"Toss your spirit toward the wind and watch it spin in ecstasy. Although unusual the direction it may take, surprised you'll be at how it always circles around to rejoin the hand that gave it freedom"
PLEASE NOTE: This page is devoted to my life story, if you're interested to learn my professional achivements, please visit the 'HONORS' page.
A LONG TIME AGO
At the impressionable age of four, my parents took me to the Ringling Brothers Circus when it was touring my native Cuba. As the story goes, as soon as we got home I started drawing an elephant from the show. “Gilbertico,” as they lovingly called me, was instantly proclaimed an “artist.” There is little I remember from those early years except for playing with friends, going to the beach and some noteworthy events. One of my most vivid memories occurred just before age eleven. Soon after Fidel Castro took over the island and converted it into a communist state, TV stations began daily live broadcasts of firing squads shooting ex-government officials. The barbaric violence shattered my innocence and gave rise to a fear I had never known.
As should be expected from any person who knows right from wrong, my parents perceived the obvious danger facing their children. With no other viable solution at their disposal, they agreed to take my youngest sister and me out of Cuba. Their decision was one no other human should be forced to take. My oldest sister, still a teenager, had just gotten married and her husband was under military age, which meant he wasn’t permitted to leave the island. They essentially had to desert one child in order to protect the other two. Equally devastating, everything they owned would have to be handed over to the government.
We waited approximately a year to be granted official permission to depart. During this time, my parents kept me home from school to prevent the communist regime from brainwashing me, a process immediately initiated at all educational institutions. The day we left for the States is also etched deep in my mind. It wasn’t just seeing my father giving the keys of our car to the airport authorities, but also having a cruel armed guard remove one miserable cent from my pants’ pocket. Although I didn’t know at the time why my mother and sister were escorted to a side room, I later learned they were strip-searched and their orifices checked with a rubber glove for hidden jewelry or anything of value. The only thing we could take out of the country were two changes of clothes and one pair of shoes—period!
The move to another country with an unfamiliar culture and language was rather scary, yet the concept was intriguing. We first lived in Miami, as most Cuban refugees did during that time. The US government was absolutely wonderful in finding us a place to live and in providing army surplus food. Since the apartment was hardly furnished, we would go out at night looking through the neighborhood’s garbage for anything we could use. Some nights we got really lucky, it almost felt like Christmas. I recall sleeping on the roundest and hardest three cushion sofa anyone could imagine. Every morning the severe back pains made me feel as if I was eighty. Going to school in Miami also turned into a legitimate nightmare. I’m not referring to the difficulty with the language, but to the brutal gangs that were fashionable in the late 60s. Gangs of both sexes were prevalent in most of the city’s middle and high schools. Just for kicks, they would surround students outside the building and beat them up. Every morning and afternoon, I had to figure out a different strategy to avoid running into trouble.
Because of the great difficulty my parents confronted in finding jobs, they decided after a year to move again. Religious organizations throughout Miami were helping with the Cuban refugee overflow by finding churches around the country willing to be sponsors. The Methodist church hooked us up with a lovely family in the city of Chester, Virginia. My father got a job right away, yet it was all but impossible for any of us to communicate with people around us. I couldn’t understand the teachers, so I spent my school time drawing faces of presidents from photos on the classroom walls. This consequential boredom was the spark that evidenced my talent and my love for drawing.
After spending a year in Chester, friends convinced us to join them in New Jersey where lots of other Cubans lived. With tremendous embarrassment toward our sponsors for their great generosity, we expressed our gratitude and left for Hoboken. For those who don’t know what Hoboken looked like in the 60s, it was without question one of the ugliest cities anywhere. One unattractive building next to the other with hardly any green spaces. It was an immense disappointment entering this crowded dark environment after living in Cuba, Miami and Chester. My poor parents were forced to work at jobs far removed from the comfortable middle-class lifestyle they enjoyed in Cuba. “Pipo,” as I called my dad, could only find employment as a janitor, and “Mima,” a homemaker throughout her adult life, got a job in a sweatshop sewing zippers. My sister had to quit high school to work and help with our family expenses. Not at all what any of them expected, but it was the only way to survive. Although I wondered the purpose of moving to such a depressing place and going through all the hardships, I was nonetheless a child. My disillusion quickly vanished after making some friendships and experiencing my first romance.
