When artist Reynier Llanes moved to Charleston in 2009, he didn't come here in order to paint Lowcountry landscapes, scenes of Gullah life, or the historic buildings south of Broad. Instead, Llanes brought his artistic inspiration with him.
Llanes is from Pinar del Rio, an artistically and biologically rich region at the westernmost end of Cuba. The province is mountainous and verdant, with a strong artistic heritage. "It's very colorful. We have the tobacco farms so there's lots of farmers, pretty landscapes," he says. "And we have some of the most incredible artists coming from there, because the education in the art schools is very wonderful."
Llanes is one of Cuba's many young artists who grew up in Pinar del Rio, and when he moved to Naples, Fla. as a 22-year-old in 2007, he grew passionate about sharing his cultural heritage with his new country. He's done this not only through his own artwork, which evokes themes and images from his upbringing, but also by collecting and selling the works of other artists from Pinar del Rio through his gallery, the Reynier Llanes Studio.
His professional journey began in Naples, when he met Daniel Island artist Jonathan Green. At the time Green had a gallery in Naples, and he invited Llanes to show his work there. Green is an avid supporter of artists of Caribbean, Latin American, and African-American descent who are deeply connected to their heritage; Green's own art has strong ties to the Gullah culture he was born into. He recognized the same sort of connection in Llanes' work and that — plus Llanes' talent — convinced Green to take him under his wing as a protegé. Later, when Green moved to Charleston, he offered to take Llanes with him as a kind of apprentice. He taught the young artist about the business side of art — how to begin a personal collection, how to deal with collectors and museums, how to mount an exhibition, and other aspects of making a living as an artist. Llanes took it all in and eventually opened his own studio, though he still works as an art consultant for Green.
When it comes to his own work, Llanes works in oils, charcoal, watercolor, and, most notably, coffee. He discovered the drink's use as a painting medium by accident when he was still living in Cuba. "In those days I didn't have watercolors or acrylics, but I was very interested in doing watercolor paintings. One day I was drawing and drinking some coffee, and I spilled the coffee on the drawing. I didn't think I could work much more with the damage, but when it dried I was like, 'Wow! I can paint with coffee like it's watercolor,'" he says. "I did a lot of coffee paintings when I was in Cuba, but they were more like sketches. I wasn't taking it very seriously, till I got to the United States, and I see that coffee is a great link to my culture."
Llanes uses the same techniques he uses with watercolors — creating washes and layering — when working with coffee, although he says that coffee paintings take a longer time to finish. And naturally, he only uses a particular type of coffee. "It's gotta be Cuban," he says. "I think Cuban coffee, it means more to me, but also the color with the coffee paintings — I don't know why is that, but the Cuban coffee has a shiny sepia that I haven't been able to create with other brands." Plus, he says, the aroma always makes him think of his home.
Llanes recently opened the exhibition The Art of Pinar del Rio, which is hanging at the City Gallery through Dec. 29. It's a huge show, featuring 92 works by 13 artists (including Llanes), all of whom are from Pinar del Rio and many of whom are still living in Cuba. The works are all part of Llanes' personal collection. Though the artists' styles and subject matter vary greatly, most share several common themes — a strong link to the Cuban culture and landscape, an emphasis on family or unity, and reflection on contemporary Cuban society. There are landscapes, abstract pieces, portraits, still lifes, and more.
"I mixed up all the paintings so I will create storytellling in the exhibition. So if they [visitors] go to one painting, they might see it's a different style, but when they go to the next one they will find something that's related to the first one," Llanes says.
It's a unique show for the City Gallery, focusing as it does entirely on art from another country. Llanes is the only artist who could be called local. And in a town where "local" trumps nearly every other descriptor — for better or worse — The Art of Pinar del Rio is a sign that perhaps Charleston's art scene is expanding its boundaries.
"Charleston has so much potential, but we need that integration [of people from different cultures], and art is a good tool to educate people. The idea of culture and traditions — they are part of our DNA," he says. "Back in Naples, I have some more friends, different artists from different parts of the world, so we had this community. Here it's kind of difficult to find, but I have definitely met very strong artists that I like what they're doing. But we miss a lot of that integration with each other. We don't get together as much for a cocktail, or at a place to discuss issues, ideas."
Hopefully, this exhibition will help encourage viewers to take a closer look at art from different communities and cultures. "I'm creating my own heritage, the heritage we have from Pinar del Rio," he says. "It means a lot for the artists and the community as well — they feel proud to be showing in a beautiful city in a beautiful space, showing this much work. It's a legacy for these artists."