By SAMUEL EISEN-MEYERS
In March of 2016, President Obama lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba by individuals for “people to people” educational trips. I quickly started planning a way to take advantage of this sudden crack in the wall separating us from the island and its people. For the past decade, I had dreamed of going to Cuba and tried to imagine what it was like. And in April I landed in Havana, intending to spend a month observing and documenting Cuban art and artists.
After a week in Havana, my path finally emerged from a series of chance encounters with Cuban artists and their friends—I was going to Galeria Taller, an artists workshop in Matanzas, a city of around 150,000 on the north coast of the island, less than 60 miles from Havana. The taxi ride to Matanzas is close to an hour-and-a-half long, I found, but once I arrived there, things started moving quickly.
The building that houses Galeria Taller seemed like a museum that had come from the leftover materials used to build the foundation and interior of one of Gaudi’s churches. The vast 100-foot pastel walls, softened by the prevailing weather, charred bricks and the obvious hard labor of restoration, gave a sense of dignity to the 160-year-old structure. Birds guarded the roofless walls from the sky, and the echoes of the streets provided a soundtrack for Matanzas’s finest sculptors, painters and creatives.
“We are open.”
I turned to see a man standing near the back of the massive open front room. He was surrounded by clay pots, cups, plates, and other ceramic tools, dozens and dozens of them. I introduced myself to David Falcon Acosta, studio manager, glass artist and possessor of humbling generosity. And as I looked around further, I was also greeted by bronze, cement and plaster figures, many of them simply massive heads mounted on wooden poles or crosses, large enough for me to start imagining them as characters of a myth I didn’t understand.
The ability to speak English with David came as a surprise, after many days trying to decipher words from the very quick and intricate Cuban Spanish I heard in Havana.
“Please, please, walk around.”
After wandering around the building for a bit and with my head buzzing from what I’d seen, I looked around for a place to stay nearby. I found the city’s mix of older buildings and new developments inspiring just by themselves, and I knew I wanted to stay a while.
“Con desayuno (with breakfast)?” I asked at a private house a few blocks away from Galleria Taller.
“Si, con desayuno,” the proprietor responded, then smiled, and took my hand as she led me into her casa particular (private house). The government had allowed a Cuban version of AirBnB to spring up on the island 20 years ago to help individual Cubans share in tourism money. Large white pillars and textured tiled flooring created quite the stage for morning coffee, bread, fruit, cheese, milk, yogurt, juice and meats—for only $3 dollars a day. So, yes, breakfast.
I thought that Galeria Taller might be for me what Mary Louise Pratt describes as a “contact zone”—a place where two cultures collide and inform each other, and “transculturation” takes place. The word was coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in 1947 to describe the meeting and merging of different cultures, and I hoped that in a small way I might participate in the global merging and converging of the arts, without frontier.
The following morning I met with David to inquire about the possibility of staying in Matanzas and work at Galleria Taller. I told him that I hoped to develop my own personal painting practice, observe and document Cuban art, and participate in the lives of the artists working in the building. He introduced me to Osmany Betancourt, known as Lolo, the artist and mentor who had become owner of the building in 2009 and created the Taller and its community.
After Lolo and David talked a bit in Spanish, David turned to me. “He said you can stay here and work,” David said, to my relief and joy.
Lolo didn’t speak any English, but his handshake and eye contact made it very clear that I was welcome in his building. For the duration of my stay I was welcomed into the daily rituals, practices, and customs of the artmaking and artists of the workshop. Every few days I sat with one of five artists who make up the Taller family in my temporary studio, which was located in the back corner of the building. David sat with me during interviews, and facilitated the translation of my questions and conversations with Dariel Lozano Perez, Manuel Hernandez Valdes, Jose Carlos and Lolo himself.
The first time I saw Dariel, he was welding a piece of metal. The next day, he sat in the back under the sun, painting. When we sat down I found out that he is both a sculptor and painter, working primarily with metal, resin, fiberglass and oil paint. Although only 26, he has been invited to work and show in competitions and galleries throughout Cuba and Québec. His sculpture, “Piggy Bank,” which stands 3 meters tall and 2.4 meters wide, is a centerpiece for the kitchen, directly off the gallery portion of the building. I couldn’t help thinking of Dali and his mythical figures that seem to reflect reality but still hold space for alternate interpretations.
“Piggy Bank” represents economic crisis in the world. The pig in question is elongated, emaciated, and almost seems to wobble in from your eyes, though that’s impossible. “It’s looking for money from the world to try and create balance, equilibrium,” Perez said
Its size and proportion, along with its availability to the touch, make it a magnet for visitors. During my stay, I watch as people come and go, shadowed by the eerie stare from the pig’s squinty eyes.
