By Kyle Peveto, Arts Editor
Rolando Diaz paints with flowing lines and deep, vivid colors. Reds, greens and yellows, the colors of a salsa dancer’s dress, surround a woman cradling her baby. Caribbean Ocean blues saturate an angel playing a violin. Diaz attempts to paint the souls of his often bright and lively subjects.
Diaz has made his living as a fine artist for the last eight years. He lives in Dallas, in a loft apartment in the recently renovated Sears building downtown.
“I think one of the strongest things in my work is the color,” said Diaz, who graduated from ACU in 1981.
“He allows himself to be influenced by his Hispanic heritage,” said Ginna Sadler, interim chair of the Art Department.
Aside from his Cuban heritage, Diaz is most highly influenced by his Christian faith. Many of his paintings depict spiritual figures or images he has witnessed on mission trips to South America. A recent painting, “Angel Tears,” was completed after seeing the huge crater at Ground Zero firsthand. An angel rises like a phoenix from the wreckage of a building.
Standing tall and thin with a fair complexion and dark, wavy hair, Rolando speaks with energy through hints of a smooth Cuban accent and is excited to meet anyone.
“When you meet Rolando it’s very intense.” Sadler said. “It’s very energizing to talk to him.”
Diaz’s family came to the United States from Cuba in 1964 on a 50-foot boat named Bonanza. The Communist Party had taken over the country in 1957 and children were being sent to government-led Pioneer camps where they were taught Castro’s Marxist values in a Boy Scout-like setting.
“Cuba, 1957,” a painting by Diaz, consists of bright reds contrasting with cool blues and hands and eyes floating away from bodies. Turmoil in the painting prompts memories of Picasso’s paintings representing the Spanish Civil War.
Diaz’s father owned a bakery in Santiago, about 40 minutes from where the family lived in Havana. In Havana, their family lived about eight blocks from the capitol.
“The Communist Party came and basically took the bakery away from my father,” Diaz said. “My dad realized there was no way out, so we began to make plans to get out.”
The family attended the Church of Christ in Havana, which had 200 members in 1964. In the Catholic-dominated country, it was hard to practice any religion openly. Today, although Castro has softened restrictions on religion, Cubans cannot celebrate Christmas.
The Diaz family left Cuba legally after a year-long process. Family in the U.S. claimed them and they were able to leave on the 50-foot boat for Miami, leaving behind the seaside hills filled with small houses of their homeland that are pictured in Diaz’s “Cinque-Terra.”
Each person leaving was allowed only an extra set of clothes. Every other possession was confiscated by the government.
They settled in Miami in what is now “little Havana” before the influx of Cuban immigration in the 1970s and 1980s.
Soon after entering the United States, Diaz’s father died of leukemia and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Two aunts took Rolando and his brother Chris while his mother stayed in different hospitals. They also received help from Central Church of Christ in Miami.
Rolando learned English fairly quickly as an 8-year-old after having a year of tutoring before leaving Cuba. Watching television and attending school helped him learn English six months after arriving in the U.S..
Diaz knew he enjoyed art from an early age.
“As a kid in Cuba, I loved drawing the furniture,” he said. “I would literally sit for hours and look at the lines. I would be fascinated by the angles.”
While in high school in Miami, he was encouraged by a teacher, Mr. Maz.
“He owned an agency and he just liked to teach, so we were very fortunate,” Diaz said.
Diaz was able to log 900 hours of commercial art in high school, including painting a mural in Miami International Airport, and graduated as a Silver Knight nominee, one of the highest awards given to a student in Miami.
With aid and encouragement from those at church, Rolando followed his brother Chris to ACU. College was hard monetarily for Rolando and Chris.
“I don’t know how we made it through college financially, he said. “We didn’t get one penny from anyone in our family. I worked three jobs.”
He left college for a year and worked at a hotel in Houston, earning money to complete his education.
