Rodriquez immigrated to the U.S. in 1980, when he was just nine years old. He studied art and design at Pratt Institute, where he graduated with honors. He then received a Masters of Fine Arts degree in painting from Hunter College. His illustrations have graced the covers of books and magazines like TIME, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and more. In addition to his commercial work, Rodriguez’s fine art paintings voice human concerns, mortality, and cultural displacement.
Here, we talk to him about the influence art has played in his life and life work, and how visual ideas play out in the media.
Were you surprised at how much publicity and recognition the TIME covers garnered?
I’m usually surprised when my work garners a lot of publicity. I make many images in a year, so I’m usually focused on the task at hand. When some of my covers show up on cable channels or social media, I usually start getting a flood of messages. That’s when it hits me that the cover is having a larger social impact than I imagined. The first Trump cover arrived at a time when a large swath of the public was shocked at Trump’s statements and his candidacy. They might have been looking for a visual statement that would encapsulate their outrage, and then the cover appeared with the headline “Meltdown.” It was a bold move by TIME magazine to run the cover, so the editor and art director deserve a lot of credit as well for going with it. The second cover was a bit of a sequel, and seemed to be a welcomed surprise to a lot of the public as well. It was great to see it get that much attention again.
Do you think illustrators play important roles in changing the voice in politics or giving politics a certain voice?
I think we give a visual voice to feelings and ideas that are already in some people’s minds, but they may not know how to express them.
A strong and memorable image can encapsulate all of those feelings and give people a common image or idea to rally around. It’s possible that images may have some sway with a small number of people who are on the fence or undecided, but there’s no way to know that. I make them to express my own outrage and hope it connects in some way. These two covers went out to millions of subscribers and was seen on television and social media by many millions more, so it’s possible it made a small impact.
Do you get great satisfaction from these kinds of situations where one project leads to so many other opportunities?
I get satisfaction out of expressing my opinions and putting them out into the world in different forms. Every format creates a different experience for the viewer, and I like to experiment with those perceptions. A magazine cover that shows up in someone’s mailbox is a different experience from running into a poster on a street, or having a friend share the image with you online.
I do enjoy seeing how a visual idea can unfold and change depending on the passage of time and the environment it appears in.
Most of my work is about one thing leading to another and another. I’ve worked like that going back to college. I’m mostly interested in ideas and process, and imagery just flows from that. I’ve done this in the past with poster campaigns about terrorism and gun control. I mostly try to give a voice to things that are on my mind and affect people’s lives.
A lot of people copied and reappropriated the Trump image. Does that offend you? Were you surprised by any of the iterations?
No, I’m not offended at all. When my images are out in the world they become part of a conversation and people have the right to comment on it. Most of what I’ve seen is positive: a restaurant drew my cover in chalk on their menu board; a woman painted my Trump image on her fingernails; and another artist rendered a three-dimensional environment for my cover. Some others painted on the cover or collaged elements onto, it but it was all positive for the most part.
As a Cuban immigrant, and now American citizen, do you feel you have a moral responsibility to speak your truths through these political images?
I’ve been interested in politics and making social justice artwork since I was a teenager. I grew up in Cuba around friends and family that were very afraid to speak out against the government. They hid in bedrooms to talk about their fears and were always afraid that someone would turn them in. When we arrived in the U.S., my parents taught us that this was a country where we could finally say anything we wanted to say, so I took that to heart. As a teenager I learned more about politics, about the civil right’s movement, Martin Luther King, the Jewish resistance during World War 2, and the Solidarity movement in Poland. All of the imagery surrounding these movements made an impact on my work.
The difference between my work and the political propaganda of countries like Cuba, is that my work comes from the point of view of an individual, whereas Cuba’s political art is made and promoted by the state. I’m commenting on this election as an American that is concerned for what may happen to this country under a Trump presidency. I’ve lived under a dictatorship in Cuba and have friends that have lived under Chavez in Venezuela. Populism can easily get out of hand and become a threat to democracy, freedom of the press, and many other aspects of living in a free country that we take for granted.
I’ve seen many people treat Trump as a joke or think that he would never follow through on his ideas, but it’s all very serious to me. I’ve lived this and don’t want to do so ever again.
As someone who’s now created many successful and sometimes controversial covers, does it put pressure on you to keep outdoing yourself?
