Havana '59

After my "Connections" exhibit I was somewhat discouraged. A few paintings sold, and she show was received well, buy I couldn't envision continuing in the same direction with my artwork. Though the show ran through the summer of 2009, there few additional sales and my design business was slow.

On Father's Day, in June, my stepson bought me a paperback book, The Nostalgia of Havana, which I began reading soon after the holiday. Both my, father and my wife Barbara’s father had visited there in it's "glory days." The book expanded on what I had known, and remembered, of Cuba in the 1950s, Castro, Batista, the Bay of Pigs and the revolution. It also made me more aware of the intrigue and sordid past of this small country, so near our borders. And it reminded me of the cars from the '40s and '50s that were still populating the streets among the beautiful and delapidated buildings in the City.

Since there was no market for any paintings I was doing, I decided that I would go to Cuba and paint a place of history, beauty and ruin.

In 2009 there still was no direct route to Cuba. Entry required special educational of philanthropic permits to which I was not entitled. I knew enough that if I chose to go Cuba that Barbara would not go with me.  Any way I would go would be illegal and require a round-about way of getting through its borders, and I knew my wife would think I was crazy,: a loony 62 year old man on a mission doomed to failure.....or imprisonment.

Hortel Nacional - acrylic on canvas - 14" x 11"
One evening, my wife, her best friend, and a great friend of mine all went to North Philadelphia for pizza. We took our own wine, and had a great and spirited time. I spoke of the book I had just read and what a fascinated history Cuba had, and with the help of the wine, I said to my wife and friends, "I'm going to go to Cuba and paint Havana!"

As I made the statement, I looked across at our friends, and not in the direction of Barbara.

Without a pause, Barbara's friend Leslie asked, "Am I invited?"

"No," I quickly responded.

Leslie turned towards Barbara, and said to me, "Well, she'll invite me!"

Barbara was stunned, and didn't say a word, as I said to Leslie, "Well, she's not invited."

Then I looked at my friend Craig and said, "But he's invited!"

The wine had taken hold, as well as the challenge, and Craig turned to Leslie, "Then I'll invite you."

Barbara still couldn't speak. Here, everyone was agreeing to go to one of the two countries in the world where American's were not allowed to enter legally. So I looked at Barbara and said, "Well????"

Parade Down the Malecón - acrylic on canvas - 22" x 44"
She laughed and joined in with the fun, but even as I told of what we would have to do to make the trip a reality, she never believed it would happen.

I began my search that next week for both legal an illegal ways of entry. I even emailed the head of the library at Eastern about getting me an "educational" visa, or whatever else I might need. My requests were ignored. But parallel to that, I emailed a travel agent in Canada who referred my to a travel agency in Havana.

Neglect - acrylic on canvas - 36" x 24"
I wrote them an email, and then waited. Email and internet connectivity was limited in Cuba at this time. Finally I got an email in somewhat broken English and a telephone number. Eventually we opened into a conversation of accommodations, dates, costs and airline connections. The plan would be this: I would send a wire transfer from my bank to a woman in Miami for the deposit. Once she received the money, she would notify the Cuban airline in Nassau, the Bahamas,  and provide us with a voucher for our flight from Nassau to Havana. There were only two flights a day from Nassau to Cuba, and none matched up with a direct flight from Philadelphia, so we were to fly to Miami, and then take a smaller plane to Nassau. Our statement would be that we were visiting the Bahamas, with no mention of Cuba. After leaving the terminal, we would re-enter and go to the Cuban Airline gate in another terminal where we would go to the representative, give our names, and be sent to the waiting area for our flight.

Of course, I had no idea if this transaction would really be put in place after the woman in Miami received our deposit, but I said, "The Hell with it!" and contacted my friends (and Barbara) and told them that they would each have to give me $1750 dollars so that I could make the wire transfer.

Disappointment - acrylic on canvas - 36"x 24"
Now they knew I was serious. Leslie was the first to respond with "Okay!" I had to call Craig to get his answer, but once Leslie had said "Okay," he would look pretty bad if he didn't commit. I told Barbara about it only after the other two said they'd give me the money. The trip was on! At least to Nassau.

We were scheduled to go in early November, right before my wife's birthday. I looked at the trip like
it was the last I would ever be able to take. Business was slow, and I was going to bet the farm on this "quixotic mission."

To make it short, we got there, with our flight over the fertile fields of Cuba to the airport on the outskirts of Havana in an old Russian made prop plane. There ere no safety belt signs, and we took off the tarmac like a drag racer. We arrived during the bird flue epidemic, and all of the employees at the Havana terminal were wearing breathing masks. The atmosphere was quiet, each person cuing up to provide a passport and being led through a gate one at a time into Cuba.

Street Art in Havana - acrylic on canvas - 24' x 36"
When we were all inside, we were to find a sign where the people from the agency were to meet us to take us by bus to the famed Hotel Nacional, the same place where Frank Sinatra, Lucky Luciano and the Mafia gathered in the 1940s and '50s.

We were only to stay for 4 days, but we were treated well, yet watched by both both Cuban and American officials. We visited a cigar factory, traveled to Hemingway's home, wandered the streets of the old city, and most important to me, I was able to grab reference photographs for paintings I hoped to do on my return.

Though there was a lot of rain during our stay, I did get to two paint plein air acrylics at the hotel. As I changed my location during the rain to a position protected from the weather by an overhang at the hotel's outdoor restaurant, one of guides of a group of Japanese tourists told me that the visitors called me In Japanese), the painter with the wet legs.

On returning to the U.S., I began my mission in earnest, always wondering if I had captured enough reference for a show. Two years later, in November, 2011, I previewed my exhibition "Havana '59" at
a Main Line mansion, Bolingbroke with 36 paintings of the  Havana, Hemingway, art, people, buildings and old cars of this raw but picturesque country. The exhibit and its sponsorships were to benefit the new Aspergers Program at Eastern University which profited $25,000, thanks greatly to my benefactor Rich Merriman. The show was then moved the library at Eastern the next day, remaining there for a month.

This is not a travel log, but a journey through my life with art. Overall, painting has not been financially rewarding. Many times I invest far more than I yield from staging an exhibit, but my 2-1/2 year journey through the planning and painting of Havana brought magnificent personal rewards, and an experience I would never have had if I had not taken on the task and the risk.

I was given an opportunity to borrow back some sold pieces and to reprise my entire exhibition at the Community Arts Center in Wallingford in July 2012. To fill their beautiful gallery, I created a wider retrospect of my work, with Havana as the centerpiece. Artwork included pieces from various series including American Movie Palaces, Memories of the Open Road, and West Philadelphia.

Please visit georgerothacker.com/havana  to view more paintings and stories.

Click to Chapter 17: Experimenting with New York in the 1930s