Cuban artist adopts Cayman Islands as home and the subject of his creativity.
Prestigious Cuban artist Agustin Villafaña upturned a trash bin and asked a young and ambitious Yonier Powery if he really wanted to be an artist.
“Create art,” he said, instructing Yonier to make something out of the garbage lying on the table.
This moment was the culmination of years of interest in art in all its forms, from molding scraps of clay discarded onto the floor of his mother’s ceramic factory job at the tender age of six, to exploring dance at Cuba’s Elementary School of Arts, then studying visual arts at the KSA Cultural Workshop, which was owned by Villafaña.
Yonier spent the next month meticulously drawing the crumpled scene from the contents of the bin in front of him. Despite intermittent worries that Villafaña was subjecting him to a malicious joke, he pushed through and finally called the teacher over to look at the finished piece.
“Welcome to the world of art,” was the response. Yonier had passed the test.
After a year with Villafaña, he progressed to study at Wilfredo Lam’s Professional Academy of Visual Arts, excelling and graduating with honors. The following years led him through different careers, but one foot remained firmly on his artistic path.
While proficient in a variety of styles, surrealism always emerged as a favorite.
This form of art, which Yonier describes as fictional and above reality, with scenes sometimes beyond belief, has captured his interest since his school years. “It helped me escape from situations,” he says.
Friends tried to dissuade Yonier from this artistic direction, saying it wasn’t popular, but he stood fast.
“It wasn’t about creating art to fit what others saw as acceptable, it was about finding myself,” he adds.
The journey of finding himself led Yonier away from his childhood home on Cuba’s Isle of Youth to Grand Cayman, where he arrived in 2010, fitting the mold of a struggling artist to a tee.
“I had no studio, no brushes, no easels…I started from zero,” he says. But he did not let this deter him from his dream.
“Lots of people give up on their dreams as they feel the price is too high,” he says. “I believe that when a person has a dream, and they have to give it up, a part of that person dies.”
Giving up was never an option for Yonier, who adopts a no-excuse mentality and is extremely demanding of himself and his work. He collected a few art supplies and started from there. His wife gave him two small canvases, and once he had worked on them he sold one to get the money for more supplies.
Little by little he built his supplies and collection, eventually garnering enough success to sell more consistently and to show his art. He works in a variety of media, from painting and drawing to sculpture and ceramic art, and includes abstract and traditional styles.
The Visual Arts Society in Cayman recognized his talent and gave him huge support, as did his workplace Jacques Scott.
Since his first local solo show at Full of Beans in 2014, Yonier has participated in solo and group exhibitions in his native Cuba as well as shows at Camana Bay, Grand Old House, and the Cayman Islands National Festival of the Arts.
Years of struggle and determination are paying off, and Yonier uses this uphill climb to power him on for future endeavors.
“We are where we are due to struggle,” he muses. “It makes you stronger and makes you grow. You must learn from your mistakes, get up and keep going.”
And keep going he does, with his portfolio growing rapidly. The strong surreal work stands out amongst the sea of beautiful watercolor beach scenes favored by many other local artists.
Yonier’s depiction of island themes in a magical, dreamlike and unique manner fits perfectly within the surreal movement as defined by the U.K.’s Tate art gallery.
This renowned institution describes surrealism as “revolutionizing human experience, rejecting a rational vision of life in favor of one that assert[s] the value of the unconscious and dreams… [finding] magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional.”
The challenging early years in Cayman taught Yonier discipline, patience and a good attitude, and even though his success has grown since then, he never forgets where he came from.
He makes regular trips to Cuba and still has a good relationship with the people on his native island, giving back to friends and family as and when he can.
The recommendation of attending KSA, made while he was at the Elementary School of Arts all those years ago, propelled him into the visual arts arena in which he sits comfortably today.
And, in a happy turn of events, he has recently created a large intricate metal sculpture there in the form of a violin, which surely will demonstrate to present students that their hard work can lead them on the path to success.
Yonier employed a team of local artists and metal artisans to work on the towering sculpture, and its construction signals further expansion of his artistic endeavors.
“I have done large sculptures for private spaces, but this one is in a public space,” he says.
Yonier’s journey has been hard, but his determination has taken him from drawing crumpled paper, to arriving in Cayman without a brush to his name, to solo shows and rave reviews of his unique surrealist work.
And the journey for Yonier is far from over. “With creativity, you can go as far as you want,” he says.