Alumni Profile: Memories of Cuba fuel art professor’s creations
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Written by: Emily Hollingshead
Between 1965 to 1973 over 250,000 people flew into Miami from Cuba on the Freedom Flights. Among them, with his toy airplane and everything his family could carry, was José Betancourt who would later use his recollections of the flight and his life on the island for his exhibit “Cuba: Reconstructing Memories.”
As an associate professor of art at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he now teaches photography, though that was not always the plan. He originally studied music education and performance at the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at Seminole State College of Florida, playing the baritone saxophone in the jazz band. Knowing he was going to be playing music the rest of his life regardless of his education, Betancourt decided to branch out and explore other interests. One of these interests was photography, where he transferred the skills he learned through studying jazz with surprising ease, relying on his ability to improvise to create works that are often surprising and spontaneous.
“The idea of jazz improvisation is what I do and a lot of this stuff, that map of Cuba for instance, is all improvised,” Betancourt said, indicating the re-creation of Cuba out of a quilt of old family photos. “I mean I would never be able to do that if I was worried about taking chances. That is the kind of thing where you start sewing and cutting and whatever happens, happens. That same thing happens when you are playing a solo.”
Betancourt, who still plays the saxophone, returned to the College in 2018 to take part in the Seminole State College Jazz Band Reunion to raise money in support for the music program. He returned in 2019 when he brought his exhibit “Cuba: Reconstructing Memories” to the College for Hispanic Heritage Month. The exhibit was inspired from when he had difficulty returning to Cuba to visit relatives, so he instead wrote down every memory he could recall from that time in his childhood and created a piece of art from each one. Since the works in the exhibit are based on his childhood recollections, many of them include surreal or missing elements, where he worked off the emotions the memories produced rather than actual happenings.
To students starting out in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts, Betancourt encourages them to embrace improvisation in their work and to not limit themselves to just one designated area. He says, “It is the time to really figure out what you want to do and explore as much as you can.”
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Seminole State’s Center for Fine and Performing Arts offers programs in art, music and theater as well as a wide variety of concerts, theatre productions, gallery exhibits and other cultural events. For more information about the Center, including calendars of all upcoming cultural events at Seminole State, visit seminolestate.edu/arts and follow them on Facebook.