By the time I became a high school junior, art had already swayed the course of destiny. Art was at the center of everything I did and winning some early awards only reinforced the decision to make it my future career.
BIRTH OF A NEW PASSION
I wanted to go to college after graduating high school, but my parents didn’t have the means. The only way to overcome the dilemma was to work days and weekends while attending college at night. There was still one serious issue with my plan—finding a school I could afford. Although my control of the English language was rather weak, I still got decent grades and a satisfactory SAT score to be accepted into a university close to home. It wasn’t any of the reputable art schools I dreamed of attending, but it offered a fine arts degree. The school acquainted me to many subjects and basics I wasn’t familiar with, an ignorance stemming from the ineptness of my high school art teacher. Ironically, that teacher’s incompetence would later become one of the motivating reasons for a career decision.
Even though I enrolled in many art classes, photography was never a consideration. I just couldn’t afford to buy a camera. This justification evaporated swiftly when I became a junior. I took a Communications course where students had to make a presentation based on a personal experience. A senior in that class showed photographs from his backpacking trip to Europe. First time my eyes witnessed photos of such beauty and power on a large screen—they were stunning. The impact was so significant that I started putting money away to buy a camera. Almost a year later, I had saved enough to purchase a Nikon body with a 50mm lens. Although my interest in photography grew by leaps and bounds, it wasn’t until six years later while doing a photo-surrealistic painting series, called Display, that it became an integral part of my life. This series used human models and required the finished work to look like a photograph. To achieve my aim, not only did I have to photograph a model’s entire body, but also close-ups of their hands, feet, face, etc. The question became: How could I maintain the same angle of view for those pictures without moving? It was obvious my 50mm lens was the wrong tool for the job. Back then, the only workable solution was to buy several zoom lenses, and that’s what I did. Never would I've expected the necessity of buying lenses would be the beginning of a second career.
"Empower your mind to envision outside
a paradigm of conformity until
sparks of creativity illuminates the path."
LEARNING THE BASICS
With the new assortment of lenses, the creative juices began flowing, yet the lack of technical knowledge hampered my motivation. It was way too late lamenting the foolishness of not taking a photography class. My paintings, on the other hand, kept me so busy I didn’t want to go back to university. I searched for another learning method that would gratify and not interfere with my work. Luckily, camera clubs existed, and continue to exist near most communities. A good friend introduced me to the Try-County Camera Club in New Jersey. In a nutshell, I loved the idea of learning through photo competitions. The judges and experienced members furnished those missing links I wanted to understand. Yes, it’s also true camera clubs stifle creativity if photographers don’t eventually step away from them and their rigid rules. I kept reminding myself photography was an art form and not just a technical skill. As with any art medium, folks need to learn when and how to break rules to attain something unique, but such philosophy is rarely encouraged or promoted in a camera club atmosphere. Regardless of my humble opinion, I miss those early days and all the close friendships I made along the way.
Going as far back as my teens, people always branded me with different titles depending on the work I did. I’ve always been just an artist with an enormous desire to create and always indebted to my wonderful gift. Notwithstanding, let me also reveal that my DNA molecule hasn’t yet decided what direction the chains should be coiling. There is no secret, painting and photography have been at the core of my existence. Still, few know I love to sculpt, write, design furniture, create websites, audio-visual presentations and tackle architecture. As the works on this website illustrate, I’m not partial to specific subjects or techniques. For me, there is nothing more fulfilling than shattering the dormant barriers within the vast frontiers of our selective process. Allow me to clarify, I've always advocated for professionals to find and maintain a consistent style. However, it would be a pity to waste the endless possibilities of a talent by remaining attached to the same approach for a lifetime. All true artists evolve by experimenting with fresh approaches.
designed by Gil Lopez-Espina ©2013
A CAREER COMES TO A HALT
In the mid-80s, at the height of my painting career, and only weeks after obtaining the third great review from the New York Times, I had to stop painting. Just impossible to explain through words how this huge void felt, but it did last nearly twenty-five years. Terrible personal decisions provoked this outcome, a result only avoidable if I was a different sort of human being. Without my chief passion in life, I turned the full attention to photography. One notable advantage ensued from this eventful interruption. No longer did I feel the huge pressure of maintaining two careers active and competitive. A wide window opened to further explore a multitude of photographic ideas. Throughout this long period, I did something else most would consider ill-advised. I stopped going to museums and galleries. Such experiences would only remind me of the talent I was so badly wasting and all the lost opportunities. I didn’t want to deal with the frustration; it was already difficult enough.
