Speaking with Edel Rodriguez you hear the recurring theme of freedom. As a boy, the Cuban-born artist, illustrator, designer and art director made his way to Florida on one of the first boats leaving his native land. Freedom. He later broke with the traditions of his culture by leaving home after high school to attend college in New York. Freedom. He left his well-paid position at Time after 13 years so he could devote his energies to his illustration, fine art and family. Freedom means a lot to Edel Rodriguez; he's seen first hand the consequences where there is no freedom—where the words are always can't and don't.
Rodriguez's first eight years were spent in the tiny village of El Gabriel, outside Havana. While he'll admit it was a typical childhood in many ways, there were always underlying tensions that told him something was not quite right. Survival was key. Finding food was the family's primary activity of any one day; staying under the radar and out of trouble while finding ways to barter for the essentials were just a fact of life. But for a kid there were still games to play. “We didn't have a lot of money, so we'd make our own toys. There weren't many cartoons to watch on television, we only had two TV stations and both were often filled with military parades or political speeches.” The colorful revolutionary posters and parades of his childhood all made lasting impressions on this future artist.
Images of his emigration in 1980 are still etched into his memory. The four-member Rodriguez family arrived in Key West with few possessions since the Cuban government had confiscated their home, car, furniture, even their clothes. They moved in with relatives in Miami, squeezing about 14 people in one house, until they were able to rent an apartment of their own. Freedom came at a cost.
One object that symbolizes him best?
A pencil, I draw all the time.
Education and hard work were prized in the Rodriguez family. “My father was always telling me to study; he didn't care necessarily what I studied as long as I studied,” says Rodriguez. His father ran his own trucking business in Miami. “I'd go to work with him in the summers, it was hot and we didn't have air conditioning in the truck. He'd say, 'If you don't study, Edel, you'll end up just like me.'” Within a couple of years in America, Rodriguez had learned his new language well enough to become a spelling-bee champ. He also earned top grades throughout his school years.
Art came naturally to Rodriguez, so he quickly became “the art guy”—the go-to person for every poster or school promotion. He read AirbrushAction magazine and mastered the painting tool to the point that he was once denied top prize in a competition—the judges were convinced a professional had done the work. He went on to compete in numerous art competitions and win more awards, some of which came with cash prizes. While he loved art he also excelled in math and physics, so he was naturally attracted to architecture; but an internship during his senior year at a Miami architecture firm changed that and left him undecided about a future career in that discipline.
On the strength of his artistic talent Rodriguez landed a full scholarship to the University of Miami—a school he had always been fond of—but after visiting the campus he was less than thrilled with the art program. One of his high school teachers suggested he look into New York's Pratt Institute, as it had both excellent art and architecture programs. She introduced him to a former student who was attending Pratt and encouraged Rodriguez to attend an upcoming open house on Pratt's campus; it would mean his first plane ride, which he could afford thanks to his art prizes. He immediately fell in love with New York and the school, but going to Pratt was not an easy choice to make. Leaving family for a new city wasn't either. “My parents didn't have a lot of money. I knew they were relieved when I got the scholarship to UM. I couldn't ask them to pay for full tuition at Pratt. So I contacted the financial aid office and just laid my cards on the table. I told them I really wanted to come to Pratt but that I had a full-scholarship from UM and asked what they could do.” As a result of a partial scholarship and additional financial aid, he managed to take his first year at Pratt at a substantial discount. While his parents eventually supported his decision, his mother was so heartbroken to see him go, she would not send him off at the airport.
The first year at Pratt exposed him to oil painting, figure drawing and sculpture, as well as type, design, production and illustration. Painting appealed to him more than art direction. At the end of the year he was selected as one of 30 students to exhibit their work and earned a full scholarship for the remaining three years.
On design as a bridge:
I've been able to communicate with people in Japan, Egypt or Europe simply because we have an interest in a certain font or era of design history. To some degree, design can bring people together.
Concentrating on painting, his only experience in design came from working on the Pratt newspaper. But again he was given almost total freedom in the design and use of illustration, both areas where Rodriguez excelled. “It was the era of David Carson, so our layouts were always experimental. It was a hands-on experience where I learned about publication design and I could also contribute illustrations.” Armed with a meager portfolio of design work, he impressed those around him with his tenacity and talent, landing internships at Spy, MTV and Penguin Books.
Rodriguez has always taken advantage of opportunities that move his career forward. Before graduation one of his teachers mentioned to the class that her husband was working at Time; Edel was the only student who followed up on that lead. And nine months after starting as a temp at Time he had a full-time job as a designer. “When I first got to Time I had plenty of time on my hands. I'd always come up with cover ideas and present them to the art director and appreciated the feedback I'd get.” His bosses took notice. At 26 he became the youngest art director to work on Time's Canadian and Latin American editions. “It was a dream job. I got to call up Brad Holland, Brian Cronin or some other well-known illustrator and ask them to do a cover.” He was not only responsible for the cover but also 10–20 pages inside each issue. He soaked up the experience; he watched how each illustrator approached visual problem solving, how they met deadlines, presented their work and promoted themselves. In the meantime he created his own illustrations on the side while working toward his MFA at Hunter College—another source of freedom, freedom from want. His backup plan was to teach fine art.
Rodriguez remembers his first trip to the Society of Illustrators. “I was blown away by the work I was seeing but I got worried real fast when all I saw were Anglo names on the wall. I thought in order to make it, I'd surely have to change my name.” A few years later he would join his fellow illustrators on the gallery wall, having won gold and silver medals for his editorial work. No small feat considering the obstacles he had to overcome. That's one of the reasons he is always open to speaking to students. He hopes just knowing there's a successful illustrator out there named “Rodriguez” will open up possibilities for young Hispanic designers. His core belief is that if you want it, you can achieve it—you just have to want it bad enough.
His advice to young designers:
Continue to study history. Stay on top of current events. Also, buy a place as soon as possible, stop renting.
Today he enjoys quite a bit of professional freedom. Having left Time in 2008 he has more time to spend with his wife Jennifer—they met their freshman year at Pratt—and his two young daughters. He's free to move between illustration and fine art, working on editorial assignments, book covers and writing and illustrating children's books on one side of the studio, concentrating on painting and sculpture on the other side. “Fine art gives me the freedom illustration doesn't. With illustration someone is giving you a deadline, a direction, the dimensions; you're satisfying them. With fine art I really have no idea where I'm going with it. It just evolves. I can work on it for one day and leave it for weeks at a time. It's finished when I say it's finished,” he says. But there's freedom even in his illustration. If he feels the need to move in a different direction, which he has done recently with his children's books, he doesn't feel the need to stay true to who we think Edel Rodriguez is.
Living an all-American dream in a lovely 1875 Victorian home outside Parsippany, New Jersey, with its sky-lit studio, backyard gazebo, deck and in-ground pool, Rodriguez has come a very long way from the village of El Gabriel. His life is proof that anyone can do it. Talent is part of it, but the larger part is that you have to want it bad enough.