Sally Rackey had been looking for the right person to receive her gift — a century-old wooden briefcase, faded but sturdy, holding supplies once used by her artist father.
Rackey found the right person in Santiago Hermes, a Cuban artist who is at work on a tribute to the 49 victims of Orlando's Pulse nightclub shootings.
The conservatively dressed Sarasota real estate agent presented the case to the wild-haired artist, his long beard twisted into five braids, when he visited Sarasota last week.
The setting was Legendary Travels, a travel agency that is the link between the two as the place where Edward Sotomayor worked. Sotomayor, a 34-year-old University of South Florida graduate killed in the Pulse shootings, was an acquaintance of Rackey's and developed a deep friendship with Hermes after he launched trips to Cuba through a Legendary Journeys' division called ALandCHUCK.travel, specializing in gay vacation packages.
"I've been looking for years for the right person to give it to," Rackey said, sobbing, as she handed over the rustic case Wednesday in a gathering at the travel agency. "He is perfect. It will go to good use."
Hermes will put the art supplies to work as he finishes the 49 pieces that form his exhibit honoring the Pulse victims, scheduled for a tour starting in June through a number of American cities — Tampa, Orlando, Sarasota, Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. June 12 is the anniversary of the attack on the gay nightclub by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard also killed in the shootings.
The Hermes work that received the most attention Wednesday is titled Top Hat Eddie, Sotomayor's nickname, depicting people lifting a giant top hat so those trapped under it can escape. Hermes said the painting symbolizes the ongoing struggle for the rights of LGBT individuals and the work of those who support them.
Sotomayor spearheaded the Cuba tours, friends said, to help bring the two nations together in a new era of normalization. He first visited Hermes' gallery in Cienfuegos last April and made it a permanent part of Legendary Journeys' Cuban tours. Rackey joined one of the tours in January.
"He was able to connect the two countries and he continues to connect us," Hermes said. "He will always be my friend."
"Eddie is a bridge between Cuba and the United States," Hermes' wife, Mary Hermes, said through an interpreter. "He is special to us."
She added, "There was a magical connection. When we found out about Pulse, it was like a gut punch."
Hermes attended Sotomayor's funeral in Sarasota, then marched in the St. Pete Pride Parade on June 25. The parade inspired him to pursue the Pulse exhibit — a mix of paintings, sketches, sculptures and works in other media.
"Sometimes when people disappear from one's life, the people are forgotten," Hermes said. "I cannot allow people to forget Eddie."
"This is ambitious," said Al Ferguson, founder of Legendary Journeys, who has been raising money for the exhibit and working out logistics. "But we're doing it."
As small groups of Sotomayor's friends looked over the paintings during the sneak peek, Rackey took a moment to rummage through the wooden briefcase one last time.
The style Hermes' art, she said, is similar to her father's.
"My father lived in Washington state when he was given this," Rackey said, kissing her hand then touching the briefcase in farewell. "From Washington to Cuba. Enjoy the trip, Papa. You're in good hands."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected]. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.