His largest painted mural is in Abilene, and his largest canvas, too. So it made sense to Rolando Diaz (’79) to bring his most popular retrospective exhibit from Dallas to his alma mater’s hometown as well.
The latter happens Jan. 12 through Feb. 24, 2024, when “The Horses of Revelation,” an exhibit by the internationally acclaimed Cuban-American artist opens at Abilene’s Center for Contemporary Arts (220 Cypress Street), with a reception Jan. 12 from 5-7 p.m.
Among other Diaz works in the show, “The Horses of Revelation” features paintings depicting horses graphically described in chapter 6 of the Bible’s final book.
Diaz and his late brother, Chris (’77), fine-tuned their talents at ACU before beginning successful art careers based in the DFW Metroplex and expanded them around the globe.
The brothers fled by boat to the U.S. in 1965 with their late parents, Florentino and Caridad, after revolutionary Communist dictator Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959. The Diaz family settled in South Florida, where they were befriended six months later by elders from Miami’s Central Church of Christ who brought communion to and prayed over Florentino while he was dying of leukemia.
The Central congregation became a spiritual home to the Diaz brothers, and then-youth minister Jim Shewmaker (’69) became a mentor who helped influence Chris’ decision to enroll at ACU. Rolando followed three years later, and although he initially envisioned a career in commercial art, he earned a degree in fine art.
Known as Ro to his friends, Diaz was an award-winning cartoonist as an ACU junior and senior for The Optimist, where his wise-cracking, flat-cap-wearing “Mazz” character – named for Joseph Mazzekelli, a high school teacher who encouraged him to pursue art – poked fun on the editorial page at nuances of living and learning on the Hill.
Chris died in 2012 of cancer at age 57, but not before he became a sculptor of note in the Southwest. Ro has crafted a career chiefly of impressionism-style paintings reflecting his roots.
That background was traced in “Recapturing Cuba: An Artist’s Journey,” an award-winning 2007 PBS documentary about Ro’s return to Havana to find his boyhood home, reconnect with old neighbors and meet prominent fellow artists whose works reflect influences of African and European cultures, and their own Cuban Revolution. The trip proved to be cathartic and inspiring.
“By going back into my past, I brought closure to so many open-ended memories and I am content to let them go now,” he said in the documentary. “I am an American artist with a Cuban soul. It will always shine through, no matter what.”
A frequent visitor to campus in a city where museums and art in public spaces reflect a community that values creativity, Diaz is credited with energizing Abilene’s growing appreciation for outdoor murals. His 2015 mural, “I See the Ocean,” is more than 12 feet tall and stretches nearly a city block in length on South First Street, where furniture store owner Thomas Everett commissioned Ro to convert an otherwise ordinary stretch of brick wall on a building he owned downtown into the artist’s recollections of his refugee trip to the U.S. as a young boy.
Near campus, a smaller Diaz mural anchors two walls near an entry to the Allen Ridge dining, eating and entertaining complex, along with the work of other Abilene artists. At more than 30 feet long and 7 feet tall, Ro’s largest indoor canvas, “Running Wild and Free,” is featured in the Enterprise Tower on Chestnut Street.
He was also one of several alumni featured in ACU’s 2006 Centennial Art Exhibit at The Grace Museum in downtown Abilene.
Diaz is known for contributing his talents to philanthropic causes, often painting during performances of recording artists such as B.J. Thomas, Ricky Skaggs, Amy Grant, Barbara Mandrell, Aaron Watson (’00), Eddie Money, ABBA, The Manhattan Transfer, Edgar Winter and Bobby Caldwell, and other events featuring the Dallas Symphony, President George H. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. His sculptures and mixed media works are valued by art collectors and museums around the world, and the guitarist-vocalist also is featured in concerts in venues from coffee shops and theatres to his historic art studio in Dallas.
— Ron Hadfield
Jan. 4, 2024