When To­bac­co Turns in­to an Art­work



It is no se­cret he is not known in the art uni­ver­se as he is in the realm of to­bac­co. He lo­ves to say, al­ways bea­ming a smi­le, that he is one of the best pain­ters among to­bac­co gro­wers. “The­re is no po­li­tics, no re­li­gion or so­cial clas­ses in this uni­ver­se; you can't re­sist the tem­pta­tion to talk about the best to­bac­co in the world. And that's what: the per­fect ex­cu­se to gat­her peo­ple — as its pur­po­se is to brin­ging to­get­her and bin­ding peo­ple. The mo­re I know about it, the mo­re fas­ci­na­ted and enamo­red I feel. The mo­re I paint, the mo­re I reali­ze its great­ness, rich­ness, his­tory, and cul­tu­ral va­lue.”

The­se are the words with which Mil­ton Ber­nal (1960- ) des­cri­bes the es­sen­ce of the work that has mar­ked his life and has gi­ven him the tools to be known as “The To­bac­co Pain­ter.” With his cha­rac­te­ris­tic sim­pli­city, he wel­co­med Ex­ce­len­cias in his stu­dio ga­llery — a warm, very Cu­ban spa­ce — to talk about the unu­sual job he does: oil pain­ting with to­bac­co lea­ves em­bed­ded in hand­ma­de pa­per.

He gra­dua­ted from the mid-le­vel tech­ni­cian de­gree in In­dus­trial De­sign and owns a Ba­che­lor's De­gree in Jour­na­lism — spe­cia­li­zed in So­cial Com­mu­ni­ca­tion — at the Uni­ver­sity of Ha­va­na; in Mar­ke­ting, and Bu­si­ness Ma­na­ge­ment at the Su­pe­rior School of Mar­ke­ting Stu­dies (ESEM), in Spain. He is mem­ber of the Cen­ter for the De­ve­lop­ment of Vi­sual Arts, the Cu­ban As­so­cia­tion of Ar­tists and

Crafts­men, the In­ter­na­tio­nal Fe­de­ra­tion of Plas­tic Ar­tists (Bar­ce­lo­na, Spain), and the Artli­ve In­ter­na­tio­nal, in Fran­ce. Alt­hough he is an ex­pe­rien­ced pro­fes­sio­nal in the com­mu­ni­ca­tion world, he boasts an em­pi­ri­cal trai­ning in arts. He is a self-edu­ca­ted pain­ter who dis­co­ve­red, ran­domly, im­pres­si­ve skills for pain­ting and a na­tu­ral ta­lent that re­sul­ted in a who­le­so­me sa­tis­fac­tion.

“In 2000, I was not a pain­ter yet. I was in Fran­ce and I vi­si­ted a pho­to ex­hi­bi­tion by Joa­quin Blez (1886-1974, Cu­ban pho­to­grap­her spe­cia­li­zed in Por­trait Stu­dio who de­vo­ted part of his work to cap­tu­re the beauty of fe­ma­le nu­de from his ca­me­ra) in Mou­lin Rou­ge. Whi­le wat­ching in awe that work of art, I told my­self: If I we­re a pain­ter, I would lo­ve to paint tho­se nu­des. Be­fo­re re­tur­ning to Ha­va­na, I bought a poster with the ima­ge of Cha­plin and the Chi­cue­lo. I al­ways wan­ted to ha­ve it. One day, when I hung it on the wall, I heard the call to the We­mi­le­re Fes­ti­val. Alt­hough I am not a re­li­gious man, the Afro-Cu­ban in­fluen­ce tou­ches me per­so­nally as I was born in Gua­na­ba­coa. Thus, I de­ci­ded to paint Chi­chue­lo, but I trans­for­med him in­to Eleg­gua. I won the Fes­ti­val with this pain­ting in 2001 and the award was a di­plo­ma ma­de on hand­ma­de pa­per. It ins­pi­red me and I be­gan pain­ting nu­des on that ma­te­rial,” Mil­ton re­ca­lled, whi­le ta­king us th­rough tho­se ca­sual events that led him to arts, and then to­bac­co as the es­sen­tial ele­ment of his work.

Af­ter­wards, luck pla­yed its usual old trick again and this ti­me, when he was doing a pain­ting, his brot­her pu­lled a prank on him and smud­ged the can­vas with a Ha­bano he was smo­king at the ti­me. “When I got re­la­xed, I thought: And why not? I should try to em­bed to­bac­co on my pain­tings. And then I used it for the first ti­me in 2002. It was, cer­tainly, a very pri­mi­ti­ve try.” But that was how the won­der­ful idea ca­me up.

His will and re­search com­bi­ned un­til he found, with the as­sis­tan­ce of a co­lla­bo­ra­tor with ex­per­ti­se in che­mi­cals and plant pre­ser­va­tion, the se­cret to per­pe­tua­te the cha­rac­te­ris­tics of the to­bac­co leaf wit­hout lo­sing fle­xi­bi­lity or pig­men­ta­tion. And the­rein lies the ba­sis of his crea­tion. First, he paints the to­bac­co leaf and la­ter with a wet paint­brush, he ex­tracts the na­tu­ral co­lor of the to­bac­co leaf, first sub­jec­ted to a che­mi­cal pro­cess. He sket­ches the desired ima­ge on hand­ma­de pa­per, de­fi­nes whe­re the leaf goes, em­beds it and then he rolls the cy­lin­der so the pa­per and to­bac­co fi­nally mer­ge.

