Published Thursday, April 15, 1999, in the Miami Herald

A childhood in Cuba inspires rock drummer to paint from memories

Herald Staff Writer

Tico Torres left Cuba when he was 7 years old. Cuba never left him.

Though he now lives in New York, his home island has remained a powerful presence in his life and his art, emerging every so often in the form of a drum beat or a brush stroke.

``I'm drawn to it,'' he says. ``I feel like going there and spending the rest of my life there.'' But it has been in the United States where Torres has forged parallel careers as a musician and painter.

Perhaps best known as drummer for the band Bon Jovi, Torres had been painting even before he joined the band. Last weekend, he opened his second exhibit in South Florida, Memorias de un Cubano (Memories of a Cuban), which runs through April at the Museum of Hispanic and Latin American Art, 4006 Aurora St., Coral Gables.

As is the case for many Cuban-Americans, Torres' Cuba lives in childhood memories and stories his parents have been repeating for four decades now, memories that have found their way into his art and now serve as inspiration.

``Yo soy cubano,'' he says. ``The colors, the shapes in my art have been filtered through my experiences not only as an artist, but also as a Cuban.''

The exhibit's centerpiece is a 10-by-14-foot brick mural of a Cuban flag with slogans like Nuestra Bandera Tiene Que Ser Libre (Our Flag Must Be Free) and Dios Te Bendiga (God Bless You) written all over it.

It is in front of this mural that the suave Torres -- sans rocker's long hair and leather pants now -- begins to reminisce about his childhood in Varadero, a beach resort on the northern coast of the island.

``I was born in New York, but it was only a matter of weeks before I was back in Cuba again,'' he says, his eyes gleaming as the memories of a ``lost paradise'' start emerging. ``My most vivid memory is that of men dressed in white and wearing straw hats.''

That image is from his grandfather Juan Torres' estate on the outskirts of town -- a sugar plantation, where his grandpa and his friends gathered to talk and play dominoes on the long porch.

``I also remember chasing the chickens in the patio or getting up really early to watch the sea turtles in the sand. Man! Did we have fun there,'' he laughs.

Torres began painting when he was just a child. ``I had a lot of time to kill. I was an only child living with my mom and grandma and got bored easily,'' he remembers.

Left for New Jersey

After the revolution, his family moved to New Jersey; he began playing music and hooked up with Jon Bon Jovi. He had taken up the drums following the example of the best-known Cuban at the time, Desi Arnaz, and made a career out of it.

But art remained a passion.

``I always painted,'' he says. ``Even when we were on tour, I would paint on hotel towels in between gigs.''

It was a way to create, but also a way to relieve the stresses of the road.

``At a certain point, the late night partying and drinking gets to be too much and you need something to relax you,'' he says. ``Painting did it for me.''

His hobby became a profession in 1994, and it opened a new set of doors.

``I've been able to get in touch with a whole new crowd,'' he says of the people he has met during his exhibitions in New York, Europe and East Asia. ``My paintings are my soul, and you feel connected with somebody who understands your work.''

Like a journal

Memorias could easily be a journey through Torres' soul.

It follows the transformation of the artist, chronologically. His early work reflects the tumultuous rock-star life in the fast-lane, through cubist and expressionist forms. As the artist matures, the intensity of hues begins to smooth. The bright colors disappear into black and white and the angular forms turn into the shapely curves of nude women.

His latests works, he says, represent the inner peace he has achieved lately. Inspired by the two most important women in his life, his mother and grandmother, Torres began a series of female nudes using the chiaroscuro technique. His proudest accomplishment: a piece called Dora, based on Nicoletta Braschi's character in the film Life Is Beautiful.

``I love the nurturing quality of that character,'' he says. ``That inner peace reminds me of my mom and grandma.''

Torres has also merged the sports fan with the artist, creating a series of sculptures using life castings of famous athletes' grips. Part of the series, The Major's Collection, is a project benefiting children's charities, consisting of professional golfers' grips -- including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman. Also on exhibit in the Gables are grips of tennis players Vitas Gerulaitis and Guillermo Vilas, among others.

Torres is currently working on casting famous soccer players' feet.

Back to the drums

Torres the drummer goes back on tour with Bon Jovi in June, when the band plays several concerts off the success of EDtv, for which the musicians scored the soundtrack. South Florida is a possible tour stop.

One of Torres' fondest memories on the road comes from Bon Jovi's performance in Moscow in 1989, just before the collapse of communism.

``I like to think that we contributed somehow to its [communism] crumbling,'' he says. ``I remember those Russian kids experiencing something new, something they have been kept from enjoying.''

What about if the conditions in Cuba were the same as in 1989 Russia? Will he play there?

``If I can help bring communism down in Cuba,'' he says. ``I surely will.''

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald