Artists venturing to Cuba on last month’s Paint Cuba! Publisher’s Invitational were tipped off that they should bring extra art materials — extra anything — because the people of Cuba could use it. Kath Schifano heeded the call. But what she brought was unusual.
“All of us tried to do something to have stuff to bring,” says Schifano, “whether it would be cheap brushes and watercolor, or art materials that we didn’t need anymore. But a dental clinic in Buffalo showed up with a shopping bag full of toothbrushes, pediatric-size, maybe 100 of them. So that’s what I brought — which was a little different from what other people did! Some other artists said, ‘I brought brushes.’ I said, ‘So did I!’”

The art materials donations the visiting artists left in Cuba

The traveling artists had to be careful about how they distributed what they brought. A chance to get items from tourists could attract a crowd, fast. “You can attract a bigger crowd quickly if you are just handing out stuff while walking down the street,” says Schifano. “I learned to give things to people who were with me, people I had talked to, not complete strangers — and to do it somewhat surreptitiously. There were no expectations, and everyone was very thankful and appreciative. But people had very little and could use anything.

Kids at play in Havana

“When I packed my suitcase at the end of the trip, I realized I had more in that suitcase than what most Cubans owned. I set aside anything in my suitcase and purse that wasn’t completely necessary. I left slippers, socks, bungee cords — people in Cuba don’t make enough to survive. Even doctors had to houseclean to make more money. People had second jobs — the income from the state isn’t enough to provide for them. It was pretty easy to leave stuff.”

Eric Rhoads and other visiting artists paint the sights in Cuba

Schifano actually had somewhat of a difficult time giving out her toothbrushes. Just handing them out in the street wasn’t wise, and children are well protected in Cuba. She needed to find some way to get them to a group of kids. “I couldn’t go to schools,” she says. “I thought about going to a convent. Finally, I saw a group of children playing and a teacher watching, and I asked where their school was. The teacher pointed in one direction, and I walked, and kept asking, and eventually I found a sign that read ‘Primarie,’ which I took to mean primary school. I saw two guys at the gate and I got my courage up and asked if it were a school and if I could come in and talk to the principal or a teacher. It was a tired old building, but it was filled with joy and the laughter of children. The principal was very sweet, and dedicated. I left the toothbrushes with him.”

“Old Havana Colonnade,” by Kath Schifano, 2016, oil, 12 x 9 in.

Many tourists are affected by the people of Cuba — how they have little, but express such joy and industriousness. Many leave all that they can in their hotel rooms so that it can be distributed. It is, but through the spigot of the cleaning personnel at hotels. “Cleaning people are wealthy in Havana because they collect what tourists leave, and they sell it,” asserts Schifano. “Rosemary and Symi Jackson of Rosemary Brushes collected the art materials and distributed them. People gave up paints at the end of the week that they could easily replace at home. Rosemary Brushes added some of their merchandise, too. They took the art materials to an art college nearby. The poor quality of art materials there was shocking.”

Taxis in Havana

And when she came home, Schifano experienced culture shock. “I was mortified when I walked into my house and saw all my stuff,” says the New York State artist. “If I could have taken more to Cuba, I would have, but 40 pounds was the weight limit. I’ve been in touch with others on the trip, and all of us feel a dissonance, a conflict. Cubans don’t have banks, telephones, computers. They are just so controlled.”
Eric Rhoads, the publisher of PleinAir magazine, previously wrote about the trip in PleinAir Today, and you can read it here. Turner Vinson created a video that communicates the feel of the trip; it can be found here.


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