Juan Martinez riding his pangolin bike sculpture
Pangolin, 2016. Aluminum, steel, and bike parts, 4 x 3 x 19 ft. Photo: Brandon Bryant

Life and Spirit: A Conversation with Juan Martinez

Detroit-based Juan Martinez, who describes himself as a “kinetic metal sculptor,” was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and grew up in New Orleans. He was educated through a traditional Mexican trade school and an informal apprenticeship model in which he offered to assist people whose work he enjoyed. An artist committed to community, he creates sculptures that live and work alongside us—most notably the brilliantly articulated bike animals in “The Spirit of the Animals is in the Wheels” series. For Martinez, a 2017 Kresge Arts in Detroit visual arts fellow, public art is about celebration, collaboration, and participation, as well as a way to draw attention to the natural world and engage in grassroots activism.

Steve Panton: Your interactive bike animals and accompanying videos were shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2017. What’s the story behind them?
Juan Martinez: It started with my connection to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. Grace and Jimmy were really important Detroit activists. The writer Dave Eggers was visiting, and one of the school founders mentioned that she and I had been talking about the idea of doing a pedal-powered school bus in the shape of a dragon. I had already made some pedal-powered animals with a group that I co-founded called the Austin Bike Zoo, so I had some experience with making these giant puppets. I met with Eggers’s team, Dave gave me a sketch on a napkin, and they commissioned me to make a series of animal bikes. I got into a great flow state where I knew exactly what to do—how the bison’s hooves would just barely tap the pavement as they came around, and how the pangolin, even though it’s about 20 feet long, could be ridden through tight spaces because of how its tail curls.

Juan Martinez bike sculptures outside
(Left to right): Bison, 2016, aluminum, steel, and bike parts, 6 x 4 x 10 ft.; and Rhino, 2017, aluminum, steel, and bike parts, 5 x 4 x 9 ft. Photo: Jamin Townsley

SP: It’s important to emphasize that the pedicabs are working animals. They are designed to be used.
JM: That was appealing to me. I like the idea of sculptures that are a part of people’s daily lives. One of the things that I liked about the work they were teaching in Mexico is that these exquisite copper vessels are beautiful art objects, but you can also use them to make a pot of rice. They’re gorgeous, and they’re really useful.

SP: You’re talking about Santa Clara del Cobre, where you went to trade school. What was that like?
JM: I started doing metalwork in high school with a Colombian artist named Luis Colmenares, who’s still active in New Orleans. He taught me the basics of welding and cutting with a blowtorch, but I was interested in going further with the medium. So, I decided to go to Mexico to find a blacksmith to apprentice with, and I stumbled on this school in a town dedicated to making hammered copper vessels out of solid copper ingots. When you get off the bus, you can hear the tink, tink, tink of hammering behind all the walls. Kids grow up in this tradition. At the school, I met 12-year-old kids who were very skilled.

SP: The bike animals, which are carnivalesque, have something of the fairground about them.
JM: When I was growing up in New Orleans, around my late teens, there was an informal group that formed around the Monday before Mardi Gras, which is Lundi Gras. I got into making giant animal puppets. One year, I made a life-size elephant, and another year, I made a long snake that floated above the crowd. That informal group jelled into the End of the World Circus, which traveled around the country several times.

Juan Martinez Pangolin in use
Pangolin, 2016. Aluminum, steel, and bike parts, 4 x 3 x 19 ft. Photo: bree gant

SP: Why do you think of the bike animals as puppets?
JM: They are ultimately like self-propelled Mardi Gras floats. In certain settings, I let the kids drive them around by themselves because the bikes are geared very low. I love the idea of kids moving the animals with their own power.

SP: So, if the pangolin is a puppet, what’s it saying?
JM: Well, it’s definitely calling attention to a creature that most people haven’t heard of, but which is one of the most trafficked creatures in the world. I love the idea of this giant representative of the pangolin community traveling through the streets of Detroit and letting people know about its existence. It’s a very whimsical, fun project—people can climb on board and take a ride—but at the same time, it also draws attention to how we treat the other creatures on this planet.

SP: Did the natural environment of inner-city Detroit impact the work?
I think about how Detroit is a place where nature’s taking back what was once there. In that way, it seems appropriate for these animals to emerge and make their stand here.

