Cuban painter turns tobacco leaves into smoke-free art

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 5:06 AM

By Anett Rios

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban painter Milton Bernal works with a smoking stogie perched in the corner of his mouth, a hint at the distinctly Cuban twist he adds to his unusual art.

The bearded artist, 63, lays wet tobacco leaves atop his sketches of famous Cuba-related personalities – from revolutionary icon Che Guevara to 20th century American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who lived outside the capital of Havana for two decades.

The resulting art takes on the earthy amber hues of a dry tobacco leaf and highlights the raised texture of its veins, a look that Bernal says makes his work unique.

“(Tobacco) is a symbol of our national identity,” he said of one of Cuba’s largest and best-known exports. “I convert it to an art form that isn’t consumed, that doesn’t cause any harm, so everyone can enjoy it.”

Tobacco thrives across much of the western half of the Caribbean island nation, and especially in Pinar del Rio province, home to the world’s finest tobacco and cigars.

Bernal travels there regularly to handpick material from the large leaves discarded from the cigar production process. He parses them by color to fit his art which is sold and displayed in homes, restaurants, cigar shops and hotels throughout Havana and globally.

In a process Bernal said he created more than 20 years ago, he uses a proprietary chemical formula to maintain the elasticity, color and form of the tobacco leaf, which he rolls onto a canvas of artisanal paper and allows to dry.

“It does not suffer any type of deterioration (over time), regardless of the environmental conditions that there may be, relative humidity in the country where it is taken,” he said.

“The work is simply preserved in a way that is very natural.”

(Reporting by Anett Rios; Editing by Dave Sherwood and Richard Chang)