Not every illustrator has documentary proof of his role in history. Several years ago, Edel Rodriguez discovered himself in Time magazine photographs of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift from Havana, Cuba—a life-changing journey he made as a young boy. Edel, his parents and older sister set out for Miami on the Nature Boy, a 68-foot shrimp boat his aunt, who lived in the States, chartered from two men from Jamaica. Accompanying them was a U.S. photo-journalist who recorded their trip, as well as dozens of convicts that the Cuban government made them take. After bidding farewell to their family and friends, they were allowed to bring only the clothes they were wearing for their new life. He arrived in Key West at dawn the following day to a world much different than his hometown, El Gabriel. Advertising in particular caught the young boy’s attention, something he had seen only rarely in magazines; in his small island town only revolutionary art was seen.
The colors and sounds of his home country still influence Rodriguez today, though he lives in the village of Mt. Tabor, New Jersey, an hour train ride west from New York City’s Penn Station. Industrial buildings and marshlands turn into forested woods and a town like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting reveals itself from the woods. Rodriguez, his wife Jennifer and their baby daughter Sofia live in a 1875 land-mark Victorian house with a towering poplar in the backyard. Their home is filled with antiques and art, and was painstakingly restored after a bolt of lightning caused a fire that destroyed part of the third floor where Rodriguez’s studio was located. Outside is a comfortable patio for al fresco dining (Jennifer is a great cook), and in the spacious yard a gazebo and swimming pool are set amid lush greenery. It’s a decidedly different environment than the one Rodriguez left behind when he was nine-years-old.
“All I wanted to do was draw and make art,” he remembers of his childhood in Cuba. Rodriguez’s father was a wedding photographer and his mother a seamstress. “My dad dreamed of el norte (the north), anything that was not Cuban was from there,” Rodriguez says. “He got a hold of some foreign magazines and wallpapered the entire back room of the house in them. He used it as a backdrop for his photographs of girls’ quinces (sweet sixteen) pictures and birthday parties. It was very popular in town to be photographed with all these foreign things behind you. Since we didn’t have any of this stuff, I would stare longingly at ads for things like Volkswagens, jeans, car radios and chocolate-covered cherries with the little syrup oozing out. It turns out most of the ads were from German magazines. I didn’t speak English so I had no idea what the text said anyway!"
He would frequently visit one of his aunts, a pharmacist, because she always had paper and pencils. He sketched Che Guevara, and tanks, among other symbols of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Those icons and their colors were his cultural references. That graphic poster tradition was an early influence, as was Picasso, his favorite artist.
Although his family wasn’t wealthy, he has fond memories of his early childhood in Cuba. “We made a lot of our own toys,” he recalls. “There weren’t toys to buy in the stores so we’d just put stuff together with whatever we had—that Cuban inventiveness is something that permeates the culture there. If you don’t have something, you just get creative.”
Rodriguez got good grades and worked hard. He knew his parents had sacrificed everything for their children’s future; he wouldn’t let them down. “I’m very critical of everything I do. I’m tough on myself. It helps me create and move along,” he explains. He is always looking for something new to try. He credits his can-do attitude to his parents who taught him to work hard and not complain. Not content to just learn English, he excelled to become a spelling bee champion within his first year in the States.
In his senior year of high school, Rodriguez got an internship at an architecture firm but decided it wasn’t for him. “I didn’t want to spend my life making so-so buildings,” he says. He received a full art scholarship to the University of Miami, but he wanted to visit Pratt Institute first. He flew to New York—his premiere plane ride—and one weekend there convinced him that’s where he needed to be. It was hard for Rodriguez to leave his close-knit family, but they supported his desire to broaden his horizons.
At Pratt, he wavered between art direction and fine art, switching to fine art after the first year. He graduated in 1994 with a BFA in painting and received a MFA from Hunter College in 1998. “I’d take around my portfolio of illustration work, basically those drawings, just simple black-and-white things,” he says, pointing out an array of drawings tacked to a tall studio wall. One multi-piece work drawn from memory, captures the stucco surfaces of the crumbling buildings along Havana’s Malecón, an homage that brings alive the colors and textures of Cuba in both elegy and celebration. He began to pick up small jobs for the New York Times and the Village Voice and also took a job as a designer at Spy, and later Time.
