The Expat: Rick Powell

Rick Powell still takes visitors on art tours of San Telmo despite recently completing chemotherapy.

CV: Rick Powell
Born: Indiana, US
Age: 50, yesterday
Profession: Art tour guide for San Telmo Art Walk, writer
Education: Cinematography at Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Currently reading: Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Laurence Sterne
Last film seen: There Is No Sexual Rapport at Bafici
Gadget: My iPhone

Tell me about the first time you came to Argentina.
It was when I moved here, in September 2009. I’d been in Prague for five years and was tired of it. I’m not very good with bureaucracy, and I liked being able to go across the border, get my stamp and come back, like you can here.
Well, the Czech republic got into Schengen, which means first, there are no borders with Germany or Slovakia, so you can’t get a visa — you have to go outside of Schengen — and that was too much of a hassle.
Then they were clamping down, on North Americans particularly, all the reciprocal stuff. Prague’s a beautiful city but I’d been there five years, and that was long enough.

So why Buenos Aires?
I started talking to people about where I should go and everyone said there was a good gay scene here. I didn’t necessarily care that much about that, only in terms of comfort levels. In the Czech Republic most people are closeted and everyone is concerned about privacy.
And lots of people said “oh we had a great time in Argentina, oh it’s so cheap” — not any more! — so it was between Istanbul and Buenos Aires.
I don’t know what tipped me over. It wasn’t the cheapest destination in terms of getting here. But I think the arts scene intrigued me.
The first place I stayed at was Art Factory hostel in San Telmo and that’s how I got into the street art scene. I often think I lucked out, if you can call it luck, because healthcare is free. It’s in the Constitution that if you live here, whether you are a citizen, you have to be treated — and I don’t think that would have been the case in Turkey.

Tell me about the early days.
I couldn’t believe how big the city was. I decided to take the bus from the airport, just because I thought I would never have the chance to go through all the neighbourhoods it passes through. I knew it would take a long time, but it took so long I thought, “surely I have to be getting somewhere soon.” I knew it was one of the top-10 cities but had no idea it was that big.
So I got off, got lost, and had two backpacks and was wandering around. I finally ended up in San Telmo and felt very comfortable there. It was like neighbourhoods I’d lived in in Chicago, a real urban space, and not as beautiful as Prague but I liked it immediately.

What was the plan?
I didn’t have a plan and I rarely have one! I sort of wing it. I had a limited amount of money and I must have stayed at the hostel for two months. A friend visited from Prague, as he was also tired of how expensive the Czech Republic was, and I moved to Palermo which was totally different. I’d never lived in such a neighbourhood in my life: where I could just walk out to find boutiques and nice restaurants. It was nice but it’s not my comfort level, really.
I ended up going back to Art Factory as I started working for them, doing tours, writing their blog, and got free accommodation in return, which was enough at that time.
I’d have the cute little bungalow on the roof, a space which I loved, but when I had to sleep in a dorm with backpackers, it was too much for me as someone in their late 40s.

What other projects were you involved with?
I’d be thinking about doing a gay website, as there really wasn’t one, in collaboration with someone else. I wanted to do something fresh. So I met a guy, who said he would finance it and could also live with him.
It took a while to get started and I needed a young gay male to be out on the scene, writing in English but who could be edited, but we could not find that person. I had no interest in doing the bar scene at all. So I shelved that.
As I was already interested in the art scene and doing the tours, I decided to set up “Juanele” and start blogging. Everyone who had already worked for us was more interested in the arts blog that the gay one. We had a fairly deep site that never launched, and it has been difficult to get Argentines to understand what blogging is, that it’s every day, that it’s okay to write in the first person. And that was how Juanele, a Spanish and English art blog, was born.

What’s your background in arts?
I went to film school in the States, but had been alienated from the scene there as it’s all about selling, and the marginal stuff is very cliquish and not accessible. And in Prague I didn’t pay any attention to it all — my life was about something different entirely!
But when I came here, and started talking to gallery owners and doing tours, they were very accessible and happy about the idea of people coming to their galleries, just to show what they have. I found them to be very open and we never had a problem getting people to work with us. It was pleasantly surprising.

What captured you about BA’s scene?
Besides being very accessible, they are definitely doing their own thing. If you follow some of the blogs and newsletter in the US and UK, I have more affinity for the UK, but I don’t get it, like I don’t get Damien Hirst. There are a lot of idiosyncratic artists here, working their own visions, and I find that admirable and refreshing and I connected to a lot of them in a way I never had in the States.

Have you been to ArteBA?
Sure, we covered it, we had to. It was fun to go the first night, drink all the Champagne and see (Mayor Mauricio) Macri break a sculpture! Apparently he never paid for it… but it’s exclusively for collectors but I got to see stuff I wouldn’t normally see. I really liked Barrio Joven and a lot of the galleries we had relationships were in that section.

What has happened with Juanele?
I’d like to continue with it, but it’s in a legal limbo at the moment.

So what are you up to?
I’m still doing the art tours but most of my time seems to be between law suits and going to hospital for doctors’ appointments. I just came off an eight-week chemotherapy and radiation cycle and got the MRI. For a while, my ex-landlord wouldn’t give me back my medical records after changing the locks, but I have them now.
If you have metastasized colorectal cancer you have to have every MRI available as they have to cut out every place where the cancer was on the liver even if it shrank. So you need to have MRIs from the beginning for the doctors.
I have an appointment coming up with surgeons to see when I go under the knife.

Has the chemo worked?
It’s been working well as the lesions on my liver have gone and the tumour has shrunk but they still have to take it out or it will come back.

How did you find out you had cancer?
I had a catastrophic December 2009 and wasn’t able to defecate as the tumour had blocked my colon. And I nearly died. But I had emergency surgery at Rivadavia Hospital, then more, two weeks later, from which I went into septic shock.
All I’ve been doing is dealing with the cancer. I’d go into surgery tomorrow if they told me to. I’m so ready for the next step as my life has been in limbo — “am I going to live?”

Do you have health insurance?
I don’t, which was stupid of me. I went to one private hospital, and of course you have to pay — I have a receipt for every single thing they did to me. And you have to pay right then or they won’t go any farther. It got to the point where they said “right, now we need to operate on you, it will cost US$2,500” which is cheap — if I had US$2,500, which I did not. So they said, “well if you can’t pay it, we’ll call an ambulance to take you to Rivadavia.”

For the Expat Extra and more about Rick undergoing chemo in a public hospital, click here.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on May 6, 2012.
Photo by Diego Kovacic

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