Cigar Aficionado

Smoke and Stamps

It's a weekday morning, and the French painter and graphic artist Marc J. Pasini settles into a leather couch near the bar at Le Fumoir, an elegant, clublike Parisian restaurant within walking distance of the Louvre. The restaurant is better known for its dinner menu, but with wooden racks of international newspapers, walls lined with books, and superb café au lait, Pasini likes to begin his day here, sketching out ideas both on paper and uploading digital images to his laptop computer.

But Pasini's true inspiration comes from the restaurant's celebration of the cigar. (Le Fumoir means smoking lounge.) For Pasini, whose previous career highlights include groundbreaking computer graphics for French television stations, outdoor stadium concerts and international soccer teams in the late nineties, now focuses his work on epicurean themes. His greatest passion is reserved for the culture of tobacco and the world of Cuban cigars. He would no more skip his morning coffee then pass the day without savoring what he calls "the great nicotine herb."

This passion has enabled Pasini to achieve what he bluntly points out not even Picasso accomplished in his own lifetime: Last year, he became the first foreign-born national whose artwork was selected by the Cuban government to be issued as stamps. Six digitally created, cigar-themed art collages were unveiled at the Habanos Festival in 2002. The unveiling, which took place on the festival's final day at Havana's Museum of Fine Arts, was presided over by Fidel Castro himself. The unprecedented recognition by a government not known for its open-minded spirit generated tremendous pride in France, which crowned Pasini "The Napoleon of the Pixels" in Le Figaro newspaper.

At 43, Pasini is a compact, stylishly dressed man with short-cropped, curly black hair, sharp features, dark piercing eyes and boundless energy. He spreads out enlarged copies of the six pieces that were issued as Cuban stamps. "It's natural that they choose my art because, even in miniature, these pieces are very representative of their country," says Pasini.

The six images were created using a combination of original artwork, digital photography, drawing and computer-enhanced design to make the series of collages. The first, entitled Sello Humo, (sello is Spanish for stamp) illustrates Pasini's sense of the mystique inherent to cigar smoke or fumes. The second, Sello Robaina, pays homage to the legendary tobacco farmer Alejandro Robaina, his family and the Robaina tobacco farms. The third, Sello Capa, expands upon the literal meaning of capa, as blanket or cape, to explore the relationship of the Caribbean sun on the different colors of the capes des havanes. Next, Sello Mapa de Cuba illustrates the celebrated tobacco-growing regions of Cuba such as the Vuelta Abajo. Sello Viejos honors the centrality of the Tabac store and its role in promoting both tobacco and community in Cuba. Finally, the sixth stamp, which the Cuban government issued as a special philatelic commemorative souvenir sheet, depicts the Cohiba brand and its role in recent Cuban history.

As it happened, the Fourth Annual Festival of the Habanos was dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the Vegas Robaina brand. Yet Pasini created these collages years before their selection by Castro. That he should have happened upon the themes of the Vuelta Abajo, Cohiba, and Robaina himself is no accident, but the result of many years of intense absorption and effort.

"Cigars are the keystone of my epicurean art," says Pasini. "I remember it was in September 1998 while I was in the China Club bar in Paris where I smoked my first cigar. The chief barman gave me a lonsdale of Rafael Gonzalez. Since that day, I've known that I'll smoke cigars until the end of my life."

Pasini began researching the history of Cuban cigar brands, concentrating on the life of Don Jaime Partagas, a Spaniard who immigrated to Cuba in the 1830s and launched his legendary brand of cigars in 1845. Pasini's research, which took him to libraries in France, Spain and Italy, led to his creation of the six collages, which he exhibited in March 1999 at the Gallerie Beausejour in Paris's 16th arrondissement.

"I was favored with good fortune," says Pasini. "Andres Quintana, the third secretary of the Cuban embassy in France, walked into the gallery. He asked, 'Who is this Cuban who did this work on Havana?' He was astonished to learn it was a Frenchman. Quintana brought me to the embassy and introduced me to Eumelio Caballero Rodriguez, the Cuban ambassador. I won him over, too. He made the initial contact with the Cuban authorities and later helped me navigate my way through the bureaucratic labyrinth once his country decided to print the stamps."

