By Klara Gomez
On his childhood, school years, and his first love
I was born in Marianao, in Havana, and grew up in Lawton. In third grade I was already drawing with color pencils and crayons. My teacher took notice of my drawing and asked me to do a mural on the board using chalk pastels. As a reward, she invited me over to her house to have dinner. It was a big deal at the time. I’ll never forget. By the time I was fifteen I had a sketchbook where I copied portraits of women’s faces that appeared in the beauty product ads of magazines. My mother took my sketchbook to Cristina Morales y Morales, a lady who’d graduated as a visual artist and whom immediately took an interest and began to give me free lessons. She got me started by painting with oil, making portraits and nudes.
A year later I enrolled in San Alejandro School of the Arts. After studying there for two years, I left. Only to return when I was in my early twenties. They didn’t allow me to pick up where I left off. I had to start from the beginning. Having completed two years in sculpting and four years in painting, I was finally able to graduate.
Living in exhile
As a young man I used to read anything I could get my hands on, from the classics to WWII articles to vintage American magazines. I had a panoramic vision of what the world was like while recognizing that the Cuban government wasn’t a good fit. What’s more, I read Boris Pasternak’s famous book, Dr. Zhivago, which won the Nobel prize in 1958. It further convinced me that what we had was a complete dictatorship. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I finally understood the magnitude of terror involved in a Communist system. It’s easier to get informed here.
Saying goodbye to my parents was hard. Other than that it wasn’t all that difficult to leave. I’d made up my mind, it was a necessity. I had no attachments to my native country or the time period I was born in. Sure I’m a part of it, but there are men that escape from it all. I had nothing to do with the surreal reality I was experiencing. It was absurd, grotesque. I left Cuba crying but haven’t looked back since. There are no unpleasant memories. I lived a wonderful youth but I’m not homesick, especially knowing how deteriorated the country is today.
Traveling to Cuba is for masochists. Some of the colonial constructions such as El Morro fortress are still standing, but when you see El Capitolio all lapidated along with the architecture built during the Republic days . . . all in ruins. And you know, all they do is patch it up to make it look like new, and that’s it. No, even if they were to repair the buildings properly, it would still not be the same Cuba I met as a young man. Streets like Galiano, San Rafael, Manzana de Gomez, Pairet . . . No, they wouldn’t be the same. My family is here in Miami. Whatever life I have left will be here.
The biggest challenge in starting over in the United States has been learning to project myself socially. Number one—I had to do to survive, to feed my family, and integrate myself in this society. Number two—I had to conserve my lifestyle, my dreams, my art. Always looking ahead as if I had another thousand years to live and work. I might be entering old age, but I still have energy to spare. I pray that God blesses me by preserving my vision so that I can enjoy painting a little longer, because up to now I haven’t been able to live off my art. In the future I might dedicate myself to teaching painting and sculpting.
The motivation behind his works of art
I’m motivated by love and beauty. I’m seduced by nature—the orchid for its perfection; the butterfly for its symmetry, color, and the brevity of its life. How amazing is it that it goes from being a worm to an ornament of nature. I’m also inspired by the feminine figure—the color, the gracefulness and proportions. Since the time of ancient Egypt, women have been a constant inspiration for artists. Women are the perpetuity of humankind. They hold the key to the evolution of our species. They create, workshop, and push forth the collective mind frame of mankind and everything that makes us who we are. We might be men but we come from women. They are the foundation of nature. To go against them is to be aberrational. Women embody maternal love, nature’s beauty, everything. They’re exceptional beings. They are light.
I’m also greatly influenced by literature, especially poetry. Poetry gives us vivid images which can articulate with our thoughts. I love Shakespeare and Goethe, Hemingway too. Music has become a resource for me. Whenever I paint there’s music by Chopin, Mozart, or an Italian opera. I also enjoy watching and listening to classical ballet, especially the great Romantics such as Tchaikovsky. I’m amazed at the flexibility of the dancers. But if I had to pick, I’d say I’m most influenced by the surrealists, Magritte and Salvador Dali. I’m attracted to Picasso’s conceptual form, but in the realization of the art itself I prefer Dali before Magritte.
