Maine artist Evelyn Dunphy made the trip to Cuba in February, and she offered a workshop to participants as well. Dunphy was so fascinated with the experience that she offered to share her thoughts with readers of PleinAir Today.
As I look out of the window as our charter flight approaches Havana, I feel a great enthusiasm for what I will see and experience in the following two weeks. My reason for being here is simply the sudden desire to see Havana at this pivotal point in history with a group of artists.

Dunphy with a collage artist at the Instituo Superior de Arts

First, the customs and immigration area. We changed our U.S. dollars into Cuban Convertible Pesos (known as “CUCs”). Then through the doors to find our guide and tour organizer —  it felt like a reunion even though we had never met, as we had been looking forward to this moment for months. We hop on our spotless Chinese-built bus, which will be our daily home on wheels, and off we go to our hotel, prepared to settle in, get acquainted, and enjoy the famous “welcome drink” that is promised – and delivered – everywhere we go.
Oh, no. We have no rooms. The confirmation for our group of 14 is sitting right on the desk. But there are no rooms available. We settle in the lobby for the duration, the hotel staff making sandwiches for us and refilling the glasses, while our tour leader, calm on the outside (but one can only imagine how he is feeling on the inside), goes into all-out action to find out what is available for hotel rooms in Havana. Three hours later, we are all back on the bus, headed for the city. We have rooms at the Melia Habana, an elegant 5-star hotel, complete with the largest swimming pool of all city hotels, lush tropical gardens, and wonderful views of the city and the sea. A few have dinner in one of the elegant restaurants, while the rest just fall into bed.
We spend our first morning on a walking tour of four historic plazas in Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The experience of seeing this gorgeous collection of colonial-era architecture for the first time is enhanced by our guide, who is so well-informed about the history of Havana and its beginnings. Just walking around would be a thrilling experience, but hearing the stories gives so much more meaning. Lunch, a little painting — the day flies by.
The next day, we will change hotels again. After a bit of a hassle, we settle in. The next morning, we find we are right on a gorgeous beach with royal palm trees, and lounge chairs lining the sand. Were we a family planning to spend a week on the beach, away from the city, peaceful and quiet, it would have been the perfect place. However, our Cuba plans are quite different, and we want out of there, pronto!

A plein air sketch by Evelyn Dunphy

Once again, our bus driver loads all of our bags on the bus. However, we are told that we were not checking out. Our tour organizer was going to spend his day looking for another hotel for us, but just in case, we need to keep this place as a backup. And indeed, by the end of the day, there are no rooms to be had in Havana, and so we end up back on the beach. By now, it is beginning to look pretty good.
But the following night, we are happy to learn that rooms have been found for us at the Hotel Riviera, a veritable ’50s museum right on the Malcon. Perhaps no hotel in Havana retains the swing and flavor of the 1950s as well as the Hotel Habana Riviera. Ginger Rogers inaugurated the hotel in December ’57, playing the legendary Copa Room of this seafront hotel built by mobster Meyer Lansky. We stay here very happily for three nights, giving us the opportunity to finally unpack.
Unfortunately, they did not have rooms for our last night, so we move once again, this time to the Memories Hotel. I am happy to say our second week was spent at the original hotel where we had our reservations. I would go back again in a minute! Lest it seems that all we did was move, our days were filled with a wonderful selection of sights. We met artists who are making world-class art, and exhibit their work in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. One young man at the Instituto Superior de Arts (ISA) uses cardboard and torn pages from an old telephone book to create a surface that looks like embossed leather. A collage artist shows us very large pieces of work, each piece of paper handmade and painted in the most subtle and beautiful tones. He uses the form of elephants and other creatures to play out his story.
I think it is fair to say that everything we see in the art studios and the Museum of Fine Arts is filled with symbolism. I am struck with how witty and gentle most of it is; only occasionally is there an image that hits home with a more blatant political message. On such superficial knowledge, I would not begin to make statements about Cuba and its artists, but it does seem that the embargo and conditions under which they have lived informs everything that they do. How could it be otherwise?

