Courtesy Edel Rodríguez

This winter, Havana welcomed graphic designer Edel Rodríguez for a show of his work at Casa de las Américas. Cristina Figuroa, curator of the exhibition, shares a recent conversation she had with Rodríguez.

In March, 2014, I arrived at the New Jersey studio of Cuban-American American-Cuban designer Edel Rodríguez. I was there to start the arrangements for his first exhibition in Cuba. I was familiar with his work but was struck by the sheer volume of the output visible in his studio: posters for theater festival, Broadway productions, operas, films, book covers, magazines, and newspapers, and also paintings. That day began a long collaboration that culminated this past December 5 at the Galería Latinoamericana of Casa de las Américas, with the opening of Nature Boy: Edel Rodríguez en La Habana.

The day before, we convened at Casa de las Américas´s Galich Hall for a conversation before a large audience of designers and students. We talked about his early days and his influences in the art and design worlds, as well as on his creative process and his career in the US graphic-design community.

Rodríguez was born in 1971 in El Gabriel, a small town in the outskirts of Havana. In 1980, at the age of nine, he and his family left for the US through the mass emigration known in the US as the Mariel boatlift. Some years later, he moved to Brooklyn to begin his artistic career.

“The person who influenced me most was my dad. He was many things—he was an inventor, and in the 1970s he got interested in photography. He created a darkroom at the back of the house, where I spent many hours with him arranging photos. The wall was full of ads from US and German magazines, which he would stick up there. He took photos of me, or girls dressed for their quinceañeras. People came to the house to have him photograph them.”

“In 1979 [while still in Cuba], our Miami relatives came—my cousins and aunts. I knew nothing about the United States. They brought cookies and chocolates. The graphics on the wrappers impressed me tremendously, because they was so different from what I was used to. I saved those wrappers. Then, when I arrived in the United States, I started paying attention to the graphics and logos on music, in stores, etc.”

“At 18, I applied to the Pratt Institute [known for its design curriculum] in Brooklyn. I chose that school because it was half art, half architecture, and I wanted to be an architect. As a student there I took drawing and painting classes, and I liked that much more. While I was at Pratt, I started working at the school newspaper as a graphic designer. It was practical experience in design: every two weeks, we had to make a newspaper, and we did it all: designing, drawing, and printing.”

“After I graduated, the first illustration assignment I had was the fairy tale ‘Rapunzel.’ I made line drawings, and with those, I hit the street. I went to a lot of newspapers and magazines in New York, bringing the drawings with me. Many of the art directors liked those drawings, and my first commissioned work came from showing them around. Art directors began to give me more illustration work, one after the other, for publications like The New Yorker, the New York Times, and Esquire. When I’d leave something at a publication, someone would see it and give me another assignment.”

“In 1994, the same year I left the university, I began to work at Time magazine as a designer. There, the art directors were always giving me drawings to do. That’s how I got my first cover, in September 1995.”

Courtesy Edel Rodríguez

“With covers, I almost always had a day or two to finish them. For the cover I did on Bin Laden´s death for Newsweek (May, 2011), on Monday morning the art director called me and said: ”I want you to do something for tomorrow.” They wanted it for Tuesday, so I began making quick sketches and sending them. They liked the first one I sent. I like to make clean, concise drawings, even if they’re torn up and discarded in the end. When I begin I make them really classic—I use paint, acrylic, ink. I mix things. Finally, I had the finished painting, and I sent it to Newsweek.”

We also talked about his creative process.

“I’m often asked where my ideas come from. Photography is the reference I use for my drawings. Since I was a kid I’ve always had a fascination with it, because of my dad. I‘m always taking photos. Sometimes, moments pass so quickly, you don’t know what’s usable, and what might serve as future references.”

“In the case of theater, the reference comes from photos of the productions. That´s the case for the Marriage of Fígaro, for which they picked a version I thought they wouldn´t use. Opera isn’t that popular among young people, they wanted to make it a little sexier, to catch a younger public. So they were open to riskier things.”

Edel Rodríguez, poster illustration for The Marriage of Figaro, Vancouver Opera
Courtesy Edel Rodríguez

“Another example was when I was invited to participate in Communication Arts magazine (May–June 2006) in an issue on Cuban design. They wanted to put me in as the Cuban-American. At that time I had travelled to Cuba and seen how brands such as Nike and Apple had begun to circulate. I decided to use the famous image of Che by Korda, which had also become a brand, and put this on the magazine cover.

Courtesy Edel Rodríguez

I ask Edel: In the graphic design world, does your status as a Cuban-American influence your work today? Do you think it’s been a benefit, or an obstacle to other paths you might have taken?

“It has helped me,” he says. “Hundreds of people call me during the year, mainly for this reason. Some people think I’m Mexican. They don´t know where I really come from, but I’m ethnic, and that’s why I get the job. To me it doesn’t matter—work is work. But I don’t want to do only this type of work. I always want to do something different, like many artists who want to experiment. But being Cuban and speaking Spanish has helped me a lot.”

“Around 1999, someone called to see if I’d be interested in doing books for children. I never thought about it, but it interested me. And now I have around ten books. The first was about a girl raised in Cuba, the second was a Mohamed Ali biography, and the third a story on Celia Cruz. But in this business, if you start doing the same thing all the time, people will call you only for that. So I talked to the publishers and said: ‘I don´t want to do only Afro-American or Latin themes. I want to do something more general.’ And they said, ‘If that’s what you want, make your own book.’”

Courtesy Edel Rodríguez

“And that’s what I did. I began writing my own story, and invented a character: the penguin Sergio. I wrote it myself and illustrated it. Then I did a second book with the same character, which has been published in several countries and translated into several languages.”

I tell Rodríguez that I admire his discipline. “Between 1994 and 2003,” I say, “you were the art director of Time magazine, one of the most prestigious in the US and worldwide. You had a great responsibility at a time when you were fairly young. How did that job go?”

“Discipline has been important for me,” he responds, “since I was a child and came to the US at 9 years old. I behaved like an adult. My father was a responsible man, and he used to tell us: You are here for something, don´t waste this opportunity. Study. I have always borne this in mind. When I entered university, during the first year I received some help, then there was a competition, and I was given a scholarship for the rest of the time. That was important for me.“

“In my fourth year at school, the English teacher told us that if we were looking for a job we should call her husband, who worked at Time. After I graduated I remembered those words. I called her husband and took my portfolio from the school newspaper with me. He looked it over and said: You can start. I spent around nine months making photocopies and doing office work. Three years in, I was the art director, and this part too has something to do with being Cuban: when you say you’re going to do something, you do it. It’s like that. I got there a little late, but I got there.”

“To sum it up,” Rodríguez says, “for those who are worried about what they’re going to do, my advice is this: first, do the work. The rest will come. I have always done this.“

Nature Boy: Edel Rodríguez en La Habana runs through this Monday, January 19, at Casa de las Américas in Havana.

Edel Rodríguez, poster for Carmen, 2014, Grand Rapids Opera
Courtesy Edel Rodríguez