Critically Endangered palms of Cuba
Perhaps it is because I reside in western New York, that I am still enamored with the image of the solitary palm tree. It is not a scene that I see daily like those who might live in warmer climates so that image remains special. My first memory of a specific palm tree is from when I was 6 years old living in a small faded pink cinder block home in Miami, Florida (1757 NW 21 Street - now an empty lot). Everyday after returning from Comstock Elementary School, the neighborhood boys would pelt each other with rock hard baby coconuts that would drop from the palm tree in front of our home. The narrow strip of dirt that was our front yard had a single tall palm tree that seemed to drop its young everyday. The size of these green projectiles fit perfectly in our small hands.
As I grew older, I learned to gingerly climb up the palms' long slender trunks, as I waited for my parents to put out our dinner on the trampled dried grass near the beach at Crandon Park (what is now a marina).
When I moved out of Miami to a small rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, I remember my father buying small palm trees in his futile attempt to have the plants survive through the winter. Every winter there would always be at least one evening when the coal furnace could not keep up with the bitterly cold winds that easily slid between the porous single paned window frames. In the mornings, the green fronds began turning brown signaling their inevitable death. It was during this time that my father decided to work on his second doctorate which would concentrate on the writings of José Martí, a Cuban poet and patriot. His first degree was in mathematics. I remember, at the time, wondering why he would take on such a strange challenge late in life when he had a full time job as a Spanish teacher, a wife and two kids. It is not until now while I write this entry, with subfreezing temperatures outside, that I realize his need to connect with his Cuban culture and the unobtainable.
As a grown man with my own home in a rural community outside of Buffalo, I followed in his steps and made various attempts to keep a small palm alive through the seasons. I transplanted the plant, that I purchased at a local Walmart, into a large pot and constructed a wheeled base. I could feel the palm soaking the heat and humidity in late months of summer and I would conscientiously wheel the plant into my studio as the temperatures dropped. I followed this ritual for years but could not find a substitute for the consistent amount of sunshine needed to allow the plants to survive after two to three years. Each plant slowly died when it grew to a certain height. I could see their struggle over the years, and soon I gave up my attempts.
I continued to be drawn to haunting and glorious images of single palm trees and they subconsciously found their way in to my paintings (Madonnas in Time, Icons Series, and Appropriated Memories) and films (Unkept Promise and Seeing the Dark). One of these paintings titled ''Las palmas son novias que esperan (The palm trees are lovers who wait)” , a verse from an 1891 poem by José Martí, was created as a tribute to my infatuation with these solitary beings. The work ended up into the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
In 2020, long time friend, landscape designer and palm collector, Pat Tierney, passed away unexpectedly. His love for plants was contagious and the following year, while web surfing for research books for upcoming projects, a recommended link popped up about Paul Craft’s book, The Palms of Cuba. After reading his book and several others publications and academic articles, I was shocked to learn about half of the palm species, that are found no where else but in Cuba, are threatened or endangered. The cause for their demise is the spread of agriculture and commercial development and the effects of hurricanes and other natural causes on the remaining population.
This series documents the critically endangered palm species found only in Cuba, that are on the verge of extinction. I see this work as an extension of my emotional connection to the floral and fauna investigated in the Biological Regionalism Series, the Extinct Birds Project, the Lost Beauty Projects and the Aesthetics of Death.
Decades after my family left Cuba, I returned with my mother to revisit her favorite locations. On our way back from Vinales, I pulled the car over to take photographs and film footage of these solitary group of palm trees.
Las Palmas Son Novias Que Esperan (The Palms Are Lovers Who Wait), 1992. Oil on wood, 12 x 10 x 3 in. (30.5 x 25.4 x 7.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, 1993.162
Initial sketch that started the Critically Endangered Palms of Cuba Series.
Layout and finished drawing of underglaze pigment on clay.
Alberto Rey 211 Chestnut Street Fredonia New York 14063 firstname.lastname@example.org 716.410.7003 www.albertorey.com