“Pigs are considered in Cuba to have many roles in a humanistic way,” Perez told me. “From the time I started to study here with Lolo, I’ve been working with pigs. When I was introduced to Lolo I started apprenticing and helping in the studio. My professors have been the artists that work here.”
It was one o’clock, and everyone in the building stopped and gathered for a homemade lunch. Today it was lobster, rice, bread and potatoes prepared by the artists, for the artists. Family members and others gathered periodically throughout the day, carrying on conversation, drinking espresso and helping out around the premises. Their presence in the Taller was a physical extension of the saxophones, violins and pianos that rang from the walls of the Matanzas University of Music located next door along the Rio de San Juan.
Inside the Taller, Manuel Hernandez Valdez sits behind a table where he patiently works on his intricate craft. His airbrush painting technique is followed by a pigmented etching process on the specific ceramic sculptures he is working with today. Tobacco smoke forms clouds and floats upwards.
“Everything comes from my childhood, my upbringing in the countryside, my memories,” Valdez says, “the natural environment with the country folk and Cuban way of life and traditions. The philosophy of life and behavior of peoples is different than the city. I was very close to nature and the earth.”
Manuel’s use of simple shapes emerged from his earlier work as a caricaturist. Before the revolution in Cuba he worked as a cartoonist for newspapers. Those disappeared after the revolution, and he decided to take his art in an entirely different direction, drawing on primal folkloric themes. I found his work all over Matanzas in restaurants, public spaces and shops. During more than 50 years as an artist, he has won numerous awards and honors, shown internationally, and continues to serve on the National Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba (UNEAC).
“There are a lot more difficulties, until you take charge of what you are doing, Valdez tells me. “But that process is a very long path: when you are almost getting there, you can see that everything is about to work. The painting is defending itself from you, but when you get into communication with the work you are doing, it’s like riding a wild horse. You get better and better with time.”
It was raining heavily. Thunder and lightning pounded the sky as I’d never heard before. The downpour sent water through the gallery, and Jose Carlos was singing and sweeping the water steadily from each room as the floors of the building turned into small running rivers.
“I started at the studio as an assistant,” Carlos says. “Osmany gave me the opportunity to be involved. This is not only a studio, this is a school. People work here and everyone gets along really well and teaches to each other…teaching you, showing you the way to be successful,”
Carlos is a sculptor and painter working within various media. He is one of the youngest artists at the workshop, working alongside Dariel. When looking at his piece “Philanthropy,” I am reminded of the variety of skillsets that each artist develops in this space. Built with metal, wood and rock, the sculpture takes on the shape of a character with cubist attributes that resemble Carlos’s paintings. The materials are similar to those used to build the houses of old Matanzas, which gives the sculpture an ancient, connected feeling. The figure, inspired by the story behind “Schindler’s List,” appears to be holding its head up with all its strength and energy, and Carlos says it represents that the figure was able to go against the world to save a lot of people.
“It’s an homage to all the people along the history of the world that have helped others,” Carlos says, “that have sacrificed for other people, that have given their life for some cause. It’s a monument to humanity.”
It’s early on a Monday morning—everyone always takes Sundays off. I find David Acosta, among many buckets of silt, rock and mud. He is working with a machine that mixes large quantities of rock, mud, and other earthen material; the machine is connected to an outlet through an elaborate system of finicky wiring. He explains to me that he is making the clay for all the production of ceramic sculptures produced in the vicinity. As he walks over to the other room, three buckets used for the sifting process sit between the handmade kilns and three large tables holding nearly 200 different molds.
“It’s a challenge here; you have to be able to do anything,” Acosta said. “ I prepare the pours, fire the pieces, manage all online databases…customer’s emails. As the only one who speaks English, it is up to me to deal with all the tourists.” It’s hard to believe that he has time for his own work as an artist.
Acosta and his wife work together as glass artists. At home David’s wife cuts the molds, scores the surfaces and glues the pieces together. David then brings them into the shop, prepares the firing, and applies the fluid necessary to hold the pieces together permanently. This involves a computer process to guide the electric currents that fuse the glass. David also does torch work, and has been doing so for the past year.
We talked each day in depth. He never ran out of the steam and charisma that made him the Indispensable Coordinator, giving and taking orders, enabling all the artists to thrive. Although the studio faced many obstacles every day, doubt and skepticism never were an undercurrent in conversations.
There were no problems, only solutions at the Taller, or so it seemed to me.
It was midweek and the shipment of supplies from Air Transat was supposed to have made its way through customs weeks ago. Four years ago Pierre Hivon, president and founder of Mano a Mano, an organization based out of Quebec, saw that it was exceedingly difficult for the Taller artists to produce and create on a consistent basis without quality art supplies. So, he partnered with the Canadian airline Air Transat, and since then he and Mano a Mano have brought more than four tons of supplies to the studio.