No, I don’t feel a pressure to outdo myself. I feel like I want to do the best job at communicating something at that particular moment in time. The rest is beyond my control.
When you read an article, or book, that you’ve been hired to illustrate, does the imagery come immediately, or do you tend to soak it in and work through many scenarios?
It’s really a mix of both. An assignment may be sent to me on a topic that I’ve already been thinking about and the idea comes right away. It may also take a longer process of thinking and sketching multiple solutions. Book covers generally take a longer time to figure out because the stories are more open ended and go in different directions.
Last year, you also did a controversial illustration for Newsweek on sexual harassment in tech companies. People were offended and some accused you of being sexist. Does being misunderstood sometimes come with the territory? Do you care?
Some people were offended, but there were many others that understood the cover as it was meant to be. The cover generated many conversations that no one could have anticipated.
I feel I’m successful with my work when it starts important conversations that go in many different directions, not necessarily when everyone agrees with me.
I responded to some of the online commentary and watched many women have discussions amongst themselves, both in support of and against the cover. I received a message from a young woman who wanted a very large print of the cover. She said I captured the office atmosphere perfectly, and she wanted to put it up in her office to remind men who walked into her office of what not to do. Various reactions come with the territory of illustrating controversial topics, I have no issue with any of it. I think it’s a wonderful thing.
You did all the covers for the reissues of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Do you personally relate to him and his stories, and if so, do you feel a bigger responsibility to portray what he would have wanted on each cover?
Chinua Achebe’s stories tap into the kinds of people and environment I grew up in. There are many Cuban customs that are derived from Africa, so I felt very comfortable illustrating those covers. The art directors, John Gall and Helen Yentus (Anchor Books), gave me a lot of freedom to illustrate those covers how I envisioned them. I generally feel I have a responsibility to make the best work I can on book covers. I don’t feel I can read an author’s mind and come up with a solution for them. I think more about the reader’s reaction to my work.
Are reissues, sometimes easier or harder to illustrate than first-run editions of books?
When I’m given a reissue I’m usually asked to be as expressive with the book as I can. I’m usually asked to make it distinctive from past editions, so those parameters make it easier in some way. On new book covers, the solutions can go in many different directions, so I can see how it may be a bit more complicated to figure out.
You use a lot of similar colors in your work—most notably, red and black. Why is that?
Back in 1998, I had an exhibition for my MFA Thesis at Hunter College where I used red very heavily—a large wall installation referenced the color as used in Cuban, Russian, and Nazi propaganda. It was a way of taking ownership of something that I felt had oppressed my friends and family, and included many photographs of them behind a curtain of translucent red paper. The work in the entire show was red, black, and white. Since that show, I started introducing this particular palette into my illustrations, and it’s something I still do ‘til this day. Red can be a reference for things like war, blood, anger, or many other aspects of our society. The three colors together create a good balance of elements.
In 2014, just a few weeks before the trade embargo was lifted in Cuba, you had an exhibition in Havana. Was this the first time you’ve been back to Cuba since you left? Do you feel a lot has changed or that not much has changed at all, culturally?
It wasn’t the first time I had been back. I started going back to Cuba in 1993, once I had become an American citizen and felt I had some protection from the American government if something happened to me down there. It’s something that concerns many of us that left the island, that we would be detained or arrested for something we’ve done. On my first trip, I was still in college and took a lot of photographs of what was going on in the country, and I wrote and published a story in my college paper at Pratt Institute. I then went back when I was in graduate school at Hunter, and several times after that. Much of my gallery work at that time dealt with these themes. A lot has changed from 1993 until today, but most improvements have been in the city of Havana. Much of the countryside, including my hometown, has stayed the same, or become worse in many respects. The culture has remained the same, but the lack of services is a burden on the people, and corruption is rampant in much of the country.
Do you plan on visiting again any time soon?
I’m thinking of going in the Spring. I’d like to spend some time working in the country, in some of the towns in my area, and perhaps setting up a studio in one of the abandoned houses that friends have left behind after leaving the country.
Tell me a little about your latest exhibit and the topic.
My latest exhibit was titled “Here and Now,” and was a collection of my editorial, book, and advertising work at Bronx Community College in New York City. The students arranged and curated the exhibition as part of their curriculum and did a wonderful job with the presentation. It was great to see all of this printed work out of my drawers and up on the walls.
November 15, 2016
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