The publisher of PleinAir magazine took 100 painters with him to Cuba, a country that was closed to Americans for decades. Their historic trip was thrilling, according to accounts coming into our offices. Eric Rhoads reports.
Cuba is, for those who have never been, almost impossible to describe. It is a strange combination of tension, excitement, music, color, light, fear, disgust, envy, joy, and pity, but never disappointment. Its history — from our own, possibly distorted perspective to that of the locals, who want us to believe they adore their lives, their culture, and their leaders — is rich with culture that rivals that of the best Europe has to offer. It is a dichotomy in and of itself, and the curiosity of those of us who had never been there was so powerful that it drove 100 of us to land in this fascinating place to experience it firsthand.

Classic cars are a familiar sight in Havana, Cuba.

The participants in the Paint Cuba Publisher’s Invitational event

Due to embargoes and restrictions on travel from the United States, visiting Cuba has been difficult, if not impossible, for most Americans, though some have been able to visit on a humanitarian visa. That is why I, as publisher of PleinAir magazine, leaped at the opportunity to make history by bringing in a group of artists during a brief lapse of rules regarding U.S. citizens visiting prior to restrictions being lifted.

Eric Rhoads painting on location in Cuba

Glen Knowles’s portrait of a man in Cuba, done on location

Although an occasional artist or small workshop group has slipped into the country by traveling through the Bahamas or Canada, bringing a large group would stand out, possibly becoming a magnet for unwanted attention from the Cuban government. Yet we managed, through some legal wrangling and special visas, to visit as tourists and as a large group. And just as we returned from our trip, the United States announced a visit from the Secretary of Transportation to orchestrate air travel into Cuba from the U.S.A. Our timing could not have been more perfect.

Painters enjoying the weather and subject matter of Cuba

Erica Norelius

In fact, this was the largest group of artists gathered together in Cuba in one place, at one time, in the nation’s rich and colorful history. The group’s makeup was about 70 percent artists, with the balance being spouses, family members, or close friends of the artists.

Painting a Cuban street scene

Kathy Anderson

Publisher’s Invitational events are designed to be a week of painting together as friends, with no formal agenda or workshops and with a goal of continuous daily painting. The concept in this case needed to be slightly adjusted to include enough painting to fulfill that goal, while also making sure the group got to see and experience different parts of Cuba. The best way to accomplish that involved being together for breakfast each day and then dividing into three groups that alternated various touring elements with visits to different locations, including different restaurants for lunch and dinner. While the majority of our time was spent in and around Old Havana and Central Havana — treasure troves of incredible architecture and endless painting opportunities — we also visited the countryside to paint an old sugar plantation and fishing villages.

PleinAir’s own Turner Vinson captured the feel and spirit of the trip in this 8-minute YouTube video:

Though local artists are an amazing part of the local culture, with an entire, massive building devoted to the sale of paintings and local crafts, the locals are completely unaccustomed to seeing plein air artists working outdoors with their portable easels. That meant most painters had audiences of dozens watching the entire time as they created their paintings, and were often met with applause upon completion. Word spread fast as local artists found painters scattered through the streets and came to watch, to learn, and even to try our materials and see our easels, which they found unusual. Knowing in advance that art materials are hard to find and expensive, many of the attending artists brought care packages of brushes, paints, panels, and other art supplies, allowing us to spread them around to some local artists as well as to the local school of painting.

Glen Knowles and Rhonda McCay

Julia Pavlov and Tatyana Fogarty enjoy their meal in Havana.

The artists in the group shared their own unique stories of Cuba, with wide-ranging tales of seeing unique things, like a recently collapsed building where homes for hundreds were instantly destroyed and where local scavengers came out of nowhere. The bricks and stones were desired because materials are so rare. There were stories of visits to local schools to hand out toothbrushes, handing out toys to kids in the streets, encounters with local artists, and so much more.

From left: Frank May, Bruce Bingham, Roger Rossi, Maureen and James Shotts, and Diane May
enjoy a fine dining experience in Havana.

Janet Anderson. Photo by Turner Vinson

Only one unfortunate incident occurred — a painter had her purse stolen while it sat on the ground during a painting session. In a small, remote fishing village, there were a few scrapes and falls, mostly from uneven cobblestone streets, and a handful of cases of intestinal difficulties caused by drinking local water or washed raw vegetables. What applies in Mexico also applies in Cuba: Don’t drink the water.

A woman poses for the artists.

Jack Edwards arranged for all the artists to sign an apron to give to trip organizer Eric Rhoads.