In August 1999, Pasini traveled to the Pinar del Río region of Cuba, where he met Robaina. "I didn't have an appointment," Pasini remembers. "I just asked, 'Where is the farm of Robaina?' and knocked on his door, my artwork under my arm."

Robaina greeted him warmly. "He said, 'Come on, we'll take a sit and smoke a cigar.'" Pasini recalls. "The cigar came from his plantation, one of the best in Cuba, if not the entire world. Besides the very emotional effect of becoming acquainted with Robaina's artistry, I remember this cigar was one with a peppery taste, leaving a rich, voluptuous taste in the mouth. One doesn't find a cigar of this type in France or anywhere else in the world. Solely at his plantation."

The Frenchman, with his ever-present sketchbook and digital camera in his backpack, expected to stay for 20 minutes. The visit stretched out for seven hours. Six months later, Pasini returned to the plantation with a new collage. "It was a framed piece of artwork that captured the life of Don Alejandro -- the young man, the older man, the farm, his wife, his children. Everything. When he took off the plastic, he was very emotional and put it on his wall."

Needless to say, a great number of Cuban authorities saw Pasini's artwork at Robaina's plantation. One afternoon in 2000, while Pasini was visiting Eumelio Caballero Rodriguez, the ambassador received a phone call from Cuba. "Someone had asked him to find this unique French artist," says Pasini. "'Ah! Very funny!' says Eumelio, 'He's right in front of me!'"

Pasini continued his campaign of conquest. It was his idea to publish the collages as Cuban stamps. To that end, he created three new pieces, shrank them to postage size and mailed three letters, to Robaina, the ambassador and himself. "I sent it by post in Paris, and the French postal service believed it! Now everyone was inspired by this plan."

Pasini made 10 trips to Cuba between April 2000 and February 2002. (The Cuban government paid approximately half of his expenses.) He saw 25 people to review and approve his work.

"There were people who had the power to veto my project," says Pasini. "But at every turn, the meetings turned profitable." Pasini's last series of meetings with the Cuban postal service, and the philatelic society, and a color check at the national press, were held just a scant week prior to the opening of the IV Festival of the Habanos.

For his work, Pasini was paid $125,000, which he says he donated to the children of Cuba. He did, however, accept some Cuban cigars.

Though Pasini attended this year's festival, "it had a different spirit," he says. "Everyone was worried about the war with Iraq." He has continued to focus on epicurean themes, recently finishing collage pieces for Le Club des Ambassadeurs amateurs de Habanos (the Ambassadors Club of lovers of Habanos), the Café Verlet and privately owned pieces commissioned by the Château Margaux and the Château d'Yquem grand cru Sauterne Francais wine labels. Ongoing projects include doing artwork for the Comedie Francaise theatre, Louis Vitton and the Jaguar Type E, plus mounting a tour of individual artwork that will tour Japan and Hong Kong. He is also putting the finishing touches on a book about Cuban history, tentatively called The Mystery of Partagas. "Any additional details," laughs the peripatetic Frenchman, "are secret."

He is, however, willing to disclose his favorite places to enjoy cigars in Paris. In addition to Le Fumoir (6 rue de L'Amiral Coligny), they include the China Club bar Restaurant (50 rue de Charenton), the Hemingway bar at the Hotel Ritz on the Place Vendome, and the bar at the Park Hyatt Vendome (3.5 rue de la Paix).

Pasini, who uses words like noble and sublime to describe his appreciation for tobacco, says that his digital collages are not limited to the gourmet worlds of food, drink and cigars. "I follow my own path," says the artist. "I would never have accomplished this feat with the Cuban government if I had not followed my curiosity and passion. I anticipate my epicurean vision will continue to evolve, leading me to new subjects that will stir my heart."