An Artist's Week in Cuba

"El Capitolio Stroll" 12x9" Oil

This post is long overdue and I finally sat down to compile a post on my painting trip to Cuba back in February of 2016. There is much to tell about the trip, but it would be overwhelming so I am only writing about the best moments of the week.

My husband and I signed up with a group of 100 adventurous plein air artists and guests to paint in and around Havana, Cuba. The event was organized as a Publisher's Invitational by Streamline Publishing.  It was surely a once-in-a-lifetime event to be painting in a country that was once banned to American travelers; and under the circumstances of the upcoming election, travel to Cuba may be closed once again. Also, due to the potential of future American influences upon the small island, we wanted to see it in its current state. Once the admission tickets were paid, passports attained and bags packed, we were told to expect the unexpected. This was no Disneyland or Hawaiian trip by any means, but it was unpredictable, beautiful, and Communist. I was not disappointed.

Getting there
Because the group was so large, we had to fly in from two different airports in the US due to the accessibility to Cuba. My group of 50 travelers was scheduled to fly out from Miami at 5:30am and we did so through the series of stops and starts in customs, ticket and luggage check ins.  We had an hour flight to Havana and once we landed, everything was apparently different. The Airport had a post-modern architecture about it and a system of chaos within the walls of the arrival area. It took us 1.5 hours to gather our group onto the tour bus. Some lost luggage, or it was delayed in the luggage claim rotunda that seemed to move backwards.  We were then all shuttled to our hotel and greeted at the front desk with Cuba Libres, a traditional rum and coke drink.

The group was divided into three tour bus groups with alternating agendas of the scheduled touristy painting areas. One must carry their agenda at all times, along with a passport, medical insurance and cash. The Cubans run on a two currencies, CUCs and CUPs. CUC's, pronounced cuuks, is the currency we travelers used. CUPs are "Cuban Convertible Pesos" and are equivalent to the likes of Monopoly money because it has no international value.

Sunrise outside my window at Miami Airport.

Upon landing, it was apparent that we were not in Kansas anymore.

The cars
As you might expect, the cars were incredible. The first sight of the first classic led to a multitude of more in every condition you could expect and were used for everyday transportation.  Owning a car is a privilege and honor to any Cuban household. Some families rent their cars out to others on a day by day basis, when groceries, doctor appointments and longer-by-foot travel requires a set of wheels.  Some use their cars as taxis and that is where the fun begins. There are silly looking government owed taxis that look like a yellow bubble and then there are the fancy, well kept classics that took top dollar at the taxi stand. But fool you not, they were pieced together and maintained as well as the Cuban had the means and knowhow.  A Pontiac could easily have a Ford emblem on the hood and a Japanese engine and bobbie pins holding the doors closed. In Cuba, because the cars break down quite often, one must pass a mechanics test to obtain a driver's license. If you were lucky to get a ride in one, the potholes fill with sea water thus rusting the old classic's floorboards only to give one a surprise foot bath along with a breath of exhaust pouring into the back seat.

Luckily, I had the chance to ride in a really sweet yellow Pontiac convertible classic. Our group went to the central area just blocks from the Capitol Building to catch the tempo of the city. The city was busy and oftentimes the sounds of horns and old engines dimmed and rose with a crescendo. Fellow painter Scott Prior spotted the yellow convertible and we offered the taxi driver $20 cash so we could paint it. The driver took us 4 short blocks out of the taxi area to park it in a not-commercial spot for a 2 hour painting session in downtown Havana. What a treat!

Painting classic cars in Central Havana where El Capitolio and 
The Great Theatre de Havana are located.

'51 Pontiac, Convertible" 9x12" Oil

The people
My favorite part of visiting Cuba was the people. When we painted in an area called Old Havana, I was a bit nervous as it seemed very dirty and run down, and seriously wondered if we'd return in one piece. But my nerves were calmed as the people seemingly were curious and kind. They observed us painters and were sort of dumbfounded what we were doing with these portable painting boxes. I remember clearly, it was around 11:00 am and a few men stopped from their working duties to quietly watch me paint an old blue car. I turned to look at them from behind and one of them was drinking rum from what looked like a small juice box. He offered me some and we both had a laugh. "No gracias".

Middle School kids observing me painting "Barely Running", on the street during their lunch break.
Image of the finished painting is located below

One of the more memorable encounters was when I met a flock of middle school kids who were passing by on their lunch break. A few of them stopped to see what I was doing with their curious faces. I only wished I could speak Spanish as there would have been a lot of questions from both parties. I pulled out a small candy from my pocket and gestured that I only had one, and then offered it to the kids as one quickly snapped it out of my hand. The all screamed with excitement and ran off with the small treasure.