Rodriguez met his wife Jennifer during their freshman year at Pratt. She was an art director at Time for ten years before making the decision to stay at home with their daughter. They have traveled widely, visiting Northern Africa, Greece and Eastern Europe, among other places. He keeps detailed, illustrated journals of his travels, and often uses them for color reference for his illustrations.
Known for his use of pastel on paper with black ink, Rodriguez enjoys experimenting with different surfaces. At Pratt he discovered papyrus and other unusual materials. His vivid line and bold colors pop out of layered backgrounds; subtle shades and depths appear and disappear.
For Rodriguez, whose work is informed by the revolutionary graphics that surrounded him in Cuba, an illustration must convey a message. Half of one’s illustration career is personality, he believes; some of it social skills—the other part is your work. When speaking with his peers, one hears nothing but kind words about his talent and his generosity. Rodriguez has a somewhat unusual M.O. for an illustrator: he is also a respected art director for Time’s Canadian edition and frequently hires his peers for cover assignments and interior spreads.
“I love working with Edel because I trust him,” says award-winning illustrator Luba Lukova. “His personality as an art director is in his own art: warm, sensitive, intelligent. I’ve worked with him several times and when I’ve shown him my initial sketches, I remember that I didn’t have to explain much. He has a vision and he understands you. He supports your best idea and helps you make it a reality. People like that are rare in the illustration business. Edel is a generous spirit and a great artist and that makes him so special as an art director.”
“Edel is a terrific designer whose style is highly ‘illustrative’—he brings the same visceral and vibrant elements to his designing that he displays as an illustrator,” says Arthur Hochstein, Time’s art director. “But if he ever has to choose between being an art director or an illustrator (fortunately, he doesn’t), I hope he would choose to be an illustrator; there’s no way the world should be deprived of the wonderful imagery he creates. His work transcends ‘illustration’ because it is timeless and often without a linear message…it’s more about a highly subjective mood and feeling than about storytelling or making a specific editorial point, so it has a much longer emotional shelf life than most illustration.
“Edel’s strong use of color and textural elements are obvious, but what really sets his work apart is his mastery of composition—his best pieces are almost Cubist (no pun intended) in their ability to challenge your perception of space and point of view,” Hochstein explains. “They also have a strong sense of dignity—his subjects are never exploited. In that way, and in his bold use of line, his work is reminiscent of Ben Shahn.”
“Being an art director myself also helps me understand what’s happening on the other end when I’ve sent in sketches. I know the hurdles the art directors have to jump on their ends and I think the people I work for appreciate my cooperation,” Rodriguez is quoted in an online interview with one of The New Yorker magazine’s illustration editors, Owen Phillips (altpick.com). “With short deadlines, set dimensions and given subject matter, it’s hard to argue that illustration’s a pure art form in the first place. Someone recently described it as being art under the circumstances, and that made perfect sense to me.”
Rodriguez claims, “I don’t do funny. If I do funny, it’s by accident.” Nonetheless his keen observations are translated into bold illustrations that put a twist on popular figures: Witness Mao in a Louis Vuitton tunic for a Time cover on the new Chinese economy, or the Rev. Al Sharpton in silhouette against a blood-red background, like a Victorian shadow portrait. Edel’s perspective has undoubtedly been shaped by his life experiences, lending his illustrations depth and insight. The subtle humor in his work adds tension and often contrasts the physical characteristics of a well-known personality with social or political imagery.
Besides his editorial work for an impressive roster of publications, Rodriguez has illustrated two children’s books, Mama Does the Mambo by Katherine Leiner and Float Like a Butterfly by Ntozake Shange (about Cassius Clay). Inspired by his daughter, he has written his first children’s book, which his book agent at Pippin Properties, Holly McGhee, is presently shopping around. He also illustrated a children’s bio book on Celia Cruz, the Cuban salsa singer, slated for publication this year from Henry Holt.
In fall 2005, Rodriguez was one of four artists chosen to illustrate a book of stamps on Latin dance genres, “Let’s Dance.” The official first-day ceremonies took place at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan where the Copa dancers brought the stamps to life to the rousing accompaniment of Willie Colón and his band. They performed the Mambo, Salsa, Merengue and the Cha Cha Cha (Edel’s assigned stamp). “The crowd was a mix of avid Latin music fans and some very wide-eyed stamp collectors and postal employees,” Rodriguez relates.
Edel Rodriguez has adapted throughout his life to his environment, drawing from it the inspiration he translates into a painted reality. Through drive, determination and talent, he has succeeded in the attainment of the American dream. ca