Mil­ton no­tes that the to­bac­co leaf gui­des him and finds its own arran­ge­ment. Gra­dually, its fle­xi­bi­lity fea­tu­re shows up. When it co­mes to em­bed­ding the leaf, he in­du­ces the vein to ta­king the wa­ve ef­fect of ob­jects; for ins­tan­ce, a tu­nic, a veil, or a gar­ment. “I look for har­mony. Pain­ting is li­ke a symp­hony whe­re all ins­tru­ments must be in tu­ne and me­lo­dies coor­di­na­ted. It's all about pla­cing the lea­ves ac­cor­ding to the light in­ten­sity. It's about tex­tu­ri­zing, faith­fully cap­tu­ring every de­tail to la­ter har­mo­ni­ze them all. That's easy, the hard part is cap­tu­ring feelings, the es­sen­ce of life,” Mil­ton sta­tes.

Mil­ton's hands ha­ve crea­ted a va­ried and im­pres­si­ve ga­llery of al­most fi­ve hun­dred art works with re­now­ned ce­le­bri­ties of di­ver­se fields thanks to this ma­gic and wis­dom. Thus, ce­le­bri­ties li­ke Com­pay Se­gun­do, Jo­se Mar­ti, Carlos Ma­nuel de Ces­pe­des, Che Gue­va­ra, Al­fred Hitch­cock, Wins­ton Chur­chill, Ri­ta Mon­ta­ner, Chu­cho Val­des, Ale­jan­dro Ro­bai­na, Ibrahim Ferrer, An­ge­li­na Jo­lie, Ar­nold Sch­war­ze­neg­ger, Ma­rio Mo­reno “Can­tin­flas,” or a sim­ple to­bac­co gro­wer —to na­me a few— meet in this se­pia uni­ver­se.

His pain­tings ha­ve been ex­hi­bi­ted in im­por­tant pla­ces li­ke Chi­na, Aus­tria, Fran­ce, Spain, Me­xi­co, Rus­sia, Ger­many, Hun­gary, Pa­na­ma, and Uni­ted Sta­tes. So­me ha­ve been sold at auc­tion in so­me edi­tions of the Ha­bano Fes­ti­val. “To­bac­co un­leas­hes around it­self a warp of very spe­cial ex­pe­rien­ces, star­ting from the wis­dom of to­bac­co gro­wers. I ha­ve stu­died with them and ha­ve lear­ned a lot of de­tails and se­crets from to­bac­co, from the mo­ment it is grown un­til it is on the client's mouth. Every per­son in this world, no mat­ter how sim­ple may be his/ her task, works with great pas­sion. I am the tip of the ice­berg, the re­sult of the know­led­ge of many peo­ple who per­haps don't ha­ve any ar­tis­tic trai­ning or cul­tu­re, but do ha­ve great work and ef­fort phi­lo­sophy. And I ha­ve fo­llo­wed the path of this ex­per­ti­se to im­pro­ve my work, to the point that I quit my job and be­gan pain­ting in 2009.

“To­bac­co al­so has its own art, which adorns it, dres­ses it, ma­kes it ex­cel, and illus­tra­tes it. Its grap­hic va­lues are irre­fu­ta­ble, which cer­tainly en­han­ce my work. It has been an infinite sour­ce of ins­pi­ra­tion for each of the sub­jects I de­ve­lop.”

Ac­tually, nu­des are one of the sub­jects he lo­ves to work the most, par­ti­cu­larly fe­ma­le nu­des, as Joa­quin Blez did in pho­tos. “It is true that to­bac­co has been re­la­ted to men as a sym­bol of man­li­ness, po­wer, or strength. But pai­ring such man­hood sym­bo­lism with so­met­hing so de­li­ca­te and subtle li­ke a wo­man's fi­gu­re is a way to ma­king art with a work of art. It is li­ke pro­vi­ding ot­her ap­proach, ta­king you in­to a com­ple­tely new di­men­sion by crea­ting ot­her con­nec­tions.”

“I just fell in lo­ve with to­bac­co. First, I smo­ke Ha­ba­nos sin­ce I was 20. Then, I dis­co­ve­red its fi­ne­ness. I li­ke brands such as Par­ta­gas or Bo­li­var, due to its strength, but I really lo­ve Ha­ba­nos, the best of the world, any­way.”

At pre­sent, being happy is Mil­ton's job. His open smi­le pro­ves it. His mas­ter­pie­ce will be al­ways his next work. Using tho­se to­bac­co lea­ves, which are not to be used la­ter, has gi­ven the ma­te­rial a new pro­mi­nen­ce and new sto­ries are told now. His goals are to avoid di­sap­point­ment, to be al­ways lin­ked with the pu­blic, and to main­tain a pres­ti­ge right­fully ear­ned. He aims at te­lling a story away from ba­na­lity. He de­fi­nes him­self as a ful­fi­lled man “be­cau­se my work does not go un­no­ti­ced. Ma­king an im­pres­sion is very im­por­tant. Ul­ti­ma­tely, peo­ple co­me and go, but your le­gacy re­mains. And that's my goal,” he says.

Small chan­ces ta­ke us to the fa­te of our own exis­ten­ce. Many be­lie­ve that, so­mehow, the stars align so everyt­hing may coin­ci­de. Ho­we­ver, Mil­ton Ber­nal be­lie­ves everyt­hing in life is cau­sal, not ca­sual. It is im­pe­ra­ti­ve that our hearts re­main open and wait for the right op­por­tu­nity, so you may be able to ma­ke the most of your luck when it co­mes up. To him, luck has been the re­sult of his de­ter­mi­na­tion, ef­fort, work, and or cour­se, his great pas­sion for to­bac­co. The­re is a lot of truth in his words: “Whoe­ver leans clo­se to a good to­bac­co leaf is blan­ke­ted by good smo­ke.”


Mil­ton Ber­nal has show­ca­sed his work in ma­jor ci­ties around the world.

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