Juan Martinez Pangolin out for a ride
Pangolin, 2016. Aluminum, steel, and bike parts, 4 x 3 x 19 ft. Photo: bree gant

SP: You work with the Beehive Collective. Could you explain a bit about that group?
The Beehive Collective grew out of the anti-globalization movements around the WTO and IMF protests in 1999. We interviewed people in communities impacted by globalization, then took all the information and synthesized it into hand-drawn posters featuring ant and animal characters, kind of like giant, one-page graphic novels. We used the posters as a tool to spread the stories we picked up in our interviews, but in the form of fables. We toured pretty extensively, mostly in the U.S., but also in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia.

SP: And the Beehive Collective brought you to Detroit.
JM: The Beehive made it to the Allied Media Conference in Detroit pretty much every year. In 2010, I had the idea to do a street art project with a Detroit youth group. I sent it to the organizers of the conference, and they put me in touch with Detroit Summer, a youth group started by Grace Lee Boggs.

hand-drawn poster by Beehive Collective
MESOAMÉRICA RESISTE, 2013. Ink on paper, 5 x 10 ft. Photo: Courtesy the Beehive Collective, licensed under the Creative Commons

SP: What made you stay?
Honestly, it was the experience of working with that youth group. It became a fast track to learning about all the amazing projects that were happening here. After years of being excited about changing the world, it seemed like it was really happening in Detroit. And it made me fall in love with the community in the city.

SP: How about the city’s strange economics?
Detroit was one of the few places in the country where I could end up owning a property, so that was really appealing. There was a lot of solidarity economics happening in the city. It felt like Detroit was living a post-capitalist moment—the system had failed, so the people came up with their own systems in order to thrive.

SP: Your workshop is called Animist Studio.
I was really drawn to the word “animism.” As a sculptor, I like the idea of objects having their own intrinsic life energy. Even things that we make with our hands can be seen as being imbued with life and spirit. It’s important that my work is mostly kinetic. I like the idea of people activating my work with their bodies.

SP: Does Santa Clara del Cobre still have a resonance through that?
I decided to do a hammered aluminum skin on the animals, and that reflects the work I did in Santa Clara del Cobre. But it also reflects Detroit a bit because the animals are like very imaginative auto bodies; they’re formed metal skins that gleam in the light and reflect the things around them.

Hungry Hippos installation by Juan Martinez, showing two hippo heads and monopoly houses
Hungry Hippos, 2019. Concrete, aluminum, and mixed media, 3 x 12 x 12 ft. overall. Photo: bree gant

SP: What was the idea behind your interactive outdoor public art project Hungry Hippos (2019)? The set-up, which is located near a community center, resembles a bumper car ride, but it carries a message along with the fun.
JM: Hungry Hippos was commissioned by Henry Ford Health System. I proposed a hippo pond where people could get inside the hippos and move them around. While I was waiting for the project to go through approval, I thought about the game where you use little hippo heads to try to gobble up as many marbles as you can. This was around the time that a developer bought a huge swath of Eastern Market, and many important local institutions suddenly got priced out by somebody gobbling up all of that real estate. So, I thought that the hippos should be surrounded by green monopoly houses as a critique of the gold rush that was happening in Detroit in terms of people coming to buy cheap property. In the Beehive, we use a lot of animal- and game-based metaphors to critique economic systems, and this work felt like a merging of that idea and kinetic sculpture.

SP: And Symbiosis (2021)?
Symbiosis is located in a new cancer treatment center. At the time of the request for proposals, I was in the Sierra Madre mountains near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It’s an important path for migratory birds. That’s what informed the piece. It’s a hanging mobile with bird forms whose wings can flap, and they’re counterbalanced by the seeds they’re holding. I felt a special sense of responsibility because I imagined that a lot of the people viewing the piece might be going through some of the hardest periods of their lives. I felt like the most uplifting thing that I could do was to share the inspiration that I feel when I’m visiting Colombia and seeing the abundance of life there.

SP: So much of what you’ve done along the way feeds into your current work. It seems like you’re doing what you wanted to do when you left home to go to Mexico in your late teens.
JM: The work has a whole life story behind its creation. And it’s true that I’ve circled back to where I started, in a sense. I love that, because when we’re young, we’re following our most vital impulses, the things we want in our deepest selves.