A NEW OBSESSION
As I began giving more time to photography, I also started submitting my work to several photo agencies, magazine editors and other sources, including some TV channels. A very time-consuming exercise when considering those submissions could contain hundreds of photos and all of them required three labels, one with a barcode. This process became even more demanding years later after some of my editors echoed their preference for stories accompanying photos. For a person who never wrote much, that was a huge stumbling block, but I had to find a way.
With immense difficulty and many rewrites, I finished my first article proposal. To me it appeared fine, but to be sure, I asked a friend English teacher to proofread it—his red marks were everywhere. Little by little I learned to avoid most mistakes, but I never found it easy. In an ironic twist, my love for writing turned into another passion. Writing became my favorite tool to convey what my brushes and cameras couldn’t. Let me be downright frank, I don't claim to be a writer even if it’s as fulfilling as my inborn talents. Although one of my distant cousins, Concha Espina, was nominated twenty-five times in twenty-eight years for the Nobel prize in literature, she left this earth in 1955 without entrusting me to any of her talented genes. The writings on this website are but a humble attempt to convey through words the feelings that come to mind when I least expect them.
SHARING THE GIFT
It would be indefensible not to reveal an important part of my life. For many years, while keeping two careers going, I also taught fine arts. There were a few reasons for becoming an educator. First, I wanted to give back what my unethical high school teacher never furnished. Furthermore, I couldn’t think of another profession providing the same time off to allow the pursuit of my careers. I taught during the day, got home and painted past midnight and slept about four and a half hours per night. The photographic activities also continued every chance I could; it was total madness, but it satisfied my hungry objectives. What I never imagined was falling in love with teaching, my students, and having the immense privilege of guiding the life path of so many young minds. In order to disseminate all the information inside me, I found it necessary to expand the course offerings. I taught ten different disciplines while creating seven of those curriculums. At the end, and with great regret, I had no choice but to retire early. The enormous demands from my other professions were overwhelming, plus the absurd political correctness mandated by the powers above just became too much to tolerate. It was ridiculous that teachers could no longer pat a student on the back to compliment their accomplishments. Nor could a female student needing help with her work stay with a male teacher after school. Teachers throughout the country took the first steps to eradicate the nurturing humanistic bond students have always needed.
THE MOVE TO PARADISE
Back in 2006, I made the toughest decision of my life by moving to Brazil after designing and building a house. There were many good reasons for taking such a radical step, but none as significant as getting the chance to paint again. Brazil provided a wonderful opportunity to re-embark on a fresh start with my paints and brushes, something I deeply missed. Along with the excitement, there were lots of misgivings. I was leaving behind my family and all my dear friends, plus; I had to close Fototreks, the photographic tour company I founded and worked so hard to make one of the world’s best.
The pristine oceanfront property my wife and I settled on is a legitimate paradise where tranquility and nature abound, ideal for painting and offering a wonderful environment for photographic opportunities. Along with the expected positives, we right away confronted massive corruption from swindlers of all types and sizes. As the cliche goes, I could write a book, but in this case, it would be over two volumes. If I wanted to commit to paper all those devastating events, there is no doubt it would be a bestseller.
Our property is so far removed from civilization, there is no such thing as a physical address, everyone visiting has to follow a lengthy set of instructions and travel several kilometers through a very bumpy sand road. Unlike the US, nothing in this beautiful state of Bahia is easy, including having proper communication with the outside world. After fourteen years, this website became a reality because a new company erected a tower near us with fast Internet connectivity. I can now upload all my site files to the server instead of dealing with an incredibly slow USB modem that made it impossible to run a website.
Let me conclude by assuring folks reading this page, my life has not been as chaotic as it sounds. Confidence and eternal optimism have always played an imperative role in keeping me laser focused. Even if not exposed in any paragraph above, my sense of humor has preserved the sanity while my four-legged children have supplied the best anxiety medicine to brighten those moments of darkness.