Article by Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer
The work of Cuban artist Michel Mirabal emerged as a symbol of renewed relations between his nation and the United States when one of Mirabal's paintings served as backdrop for a historic news conference by President Barack Obama at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Now, St. Petersburg is sharing in the symbolism.
Mirabal has contributed the latest in a growing tapestry of murals around the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District — a work featuring U.S. and Cuban flags adorned with flowers and barbed wire colliding in an explosion of colors.
He painted the work last week on an exterior wall of Soft Water Studios.
"The barbed wire is the thing we don't like, the things we need to change about both countries," Mirabal said. "The flowers are the things we love — the humanity, the coming together."
The artist lives and works in Havana and felt right at home during his first trip to St. Petersburg. "We are both lively and love the arts," he said. "There are a lot of similarities."
The same message has been preached by those who helped bring Mirabal here — officials with the city of St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership.
They want regular art exchanges between their city and the island nation.
"Art is certainly something St. Petersburg and the culture of Cuba have in common," said Joni James, chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "Art is a universal language, particularly between two cultures that sit just across a small spit of water."
In October 2015, a delegation of St. Petersburg arts leaders traveled to Havana. In December, the city welcomed a high-ranking official from Cuba's Ministry of Culture. The exchange led to an exhibit by Cuban artist Esteban Machado this year at the Morean Arts Center.
Future collaborations also were discussed between Cuba and the Warehouse Arts District, which covers about 1.5 square miles and consists of more than 20 arts spaces — galleries, studios and warehouses.
Mirabal's project is the first from the collaboration, and it follows the creation of 21 murals during St. Petersburg's SHINE Mural Festival.
Mirabal's My New Friend, now hanging in the U.S. Embassy, is a joining of Cuban and American flags made of colored handprints. He is considered one of Cuba's most popular artists, James said.
"By any standard, he is an incredible artist," she said.
Now, Mirabal hopes St. Petersburg artists will display their works in his Havana gallery.
"I want this to be a good relationship. This can be good for everyone."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.