Remembering Rolando Estévez: A Cuban book artist whose work has a home at the University of Michigan
Over the last twenty-five years, the University of Michigan was fortunate to be able to welcome a great Cuban artist to our campus — Rolando Estévez, a poet, performance artist, book artist, theater set designer, educator, and promoter of the arts. In the course of several visits, Estévez graced the university community and greater Ann Arbor with riveting lectures, inspiring bookmaking workshops for all ages, and fascinating discussions about the idea of the handmade book and its sensorial qualities in an era of digital books. Estévez had hopes of returning to Ann Arbor for another visit. And he dreamed of directing Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and creating more handmade books. Sadly, he died of complications from cancer in his hometown of Matanzas, Cuba on January 17, 2023. He was 69.
Though he could have left ten years later... [he] decided his destiny was to remain in Cuba.
I met Estévez in Havana in 1994, when Cuban-Americans like me who had left the island as children were returning to Cuba, searching for a deeper understanding of our history and embarking on research projects from our diaspora perspective. He and I felt an immediate connection. His parents had left Cuba in 1969 with his younger sister, who was eight at the time. He was fifteen, and being considered of military age by Cuban law he wasn’t allowed to leave with them. This was the most traumatic event in his life. He later wrote a poem about how they took him to the movies while his mother packed her bags. Though he could have left ten years later, after his parents settled in Miami, he felt devastated by what he had felt as his abandonment and decided his destiny was to remain in Cuba. His sister never returned and he told me I reminded him of her. He urged me to begin writing in Spanish, which I did. Thus began our collaboration on a range of handmade books, incorporating my poetry and stories and his beautiful artwork and book designs.
In 1985, Estévez co-founded a Matanzas-based bookmaking collective, Ediciones Vigía, with writer and editor Alfredo Zaldívar. They published works by Cuban and international writers in small, artisanally produced editions of 200 copies. These books were designed by Estévez and made by a team of artisans, using the trademark brown butcher paper with which they crafted their first set of books. I was so charmed by these books and by Estévez’s work as an artist that I wanted to bring attention to their extraordinary creativity.
I had been working to build cultural and artistic bridges between Cubans and Cuban-Americans and realized the bridge had to go both ways, to and from Cuba. And so in October, 1998, I organized the first visit of Rolando Estévez and Alfredo Zaldívar to the United States and their first visit to an American university. During that visit, we hosted the first exhibition of Ediciones Vigía handmade books in the United States. Estévez led a workshop teaching UM students how to produce handmade books out of ordinary things and the debris of everyday life. We also exhibited in the lobby of the Michigan Union a set of twelve works by Estévez in black and white tempera and ink on paper that focused on the theme of waiting, “Gerundios para la espera,” which used a small male figure in relationship to a huge boulder to describe a variety of ways of waiting, a perpetual state for so many Cubans. At this time, the Special Collections division of the Graduate Library acquired a larger number of Ediciones Vigía books, beginning what has become a major collection of these extraordinary handmade books.
In 2012, I was able to invite Rolando Estévez to Michigan again, this time coinciding with the visit of the Cuban poet Nancy Morejón. I organized a double week program, “Cuba on Campus,” in which we featured Morejón’s poetry and Estévez’s handmade books. On this visit to Michigan, Estévez produced a stunning set of eight original artworks, each incorporating lyrical poetic lines of his own creation, each made on the same brown paper used for the handmade books. With tremendous generosity, he donated these artworks as his gift to the University of Michigan, and they became part of the Special Collections.
Three more memorable visits by Estévez followed. All the while, he was continually developing his skills as a book artist. His bookmaking became more intense, elaborate, and filled with surprises as he integrated more theatrical elements into his creations. He started creating more one-of-a-kind installation pieces that deconstructed the idea of the book while still claiming to be called books. With these books he used boxes and shopping bags and envelopes and suitcases and other vessels, either made from scratch or recycled, to encase the reading material. In these years he made the difficult decision to leave Ediciones Vigía to give himself full freedom as a creative artist; he applied for and received permission from the Cuban government to work as an independent maker of artist books and launched his own imprint, El Fortín.