Cuban children watch Dunphy paint

One afternoon, we see an installation at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana that totally captivates us. The next morning we go to an artist’s studio, and to our delight, it is the very same artist, Abel Borasso, whose work we have seen at the museum. So young, and already internationally recognized.
My plans for painting three hours each day evaporate into the reality of two hours at most. The conflict between wanting to see as much as we could, the distances between one place and another, as well as the time required to secure lodging, make it clear to me that the best we can hope for is to make small studies and takes lots and lots of photos.
We see a group of children exercising in the plaza one morning, so spic-and-span in their school uniforms. Elementary school children wear red and white, and the middle school uniform is blue and white — the colors of the Cuban flag. We have a quite thorough overview of the education system from kindergarten through university from a docent at the university, and the dance program from the very young vice president of the dance faculty. The art historian at the Museum of Fine Arts gave us a wonderful tour of paintings that spoke of the cultural and political changes from 1960 to 1990. Since I saw many of these places twice, on separate weeks with each of my two groups, I benefited from different exhibits and different docents, all excellent presentations.

The artists always drew a crowd

One day we enjoyed lunch in the small fishing village of Jaimanitas, where Jose Fuster, one of Cuba’s most important ceramists and painters, has transformed the village into a whimsical experience of fantasy and color. This has given the villagers a chance to make a little money, as they can sell their crafts to visitors. A boyhood friend of Fuster’s described what it was like in 1993, when the stores were empty, people were raising chickens along with families in crowded apartments, or even a pig in a bathtub. And since there was no oil, no propane, no gasoline, everyone scoured the streets for scraps of wood to burn to cook whatever they had. He told it with a smile, reminiscing about those times with his friends, and how skinny they all were. (He is still skinny).
We enjoyed seeing Cojimar, a small fishing village where Hemingway docked his boat, El Pilar. He was very well liked, we were told, and a bust of him is installed in a lovely little pavilion right by the fort on the sea. Cojimar was the background for his book The Old Man And the Sea. The “old man” in the title is supposedly his guide, a Cojimar local. The wind blew so hard here on both occasions that it was almost impossible to paint.
Of course we couldn’t leave Havana without seeing the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which opened in 1930, attracting a long list of visitors including Winston Churchill, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, and lots more. Some of our group spend a lovely time on the terrace overlooking the sea, while we sit on the patio listening to the music in the evening.
We became so fond of our guides that we had each week. Both were so personable and competent — they truly made our days and evenings a joy. Nothing is too much for them; we are sad to leave them. It had become a bit of a joke with everyone each week about how many times a day we would hear “Guantanamera.” At the end of our second week, Francesca, one of the group, wrote a song to celebrate Asiel, our guide, and Orlando, our driver. It was set to the melody of “Guantanamera,” and the bus was rocking as she led us in singing it on the bus.

An artist enjoys Cojímar, a fishing village east of Havana

He said that our group changed his impression of Americans; he had found most to be reserved and quiet, and they did not interact very much with the people. Our group, on the other hand, talked to everyone, and danced at every opportunity! Most meaningful to me was the day-to-day conversation when we were able to ask our guide questions about history, how and what they learned in school and university about the U.S. and the Soviet Union, how their parents described what life was like when the USSR collapsed, and just what it like for them now. These conversations were fascinating, and our answers to questions about our lives were no doubt as informative as theirs were for us.
In our conversations, we heard the deep uncertainties about how things will unfold with the coming changes between Cuba and the U.S. I heard great hope for better economic conditions, anticipation that perhaps they may be able to travel, and concern that their currency may suddenly be devalued, leaving them in worse shape than before. As one young man said, “It has happened before.”

Artists join in the music

I have no doubt that all of us will read and listen to news of unfolding events in Cuba with a very different attitude. And I hope that the Cuban people will benefit from what the next few years will bring.


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