TAMPA — Amanda Poss, director of Hillsborough Community College’s art galleries, was installing Lilian Garcia-Roig’s exhibition of landscapes of the U.S. and Cuba at Gallery 114 on the Ybor City campus when a knock came on the door.
At the door were construction workers, on the job in a different part of the building. They came in and pointed to a painting titled Hecho con Cuba: Valley of Earthly Delights.
One man asked Poss if it was Cuba’s Viñales Valley depicted in the painting. Poss said yes and asked him how he knew that. He told her he grew up there.
“I think about this stylized approach that (Garcia-Roig) has in the kind of levels of abstraction, but it was clear from him outside of the gallery looking through the window, not reading anything, he knew immediately what that was,” Poss said. “He came in with his friend, and for them, it was direct. They were pointing out what they knew and what they recognized.”
This sense of place and identity is exactly what Garcia-Roig, who is Cuban American, is exploring in the exhibit “Hyphenated Nature,” through landscapes created both on site in plein air and in her studio using dirt from the Viñales Valley.
The exhibition came out of a decision to start highlighting arts faculty from Florida universities, as a way to introduce HCC art students to them ahead of the students attending those institutions.
“Lilian got on our radar because we’re always trying to make connections to something local,” Poss said. “Since she is a Cuban American artist, and we knew this was going to be in Ybor, which has such a strong cultural and historical connection to Cuba, she was kind of perfect.”
Born in Havana in 1966, Garcia-Roig’s family left for the United States in 1968. They settled in Houston. After being raised and working in Texas for 30 years she now lives in Tallahassee, where she is a professor and chairperson of the art department at Florida State University.
She holds a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Pennsylvania (1990) and a bachelor’s from Southern Methodist University (1988). She has been an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to numerous awards, Garcia-Roig was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2021.
Because her small family left Cuba before 1971, they were not allowed to visit Cuba freely for many years. This separation from her culture, coupled with living in places in the U.S. that didn’t have a big Cuban population, led Garcia-Roig to explore themes of identity based in place.
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“When people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ when I moved to Florida, that really sort of shook me in a way cause I’d been in Texas for 30 years,” she said in a phone interview. “And I’d seen myself as an almost native Texan. And then I moved to Florida, but it’s not Miami, right?
“I didn’t realize how much this idea of trying to assimilate and never really being able to, and then my desire to sort of just connect to a place even if it’s temporary, how much that was rooted into my own narrative of immigration, or being a refugee in this country.”
In college, Garcia-Roig painted and drew hyper-realistic pieces that were non-objective, but found that she didn’t connect to them. She found that having a subject to respond to, in landscapes, gave her the challenge to not only make it look like what it is, but also make it about the paint and the physicality of the process.
Part of the exhibition in Ybor City showcases the large-format, onsite landscapes from her Cumulative Nature and Hyperbolic Nature series. She goes deep into environments in the U.S., including Florida, lugging huge canvases and materials, and spends days capturing the landscape in real time, as light changes. She shoves paint into thick layers on the canvas that depict identifiable places but are abstracted by the presence of her hand.
“I want the paint medium to have to be part of the subject itself, to have a really active moment in that perceptual experience that you have of it,” she said.
Garcia-Roig went to Cuba for the first time in 1999, at the invitation of a Cuban artist. Despite having no memories of the country and growing up in the U.S., she said she was shocked by how Cuban she felt when she arrived there.
“When I landed there and started talking to my relatives and seeing how much we had in common, though, culturally, we’re very different,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much I had lost.”
In 2017, despite tough travel restrictions, Garcia-Roig returned to Cuba for a monthlong trip. With a goal to insert herself into the tradition of Cuban landscape painters, she identified the Viñales Valley as a place to capture. Due to logistics, she decided to make small acrylics on paper and cardboard and brought them back with her.
She also took rocks that she could grind into pigments, and while she was in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, La., created a body of work called Hecho Con Cuba using the dirt to form the iconic landscape. Though she usually works onsite, she figured she could still use the Cuban landscape as her subject even though she wasn’t there because she was working with the physical materials of the land.
Some of that work is in the exhibition as a 10-panel series, Hecho Con Cuba: Homage to Viñales. The landscape is painted in the pigment over brightly colored backdrops inspired by the vibrant houses in Cuba, with Josef Albers-inspired squares.
In the Hyphenated Nature series, Garcia-Roig places the Hecho Con Cuba pieces in the center of the plein air landscapes, as with the triptych, Hyphenated Nature: Northern Florida-Cuban Painting Relations (After Carta). This exhibition is the first time she has shown this series.
“This is the first show I would say fully hyphenates the work I do,” she said. “And hence the title — the hyphenated nature hyphenates my own nature, it hyphenates Cuba and America, it hyphenates two formal ways of painting. There’s a lot of hyphenating going on in this show.”
“Hyphenated Nature” is on view through Feb. 24. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday. Garcia-Roig will give a gallery talk at a reception on Feb. 17 from 5-8 p.m. Gallery 114, Hillsborough Community College Ybor City Campus. 1411 E 11th Ave., Tampa. 813-253-7674. hccfl.edu.