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Seeing Havana with an artist's eye

Gloria Adrian painted a local manʼs portrait in one of Havanaʼs five city plazas. She was part of a group of artists who did plein air painting in the city recently. Submitted photo.1 / 5
Local artist Gloria Adrian traveled to Cuba as part of a plein air painting group recently. She had the opportunity to paint subjects in Havana's plazas. Submitted photo2 / 5
The iconic 1950s cars of Cuba are primarily used as taxis for tourists these days. They also became subjects themselves for the artists. Submitted photo3 / 5
Artist Gloria Adrian, left, is pictured with a fellow artist while in Cuba on a trip through PleinAir magazine. Submitted photo4 / 5
American cars from the 1950s era are not only popular taxi transportation for tourists in Cuba, but provide inspiration for many paintings as well. Submitted photo5 / 5

Local artist Gloria Adrian recently got to take something big off her bucket list—a trip to Cuba.

Not only that but she got to make the journey with a group of fellow artists and have her first experience plein air painting—creating a work of art outside on the streets of Havana.

Adrian, a former woodworker and graphic artist, specializes in portraits but this trip was organized through PleinAir Magazine and most of the 40 artists on the trip were experienced plein air painters.

"It was a little intimidating since many of them were very skilled and very successful," Adrian said. "Iʼm a studio painter primarily and often paint from photos. This was a completely different experience and out of my usual comfort zone."

Working in a city, rather than an country setting was different as well. Adrian lives on property that borders Willow River State Park so painting in an urban center was a challenge. But music helped.

"There was music, live music, everywhere you went," Adrian said. "There were performers in the hotel all day long and in every restaurant, on the streets, just everywhere. It was wonderful."

Among the places she will remember is the infamous Buena Vista Social Club.

"The performers were older but they could really move and had so much energy. That was a lot of fun," she said.

Adrian said that tourism is the most important industry in Cuba and the musicians and artists along with tour guides and businesses are allowed to be self-employed, paying 25 percent of their tips to the government. Everyone else in the country works for the Cuban government making about $30 a month with some subsidized grocery staples.

Residents also receive free education and free healthcare.

Adrian mentioned the level of poverty of most of Havana's residents.

"I thought they might be resentful of us as American tourists but that wasnʼt the case at all. They were very friendly, kind and helpful," Adrian said. "Obama's visit was very popular and he was a big hit there."

Adrian said people seemed excited about the burgeoning tourist trade. Along with Americans, tourists come regularly from Europe, Russia and South American. The impact of that trade shows around Havana. Adrian saw a lot of aging buildings being reconstructed. Many of them have started with just the facade with the interior and rear still in various levels of deterioration. The process of rehabilitation after years of neglect will take time but the bones of the city with its five main plazas are visible and attractive.

The islandʼs most prominent commodities continue to be rum and cigars. Adrian enjoyed seeing the iconic 1950s American classic cars, most of which are used as taxis for the tourists. The group hired some so they could paint them.

Adrian found Havana to be very clean. There were lots of cats and dogs around but they are owned, fed and cared for by the city.

"They donʼt bother with people and definitely donʼt like to be petted," Adrian said.

She found the local food somewhat disappointing with no "real culinary delights. The meat, chicken and pork primarily, tended to be tough but the rice and beans were plentiful and tasty."

Taking to plein air

Adrian said it was interesting painting on the streets of the city. The artists asked Cubans on the street if they could paint their portraits for a small fee. Pretty soon there was a line of people willing to sit for Adrian and others. Most did not speak English but they were able to "pantomime" to one another.

While it was a little daunting to paint alongside experienced plein air artists, she enjoyed the challenge and appreciated the challenges that style of painting presents. While she enjoyed her time in Havana, Adrian wishes the group had been able to see more of the Cuban countryside and seen more of how people outside of the city live.

Adrian described her Cuban experience as humbling and rewarding. "I love the idea of traveling and doing art. Once I got past my own shyness, it was a great way to really see into a place."