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About 400 people gathered Friday night at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for a sneak peek at a exhibit of contemporary Cuban art and artifacts tracing the recent history of the Caribbean nation.

"Revolutionary Island: Tales of Cuban History and Culture" evokes the colorful culture and its resilient people through works of art and objects from the collection of Sonoma Valley residents Sarah and Darius Anderson.

"For one couple's collection, it's an amazing amount of art," said Kate Eilertsen, SVMA's executive director, who helped curate the exhibit. "And this isn't all of it."

Anderson gave patrons a private tour of the exhibit, culled from the collection he has been amassing for the past 25 years. He pulled the exhibit together during the past year with the help of Sonoma Valley artist Keith Wicks.

"We whittled 1,000 pieces down to 250," Wicks said. "There was so much artwork that we had to put some on the back side (of a wall)."

The artwork explores the frustration of artists living under an oppressive regime and the heartbreak of a revolution whose promise has faded.

"Cuba is in transition in ideology," said Anderson, who is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. "That's what I hope to capture in the art."

In Cuba, Anderson said, he found a culture that reflects his own vices and virtues, from baseball to cigars.

"Everything about them oozes passion," he said. "They love their art, tobacco and rum."

Munching Cubano sandwiches and sipping mojitos, guests enjoyed live music while perusing the contemporary art along with cigar humidors and tobacco tools, rum bottles and poker chips, historical photos and posters.

"This is Cuba," Richard Idell of Sonoma said. "We've been there, and it's reflective of what you see when you go."

"It's really a capsule of Cuba on all levels," said Karin Bartow, a museum guide. "You can't separate the history from the art and culture and the people."

Attending the special reception were Anderson's parents, whose passion for history and collecting led him to explore Cuba in the first place, as an offshoot of his fascination with author Jack London.

"My passion for adventure started at age 12, when my dad took me to see Jack London State Park," Anderson said. "At 16, I realized that Jack and Charmian went to Cuba on their honeymoon."

Anderson started collecting art after his first, illegal visit to the island in 1986 as a college student. During that era, the Soviets had pulled out, and the country's gross national product had plunged by 70 percent.

"The art became very edgy," he said. "There was starvation and food shortages."

After working with the federal government in 2000 to lift the trade embargo on Cuba through a bipartisan bill, Anderson was invited on a special trip to Cuba by Fidel Castro, the revolutionary whose 26th of July Movement overthrew the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Castro's government became the present-day Communist Party of Cuba in October 1965.

One of the most visible pieces in the exhibit is an exact replica of the homemade tank Che Guevara used during the Cuban Revolution. The piece was created by Sonoma County artist David Best.

The large, heavy tank, which is built over an old tractor, was the most difficult piece to move to the museum.

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"We drove it on an icy flatbed," Wicks said. "Then brought it inside, through the windows."

While Anderson had hoped to bring five of the Cuban artists to Friday's opening, only two were able to procure visas in time.

Sculptor Esterio Segura talked about his three works in the exhibit, including "Space Occupied by a Dream," a plaster of Paris sculpture of a man sleeping on a bed of newspapers, with rows of old, broken typewriters above him.

"The idea is how history has changed, and the frustration of writing," Segura said. "The writers are feeling like old, broken typewriters."

While things are improving in Cuba, Segura said, the people often have difficulty embracing change.

"How can you tell 11 million people to be different?" he asked. "It's good that things are going slow."

The exhibit is open to the public starting today and continues through April 14. A roundtable with Anderson, Segura and painter Rub? Alpizar will be at 2 p.m. today. Tickets are $20.

The museum at 551 Broadway is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.)