Thursday, March 31, 2016

Transportation in Cuba

 Everyone asks about the old cars. They are colorful and everywhere and most of them are taxis for tourists. To get a driving license in Cuba you must pass a test of mechanics as most of the cars are from the 40's and 50's, and many of them are in constant repair. We were warned not to cross a street with an oncoming relic, they would not slow as brakes were not dependable.

Cubans have many modes of alternate transportation, everything from horseback to public busses, including motorcarts and bicycle taxis or rickshaws. Out of the city, animals are preferred and I saw many carts loaded with families, workers, produce and hay. The horses were in much better shape than the wheels which were frequently made of wood or mismatched rubber from various vehicles.


Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea. Who hasn't picked up the classic battle of man and fish and time? Cojimar, where Ernest Hemingway kept his yacht El Pilar is a small fishing village east of Havana. I was eager to paint on my first day, stepped off the bus and set up overlooking the harbor and a decrepit Castillo, one of many seaside fortress buildings from Cuba's storied past. The day was sunny and the air had a slight breeze, but the eastern sky was dark and foamy. I knew I had to paint quickly and 20 minutes into the picture I had my elbow wedged on the palette and hand firmly on the paintbox as the wind increased. Rain started and there didn't seem to be any blue sky anywhere, the light on my subject had gone and I needed to find shelter. Behind me was a small main street with an overhanging porch and I set up thinking I could keep working. After the palette I was gripping took off like a frisbee twice I became aware I was no match for the wind and the sea or the sideways rain. Chilled and wet, I packed up. It was only 40 minutes since I had arrived.

La Terraza is a small restaurant on a side street which was mentioned by our guide before the bus parked. Walking the tiny village I stepped in to see the 'famous' restaurant and warm up, and several members of our group were at a table enjoying mojitos and coffee. On the wall was a painting of Hemingway, the floor to ceiling windows had huge wooden shutters, the bar stools were full and a mariachi band was drowning all conversation. I heard 'Hotel California' played for the first of many times in Cuba. I sat with new friends and we discussed the price of a few squares of tissue in the ladies room, named the instrumentals by the band and rated the overpriced drinks. It was my first full morning in Cuba.

The back porch had an assortment of tables set for lunch and a stunning view of the harbor, pilings from old docks, churning waves and a small lighthouse. In a corner a set table had velvet ropes and a small sign explaining that it was where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea. He lived in Cuba from 1940-1960 and is considered a folk hero, his haunts are celebrated and one Havana restaurant proclaims 'Papa never was here'.

Hemingway's table

A pavilion with a bust of Hemingway, Castillo on the left.

Same spot, after the storm

Placid water after the storm

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

An Original Plantation in Cuba

This old steeple aimed for the sky, no longer connected to the dissolved chapel it once announced.  The plein air painters in Cuba were charmed by the entire area, a rickety old crumbling manor house, trees growing through walls, ancient vines and a farmer neighbor using a horse and cart to move the cut grasses.  We demanded that our bus driver find a place to let us out and everyone settled around to paint this old molasses and sugar cane plantation.  The manor house was a treasure of textures to paint, but the steeple attracted me. The old bell glowed with a blue green patina, wild flowers and trees were growing out of the foundation.   
I think I did justice to this historic site.  It brings my painting goals back to "Painting for Preservation" roots in Buffalo.                                                    

Abandoned Steeple
Abandoned Steeple, oil on Arches Huile, 12x9 c. 2016

This painting is headed to Baltimore for a 'Cuba in Paint' exhibit at Crystal Moll Gallery  April 4-May 24

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Painting the Niagara River below the Falls

The sun started out bright so I headed to the Niagara Reservation to paint the last of the snow. With the messy Terrapin Point construction and reconfigured roads there was little access to the Falls, so I drove around the park and decided to travel north along the churning Niagara river, hoping for a good view in a protected place. THe day was cooler by the river and I remembered that the 'private' cliff road was now open to the public, 6 parking spaces would be available. The 7th car would have to leave.

I took the seriously steep Power Authority road down to the fishing docks. It was pretty quiet, only one other car and there seemed to be a single person in the guardhouse. Parking crooked, I pushed my seat all the way back and painted this from the car. Warm, dry and a few podcasts later my painting was done and I was determined to come back in the summer to walk the paths that lead down to the water's edge. It seemed incredibly peaceful.

There are no giant islands of ice floating down the river and some fishing was going on, in fact, some boaters motored into my view. Spring is in the gorge. 

'Lower River Spring', 9x12 oil on birch c. 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Brush with Adventure in Havana

Photo from Richard Sneary

Planning for Cuba, we were made aware of shortages of ordinary items, we were to bring what we would need such as paper towels and art supplies. In addition, we were encouraged to pack extra things to leave with the artists and people of Cuba.

I was easily able to collect a big handful of brushes to donate out of my studio. Then, I spoke to a friend who is a nurse and she mentioned their great need for dental health. By connecting to her friend at the University of Buffalo Pediatric Clinic, she obtained a shopping bag of child size toothbrushes. I was appalled at how I would never be able to transport all of them in my suitcase. I had spent days trying to pack the minimum paint tubes of the right colors, light weight canvases, clothing that could serve multiple uses, a single pair of shoes, leaving out my hairdryer, even bringing a smaller comb. I was determined to stay below the 20 kilos for the air shuttle to Havana.

