Photo by Fran Collins
Rey Alfonso Santana exhibited artistic promise from an early age. Born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1974, he grew up surrounded by intense contrasts of colors, pre-1959 American cars and the surging Communist government. His immersion in Cuba’s rhythms and sensuousness was short lived but nonetheless had a lasting impact on his young imagination.
Forced into Castro’s Army at age 16, Rey served for several months until he gambled on a chance for freedom. After weeks of preparation and with few provisions, he set out for the United States in a rustic boat that he built himself from found or traded materials.
Alfonso landed in Miami but soon settled in San Francisco. Over the next decade he worked with sculptors and metal craftsmen, attaining an exhaustive knowledge of metal design and fabrication while forging his identity as an artist. His talent and ideas were quickly recognized and several of his public works and sculptural signs can still be seen in cities throughout the West Coast. It was his work with aluminum on a large scale commission that first intrigued and later obsessed Alfonso as he developed his present style.
After working extensively with aluminum for over 15 years, Alfonso now utilizes his knowledge of pure pigments and fire in his paintings on Baltic birch. He builds color, through hundreds of layers, distressing the surface and painting it again deepening the thought or memory. Writings carved and burned into the wood recall the traces of lives and languages left by migrants and immigrants as they move from place to place. At times, the words reveal themselves to be lines of poetry, cherished verses from youth remembered even as the artist struggles to recall more. Alfonso’s personal experiences provide the iconography and palette for his work. The paintings bask in a serenity that recalls his early childhood and his fondness for the brilliant colors, hues and textures of antique cars and life in Cuba. "At the same time, the pieces are charged with the excitement of discovery, as well as a sense of being at one with the experience of building a new life in a new land."
Today Alfonso’s work can be found in collections in more than 40 countries. He has created works for individuals and organizations ranging from the San Francisco Opera House to the Mayo Clinic. In 2010, he was commissioned by Hilton Worldwide to create over 150 works for the private collections of the company’s owners and investors.
After an absence of more than 20 years, Rey Alfonso has returned to Miami. His work has attained a new harmony that fully embraces his life and culture as his muse. Every day he walks through groves of tropical flora to the center of a ring of old growth forest, steps into his studio and summons the fire of his artistry to continue the journey. The voyage is shared with a pack of gargantuan dogs, inexplicable geckos and his wife, artist Patricia DeLeon.