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In Key West, Cuban artist's 'High Tide' shows disparate worlds either side of the Florida Straits

Mabel Probet installs her "High Tide" work
Nance Frank, Of Key West
Mabel Probet installs her "High Tide" work, a 49-foot tall cascade of acetate squares that represents the ocean between the U.S. and Cuba.

Mabel Probet is a Cuban artist who expresses the personal struggles in her country through her work. Her latest installation — on public display in Key West — is spectacular and timely.

For Cuban artist Mabel Poblet, the ocean is both a boundary and a bridge.

"The sea, in my work, is a symbol of a bridge that unites us and separates us," Poblet said recently, as she finished putting in place her latest piece, High Tide, in Key West.

The installation appears as a permanent cascade of small fragments — one could fit in your hand — hanging in a staircase. Each fragment has a mirror on one side and on the other, a photograph Poblet took of the ocean. It is spectacular and kinetic, swaying like waves at sea.

View of the High Tide art installation
Frank Nance, Of Key West
"High Tide" is a public art installation at The Studios of Key West that went up in 2022.

"The piece has a little to do with the fragility of human experiences," Poblet said. "And how through the ocean, many people migrate to have an ending that is both happy and sad."

High Tide is inspired by those who migrated through the ocean, by "those who made it and those who didn't."

As Cuba faces a deepening crisis that is pushing record numbers of people to sail to Florida, the piece could not be more timely — and the location, hardly more appropriate.

Cuban migrants set off to cross 100 miles of rough seas in handmade boats to reach South Florida, despite the risk of being caught — or losing their lives — before reaching land. Since Oct. 1, nearly 6,000 of them have either been stopped at sea by the Coast Guard or caught by the U.S. Border Patrol when they reach land.

Their destination is often the Florida Keys, where sightings of boat arrivals are now common place.

Poblet knows some of them. "Their stories are very sad," she said. "[It's] very difficult. That's been a motivation for this piece as well."

"The majority of migrants have the illusion that the voyage and the destination will be beautiful and pleasant," Poblet added. "But what they find in reality is very difficult."

Poblet has traveled the world with her work, from her home in Havana, Cuba, to international exhibits. Through art, Poblet expresses the personal struggles in her country, a place mired in economic and health crises.

Classically trained at the San Alejandro National Art Academy and the Higher Institute of Arts, both in Cuba, Poblet is known for paintings and installations made of photographs covered in small acetate shapes affixed together with pins.

She made the recent High Tide with this method.

Migrants crowded onto a small boat
U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Sector Key West responded to a report of this migrant vessel about 50 miles southeast of Key Largo on Dec. 13, 2022. The people were returned to Cuba three days later.

Her art has focused on the concept of freedom in various forms. Her latest piece was so close to her heart that she delivered it herself — and took a "substantially" lower than normal fee to make sure it was in public viewing, at The Studios of Key West.

The 36-year-old installed High Tide herself on scaffolding, over a weekend in November during a special visit to the Keys.

At 49 feet tall and made using 150 threads, the piece hangs from a ceiling in a stairwell in the cultural center, dropping through four floors. It shimmers as it drapes through the space, in colors of ocean blue from the photos along with white that's reflected from the walls.

Poblet set out to capture the emotions that fuel Cubans' dangerous voyages in the Florida Straits.

The perspective changes what the piece can mean to viewers. "When you look at the piece from underneath, it give you a sense of infinity," Poblet said. "And for me, that means hope."

But from the top, the view can seem like emptiness. That's the sadness of lives lost, she said.

"Simply put, the people are just desperate and want a change of life," Poblet said. "I'm not just talking about Cuba. For context, I'm talking about other countries of the world where people engage in maritime migration."

Art in public spaces

The vertical display at The Studios of Key West is available for public viewing Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Woman on a scaffold working on an art installation
Nance Frank, Of Key West
Mabel Poblet, an artist from Cuba, installs her 49-foot tall High Tide installation at The Studios of Key West in November 2022.

Key West has an "art in public places" policyfor major developments; whether new construction or renovations, the builder must spend 1% of the project's total cost on art displayed publicly. A board appointed by the city commission has to sign off on the art.

The Studios spent nearly $45,000 on Poblet's installation, and has more than paid off its public art obligation of about $31,400, said executive director Jed Dodds.

"The piece was only made possible through the generosity of the artist, who agreed to a substantially lower than normal price," Dodds said. Key West art dealer Nance Frank, who represents Poblet, also waived a commission on the piece.

Poblet's art is in demand. On Dec. 22, she was already back home in Havana working on a new installation. Her next show is for Chanel in Tokyo, according to Frank, who owns the Gallery on Greene gallery.

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Gwen Filosa