When Cuban-born painter Rey Alfonso was 12, his mother died. The next year, he built a raft and set out alone for the United States, away from Fidel Castro's Cuba and all that was familiar.
It would be the first of many attempts to pursue a new life. After the raft sank a few miles off shore, the Cuban Coast Guard picked him up and sent back to his grandmother’s house. A few months later, he tried once more and again, his raft sank.
This time, authorities put the young teenager in jail.
After four years, 13 tries and many combined months of jail time, Alfonso finally made the journey of more than 100 miles, to Florida. Now a successful artist, he appears next month at the Saint Louis Art Fair. Beginning Friday, the fair will use his work in a promotional image.
“It’s my first year in the show,” Alfonso said. “And I am very proud to be the commemorative poster artist.”
'I will build another boat and leave again’
As Alfonso grew older, he got better and better at building an escape craft. They began to look less like rafts and more like boats. He used sturdier materials and added a motor.
While putting together his final boat, he submerged it with heavy rocks during the day and brought it back up to work on it at night. He kept his grandmother and other relatives in the dark about the details of his next attempt.
“When you try to leave Cuba, you don’t tell anybody in your family because they will get in trouble, in a lot of trouble,” Alfonso said. “They can lose their jobs.”
But Alfonso, now 43, was very open about the fact he would never give up. Whenever he was caught and jailed, the authorities asked when he might try again.
“The second you let me out … I will build another boat and leave again,” he said.
Alfonso’s determination persisted as he embarked on his new life in the United States. Friends advised him to go to school, become a doctor or lawyer and make a lot of money. But he refused to let go of his dreams.
“I told everybody, ‘I want to be a philosopher, a poet, a writer, a painter,’” Alfonso said.
‘Nothing is precious’
Alfonso began making work that resonates with his early boat-building experience.
He creates his large-scale pieces on plywood, made of birch and reinforced with steel. He layers on paint, then scratches through it with his poetry, then adds tar and turpentine.
“Then I put it on the ground and I set them on fire,” Alfonso said. “And whatever I have left, I start working on again.
He often sets his paintings on fire multiple times before he considers them finished, a process reminiscent of his early attempts to escape Cuba, leaving everything behind.
“Whatever is strong enough, it will survive the tar and the gasoline,” he said. “It kind of teaches me that nothing is precious.”
Rey Alfonso shows off his studio and talks about the physicality of his work in this video:
If you go:
When: Sept. 8-10
Where: Downtown Clayton, bordered by Brentwood Boulevard, Maryland, Bemiston and Carondelet avenues
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL