The air was still wet from a passing rainstorm. Artist Pablo Machioli and his friends worked Tuesday to repair the damage to “Madre Luz” in Wyman Park Dell. He wrapped the statue’s arm in masking tape and spray-painted it black. He doused her raised fist in gold glitter. Four men crowded around to lift it — the glitter showering down as they did so, leaving flecks on the marble and in their hair.
Machioli, 40, might seem like an unlikely person to make a statue to protest a Confederate monument in Baltimore. He’s not from the United States. Until recently, he wasn’t even an artist.
Fifteen years ago he was living in Montevideo, Uruguay, working as a martial arts instructor — he ran his own school. But his business suffered when an economic crisis hit the country, and he left.
He came to Baltimore in 2003, quite by accident, he said — but he liked it and stuck around. “I follow my kind of instinct,” he said.
Over time, he started his own construction company. Art became a part-time hobby: He’d paint and use supplies — leftover metal, concrete, plastic and wood — to make sculptures.
“I started doing it in order to distract myself,” he said. It was more “like a therapy,” an outlet for all he couldn’t express in English, and for his frustrations with the racism he encountered in the United States.
Friends told him his work was good. He eventually became a full-time artist, painting murals around the city. “I changed my life a couple times,” he said.
Today he lives in the Copycat Building, an artists’ space in an old warehouse in Greenmount West.
Over a cup of coffee at the Copycat, he tells how the “Madre Luz” statue came into being.
In 2015, an activist friend of Machioli’s named Owen Silverman Andrews approached him with the idea to create a statue to protest the Confederate monument of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Wyman Park Dell.
Silverman Andrews’ original idea was an image of Harriet Tubman throwing a brick — a reference, he said, to a moment when Tubman was hit by a brick during her life — but Machioli found it too violent.
“You cannot be violent to get peace,” he said.
He opted instead for a design of a pregnant woman holding a baby on her back. The mother is a symbol of life, he said. “I feel like people would understand that and respect that.”
For materials, he used old copies of The City Paper. He mixed together a papier mache paste.
When it was finished, Machioli and Silverman Andrews placed “Madre Luz” in front of the monument of Lee and Jackson in Wyman Park. Silverman Andrews said Baltimore authorities removed it after less than 24 hours, impounding it at a facility in Druid Hill Park. He said he was fined $225 for erecting a statue in a public place, but the fine was later reduced to $75.
After the impound lot, “Madre Luz,” moved to the Copycat and developed its own winding history. Machioli said it was vandalized, its base covered in racist graffiti like “white power."
“I can understand, people have a lot of pain and they transform the pain into hate,” Machioli said. Other artists later painted over it.
When the protests erupted last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., Silverman Andrews suggested they return the sculpture to Wyman Park. Machioli agreed. Last Sunday evening, they loaded it up on a truck and placed it before the statue of Lee. Machioli’s artistic goal, he said, is primarily to “create a conversation.”
On Monday night, Machioli got word that his statue had been knocked over, its arm broken. The following day he would go to repair it, yet again.
Nearby, a Choctaw man named Andrew Thompson — not part of Machioli’s group — burned sage around the statue while playing an Indian hymn on his cellphone, “for the sake of safety and the people protesting,” he said. Though he disagreed with the protesters. “My people fought for the South,” he said.
A police officer approached, but left the protesters’ statue alone this time. Machioli said he would come back to raise it again if necessary.
Early Wednesday morning, the statue of Lee and Jackson was removed by order of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh — along with every other Confederate monument in the city.
After the statue of Lee and Jackson was taken it down, activists raised Madre Luz in its place. Thursday afternoon, someone knocked it over, and it lay crushed — the baby crumbled and chunks of papier mache strewn about, revealing chicken wire underneath.
“I’m not shocked, but it’s very disheartening,” said Celeste Perilla, a Remington resident who had protested the Confederate statue in years past. She came by with her two children to show them the now-empty pedestal where Lee and Jackson once stood, and where “Madre Luz” now lay collapsed.
“I think it should be of note that her fist is still raised,” said John Marra, 33, who came to pay his respects.
Machioli and Silverman Andrews came by to survey the damage. Afterward, they sat on a park bench, watching people mill around as a light drizzle began.
By Friday, they repaired the statue and “Madre Luz” was standing upright again.