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First Cuban-American Art Exchange in 50 Years Underway In Key West

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KEY WEST (CBSMiami/FKNB)– It’s been more than 50 years since it happened, but now Cuba’s leading artists are debuting their work in Key West as part of the Cuban-American art exchange.

Thirty intaglio prints by the late Key West folk artist Mario Sanchez debuted Jan. 17 at Cuba’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana — and in exchange, the Cuban artists are introducing nearly 120 pieces of their work at five Key West locations.

“The cultural connection between Key West and Cuba goes back 150 years, and the work of Mario Sanchez and the work of these artists is all about that connection that we had,” said Nance Frank, organizer and event manager for the exchange.

Key West lies closer to Cuba than to mainland Florida, and the two islands’ long-shared cultural heritage dates back to the 1800s, when Cuban cigar-makers first fled 90 miles across the Florida Straits to Key West.

Cuban artist Reynerio Tamayo discusses his artwork with attendees at an exhibition at the Gato Building, a former cigar factory, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Key West, Fla. Tamayo and other Cuban artists are in Key West for the second half of a Cuban-American art exchange, believed to be the first in more than 50 years. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Cuban artist Reynerio Tamayo discusses his artwork with attendees at an exhibition at the Gato Building, a former cigar factory, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Key West, Fla. Tamayo and other Cuban artists are in Key West for the second half of a Cuban-American art exchange, believed to be the first in more than 50 years. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Rob O’Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Highlights of the art exchange include pop-art-inspired sculptures displayed at the former Key West home of author Ernest Hemingway, who had close ties to both Cuba and Key West, and paintings inspired by the two islands’ shared passion for baseball on exhibit at a former cigar factory.

“One of the main functions of art is to open doors, not close — always open new doors and make new connections,” said Sandra Ramos, a Havana artist participating in the exchange.

Events culminate Saturday night with Ramos’ debut of a large-scale sculpture titled “The Bridge” that viewers can walk across — representing the Florida Straits crossing from Havana to the Florida Keys and Florida mainland.

“When people look at my work … I think they should think about all the people who died crossing this sea,” said Ramos. “But at the same time, of the new times and the new perspective that we could have, joined and not separated.”

Much of the art is to remain on display in Key West through mid-March.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Florida Keys News Bureau contributed to this report.)

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