“It’s a break to the creation, it stops different possibilities of doing anything when you don’t have the right tools or the tools that will give you better production,” Hivon said. Mano a Mano also brings different artist associations together to share and show work, and has more than 800 members.
Mano a Mano was started by Hivon and other Quebec artists who wanted to support and expose the remarkable talent of Cuban artists. The goal of the nonprofit is to supply new and used supplies and tools to Cuban artisans to enable them to work in the best possible conditions. In 2015, the Quebec Crafts Council partnered with Mano a Mano and Transat to provide four of the artists from the Galleria Taller with exhibition space, flights, food, supplies and media coverage at the Salon Des Metiers D’art in Montreal. For Mano a Mano it’s simply a matter of extending a helping hand between two cultures who share the same passion for art and creation.
Hivon’’s presence at the Taller was frequent and involved. I saw him maybe ten times in two weeks. It’s clear how important Mano a Mano has been to the community, and Hivon’s way of connecting with all the artists, while navigating through government bureaucracies, is a crucial component of the effort.
“We have a lot to learn about the way they do their things, the way they create,” Hivon says. “The sharing is very mutual…we share a common idea that doesn’t have a frontier… creation without frontier.”
It was Wednesday morning, and Lolo was outside along the river working on his car. As I came up to the gate, he gave me that handshake he’d given me every day, with one of those smiles that’s more important than the lengthiest of conversations.
Osmany Betancourt is an artist of great accomplishment. He is best known for creating sculptures of grand scales and proportions, employing the “lost mold” process that requires an immense amount of time, concentration and skill. During my stay, Lolo began painting, working on his first pieces ever in oil paint. Each day, he seemed to bounce around, working with the different artists, giving tutorials, and prepping smaller sculptures and ceramic pieces.
For the first four days of my visit I sat in front of Lolo’s mixed media sculpture, “Restauracion Para Amor Mecanico (Restoration for Mechanical Love).” For hours on end, I sketched it with charcoal and pencil, and then tried to capture it with child-grade acrylic paint. The piece circled a conversation around male and female identity, generating a series of question about gender roles and what keeps them going in society.
Lolo starts his sculpture process with moist clay, but his most important resource is an artful hand able to shape the proportions properly with mostly wooden tools. Lolo then applies plaster to get the mold. Once the molds are clean, he removes the clay and begins to apply fiberglass and resin to the mold. Final preparations include taking fiberglass and resin out of the mold and assembling the pieces together with copper wire and grinders—a long and arduous process.
Somehow “Restoration For Mechanical Love” made me feel as though I was listening to an actual conversation.
Doorways, walls, and extensions of the building were accented with Lolo’s sculptures. Often the oblong and abstracted male and female figures felt as if they were mirrors of societal pressures, a theme I observed in “La Comparsa,” which lives in the National Museum in Cuba. The figures appeared exhausted and pained, and the strength they projected emerged from the weight of the burden they seemed to carry. In the sculpture such as “El Peso de los Otros (The Weight of Others),” the burden is other people, their expectations, their needs, even our hopes for them.
Lolo acted as a mentor, teacher and father at Taller, and his way of communication was transparent, even without understanding the language. In one of my final short conversations with Lolo, I explained, “It’s difficult not to know the language when you are around great art.”
He responded with that same smile I had received time and time again during my visit to Cuba and said, “It’s not the questions you may ask, because you yourself can find the answers.”
Lolo’s international reputation is growing rapidly. He will be a featured artist at this years Jazz Festival in New Orleans. His works are included in the Ceramic Museum in Havana and other collections throughout Cuba. He has shown in Germany, The Netherlands, Canada and Miami, where he casts his sculptures in bronze.
“This space has a lot of future,” David Acosta told me. “We are trying to have this wonderful future sooner, but we know that it’s going to happen in its proper moment. We are going to work hard.”
As I was welcomed into the lives and practices of Lolo, David, Manuel, Jose, Dariel, and many others, their art and practice became part of my own. Lolo’s Galeria Taller enabled me to stay put, to examine, explore and realize a key element of artistic exchange: trust. They trusted me, and they trust that the future will continue to enable their art to thrive. Through that trust their art continues to become more accessible to an international audience.
Nearly a year later, I continue to recognize the countless benefits that came from this contact zone of stories, ideas and imagery, and it made me aware of how important workshops like Taller are, and not just in Cuba. Artists in Portland need permanent full-time spaces to work, too, studios that aren’t at the mercy of the heedless gentrification of the city. Artists play a key role in the transformation, development and definition of local culture. And this affirmation might be the most important part of my experience in Cuba.