The Cuban “Picasso”
By Jana Soeldner Danger
Cuban-born artist Emilio Sauma’s favorite time to paint is late at night, alone in his Miami studio. “I have a glass of wine, a good cigar, music, and a brush in my hand,” he says. “That’s when I explode and work for hours.”
Sauma prefers to paint on large canvases, using intricate designs and bold colors to create dramatic, visually arresting works. But he was a bit taken aback when a collector in Louisiana wanted to commission a painting 20 feet long and eight feet tall. And it was to be a framed piece, not a mural. “I decided for something that large, there had to be a story to go with it,” Sauma says.
To fill the canvas, he conjured up a tale about Roman soldiers trying to capture a beautiful woman, and the vicious battle that ensued. The result was the spectacular “El Rapto,” a complex painting with galloping horses, helmeted soldiers, a whispering goddess, flying spears, and a woman with a tear in her eye, crying about the suffering from the war she has caused. Sauma became so deeply involved in the creation of the huge painting that he worked till his fingers literally bled. “I have pictures to prove it,” he says.
But Sauma wasn’t content to let the story end there. Instead, he continued the saga so it will eventually become a series with three more paintings depicting the woman’s capture, her escape, and her eventual triumphant rescue.
Sauma says his success as an artist got a boost when, early in his career, he did a poster for a March of Dimes gala. The organization auctioned the original painting and sold signed prints, with the proceeds going to the charity. The work gave him exposure that led to commissions and wider recognition.
Sauma claims Cundo Bermudez as his mentor. He was teaching language arts and drama in a Miami middle school when the world-famous, Cuban-born master turned up at a friend’s art exhibit. When the friend introduced Sauma to Bermudez, Sauma was thrilled.
“For me, it was like meeting Picasso,” Sauma says. “He was one of the great artists in the world, and he knew so much. He told me he had seen my work, and he thought I had a touch. I could hardly believe it.”
As a middle school teacher, Sauma used art as a way of connecting with his students. When kids would bring their yearbooks to him to sign, he would instead make drawings on the pages for them. “There would always be a line outside my classroom,” he recalls.
After his introduction to Bermudez, they developed a friendship. Sauma would visit Bermudez at his home, where they would drink coffee—and an occasional glass of scotch—and Bermudez would tell stories and offer the younger artist advice about his work. “One thing he told me is that behind all the colors on a canvas, there always has to be a drawing, and the drawing is the basis of the painting,” Sauma says. “Now I always do a drawing first.”
Sauma is proud of his success as an artist. But he is also proud of another accomplishment: the founding of the Coral Gables Hispanic Cultural Foundation, where he serves as president and CEO. Each year, the organization hosts the Coral Gables Hispanic Cultural Festival that showcases local and international artists, musicians and designers, and draws more than 15,000 people. “Emilio has done a really incredible job in forming a foundation that cares about promoting art and culture in the South Florida community,” says Leandra Lopez, a volunteer who works as treasurer for the foundation. “He cares not only about promoting his own art, but the works of other artists as well.”
Every year, a committee chooses a particular artist to honor during the festival. The first year it was Bermudez. In successive years there came Mario Carreno, Rafael Soriano and Jose Maria. This year, the festival’s fifth anniversary, Sauma himself was the honoree.
Sauma’s inspiration comes from simple day-to-day life with his fiancée, Lucia Zas, and his daughters, Sabrina and Savannah Sauma and Sophia Lopez. In addition to large canvases, he also does small paintings he calls details. “Not everyone has a wall for one of the large paintings, but anyone can find a place for one of these,” he says.
Miami can be a good place for an artist, Sauma says. “There’s a tremendous amount of talent here. Miami is evolving, and people are getting more involved in the art scene.”
Top image: “The Beginning”. Top left: La Caribeña” (The Caribbean Lady), official poster for this year’s Coral Gables Hispanic Cultural Festival.”El Rapto” is 20ft long by 10ft high, Sauma’s biggest piece to date. There has been talk about its similarity to Picasso’s Guernica because of the battle. Lower right: “El Rapto” is 20ft long by 10ft high, Sauma’s biggest piece to date. There has been talk about its similarity to Picasso’s Guernica because of the battle.