Determined, I packed them into narrow plastic bags, forcing many more in even after the bags were full and then squished down into my suitcase. I decided the original paintbrushes would instead go to the students in Niagara Falls High School, art budgets covered minimum supplies and they would be appreciated.

Many artists brought brushes and art supplies to leave with the artists in Cuba, but the 100 brushes....pediatric toothbrushes....were for children. I was determined to bring them into a school so they could be given to classes, perhaps as part of a lesson. The guides said they couldn't bring me to a school, but perhaps an aid group would take them. I carried the bag with me for a few days and finally asked a teacher working with students on a square where the school was. I was pointed down a side street, walking, I finally saw a sign 'Primarie' and guessed I had arrived. With my most confident voice and demeanor I said 'For the teachers' and the guard reluctantly allowed me in. With luck and perseverance prevailing, he escorted me up to the 'Manager's Office' and we communicated with Google translate on the office computer, the first working bit of technology I saw all week. I wrote that classes could have a lesson about tooth care He asked me to stay to meet the teachers but I couldn't wait that long. Unfortunately I neglected to take school pictures to show University of Buffalo Pediatric Dental Clinic who provided me with the toothbrushes, but these photos were shared by artists on the trip. Wherever there was a public square there were organized games and activities of students, bright, friendly and happy.

Photos from Rhonda Thatcher MacKay
Rosemary and Symi from the wonderful handmade Rosemary and Co. Brushes in England graciously collected the artists' donations, this shows just one day's collection and a lot of brushes there are from their company. They collected and cleaned the donated items and took each day's supplies to the art college in Havana where they probably won't miss my little collection of studio brushes. On the last day we left all of our expendable items, Gamsol brush cleaner, bungie cords, clips, slippers, soap, whatever one could spare.
photo from Rosemary Thompson

Studio painting from a plein air reference.

Using my own plein air painting as a reference for a large painting is pretty unusual. I have 'tried' it twice before and although I like to work on large paintings I do not like to work from flat references. I have become used to working from life, in real places, with real items, real people, not photographs or paintings.

This is an original plein air painting, 'Slack' which is 9"x12". I did it at my favorite jetty, the end of Ohio Street in Long Beach NY in 2013.

I reproduced it in the winter of 2015-16 for a gallery that wanted large images of my ocean scenes. This was a challenge but also fun, and a bit frustrating. It was hard to capture the sparkle of a summer morning on the shore while I was standing in the studio with a snowy winter window view next to me. The larger rocks on the easel picture are the size of the original plein air painting. The painting is 30" by 40" and is curing in the studio now. It takes a long time for oil paint to thoroughly dry after the surface seems dry.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Plaza VieJa, Cuba, making connections

Plaza Vieja lunch
Starting the painting
I set my easel on a side street off Plaza Vieja in Havana to paint the brilliant yellow government restaurant (as opposed to Paladar restaurants, which are in private homes). While I was working, a hefty breeze tossed the building's green arch shade askew, although it isn't crooked in the photo I liked how it framed the umbrellas. Music constantly played from two different places, adding to the cacophony of construction behind me and neighborhood chatter.

While I was painting, a young lady, Lilian was watching. This wasn't unusual in Cuba, we were often watched and engaged with many people despite the language barrier. We talked for quite a while, she is a student at the Academy, equivalent to our high school. She had a pile of small white papers and a drawing pen, capturing tourist caricatures for tips was her job. Lilian preferred staying near me than working, saying I was nice. When I mentioned that all the plein air artists were nice, she could talk to anyone, I was branded as 'but you are really nice'. Apparently some tourists may reject the caricature artists rudely.

She is staying with a matron in Havana while she earns money, I'm not sure where that leaves her continued education or if the school is here. Her English is excellent and we talked about oil painting and my materials, our families, old Havana, the cars, people who passed by and all the things people discuss when they meet. She has two little sisters so I gave her some of my kiddie toothbrushes (a story for another post), some painting supplies and my bottle of Gamsol brush cleaner. Artists here use gasoline for brush cleaner, so our non-toxic Gamsol was welcome. 

I asked Lilian to do my caricature, the walk around artists here do a quick face picture in a minute or less but she crossed the alley, got comfortable and spent a bit of time drawing while I painted. And of course I also rocked and danced to the music. Her picture captured so much of Cuba for me, my new Cuba Invitational painter hat with the palette pin, the music, my joy and of course my easel set up. Jacqueline Allen (a member of my group) took my photo at this same site, compare see how this talented lovely young lady drew me.

All the people in Cuba were charming, but I feel I made a new artist  friend in Cuba and wish the best for Lilian. She refused to take any tips from me, because I was 'nice'. We met again later and I introduced her to some of the other painters in the square.

Drawing by Lilian

photo by Jacqueline Allen
the artist, Lilian at work