themselves in the city's club life. It was the height of the legendary East Village art scene. "Keith Haring, Fab Five Freddy, Patti Astor, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna, Kenny Scharf, and so many others were close friends," he says. "But when the AIDS epidemic hit, I lost 28 friends in three short years, including my brother Adolfo."

Then Sanchez pulls out a pile of old photos. One shows him partying with Scharf and Haring during Carnival in Brazil. In another, Sanchez's wife, Min Thometz -- whom he met at a gallery in SoHo in 1979 -- breastfeeds their baby, Lucia, while nestled between actress Debi Mazar and Madonna.

In 1992, when Scharf decided to move his family and art practice to Miami Beach, the couple and their newborn daughter also relocated here.

Since then, Sanchez has watched ­Miami explode from a cultural backwater to a global art center that's earned a reputation amplified by the presence of Art Basel.

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