After two years in COVID isolation, Cuba is open and ready to welcome you!
…This was music to my ears! In 2019 I was awarded a research sabbatical from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to further my work in Cuba… but then came the pandemic. Delayed, I entered the sabbatical this past January not knowing the feasibility of meeting my goals. By summer, things were looking up and Unpack Studio, Havana assured me that this was a perfect time to come. And they were right…
A little background…
I came to Cuba in 2017 on the first of three residencies with Unpack Studio, Havana, to conduct a photographic documentary study about Cuban architecture. What started out as a 4-week project, turned into an ongoing study that continues to develop and evolve. Like water in a stream dripping from my cupped hands, I try to capture a few drops of this culture to share with the world through my photography, conference presentations, and journal articles. None of this would be possible without the support of Unpack Studio, Havana. The residency opens doors to new contacts, helps to maneuver a complex country, and provides a safe, beautiful, and productive place to work and live when in Havana. It would also not be possible without the support of my husband, Frank Hellwig, whose assistance allows me to get the most out of my time and efforts. In many ways, the experience and outcomes belong to us both. This trip, my 3rd residency with Unpack Studio, was a shorter timeframe with a bigger agenda, so every day was busy, yet we still found time to sink in and enjoy an experience that can only be found in Havana.
It’s been four years since my last visit and some things have changed. For starters, Unpack Studio has an awesome, new home conveniently located in Vedado. The house is a beautifully restored early 1900s structure with architectural details that nod to its Spanish ancestry. The long breezy gallery and tranquil outdoor courtyard provide inspiration and respite. No matter what my day was like, I knew I would get a good night’s sleep in my comfortable bedroom. Also, a new addition to the residency is Ajax, a big, fluffy, lovable husky. His presence adds the positive energy only a pet can provide. The Unpack staff also looks a little different. I was thrilled to reconnect with Omar and Dannys, who I have worked with on past trips, but Ene Siejo, the new coordinator, was a great addition. There were also changes with Cuba’s money system and internet access that could be challenging at times, but Omar helped us navigate our way through.
Documenting architectural preservation projects requires following projects over time. We revisited multiple sites to record the progression of restoration work. 508 Linea Ave, one of the oldest homes in Vedado owned by Cuban artist, Wilfredo Prieto, provided us with an exciting example of success. Wilfredo’s work has come a long way into turning this building into a dynamic art gallery. I have no doubt that the next time we come to Cuba, the building will be completed and functioning as a dramatic backdrop to Havana’s art scene.
Another project we have been following since 2017 is the restoration of The Capitolio, in conjunction with the work of many preservation trade school students and that of Carlos Bauta Martin, marble restorationist. Gone was the scaffolding to reveal the most beautiful, gold dome that shines like a beacon throughout the city. Carlos is now director of the preservation trade school and his influence on hundreds of future preservationists will undoubtedly have an impact on Havana’s architecture for years to come.
Other successful examples of architectural restoration projects by the city’s Office of the Historian included the completion of El Templete in Plaza de Armas, and the Hotel Palacio Cueto in Plaza Vieja. It was also exciting to see beginning movement towards the restoration of the Estacion Central. In Vedado, we were pleased to document improvements made to Parque Trotcha, the site that once held the ruins of the Hotel Trocha, expanded to include new sidewalks, park benches, and palm trees. It is a perfect example of how architectural loss is embraced by and returned to those within the neighbourhoods.
Several significant buildings and interviews were added to my study of Cuban architecture. Javier Gonzalez, Minister Counselor with the Spanish Embassy gave his time to discuss with us how Spain assists with restoration projects throughout Cuba. He also gave us a tour of the embassy building, formerly the 1912 Art Nouveau home of the Velasco family and later that of famed pharmacist, Jose Sarra. Views of the Havana Bay from the rooftop were a highlight of the trip.
Unpack Studio coordinator, Ene Siejo, arranged for us to meet with Laritza Suares del Villar, professor of Art at ISA, to tour and photograph parts of the campus including the Schools of Plastic Arts, Dramatic Arts, and Ballet. To understand the brilliance of this architecture, one must experience it. Words, nor photographs, can convey the way the architecture masters the elements and principles of design. The shapes… the progression through repetition… the play on light and shadow… I can only imagine how inspiring this place must be to ISA’s art students.
During the pandemic, I began researching specific buildings in Havana, connections to their past and what makes them unique. One such building was the Home of Catalina Laza and Juan Padro Baro, today known as the Casa Amistad. My focus on the connection of this house to the work of French glass designer, Rene Lalique, led to a detailed documentation of the Lalique glass throughout the house.
A trip to Havana is not complete without a stroll through Colon Cemetery. Monuments to past lives and historical events inspire the lover of history, culture, art, and architecture. A special thank you to my friend, Irma Bergantinos at Colon Cemetery, who helped me locate the grave sites of several people related to my research.
In addition, this residency allowed me to make important connections with experts related to my research. Dannys set up a meeting at the Museo de Artes Decorativas where the director, Yosvanis Fornaris shared information about the work of Maison Janson and about the museum’s Lalique collection. Ene set up a tour with art and architectural historian, Claudia Felipe Torres, to learn about buildings on the campus of The University of Havana. Dannys arranged for me to meet with architect, Universo Garcia Lorenzo, which led to visiting the famed lobby of the Hotel Telegrafo. She also organized for me to meet with Jorge Fernandez Torres, the director of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and to see the installation of the 5 Visions for the Havana Museum of Contemporary Art architectural exhibition.
Of course, there’s always time for fun while sinking into the Cuban culture of Havana and connecting with the friends I’ve made along the way including dinner with Sandra Lopez of the British Embassy and a tour with local architect, Enrique Alonzo. In addition, we attended the jazz concert, Havana in the Grand Manner by Ernan Lopez-Nussa, followed by dinner with Office of the Historian architect, Eileen Robainas, and her husband, Ricardo Nunez Fernandez. A night at Fabrica de Artes is a must-do and is within walking distance of the residency. What a fun experience of art, music, food, and people, not to mention a wonderful example of architectural adaptive reuse.
I can’t say enough about the Unpack Studio team. It was great to have Omar on site with us. Dannys tireless efforts at expanding my horizons and opportunities did not go unnoticed. Unpack’s coordinator, Ene Siejo, was full of positive energy and deep conversations. And then there is Alexandra… though in the background, I cannot thank her enough for paving a smooth path for this opportunity.
Now I am home, reflecting on this experience and know that I am lucky beyond belief to have so much support at something I am so passionate about. Cuban architecture… Cuban culture… Cuban people… all so rich where it counts most… I hope my work reflects this to the world. Next month a 9-piece photographic documentary series, Un Paseo por el Malecón – 12 Julio, 2022, will debut in exhibition at ArtsBuild in Chattanooga, TN in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Thank you, Unpack Studio!