Cuban Leaf Art
A National Cigar History Museum Exclusive
by Tony Hyman
Two+ decades ago I was offered the opportunity to buy these wonderful works of Cuban folk art, created by meticulously picking away tobacco between the fine veins of a tobacco leaf. The Cuban refugee from whom I got them didn’t know who made these...a single artist? A cooperative of artists? Members of a particular occupation? Cigar rollers on down time? How old they were was a mystery to him and me alike.
Nor did he know what tools they used. A pin? A knife? Something special? I, of course, wanted the complete backstory. Who made the first one? Did the artists sell them? Where? For how much? Are they still made? Nada.
I can make some reasonable “guesstimates” but it’s better for everyone if “real facts” got woven in here somewhere. If you know the answer to ANY of the above mysteries, please drop me a line <Tony@CigarHistory.info>
How I got them in the mail decades ago is how they are today. They arrived as part of a lot of 19th and early 20th century Cuban goods, for which I’d paid a hefty sum to a Cuban refugee. These leaves were in old brown paper envelopes in various stages of disintegration (the envelopes, not the leaves). Leaves are in surprisingly good condition and will stay that way if they get reasonable care.
They are as you see in the Exhibit. I’m a shaky old man and didn’t want to risk damaging them by handling more than necessity. As a result, photos were taken as each particular leaf is stored: with brown paper above and below the leaf, or with brown paper below the leaf, or with the leaf out of the paper.
Cuban Sculptor Proves Tobacco Can Be Used for Better Things than Smoking and Chewing
Janio Nunez is a talented Cuban artist who has the gift of making incredible sculptures exclusively from tobacco leaves. He creates works of art both tiny and life-size that prove there are better things to do with tobacco than smoking it.
Janio’s fascination with tobacco began as a little boy, watching his grandparents roll cigars at the factory. He started copying them and ended up becoming a tobacco leaf roller himself. He worked at the factory, but after passing evaluations, he was sent to Varadero, Cuba’s largest resort in Cuba, to roll cigars for tourists. Everything was normal until one day when something really strange happened. He began seeing his co-workers like they were made entirely of tobacco leaves. He would get scared and close his eyes, and when he opened them they were normal again, dressed in their regular clothes. Then would turn around and see another colleague sitting down, all made of tobacco (clothes, face, skin, etc.). This happened sporadically for about four months, and his friends even took him to see a doctor about his “problem”. That didn’t help very much, and realizing something was wrong with him, he decided to do somehow fix things himself.
One late night, while sitting at his work table, images of tobacco people came to him again, so he started modelling with tobacco leaves. That night he created his first piece, and felt a kind of release, because he realized that all this time some kind of supernatural force had been trying to tell him what to do. From there on he just gave in to his obsession with tobacco and created an entire series of famous people made of leaves. He knew his gift was something special so he spent the next three weeks trying to gain an audience with the manager of the hotel he worked in, to show him his sculptures. When he finally got his chance, he told the manager “tell me if they’re worth it, if you say they’re worthless, I will destroy them immediately”. But his boss was mesmerized by the unique tobacco art and arranged for Janio to display his sculptures in the first edition of the Festival del Habano.
Today, Janio Nunez has a small workshop in Guanabo, near the sea, just a half hour from Havana. It’s here that he creates his amazing tobacco leaf sculptures, by simply gluing them together. In the near future, the artist is planning to start work on his largest piece of art, one that would hopefully set a new world record for the Biggest Sculpture Made of Tobacco. He also wants to start a museum of tobacco art.