Arts feature: Columbus in Cuba

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Elsie Sanchez left Cuba with her parents when she was 9 years old. In the years since, she has become a full-time, professional artist.

How much those things have to do with each other — if anything — Sanchez insists she doesn't know. But she does know that an opportunity provided to her because of the latter is made all the more special because of the former.

A few years ago, Columbus curator and arts consultant Michael Reese began traveling to Cuba, learning more about the art community in the island nation, so near and yet so far because of long-standing political concerns. Since then, he has organized groups of Columbus collectors, gallerists and artists, creating a sort of de facto exchange program centered on art.

"In 2014, Pizzuti Collection hosted an exhibition called 'Havana Forever.' The work was moving. I was so verklempt. I said, 'I've gotta go.' I've been 24 times now, and taken so many people with me,” Reese said.

In 2015, Sanchez was one of the artists who traveled with Reese's group, returning to her home nation for the first time since she was 9. In between experiences with artists and art spaces, Sanchez was able to visit the house where she grew up among other "sights" she may or may not have been approved to visit.

This year, Sanchez is one of nearly 40 Columbus artists exhibiting their work as part of two exhibitions. She was one of five locals selected to participate in the 2019 Biennial in Havana, Cuba's largest international art event, opening April 12. The other local artists were featured in "ConnectArt in Cuba" at a gallery in Matanzas, an exhibition of Cuban and Columbus artists that will serve as a template for an exhibition in Columbus planned for later in 2019.

"The [Biennial] juror didn't know I was from Cuba, and I do want to be judged first for my work," Sanchez said. "They chose me because my work speaks. There is a rawness to the textures when I paint. I pull each painting from somewhere deep inside. So maybe there is some influence of being from Cuba in my art. There might be, but I can't pinpoint it."

Multidisciplinary artist Daric Gill was one of the artists selected to exhibit in "ConnectArt."

"There was such generosity from the Cuban people. You never felt like it was a put on, or they were courting you, but that it was just genuine and part of the culture," Gill said.

He said the piece he submitted for the exhibition, "Absolute: Frequency," is an example of his practice, which fuses art and science to solve problems of presenting ideas. "I have an idea inside of me, and I'm open to whatever tools are required to express it," Gill said. But the work also examines finding balance in the midst of ups and downs. It's also, Gill said, "directly the result of my earlier experience in Cuba" as part of one of Reese's exchange trips.

"It's hard to unbox," Gill said following this most recent trip. "The people are beautiful souls who find themselves impossibly stuck between many forces, dancing in the streets, finding substantial relief through the simplest graces on a hot day."

"I'm honored to have been part of this exhibition," Sanchez said, adding the experience has been necessarily important for her on a personal as well as a professional level. "I visited with two childhood friends. One of them lived next door to my family in Cuba, and this is the first time I've seen them both since I left at the age of 9. This experience was priceless.

"Perhaps because I speak the language, I was able to engage in deep conversations. It's very complicated. Talking with Cubans on the street and observing, I saw the great hurdles they must overcome, yet they remain resilient, helpful and open. I was in tears one minute and laughing the next."

"It's not purely political, sharing this art and these artists. It's about a dialogue, it's about us all moving in the same direction," Reese said. "And it's about having Columbus be part of this global conversation."