In February of 2016 I jumped at the opportunity to travel to Cuba with many other artists on a trip organized by Plein Air Magazine. It was a brief trip, only a week total, but plenty of time to get a taste of the inspiration Cuba has to offer and to reflect on a unique place so close to the US and yet so far.
“Visit Cuba before it changes forever…” was part of the description of what the Paint Cuba Plein Air Invitational would be, and I think all of us who signed up were thinking that. Shortly after arriving it was obvious both that Cuba is a time capsule and that it is potentially on the verge of being launched full speed into modern times. Many times each day I felt like I had gone back in time, whether to horse-powered plantation life or Soviet-era architecture or the1950s heyday of greased hair and bold American cars. It’s hard to imagine these things will change quickly, but the people I met seem eager to prove they can excel on the world stage in modern times.
The maritime life of Cuba was what interested me most. The coastal fortresses and seawalls stand as they have for almost four centuries, and the fishermen ply the rough waters in small boats that have been held together with scarce resources for decades. A fisherman carefully repainting his wood skiff told me it was fifty years old and his engine was forty. Men and women who ply the seas are already known for being tough and resourceful, but in Cuba they take that to another level.
Looking north towards the US from a beach on Havana’s outskirts, I remembered past trips camping in the Dry Tortugas, where sitting on the beach was whatever was the most recent Cuban boat to make it to shore there. Scraps of metal welded together into a somewhat graceful hull, large car engine mounted inside. A vessel covertly yet beautifully made out of scraps and found materials, designed for just one courageous voyage. It was a powerful experience to be standing on the other shore, looking out from Cuba.
I did as much painting on location in Havana and its surrounding areas as possible for a short and frantic week. Someday I hope to return to Cuba, but for now I will let the powerful first impressions of a place frozen in time resonate through my paintings.