Pyka: I said yes to the trip because Cuba is on the verge of changing dramatically—and I didn’t want to miss capturing it.
So, along with fellow painter Frances Pampeyan of Arcadia, Pyka was on her way to Havana.
As Plein Air Magazine Publisher Eric Rhoads reports, “just as we returned from our trip, the United States announced a visit from the Secretary of Transportation to orchestrate air travel in Cuba from the U. S. A. Our timing could not have been more perfect.”
Over the course of one week, seventy artists with friends and spouses bringing the number to 100, divided into three groups each day, then split off to sight see and paint. According to Rhoads, word spread quickly and sometimes dozens of people watched the artists paint and they “were often met with applause upon completion.”
Pyka: The Cubans are kind and accepting of Americanos, but were very curious of what we were doing—100 painters going through the street with easels and canvases. One of them so badly wanted to touch the paint to canvas. I let him and watched the joy in him as he got to do this. He rewarded me with a coco frio—a coconut drink he probably couldn’t afford and a sweet hand written note that I will save.
The Havana malecón, a walkway along the waterfront, extends over 4 miles from the Bay of Havana in Old Havana to the northwestern district of Vedado.¹
Below is Pyka’s Drama of the Malecon, “where Cubans go to relax,” she says. “A kind of family couch to play music at night.”
Frances Pampeyan: I was particularly interested in seeing Havana, Cuba, because my mother and her parents and 8 siblings emigrated from Turkey, through Marseilles, to Havana Cuba, then to New Orleans and finally Pasadena, way back in 1923.
I kept imagining what they might be seeing and thinking as they saw Havana, having escaped the Turkish massacres.
As I painted the port of Cuba, where their ship came in from Marseilles, I knew I was seeing what they had seen, with probably few changes from 1923.
My other experience was that I got to visit a hospital in Havana, as a patient! I’m an RN in Arcadia, so I was interested to see how they do things there. Their equipment and supplies are like what you’d find in the 60’s. But their technique and care were excellent and they were very kind.
Before embarking on this trip, Pyka says, the artists were aware that art materials are hard to find in Cuba. Prior to the trip, Plein Air Magazine and attending painters raised $5,000, with which they purchased art supplies, creating “care packages” of paints, panels, and brushes, and other materials. These were gifted to local artists, as well as to the local school of painting.
Pyka: My overall impression was that most of these people live below poverty level and yet they have smiles on their faces and a joy of life despite these humble surroundings.
Most of the week-long trip was spent in Central and Old Havana, but time was put aside to head into the countryside, to an old sugar plantation and fishing villages, including Hemingway’s home in San Francisco de Paula.
Pyka glows when she speaks of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As she showed us her photographs, her eagerness to get back to painting is palpable.
If she could only describe Cuba in one sentence…
Pyka: Mojitos and music, patina, nostalgia, dilapidation, and a potpourri of the senses.
About Lynda Pyka:
Pyka came to art a bit later in life, particularly after a “life-changing cancer diagnosis” resulted in “an explosion of work in a plethora of media.” In March 2015, Pyka put together this collection of her work and exhibited at Louis Jane Design Studio. The show was titled “Past the Expiration Date.” Since this first exhibit, Pyka has painted in Tuscany, France, Ireland, and Scotland.
All photos courtesy of Lynda Pyka.
¹ Source: Destination360.com/caribbean/cuba/el-malecon.