In 1994, amid economic turmoil and public uprising, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro removed exit restrictions for people wanting to flee the Communist country. Thousands upon thousands of refugees took to the rough waters separating the island from the United States in search of better conditions.
One of those people was artist Fito Garche.
"I came with friends," Garche says, speaking through interpreter Rene Hanson. "I had some family here but did not really know what lay ahead."
Before Garche and the other refugees were allowed to step on American soil, they were held at facilities in Guantanamo Bay and Panama. There they trained in various labor skills so they could attain work visas and find steady employment upon entering the United States. Some learned carpentry, some learned masonry, but Garche instructed.
"There were a lot of children at the base, and he taught art classes to the children there as one of his jobs," Hanson says.
During Garche's yearlong detainment at the base, his passion for art persisted. He befriended many of the military personnel and even sold some of his pieces to them. Lots of free time and the nature of his employment allowed him to add pieces to his already overgrowing collection.
"I had a lot of time to do art," Garche says. "A LOT of time to do art."
From sea to shining sea
Born in Cuba in 1961, Garche began creating art at an early age. He furthered his artistic education at the Art National School in Havana, where he studied interior design. Garche continued to express himself with art and says that Cuba, despite being under Communist control, encourages its citizens to pursue artistic endeavors.
"They have wonderful programs for artists in Cuba," Garche says. "Supplies are harder to get, and there is not a lot of freedom. The art you do becomes theirs. It can't be political or religious."
While living in Cuba, Garche made a living as a working artist. He showed his work at various Havana galleries and traveled to Mexico and Brazil for showings as well.
He doesn't confine himself to one medium. He paints; he sculpts; he builds furniture.
The subjects that inspire him are just as diverse as the materials he uses to bring them to life. Since he left Havana, much of Garche's art has become a means of political commentary relating to Fidel Castro and the political situation in Cuba.
His current exhibition, "Memories of Havana," at the Red Dresser, 624 N. Second St., speaks directly to the struggle he faced as an artist living under Communism.
"With my art, I try to unveil the true oppressiveness of living under Castro in Cuba with your civil liberties being taken," Garche says.
Living on a prayer
Besides the political commentary that permeates his collection, Garche uses art as an expression of his faith. Various versions of the Christian cross adorn the abstract portraiture he paints on immense wooden canvases. He says the symbolism is his response to the oppression he felt living in a government-controlled church state.
"Castro shut down the churches," Garche says. "He wanted to eradicate anything that felt threatening. He felt the people who would be against him would be in the church."
The religious iconography in Garche's work takes on many forms. The cross itself represents faith and beliefs, he says. The stylistic qualities he applies to the cross represent the politicization of religion in Cuba that have polarized the people.
"I want to express the frustration Cubans feel," Garche says. "Religion is very important to me."
Another symbol that makes its way into many of Garche's pieces is the fish. In various forms, it appears engraved into the wood. This also ties his art back to his spirituality.
"The fish symbolizes the connection with creation," Garche says. "The fish is also observatory. They see all. You never doubt a fish."
Among the pieces in "Memories of Havana" are vibrant watercolors depicting the African influence on Cuban heritage and handmade furniture, including a throne-like chair and enormous coffee table. Proceeds from gallery sales will fund Garche's travel plans.
"Whatever we make is going to help pay for me to go to Cuba and visit," he says.
One of Garche's largest pieces is an abstract triptych titled "The Labyrinth of a Dream." Each panel is filled with symbolism from a tormented dream. Although a viewer could stare at the work for hours and arrive at a multitude of conclusions about the nocturnal story board, Garche is clear about what the ultimate dream is:
"The only actual dream is freedom for Cubans," he says.