Above photo: Painter Paul Ladnier at work in Cuba.

“Enlightening. Surprising. Inspiring … That’s what Cuba was. We were one of the first groups of artists to enter Cuba after the lifting of the embargo in 2015,” says Paul Ladnier, local artist and retired professor of fine art at the University of North Florida.

Ladnier and about 100 other well-known artists from around the country were invited to “Paint Cuba” in February 2016 by Eric Rhodes, publisher of Plein Air and Fine Art Connoisseur magazines. It was a life changing experience. “I could stand in any one spot and turn 360 degrees and find something beautiful to paint. The textures, the colors, even the dirt! Ancient doorways, bright laundry hanging off balconies, flower vendors, a red 1954 Cadillac convertible making its way down the avenue — potential paintings everywhere. I did more than 20 paintings and could have done a thousand more. It was a painter’s dream,” says Ladnier.

The experience was as much of a mind opener as it was an eye opener. Ladnier quickly realized that the Cubans’ perception of their history was radically different from that held by most Americans. “We all hold the world-view that we are taught, and to Cubans, Che Guavarra, Hugo Chavez and the Castros are heroes. They even admire George Washington, not as the first American president, but as a revolutionary.”

The troupe of artists invited by Rhodes was headquartered at the Hotel Palco on the outskirts of Havana, one of the few hotels that could accommodate 100 guests. The artists spent most of their time in and around Havana, but also visited a small town marina, a fishing village and the Museum of Cuban Arts, which not surprisingly had a revolutionary theme.

Ladnier felt fortunate to have a strong background in the Spanish language, enabling him to talk on a very personal level with anyone he met as he explored the area. He was surprised to find that few Cubans spoke English, in spite of their proximity to the United States. It seemed to underscore their isolation since the Communist Revolution in 1953.

“Here was a country that had everything we take for granted — products from around the world, electricity and gasoline, free access to information, and then boom! Suddenly all that was gone, and they had to make do with almost nothing,” he says. “The people who got out were able to continue life in a modern world, but those who stayed had to adapt. They became amazingly resilient and resourceful, which we saw at every turn.”

Education is plentiful in Cuba, but jobs are few. Cab drivers with doctorate degrees in physics, medical doctors waiting tables and biologists working as street buskers are testimonies to the fact that tourist tips pay more than government salaries in the socialist economy.

One day, Ladnier, deeply engrossed in his painting, did not notice that his fellow artists had packed up and left to go to dinner. As the light was failing, he looked up from his canvas and found himself alone. Across the street, a Cuban man watched the scenario unfold and offered to take him to where his party was dining.

“I ended up following this guy like a dog through tiny streets to the other end of the village. We finally came upon a restaurant, and all my friends started applauding that I had finally arrived,” Ladnier says.

His guide was gracious, but lingered long enough to make it clear that he expected a tip. “You tip for everything in Cuba. Their street economy runs on ‘CUCs’, which is a different currency from the official peso of Cuba. Everyone from cabbies to guys playing guitars in the street to anyone giving you directions expects a tip.”

The group encountered Cuban artists using anything to make art. They used discarded paper and leather pieces to paint on, feathers, sticks and their fingers to paint with, and gasoline for mineral spirits. “Once a street artist came up to talk about painting, and I gave him one of my RayMar panels, and he caressed it like it was a treasure,” says Ladnier. “He nearly cried with gratitude, and at the end of the day, he came back and insisted that I accept a painting he had done on a piece of paper. He was just so grateful to have anything.”

One very generous gift to the Cuban people was made by members of their group, Symi Jackson and her mother, Rosemary Thompson, founder of Rosemary & Co. Artists’ Brushes. They distributed approximately $5000 in brushes alone, as well as volumes of other art supplies. Many of the other artists left supplies, as well as toiletries, books and whatever they felt they could spare that the Cuban people could use.

The Cubans seem very anxious for this new era of openness to begin, but the new American presence will carry with it a need for adaptation to modernize. “My prayer is that they don’t change Old Cuba, that they keep it authentic, because that is the big draw,” says Ladnier. “And frankly, the innocence of the people — that was amazing to me, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I would go back in a heartbeat.”

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A juice stand that captures the beauty and pride of this small island nation.

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A group of painters invited by Eric Rhodes, publisher of Plein Air and Fine Art Connoiseur magazines, to travel to Cuba.

 

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Above and below photos: Some of Ladnier’s finshed works capturing his Cuban experience.

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Ladnier made 20 paintings while there, as a lover of old cars he was greatly inspired by the autos of Cuba spurring this painting of a ‘50s era convertible.