Artist devoted to plight of Cuban rafters

September 15, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Beneath the grand marble hall of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, student Raymond Stein has created a shrine to the desperate struggles of Cuban refugees.

His installation shows an empty rowboat balanced sideways against a dark mural of two visions of the Virgen de la Caridad, the patron protector of Cuban sailors and rafters. A huge cluster of painted bananas dominates another wall. Fellow senior Michael Loveland, who shares the basement gallery space, has assembled metal parts reminiscent of an airplane fuselage. A pile of dilapidated suitcases recalls earlier flights from Castro's Cuba.

"The Virgin is looking both ways across the waters and the boat is empty," says Mr. Stein. "She's looking for the rafters and she can't find them."

He points to another wall where he has painted a scene from a mock funeral in Miami, to honor lost rafters. A Cuban-American who was born in New Orleans and raised in Miami, the 22-year-old artist is a member of Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos Al Rescate), an all-volunteer air rescue organization that spots rafters and drops supplies to sustain them during their passage.

Mr. Stein's exhibit -- on view at the institute through Sept. 21 -- weds his personal history to his political beliefs. His commitment developed from a lifetime of hearing his mother's stories about their Cuban family; she came to the United States in 1969 and worked as a maid. This summer, a raft-load of their relatives made it to Miami on Aug. 18, two days before President Clinton closed the country to the continuing waves of Cuban refugees.

Last year, Mr. Stein met a Cuban cousin, roughly his age, who had also escaped. "Here was this person who had spent days drinking sea water to survive," he says. "And here I was looking at how lucky I am to be here."

Suddenly, most of his art was telling about the Cubans' plight.

"This is in the news all the time now," says Mr. Stein. "But I've been using the rafters as a teaching method in my art here because it didn't seem like anyone up here knew what was going on.

"I try to make images big and bold, to throw them out so that people can't ignore them."

Mr. Stein himself cuts an imposing figure: tall, dark, with the stubble that comes from working around the clock when opportunity -- like an empty exhibition gallery -- suddenly arrives. He's wearing paint-splotched Reeboks, an earring and an air of unadulterated enthusiasm.

So is Michael Loveland, who tailored his interest in airplanes into an installation to complement Mr. Stein's. Not only are Mr. Stein and Mr. Loveland frequent artistic collaborators, they are also roommates, full scholarship students and graduates of Miami's New World School of the Arts, considered one of the country's finest art magnet schools.

They are also part of a new wave of art students who believe their work should have political and social impact, according to Theresa Lynch Bedoya, institute vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.

"This generation of students is reawakened to the power of art," says Ray Allen, vice president and dean of academic affairs. "We have a much more diverse student body than in the past and that makes for a lively collision of points of view."

Mr. Stein says many who see his work disagree with his politics. But he's comfortable arguing with them.

"I tell them, 'Yeah, our country has an immigration problem. But these are my brothers.' When I look at the [refugee] situation, I say, 'Well, here's a space, put them right here,' " he says, pointing to the gallery floor.

Mr. Stein says he will continue to help Brothers to the Rescue after he graduates in December. "Only through people like me and hundreds of others is communism ever going to fall," he says. "I want to see Cuba liberated -- with Castro out. Hopefully, I can do that with my art."

The Stein-Loveland installation, in the basement of the main building on Mount Royal Avenue, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Call (410) 225-2300.

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