When Tobacco Turns into an Artwork
MILTON BERNAL IS A SIMPLE MAN WHO, ALTHOUGH HIS ART IS EMPIRICAL, FOCUSED ON DEVOTING HIMSELF TO THE PASSION THAT MARKED HIS LIFE FOREVER. HE IS KNOWN AS “THE TOBACCO PAINTER”
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.”
"TOBACCO UNLEASHES AROUND ITSELF A WARP OF VERY SPECIAL EXPERIENCES, STARTING FROM THE WISDOM OF TOBACCO GROWERS"
Milton Bernal has showcased his work in major cities around the world.