To say Rey Alfonso moved from Cuba to the United States is a massive understatement. Rey was born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1974, and at age sixteen he was forced into Castro’s army, which was normal at the time. But it wasn’t normal for Rey. He knew he had to get out, and get far away from a country that was going through an extended period of economic crisis. So he took matters into his own hands. At age seventeen, he built a boat out of found materials and made the dangerous 200-mile journey to Miami. “I didn’t move from Cuba,” Rey says. “I escaped.”
Greenville’s North Main community is a long way from Cuba, both in miles and atmosphere. But it’s where Rey and his wife, Patricia DeLeon, a painter working in mixed media, have settled after two decades of hopping around the country looking for the right place to call home. “We love it here,” Rey says. “We’re going to stay forever.” Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. But Rey and Patricia have created an oasis in Greenville—a property with lush landscaping, a babbling brook, and two studios for their similar, yet distinctive work. For Rey and Patricia, the journey to Greenville has been a long one. A journey fueled by a passion to create beauty.
When Rey came ashore in Miami, he was not impressed. The city was hot and humid, much like Cuba, but there was tons of traffic and no sidewalks. It just wasn’t Rey’s vibe. So he caught a bus headed west, all the way to California. Rey settled in San Francisco and worked at making his name as a sculptor crafting enormous stainless-steel and corten-steel pieces, the kind of art that requires a crane to move. But San Francisco is pricey, and even after finding success as a sculptor, Rey couldn’t afford to own a piece of the city. “Cubans are all about real estate,” he says. “I wanted to own a house, but San Francisco is very expensive. I didn’t know anybody who knew anybody, who knew anybody, who owned a house there.”
Frustrated with the overpriced property in the City by the Bay, Rey traveled to Seattle to visit a friend. This was in the late ’90s, back when Seattle was much more affordable. Sure, the weather was terrible, but the houses were cheap—so cheap, in fact, that Rey bought two. He went back to San Francisco, packed up his stuff, and made Seattle his new home. It was a smart move because a couple of years later, a chance meeting would change Rey’s life forever.
Around this same time, Patricia DeLeon was working at an art gallery in Seattle. Patricia’s mother was born in Cuba but had escaped to Venezuela just after the revolution. Patricia had lived in Miami and had studied photography at an art school in Bellingham, Washington. At an art show being held at the Space Needle, she caught the eye of a short, Cuban sculptor. “I saw this woman with these sharp bangs and this cowboy hat, and I thought, oh my, that is a beautiful woman,” Rey says. The two started chatting, and that was that. Soon Patricia was Rey’s assistant, and then his wife.
Rey’s home was not big enough for two dedicated artists, so the couple bought a five-acre property on Whidbey Island just north of Seattle. “I turned thirty, and I got thirty chickens for my birthday,” Patricia says. “We started living the country life.” On Whidbey Island, the couple built a gallery and a sculpture park. But the Pacific Northwest is a tough market for artists to crack, especially during the winter. “The area really shuts down for a few months,” Rey says. “So we bought this big truck and Sprinter van and started traveling to shows. But we were having to travel farther and farther, and after three months into it I told Patricia that we were going to have to move.”
“All of my work is storytelling,” Rey says. “It’s about the illusion of separation. That’s why I do the little pieces. A lot of people think they are little boards, but it is all one piece of Baltic Birch.”
While at an art show in Texas, Rey and Patricia met an artist from Chattanooga, Tennessee. “He was this really cool Southern guy,” Patricia says. “And he told us about how this renaissance was going on in Chattanooga and how artist-centered it was.” The couple visited Chattanooga, parked their truck in town as a makeshift home, and traveled to shows in their van. “It was so cool,” Rey says. “Because you could travel to all of these shows in just eight or ten hours. We couldn’t do that from Whidbey. So we decided to look at moving to Chattanooga.”
During this time, Rey and Patricia were experimenting with different artistic mediums. While Rey had been sculpting and Patricia had been working with various photographic methods, including the Van Dyke brown process, they were suddenly both captivated with painting. It was natural and invigorating. Plus, a few paintings were much easier to throw into the back of a van than several 500-pound sculptures.