While at ACU, Rolando drew cartoons for the Optimist. One of his characters was named Maz for his influential teacher. Diaz was heavily influenced by fine artists and received a degree in fine art with an emphasis in commercial art design.
Upon graduation, he returned to Miami and took a job in passenger services with Eastern Airlines. Diaz worked with Eastern for eight and a half years and quit when the company began to have problems.
After deciding to find work in the graphic arts world, Diaz took a job in Amarillo with an investment company where he did all the designing for the corporation. Two years later, the company began to have problems and failed.
Diaz then worked with Dallas Area Rapid Transit as a graphic designer for two years and for the next three years he worked with DART’s public affairs.
“I knew I wanted to get into my art full time,” Diaz said. He read about Nancy Hammond, who won the Linz award, given for outstanding contributions to the Dallas community, after she donated $20 million to build a wing of the Dallas Museum of Art. The same article mentioned how much she loved visiting Cuba before it became a communist state.
He decided to write a letter to Hammond thanking her for the contribution to the museum and telling her about his work as an artist.
“I sent it special delivery, only she could sign for it – not even her assistant,” Diaz said.
Hammond set Diaz up with Murray Smithers, “a big wig in the arts in the Metroplex.”
After showing him some work, Smithers told Diaz, “I think you really have a talent and all you need to do is paint.”
Diaz quit his job and began to paint full time. “The first couple of years were rough,” he said. “I went from all this security… from being in a corporate environment. Then it began to pick up.”
Initially he began to sell paintings through galleries in Dallas, then Breckenridge, Colo., and Tampa, Fla. When a gallery did sell his work though, it took 50 percent of the price as commission. After Diaz began to sell more by word of mouth, he was selling to a more limited clientele.
Before a show at the Grace Museum in Abilene, Diaz met John Holland, a Fort Worth attorney who is now his main collector. Holland bought $13,000 worth of paintings and would eventually spend $30,000. Diaz was then hired to do paintings for Samba, an upscale Latin restaurant with six U.S. locations.
“That began to open a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I began to get a lot of publicity for that.” He then began to do private works in homes and chose locations for annual showings.
His paintings are now owned by many collectors, including Liza Minelli and Rob Thomas from the rock group Matchbox 20.
In December, Diaz traveled back to Cuba for the first time with Trinity Films, which did a documentary on his work. The film will be pitched to the Discovery Channel after completion.
Diaz is continually amazed by his success. His last annual show attracted 475 people and his Web page, http://www.rodiaz.com, had 75,000 hits over a six-month period.
Along with his success, Diaz is able to donate more time and money to charities. He has raised over $150,000 for causes through art in the last year and a half. One piece was auctioned for charity at the Cattle Baron’s Ball for $9,000.
A painting of a red Pegasus, the mythological flying horse, auctioned at $25,000 and helped renovate the Exxon-Mobil Pegasus in downtown Dallas. The winged red Pegasus flying over a city is now shown in the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library in downtown Dallas.
Rolando never married, but devotes much of his personal life to ministry. He is heavily involved with Central Dallas Ministries, which is sponsored by Preston Road Church of Christ. He leads a praise team and ministers in the inner city.
He also is involved in missions to Honduras and donates to a Honduras missions fund. “He’s a great servant,” said his brother Chris, who is a sculptor and marketing consultant. “He doesn’t talk about it, but he’s always focused on helping those he finds in the street.”
“His work is all encompassing in his life, his work, his faith and its manifestation,” Sadler said.
“He’s very artistic all around,” Chris said. Rolando plays guitar and has some recordings available through Preston Road and Central Dallas.
Diaz’s work continues to move in new directions. His latest show was entitled “Body and Soul.” The November show featured a series of casts of people’s bodies with paintings inside to represent the soul.
“When I see you or you see me, I see your body and I make an impression in my brain,” Diaz said. “Inside that body there is a soul.”
Few artists are as prepared as Rolando to depict the soul.