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Great Moments: A Cuban Portrait

John Leahy, Mike Fitzpatrick
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

It was 4:50 pm and the history department office was just about to close when I sprinted in with my term paper. The last four days had been filled with nonstop schoolwork for Mike Fitzpatrick and me, and an unhealthy ratio of cups of coffee to hours of sleep was starting to give me a headache.

Since we were leaving school in the middle of final exams during our final year at William and Mary College, we were forced to complete all of our work before departing. Two days later, as our plane taxied down the runway at Miami International Airport, our days at school seemed as foreign as our destination: Havana.  

Because we were students of film and architecture, Mike and I had obtained visas from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to travel to Cuba to attend the Latin American Film Festival. The director of the festival had invited us to the event, and it turned out to be more exciting than we had ever imagined.  

The festival highlighted a vast collection of films. There is nothing quite as surreal as being an American watching a Russian film with Spanish subtitles, while sitting comfortably in the Karl Marx Theater in Havana. For us, however, the real excitement of our trip to Cuba lay outside the festival. It had nothing to do with film and everything to do with the Cuban people and our portraits of Fidel Castro.

For the past three years, Mike and I have been creating art together and portraiture is one of our favorite mediums. We usually find inspiration in the faces of American icons and construct images using materials from around our house. We have created a portrait of Jimi Hendrix out of used pizza boxes and another of Hugh Hefner out of old Playboy covers and a mirror. 

During the summer of 1999, Mike and I lived in the Dominican Republic. With the hope of receiving an invitation from the Cuban government to visit Cuba, we started working on a portrait of Fidel Castro. We wanted to use familiar materials to construct the image. This time it would be American baseball cards. This was never intended as some grand political message. Rather, it was about a favorite pastime. America loves baseball, Cuba loves baseball, Castro loves baseball, we love baseball.  

In just two days we built the portrait on a custom-made canvas with the Cuban flag painted on as a backdrop. The 400 or so Topps baseball cards (circa 1989-1991) were simply hot-glued to the canvas. The image was produced through strategically cutting and pasting the cards both face up and face down. When we had finished the portrait, which we called "El Líder," we brought the large (90" x 54") work to the Cuban embassy in Santo Domingo. The officals loved the piece and invited us to Cuba so that we might personally present the portrait to Castro.  

Five months later, we stepped onto Cuban soil. The next seven days were destined to be memorable. As it turns out, that first portrait could not be flown to Cuba, and to this day, it hangs in the entrance of the Cuban embassy in Santo Domingo. Undaunted, we had brought along a bounty of baseball cards, paint, brushes and hot glue guns. We were determined to reconstruct "El Líder."  

We had a room at the Hotel Copacabana and they asked us if we might work on the piece in their lobby so that other guests could witness its creation. We agreed and soon went to work with a glue gun in one hand and a can of Cristal beer in the other. Before we could get started, we needed a large canvas of the correct proportions for the piece. This proved nearly impossible. Canvas of any size was seemingly unobtainable in Cuba. Luckily for us, our friend and guide to the city proved to be an invaluable resource in getting the necessary materials.  

After several meetings, we finally had the canvas in hand. God only knows what the Cuban people thought that day as they watched our blue Lada speed by with Mike and I hanging out the windows, trying desperately to hold the canvas down on the roof of the car. We started working on the piece that night and finished it two days later.  


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