I feel like I’m still evolving. I’m not settled yet. As the years go by I find myself doing things pertaining to the moment and decade I’m living in, always confined by the little spare time I have. Currently I have the desire to retake some of my old practices, things I learned in my youth when I was being introduced to Surrealism. The colors used by the Impressionists always impress me, but I’m also interested in the sketch and composition process. I’m a lover of balance. Even when using a small format, I want things to be complex and linear. Color and shape suddenly become secondary.
There are times when I’m working on a piece and begin to deviate from the original plan. The new idea takes over and it’s as if you’ve done this your whole life. These ingenuities leave me dumbfounded. But I can also say the opposite is true. In recent years I’ve found that real artistry is associated with the most difficult task in my own performance, therefore nothing should come to me simple. The whole painting should be as painstaking as its most challenging area. By default, we tend to be intellectually lazy, but it’s those things that require real effort that give us great satisfaction. Every square inch of the canvas should receive the care, detail, and effort of the whole.
I was still studying in San Alejandro when I began to work for a government ad agency, making posters. From there I got a job at the Ministerio de Educacion (public school system) illustrating books. In the year 1979, the Instituto Superior de Arte (Superior Institute of Art) opened its doors. I enrolled right away, but didn’t even get to attend my first class. My mind was made up. I’d leave the country with my family as soon as I could, so I walked away from my job and my studies.
For years I didn’t touch a brush. Once I knew I’d leave, I did all I could to remain under the radar. I had to work in the fields, harvesting sunflowers and gladiolus. Some time later the political pressure lessened somewhat and I got hired to paint the walls of hospitals, beauty parlors, and apparel shops. Every once in a while I’d receive a commission for a portrait. At the time I was also selling my paintings to tourists on the plaza of the Cathedral of Havana.
I believe an artist should remain unattached to political or social views. The only legacy we should leave behind is that of beauty and enjoyment of the world around us. We should strive to project our feelings while trying to be better than the rest. Through our art we can teach to love all that is beautiful, to not destroy it but perfect it. We’re all free to do what we want, but we should enjoy our lives without worrying about social or cultural obligations. If we could only succeed at loving beauty, having comfort, being civil and respectful, we wouldn’t have any wars. We’d be able to get more out of life. It’s true that we’ll never achieve perfection; there will always be pain, sweat, bitterness. But life as a whole will be more pleasant.
A political change in Cuba won’t bring any development to the art production in the island. Art won’t be better or worse. Artists will simply have access to buying their materials, that’s all. Some might have money to pay for art classes while others might have the money but not the time because of their work schedules. Nothing is written in stone. Many artists who live in Cuba will one day wake up and realize they’ve been under the spell of a siren song. Today they might consider themselves free artists, but one day they’ll realize they’ve been boxed in, thinking they could always make a buck selling that Old Cuba nostalgia. We really don’t need to do any of that. We just need to focus on making art. Art!
Dreams and plans for the future
I’d like to be in my thirties and live in the Paris of the 1920’s. It would be worth it. It was the golden age of Paris, between the First and Second World War. Everyone lived life fearlessly. “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy,” that’s what Hemingway tells us about that Paris in A Moveable Feast. It brings me back to the dreams shared by the artists from that time.
My future plans involve traveling, painting, and keeping myself physically fit. Fortunately, I’m planning to enjoy in life what I’ve only gotten to know in books. But you know how it is. Musicians take extra care of their hands as they need flexibility and speed to play their instruments. Visual artists take extra care of our sight. That is, if God grants us to reach our old age. Otherwise we need to find a parallel artistic outlet. We must satisfy our intellectual appetite, but above all we must satisfy our emotional appetite. Aside from talent what sets artists apart from the rest of the world is our insatiable emotional appetite. We’re not sophisticated. We’re sentimental.