65. On Seats of Learning – Carmen Less Misérable Making El Figaro Cigars – Light Verse Magazines Vol. V

Edition of 30 copies
6 ½” x 1” diameter cigar closed
11” x 10” cigar open
6 ½” x 3” x 2” box

I first became aware of the phenomenon of lectors reading to cigar rollers in factories through a conversation with Brandeis Professor Emeritus Louis Yglesias in 1993. The El Figaro factory was the first Cuban cigar company to allow a lector, in a chair raised on a platform, to read for the workers, known as torcedores, now commonly called rolleros. The workers themselves paid the lectors. Some factory owners were concerned that this education through newspapers, political tracts and fiction might encourage workers to organize protests, but others realized that lectors actually increased production. Workers talked less and worked more as they focused quietly on their tasks while listening. They also brought home news and stories to their families, which inspired residents to open libraries and schools.

Up until the mechanization of cigar production in the 1920’s, lectors read in factories in Florida, New York and Spain, and in most places where cigars were produced. Cuban cigars continued to be hand-rolled even after machines eliminated manual labor in other countries, so the tradition of the lector still continues there today. In the title of this piece, Carmen is “Less Misérable” because this character in the opera by Bizet is a cigar roller, and because the novel “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo was read by lectors in Cuba. The artist herself would have greatly appreciated a lector while making these paper and book cloth cigars, to ease the tedium.

The folding structure which inspired the project is an antique paper fan from Spain found in Bermondsey Market, London. It was a way for men to have a fan at the opera, yet be able to store it discreetly as a masculine object in a pocket. While this project developed independently from the Light Verse Magazines series, over a long period of time, it was difficult to resist the opportunity to conclude the series as it began, with a fan in a tube. A series which begins with a folded ginkgo leaf in a test tube ends with a tobacco leaf wrapping a hidden opera fan, in perfect symmetry.

The poem was gold-stamped on navy book cloth, folded by hand and attached to the cardboard tubes with copper wire and ribbon. The tubes are composed of acid-free paper rolled around test tubes with archival PVA glue. Painted mulberry paper covers the body and the cork top of the cigar, with threads underneath to simulate leaf veins. The cigar ring is a modified, vintage label of “Cabinet Cigars”, laser printed and signed in archival ink.


Dedicated to my grandmother Carmen Zitelmann Simpkins (1913-2011) who spent many years growing up and studying art in Cuba, and to Louis Yglesias, a fascinating and helpful scholar.

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