Winter is not a friend to urban sketchers. Montreal isn’t anything as bad as my home town, Edmonton – where we experience permanent twilight in the shortest winter days. But still – it’s just not the place for street drawing this time of year.
On impulse we headed to Havana to spend the week of the new year’s break sketching the city.
We’d never been to Cuba, and I admit, I didn’t do sufficient research before we left. So there were a lot of surprises. I knew we’d see the results of the embargo – but I wasn’t really expecting the almost apocalyptic feeling of a city fallen to ruins.
In any given block you can find once-beautiful structures decaying before your eyes, but still in use. People live in buildings with crumbling balconies, collapsing upper floors, walls braced with timbers across alleys. Often it seems there’s no running water or electricity. Trucks come with drinking water every morning. People shout from the street for keys to be thrown down from windows. If there’s no phone or doorbell, what else can you do?
Work is being done everywhere to preserve the best bits of baroque architecture, but it’s clearly not keeping up to the challenge. It’s common to see a fantastic art nouveau archway filled in with cinderblocks to stabilize the wall, or a pock-marked Romanesque pillar shored up with timbers. There’s one building right across from the capital that has been under repair for so long the four story scaffold is completely shrouded in vines.
It was a strange feeling for me – finding this layer of tropical decay to be beautiful – but knowing it represented a hard life for the people here. Even so, I couldn’t help but want to go everywhere and draw everything.
There were also some unique challenges. I’ve drawn in a lot of places – the US, Europe, Central America, Asia, – but the people here are more curious about drawing than anywhere I’ve found.
I had groups of at least five or more gather every time I stopped to draw – and stay for the entire drawing. Sometimes over an hour watching over my shoulder. They would watch for as long as I cared to draw. Commenting to each other, and trying to talk to me despite my lack of Spanish. The most unnerving would be young guys wanting to sell cigars, who would end up staying for a half hour, trying a new offer every few minutes. I now know more than I need to about what’s available on the black market in Havana.
Over the next couple of weeks, as I scan my way through all the drawings, I’ll do a few more posts on the places we sketched. I think there’s a great book in here – capturing this fascinating Caribbean capital – before it’s all gone – either to ruin, or revolution.