Imprisoned in Fidel Castro's Cuba as a teenager, Mario Fernandez fled his homeland on a quixotic journey that would lead through Mexico to the United States, with stops in Hoboken, N.J., Glendale, Calif., and finally Edina, where he died Monday at age 66 from complications of emphysema.
Known most widely for his wildlife art, including the 1984 Minnesota Pheasant and Trout stamps, Fernandez also bore a creative flair for industrial design and architecture.
Yet it was painting he loved most, and when he embarked full time on his artistic career in 1980, he never looked back, despite significant health setbacks over the years. Variously ill and well since suffering a stroke in 1998, Fernandez nevertheless remained upbeat and creative until his death.
His original paintings hang in homes and offices worldwide, including those of heads of state.
"When Gorbachev planned to visit Minnesota, my dad wanted to find the best artist he could to do a painting for him as a gift,'' said Mary Sue Perpich, daughter of the late Gov. Rudy Perpich. "When he found Mario, he knew he had the right person.''
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader before its dissolution in 1991, received the commissioned artwork from Fernandez and Gov. Perpich in 1990. It depicted a Russian bear, an eagle and a dove.
A lover of all birds, Fernandez throughout his life was transfixed by the size and majesty of bald eagles.
As a high school student, he had written articles against the Cuban government as a leader of a student resistance movement. He was awakened one night at his home by soldiers, who imprisoned him for two years.
"During his time in jail, he often imagined himself to be an eagle, and imagined that he could fly away from prison to visit his family, and fly back, coming and going,'' said his wife, Gladys, who also was born in Cuba.
The two met after an uncle arranged for Fernandez to come to New York City from Mexico.
"We met in Hoboken,'' Gladys Fernandez said. "It was Jan. 1, 1965, and my family and I were living in New York City. We were invited to visit some friends in Hoboken, and they also invited Mario to come with his guitar to play and sing for us. He did so wonderfully, but I was embarrassed because every song he sang, he just stared at me.''
The two were married Feb. 5, 1966. She was 17 ("Going to be 18 in a week!'' she said), and he, 19. "They said it wouldn't last,'' she recalls. "Instead, our marriage grew stronger every year.''
In the 1990s, the wildlife art market contracted, and Fernandez was among those caught in the downturn. Yet his subject reach was wide, and many of his paintings carried patriotic themes. One, titled "One Nation Under God,'' featured an eagle and an American flag, and caught the eye of Texas entrepreneur and financier H. Ross Perot.
"That was in 2004. It was very difficult for us, very difficult because of Mario's health, but we made the trip to Texas to show Mr. Perot the original,'' Gladys Fernandez said. "When he saw it, he told us to pick the place we wanted it to be hung.''
In addition to his wife, Fernandez is survived by four children, Barbara, Mario, Noelle and Desiree.
Private services are planned for family and friends.