On my first day of painting, a young boy of about 7 began talking to me in Spanish, which I cannot speak or understand. He was curious about my colors and would shout out the names of the colors, with a straw in his mouth and balloons in his hand, probably his only toys. He would stick the straw in my colors and then spread them on the balloons. It was probably his first attempt at painting, and he watched me for my entire two hours of painting.

Shelby Keefe, Charlie Hunter, and Turner Vinson

Hai-Ou Hou and Larry Moore paint by the sea.

The surprise of Cuba we all experienced was that Havana is one of the most beautiful cities any of us had ever visited, holding its own against Paris or St. Petersburg, the difference being that much of the city is crumbling and most of the buildings had not been visited by a coat of paint since the revolution in 1958. Although certain areas of the city have been shined up for the tourism trade, and although many buildings are in the process of being refurbished to their original beauty, thousands are in serious disrepair, with partially crumbled walls and peeling paint covered with black mold and other patina, yet most are occupied. Large apartments that once were a wealthy residence now often house 20 or more families.

A typical view for the painters to consider

Anette Power paints one of the classic cars notable in Havana.

Although we all expected to find the citizens to be downtrodden and hating their circumstances, we found these to be some of the happiest people we’ve ever met. Each day was met with big smiles and surprisingly well-educated people doing menial jobs, including doctors and surgeons who wait tables to supplement their weekly salaries of $75-$90. Though we expected some manufactured joy for the tourists, we met and talked with pride-filled Cubans who love their country, their leaders, and their history. Perhaps the only annoyance is the constant approach of locals seeking money. Although I saw some who appeared to be homeless or beggars, those were only a few. Most were more industrious, entertaining in the streets or selling anything they could sell, from peanuts to handmade dolls to hand-carved wooden figures.

A picturesque scene in the Cuban countryside

Charlie Hunter’s painting of a classic automobile

Unlike Rome, Paris, or other great cities, we did not encounter a single Starbucks, McDonald’s, or anything at all smacking of big corporations. Through little doorways we saw people selling local handmade souvenirs and T-shirts. It was refreshing to see real handmade items, and few of the typical tourism trinkets.

Drey Broyles

Carl Dalio

Cuba’s color is an artist’s dream come true. Under the patina covering old paint are pinks, blues, and yellows on the buildings, brightly colored laundry hanging from balconies filled with people, colorful costumed street entertainers on stilts, and costumed ladies with cigars seeking a “coop” (the local equivalent of a dollar) for a photograph. Painters, of course, took advantage of this opportunity to offer them more than a week’s salary for a couple of hours of modeling for portraits.

Roger Rossi

Charlie Hunter

The brightest colors, however, were the old American cars from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. We had seen the photos and expected there to be a few dozen; what we found were thousands of them. Most were rare models an American collector would drool over, in use daily as cabs and everyday street cars. They were not just in the tourism areas, they were deep into the streets of the city, where no tourists were to be found. They, too, made great models for paintings.

Michele Byrne

Painters hard at work

Another highlight was Cuba’s music. There was music on every corner, which made for some fun painting to a salsa beat. Roaming guitarists or entire bands entertained in every square, which made our painting experiences even more delightful. Music was provided with most meals and restaurants, and many of our group chose to attend concerts to hear the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club and their ’50s-style Cuban music. Most in the group also attended the Tropicana Cabaret, which is an experience much like the Moulin Rouge is to Paris — a must-see when in Cuba.

Capturing a scene. Photo by Turner Vinson

Cuba provides endless scenery for amazing paintings, and we estimate that the group produced about 700 paintings during the week, which was an incredible way to document Cuba as it could be seen in February 2016. On our final night, the painters all showed their best work from the trip.

Kate Faust. Photo by Turner Vinson

With tourism on the increase, the Cuba we visited is bound to change as the economy booms with American tourist dollars spent in nationally owned hotels and restaurants, and as foreign investment increases, resulting in new hotels where old buildings once stood. With the possible proliferation of big retailers, chain stores, massive crowds, and fresh paint, the Cuba we saw will be preserved forever in paintings. The artists attending left enthusiastic to return home and create larger paintings from their studies, and to plan entire shows of their best Cuba work.

Entertainment at the famed Tropicana

This was indeed a historic week, one that will go into the record books in painting history. Though we were not the first American painters to visit, ours was indeed the largest group of painters, and this was the first time a group so large has documented Cuba in paint. The artists in attendance were a mixture of well-known painters and professionals as well as serious amateurs and hobbyists. Each took this mission seriously: to paint Cuba and document the experience of this amazing country, its people, its architecture, and its spirit.


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