When Estévez came to Michigan in March, 2014, he gave a lecture on the topic of “Beautiful Books, Subversive Ideas,” in which he performed the presentation of a breathtaking piece, an unclassifiable work focusing on Hemingway and the legacy of his presence in Cuba, which is now also part of UM’s Special Collections. At the high point of the performance, he pulled his elaborately folded artwork from a handmade knapsack that he had crafted and slowly unveiled it before an enraptured audience. Entitled “The Angel and the Sea,” the piece incorporated an enormous portrait of Hemingway, seen through Estévez’s eyes as a languorous young man, and a poem written by Estévez:
Farewell to arms, said
a man who took up
—and turned against himself—
a shotgun one fine day
In his subsequent visit in 2015, we exhibited the eight beautiful artworks that Estévez had gifted to the University of Michigan in 2012, presenting them at the Audubon Room, the Gallery of the Hatcher Library, with the title “Plurality of Love: Poetry and Art in the Works of Cuban Artist, Rolando Estévez.” These artworks, with such titles as Con esta mano pulso el arpa de tu alma (“With this hand I strum the harp of your soul”) addressed the fluidity of gender identity with the unique subtlety of Estévez’s visual poetics.
Then in 2017, we decided to focus on Estévez’s love for the poetry of nineteenth-century Cuban poet and independence leader José Martí. The Versos sencillos, or Simple Verses, of Martí became an iconic work of Cuban and Cuban-American literature. These poems were written in Spanish while Martí was in exile in New York, fighting for the independence of Cuba from Spanish colonial domination. Estévez returned to these poems continually for inspiration and in this stage of his career he was producing a wide range of one-of-a-kind artist books incorporating Martí’s poems in Spanish and English. In honor of this devotion to Martí, Estévez’s lecture and bookmaking workshop on this visit to the University of Michigan were entitled “I am Art Among the Arts/Arte soy entre las artes,” a well-known line from a Martí poem.
This visit was also special in that it included the presentation of “The Key to the House,” a work incorporating a handwritten copy of an essay I wrote with that title, in both Spanish and English, illustrated with Estévez’s artwork. The text and art are encased in a suitcase Estévez had used in his travels, spray-painted in gold, that included a variety of personal objects (from lipstick to garments to postcards) that I had traveled with over the years, as well as a menorah that alluded to my Jewish identity. That work is now also housed in our Special Collections.
During all these visits throughout the years, Estévez always spent a significant part of his time interacting with students at the University of Michigan, in his bookmaking workshops and in visits to my class on “Cuba and Its Diaspora,” as well as at cafecitos that we organized for Latinx and Spanish-speaking students who wanted to chat with him more informally about his work. It was moving to hear from students how much they appreciated these interactions with Estévez and how inspiring they found it to be around an artist who could mesh literature and art in such compelling ways and use the most ordinary materials to make beautiful books. As Miranda Garcia, an anthropology graduate student, recalls, “It was an incredible opportunity to be able to meet and learn from Rolando Estévez during his campus visit and to discuss how he kept the tradition of bookmaking alive amid the many challenges in Cuba. To have then been able to create my own book in the hands-on bookmaking workshop, was a true gift. Estévez was an enthusiastic, patient, and encouraging teacher. I treasure the José Martí poetry book I made with Estévez' guidance. It greets me on my bookshelf every day.”
The support of many departments and programs at the University of Michigan made Estévez’s visits possible, including the Department of Anthropology, World Performance Studies, International Institute, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Latina/o Studies, Institute for the Humanities, LSA’s Dean Office, and the Hatcher Graduate Library. The librarians who have worked to build the collection of Estévez’s work in Special Collections, including Peggy Daub, Jamie Vander Broek, Juli McLoone, Athena Jackson, and Kristine Grieve, were extraordinary.
Estévez had a special affection for the University of Michigan and for the city of Ann Arbor, which he endearingly called 'La arboleda de Ana.'
Estévez had a special affection for the University of Michigan and for the city of Ann Arbor, which he endearingly called “La arboleda de Ana.” Every time he came to Ann Arbor, he enjoyed taking walks downtown and around the campus. I recall one occasion when he went on a stroll and returned with UM paraphernalia, including a UM T-shirt and matching cloth shoes with an M embroidered on them. His visits made me feel that Cuba wasn’t that far away, and I know that everyone who met him and encountered his work felt the same way. I am sad he won’t visit us here anymore. But he often told me how much he appreciated the way his work was being cared for and preserved at Michigan, and he knew it would have a long life in our library. I too am glad there is a home for Estévez’s work at the University of Michigan and hope many will find their way to Special Collections and get to know the extraordinary contribution he made to the world of books.
Ruth Behar, Juanamaria Cordones-Cook, and Kristin Schwain, eds., Handmade in Cuba: Rolando Estévez and the Beautiful Books of Ediciones Vigía (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2020).