Property in downtown Chattanooga was a steal, and Rey and Patricia fell in love with an abandoned RC Cola bottling plant on the town’s Main Street. “It was a 20,000-square-foot brick building built in 1901,” Patricia says. “We bought it and then we drove back to Seattle and put our property up for sale.” In 2003, downtown Chattanooga was not the hopping destination it is now. Crime was bad, drugs were rampant, and the city had developed a program called Create Here that was offering grants to artists in hopes of luring them to the city. Soon Patricia and Rey were surrounded by other sculptors and painters. “It was kind of this magical time when artists were moving in and regrowing the city,” Patricia says. “There was so much excitement and harmony. It was just a great feeling.” But when artists breathe new life into an area, it doesn’t take long for everyone else to want to join in. Within a few years, coffee shops and restaurants were popping up in downtown Chattanooga. Property values increased, and the “artists community” feeling started to change. “After seven years in Chattanooga we knew it was time to leave,” Rey says.
The couple sold the building, packed up, and moved to Santa Barbara. “We missed the West,” Patricia says. “We had never lived together in California, and we wanted to have that experience.” But California isn’t the South, and Rey and Patricia soon realized that knowing your neighbors is more valuable than a view of the coast. “We moved from the South, where everyone wants to know you, to California where nobody wants to know you,” Rey says. “They don’t want to make friends with you because they know you won’t last.”
After two years in Santa Barbara, Patricia suggested they move to Miami to be closer to family. The couple visited south Florida in the heat of the summer to look at property. “It was hot and terrible,” Rey says. “I hated it, and she loved it. So we moved to Miami.” But Miami turned out to be much cooler than Rey had anticipated. Just months after renting a warehouse in an artists’ neighborhood, Rey and Patricia were connected with hundreds of Cuban artists. “We had so many parties and so much fun,” Rey says. “But after five years, we realized we couldn’t do it anymore.”
The idea of where to move next appeared when Patricia heard about an arts festival in Greenville, South Carolina. “Rey was the poster artist for Artisphere about four years ago,” Patricia says. “Everyone was so gracious, and there were so many lovely local people at the show. We noticed how happy and healthy people are here, and that was what put Greenville on our radar.” In 2018, the couple said goodbye to Miami and made Greenville their home.
Today, in their respective studios, Rey and Patricia create works that pay homage to their backgrounds and speak to their journey as artists. “All of my work is storytelling,” Rey says. “It’s about the illusion of separation. That’s why I do the little pieces. A lot of people think they are little boards, but it is all one piece of Baltic Birch.” Almost all of Rey’s paintings include artifacts he has collected over the years: a cigar box, a decades-old key from Miami, a weathered plaque. “All of my work is stories about us, including all immigrants,” he says.
Through the years, Patricia’s work has gone through several phases, from photography, to encaustic (layers of pigmented beeswax), to mixed media. “When I decided to put encaustic aside, I had to eek out that luminosity with new materials,” Patricia says. “So, part of my process is making a paste of marble dust and then laying down all of these textures and letting the figure develop.”
“We are both very into producing beautiful textures that talk about time and memory,” Patricia says. “And in this moment in time I think bringing beauty into the world is very important.”
While Rey and Patricia create art that can be described as modern, their processes are based on ancient methods, including making their own paints. The results are creative visions that are new yet familiar, serene yet vibrant, approachable yet mysterious. “We are both very into producing beautiful textures that talk about time and memory,” Patricia says. “And in this moment in time I think bringing beauty into the world is very important.”
For Rey and Patricia, time and memory are the essence of beauty. Their artistic journey has been exhilarating and inspiring. And it’s a journey that is far from over. It’s just in a new phase, in a comfortable house with nice neighbors, in a town they love calling home.
For more information about Rey Alfonso and Patricia DeLeon, visit their respective websites at reyalfonsostudio.com and patricia-deleon.com, or stop by booth #69 at Artisphere, May 10-12, to view Rey’s work. Portraits by Paul Mehaffey, artwork photography by Juan Vaquez.