BY TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
JAIMANITAS, Cuba - (KRT) - Jose Fuster is one of Cuba’s top painters, the Picasso of the Caribbean. But he’s finding out it’s not always easy to be an artist in a land of conformists.
Disgruntled neighbors made that clear recently when they painted over one of his murals, obliterating a huge rooster and a background of lush palm trees.
“I don’t know why they did it - jealousy, selfishness, envy,” he said. “Somebody who doesn’t like art must be responsible.”
To be sure, Fuster is a tad eccentric, sometimes answering the door in nothing but a swimsuit, paintbrush in hand, his body splattered with paint and sweat.
But over the last few years, he has taken the concept of public art to a new level in Cuba. On his own and without government support, he has built dozens of entryways, benches, tile domes, outdoor chessboards and more, transforming the face of Jaimanitas, a bedraggled little town west of Havana.
“I do it out of the love I feel for people,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”
Government inspectors sometimes stop by and fine him for allegedly violating zoning and building codes even as he improves and brightens up the neighborhood.
Fuster, 57, said he pays the fines and tells the inspectors to demolish all he’s done if they want to. He just wants to know when they’re coming so he can take a few pictures for posterity.
Meanwhile, he gets on with his work, decorating Jaimanitas in vintage Fuster - featuring caricatures of ordinary and not-so-ordinary Cubans, from farmers and housewives to musicians, mermaids, men on bicycles and women in swimsuits.
“Some people get upset because when I earn money from my paintings, I don’t put it in the bank. I create more art in my neighborhood,” he said.
His neighbors - most of them, at least - are fans.
“People love Fuster. They applaud him for his work,” said Wilson Martinez, 39, a Jaimanitas construction worker. “A couple years ago, the neighborhood was ugly. But with Fuster, it gets better and better.”
Fuster began his artistic career early, at age 14. And by the early 1970s, his work was being shown in the Soviet Union and Europe.
Americans are among his top clients. They include everyone from businesspeople and tourists to salsa dancers and diplomats. But he said he’s not in it for the money.
“For one neighbor who was against the war in Afghanistan, I painted a dove of peace - a way to say no to the war. Another neighbor, named Maria, thinks she’s pretty, and so I made her an entryway that says `Maria the Pretty One,’” Fuster said.
One day, when residents met to talk about what needed to be improved in Jaimanitas, a woman said the roof of her home had been damaged in a hurricane and had to be fixed. So Fuster did it, topping the house with a brand-new tile dome and, naturally, a funny-looking rooster.
He said he hopes to spend the next five years or so continuing to blanket Jaimanitas with creations. His workshop is a monument to his art. The two-story building is covered with murals and tiles.
“The neighbors like it,” he said. “I’m like a mayor here.”
Not everyone agrees with his artistic creations. At least that seemed to be the case when a work crew painted over a 15-foot-high rooster he had painted on the side of a doctor’s office.
“Some ignorant people covered it up without my permission. They must be part of that axis of evil that President Bush talks about,” he jokes.