New Years in Havana

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.


9 thoughts on “New Years in Havana

    1. Hey Jenny – best of luck with your trip – if you have time – the Necropolis in Havana was probably the best drawing day of the trip. Very peaceful and so much to draw everywhere.

      I’m still digesting what I might do differently if I went back. Maybe giving drawing supplies to all the artists on the street :_ (there are lots of them in centro)

      Though they’d probably all prefer money. They certainly need it.

      Next time I’ll probably try stay in a local b&b. I didn’t find the hotel a good experience. (we were on a tight budget tho – so stayed in a 2 star joint – kind of not the best choice).

  1. Hi Marc,
    Incredible Pen Sketches !
    Cuba must be really inspiring.
    Please check your email at hotmail ,I have sent you one before your trip to Cuba.

  2. Wow.. it’s simply incredible, such beauty of boheme; nouveau french and spanish architecture mixed together.. And now, in total ruins. Incredible what those bastards are doing to Cuba. Your artwork is magnificent, I really like your style.

  3. I am really happy you liked the ruins of my capital city. You saw a filthy negro infested slum and not a city.I first went to Havana in 1981 when it was already run down but there was decent bus service, the cannibalization of the city had not yet begun in earnest. By 1994 the city I returned to was a skeleton of what I had seen in earlier trips. My parents returned after 40 years and they blocked out the city and only recall the people they went to see. They were horrified at what Havana had become. UNESCO has done wonders but the USA continues to bring about regime change in Cuba with a 0% success rate.And so the city will continue to crumble.America has no friends.In the end, the Cubans lost it all but if we survive the coming days, Cuba will be seen as a winner as the USA slips into despair.Cuba is only going up. Centro Havana is only .25% of Cuba.Spain and Cuba run and own the New Cuban Riviera.

    1. I’m not sure what to say Enric – I’m just a guy passing through with my sketchbook. I’m not sure how to read your tone here – text is often tricky to interpret. I hope it didn’t sound like I was ‘enjoying’ the decay in Centro. In some kind of superior way. It’s affecting to visit. It seems like there has to be some lesson learned about how we allow governments to run, when the situation gets to where it has. A great city left to run down.

      I’m always on guard about coming to conclusions where I’m uninformed, but I think calling a place a ‘filthy negro infested slum’ is saying something about your own views. Why make it about a people? I doubt these guys have much to do with the economic collapse. It’s pretty dirty yes – but why pin the lack of infrastructure on the citizens? What are they supposed to do with no resources? I’m guessing a lot of people who live there now didn’t ask to be relocated there. It seems like people are trapped by the situation.

      I hope the city bounces back – but I wonder where the money will come from. Is it going to be tourism? Or bringing in the factories from outside? It would be interesting to go back in a while – in the one year between trips I did see some signs of recovery. We’ll see!

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