Cuban expatriate breaks boundaries with art career in exile

In a way, artist and American immigrant Luis Cruz Azaceta never got off the plane from Cuba in 1960.

Exiled from his homeland after Fidel Castro won the country from opposition, the then-18-year-old took a plane from the small island nation to New York, after which Azaceta took a factory job in Hoboken, New Jersey. He enrolled in art school, became an international art star and has long since settled in New Orleans with his wife, painter Sharon Jacques, and children. But his real home is 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

“Because when you are in exile, you never feel completely at home,” Azaceta said. “I’m between two cultures, Cuban and American, but I’ve never been back to Cuba. You always feel like something is missing.”

Perhaps because of that disconnect, Azaceta has spent his life exploring. First, he explored art at an adult-education center in Queens. Then he took on art school at an age years after most adults do, where only one student in his early 30s out-aged him, and the artists called that man “Grandpa.” He took on the figure before it was the in thing to do. He worked with famed neo-expressionist artist Leo Golub when expressionism was, people thought, past its cultural prime. But if there’s any one thing that has defined Azaceta’s artistic expression, it’s change.

“I like to be excited. I spend ‘x’ amount of hours working, so if I’m not going to be excited, if it’s not going to be a challenge, why do it? After a while, a style becomes manneristic,” Azaceta explained. “I move from one thing to another very easily. It’s not as though I sweat blood, sweat and tears, so that’s good.”

Kim Overstreet, executive director of the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art, will host Azaceta’s new exhibition, “No Bounds.”

“To me the most fascinating aspect of the artist — of which there are many — is his talent to create based on his environment and what he is currently experiencing.  As his environment changes and current events change, it is reflected in his work,” Overstreet said.

So, in a way, Azaceta’s first step on the plane in Havana was the beginning of a journey that has yet to end.

“Every day’s different. It’s a constant change. I like that. I think that’s why I keep moving.

The idea is also to learn; the idea is to expand my vocabulary and to be the best I can be,” he said.

And although he’s known for his exploration of the figure, for the last few years he’s been experimenting with abstract. That means his artwork is open to more interpretation by viewers, making his work even more transient than his life.

“The exact same piece of work can mean one thing to me and a completely different thing to you. Each person draws on their own personal experiences, history and culture to interpret what art means to them,” Overstreet said.

But it can also lead to some misinterpretations of the artist. For example, although Azaceta has been known for his images of a man in a boat, he was not one of the many to have escaped Cuba by water. His father was a pilot and airplane mechanic, a career path Azaceta expects he would have followed had he remained. But the image does crop up in his work, partly because of his strong Cuban roots.

“I try to put myself in the place of these people,” he said. “And it’s the journey. It’s symbolic in terms of the journey. We’re always moving, in a state of transit.”

But they’re also held captive by the wall of water the surrounds them.

“For us, for us Cubans, the body of water — that’s our Berlin Wall. That’s what we call our

Berlin Wall because we’re surrounded by water infested by sharks. That’s why a lot of my work deals a lot of with walls — either with water or physical walls. It’s very symbolic.

Number one, people got executed against a wall during the beginning of the revolution. And again, the water becomes the wall.”

Most recently, some very physical walls have been the source of his inspiration, and have sent his work in a new direction. Just two weeks before Katrina hit New Orleans, Azaceta was appointed the Lamar Dodd Chair, Artist-In-Residence at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. He sat on committees charged with directing the design and construction of the university’s new museum. Not a situation primed for creative inspiration.

But UGA’s unique loop-road system of transportation reminded Azaceta of the Middle Ages, encapsulating and protecting the university. And the university’s art department’s struggle to implement ideas for a museum design would stand out, combined with this idea and “all these kind of crazy abstractions,” Azaceta said. “They were not successful in doing this, because the administration wanted a building that would fit in with the aesthetic of the campus.”

That experience inspired a new series dealing with perpetual motion, using imagery including loops and arrows to evoke movement, in pieces like “Museum Driver.”

“I think that’s the most important painting in terms of the transition from one thing to another,” Azaceta said.

Transition, he said. That means he’s already on his way to something new. Catch his work now, while it’s sitting in one place.

No Bounds: Luis Cruz Azaceta
Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art
Friday, Jan. 11
6-8 p.m.
Open to public; non-members $5
Through Feb. 29


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