Cuba has been off-limits to most Americans for more than 50 years. But with President Obama announcing a resumption of relations and reopening the embassy in Havana last year, followed by his recent historic visit to the country, it is now common to hear people say, “I want to go there,” usually followed by “but before it all changes.”
Five Connecticut artists — Mary Burkhardt and Randi Jane Davis of Ridgefield, Kathy Anderson of Redding, Nancy Bauer Howell of Trumbull and Johanne Mangi of North Haven — count themselves among the fortunate to have done just that. They were part of a hundred-person group that visited the country for a week in early February, organized by Eric Rhodes, publisher of PleinAir and Fine Arts Connoisseur Magazines.
The group traveled the island in three buses, splitting into small groups at their destinations. While their experiences were unique, all were inspired and came home with similar sentiments regarding the people they met, finding the Cubans to be generous and kind despite their deprivation, and loving the “wonderful music, which was everywhere.” They also noted the absence of places to shop, aside from a huge flea market, and the very limited inventory in those shops found; but Mojitos and Cuba Libras were plentiful.
“The Cuban people were some of the friendliest, most open and most polite people I have ever met or been around,” said Mary Burkhardt (maryburkhardt.com). “Truly wonderful and willing to help us in any way they could.
“With my very limited Spanish, I told a man I met with my friend, Carol Violanda-Haslach, that we were looking for a place to paint that was off of the street and out of the way of traffic. It turned out he was a parking garage attendant and offered us the roof of his garage with its vistas of Old Havana. Instead of the grand vistas, we chose to paint intimate views of the rooftops closest to us because we discovered they were full of life.
“There was laundry drying and there were nursing dogs lying in the sun. There were plastic pink flamingos, antiques, chickens, and pigeon coops. Since electricity is provided free of charge by the government, extension cords from the apartments lower down supply power and a barrel with a hose supplies water. A lot of Cuban life is apparently lived on the rooftops!”
When Randi Jane Davis (randijanedavis.com) was in Cosimar, where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote The Old Man and the Sea, it started to rain. “I needed cover and a woman invited me to paint on her porch, then invited me into her home. It was simply furnished, but brightly painted. It was just unbelievable… they had nothing, gave everything and asked for nothing.
“Wherever we painted, people came out to watch and talk to us,” she continued. “There was a lot of laundry hanging everywhere and horse-drawn carts. I painted a woman sitting on a stool — best model I ever had — for two hours. She initially refused the money I offered, which was only $15, but that is a lot to them.”
Davis was particularly taken with the town of Jaimanitas “where everything is made of tiles and an artist named José Rodríguez Fuster has created some fantastical murals the last decade.”
Describing herself as a storyteller who often paints street scenes in New York City, she said, “Havana had so many amazing groups of people… I took photos and will be doing that work for the next year. It was a unique experience; I plan to go back next year.”
“I was very excited to go,” said Kathy Anderson (kathyandersonstudio.com). “I do mostly floral landscapes, so I was drawn to the flower markets and did some closeups of the vividly colored buildings. They also set us loose on an old plantation and took us to the fishing village of Cojimar.”
Anderson and Davis both observed that the one-time fishing village didn’t seem to have any commercial fishing, just a few small boats. The larger boats were locked up — was the government afraid of people trying to escape in them? they wondered.
“I also didn’t realize how little the people have… in this big flea market you’d see people somehow painting with stubs of wood and about three hairs attached. The owner of Rosemary and Company from England was on the trip and brought about $5,000 worth of brushes to give away. She would walk around and hand out brushes to the artists and they would practically cry.
“I couldn’t believe how little they had, how grateful they were to get anything. We left all of our art supplies, toiletries, whatever we could, behind.”
“I have long wanted to visit Cuba and paint there,” said Nancy Bauer Howell (nancybauerhowell.com). “It did not disappoint! Old town Havana is a hodgepodge of beautifully restored buildings, shops in the doorways, cars, dogs, fruit and veggie carts, bike taxis, piles of rubble, but mostly crumbling, centuries-old buildings. Paintings everywhere you looked! The textures, the colors, the dirt! Oh and the music. One morning I set up in front of a dance studio, and got a quick salsa lesson from two enthusiastic young girls.
“It was so hard to balance sight-seeing, learning, eating, with taking time to paint. We visited an abandoned sugar plantation, then a small town marina with its mix of old and not so old boats. Next, was a fishing village. In the city, I painted the old windows and laundry — that was everywhere — and a flower vendor on the street. All these plein air pieces are quickly done ‘starts,’ with the intention of capturing the essence of place. Then, I hope to finish them in the studio, with the help of memory and photos. I can’t wait to go back!”
Johanne Mangi (johannemangi.com), known for her commissioned dog portraits, was particularly interested in the street dogs of Havana that she’d heard about. Her biggest surprise? “There weren’t that many. I felt like maybe there had been a round-up, perhaps due to the President’s visit? I had to go looking for them.”
She found it fascinating that some wore large tags indicating they were “government approved,” had been neutered. “People are careful to feed only those with tags; otherwise if too many dogs are seen in an area, all of them are taken away. I took lots of reference photos that I will turn into paintings.
“You could have the most amazing experiences… A building collapsed while we were nearby — a common occurrence — and people ran to it and picked up bricks. Another time Kathy and I were walking down a street and heard some music, and saw two young women doing the salsa. When they saw we were interested, they gave us a lesson — it was awesome.”
Samples of the artists’ Cuban works can be seen at the websites provided after their names.