The buildings
Because we spent most of our time in the city of Havana we painted mostly urban scenes. Some of the more beautiful buildings dated back to the 1700's with outcroppings of worn out small apartment buildings and studio spaces amongst the historic UNESCO buildings. The centuries are surely present when you see these structures, with its rich and varied history. Most dwellings were literally crumbling, and if you were not aware of what was around you, you may trip on a broken sidewalk that had been crushed by falling cornices and rooflines. People tended to walk in the middle of the streets to avoid a falling object that often times created incredible compositions for paintings, but also tragedies for others.  The infrastructure was not well maintained due to the shaky Communist government. 

While in Central Havana, where we painted the convertible car, "El Capitolio" is visible from nearly every street and now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its architecture was a duplicate of America's Capitol Building. They were restoring it just as ours was being restored. A few of us artists set up to paint this narrow street of the Capitol and all its pedestrians going about their day.
Read more on El Capitolio here

El Capitolio in nearly an exact copy of the US Capital and now houses
a library and the Academie of Sciences.

This pre 1700's sugar plantation Casa is now a standing museum called Monumeto de Taoro. Built of rock and a plaster like mortar. There were remains of slave quarters in back and a burial ground to its rear.

Typical homes in Havana

One of the bell towers of La Cathedral de San Cristobal

Apartment units were often clustered within an atrium. The banisters were crumbling everywhere.

A street in Old Havana. Cubans recycled the plastics and piled them along the side of this street. If you look closely, there is a stack of eggs on the lower corner that sat there the entire time I was painting. Not one egg moved. 

The government
It was clear to me that the people have had to bear the challenges of government control, turmoil and instability for years, as our tour guide tried to explain to us while riding in the tour bus.  The tenacity and spirit of the people have had to endure long lines for food, medical needs, and housing, all of which are controlled and under-funded. Families are given a food card from which they are scheduled a trip each week to the grocery store to buy their allotment of provisions. Every community has a clinic from which Doctors care for when needed. Some clinics were better off than others, depending on what area one lives, or what agency one worked for. Doctors are paid very little, as most people get the same amount of income, creating a "working class" and a "government class" of incomes. Doctors are known to be the brightest, yet they work jobs at night as waiters and taxi drivers to support their families. Because incomes were generally equal in this society, there really was no incentive to work harder. I observed that the people have a relaxed way of life, with low output. Why would anyone wish to work hard if that meant they could not have a better life?  It was interesting though, because dancers, artists and musicians seemed to have a glorious life if at the top of their game, but one injury, one slip and they could easily be replaced by the next talent.

A statue of Jose Marti' pointing an opposing finger at the vacant U.S. Interests Section Office 

A taxi stand with a mural of one of Cuba's revolutionaries, Ché.

The only signage allowed was Communist propaganda.


The outdated Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) center provides a refuge for the strongest, most athletically talented citizens.

The food
Cuba's cuisine is a mixture of Spanish, African and a hint of Chinese with local fruits such at guava, papaya and bananas. The delightful dishes offered selections of beef or seafood with a servings  of squash and beans.  Cubans don't usually have meat in their diet due to the cost, but when they do, it is usually cooked well-done to kill any bugs. I found the meat to be overcooked and tough for my taste, but hey, the rice and black beans were a welcomed dish. Every meal came with a Mojito that is a mixture of rum, sparkling water, sugar, lemon juice and crushed mint leaves. 

All restaurants are government operated, but with the new transition of opening doors to Democracy, there are a few privately owned restaurants that have special agreements with the government.

Lunchtime with the most delicious soup I have ever eaten! It had savory squash, potato, lime and a
combination of tasty ingredients too many to mention.

This was our last meal of the trip. Yummy! Unfortunately, it was a bit overcooked.

The neon was in disrepair but the food was incredible at Los Gardenias

A cafe' in one of the Cathedrals.

The paintings
Painting on Obispo Street on the first day out and about.

Just off of Central Park in downtown Havana.

View of the "La Capitolio" through a bustling street. 

"El Capitolio" 12x9" Oil (plein air in Havana, Cuba)  available through artist

Painting  "Catedral de San Cristobal, La Habana, Cuba" 12x9" Oil

"Headed to the Square" 12x9" Oil. plein air in Cuba

"Barely Running' 9x12" Oil  (plein air in Old Havana) available through artist

Painting in the Plaza of Cathedral de San Cristobal

"Catedral de San Christobal" 12x9" Oil

Painting in a fishing village in Jaimanitas, Cuba

"Fisherman's Village, Jaimanitas" 9x12" Oil

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger Carolynn Wagler said...

Thanks, Brenda, I really enjoyed Cuba. In my life time they were the enemy, now it seems they are friends again. I loved how you captured the scenes and the people. Thanks again

9/23/16, 7:26 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home