Cuba-Day One 2019.01.11

Jose Marti Memorial in Revolution Square (Plaza de Revolucion)

It’s been two months since I returned from my week in Cuba, traveling as part of the Hedwig Dances Touch Tour 2019 – the company’s fifth such curated immersion in the country’s art, dance, food, districts, monuments, history and more. There seems no simple way, no word or pithy phrase presents itself to me, to characterize my experience while there.  

So, I begin with a few photographs from the first day and a few things my fellow travelers and I learned from our tour guide, Yunelbis. She would become a central figure during our week together, gently sharing information that enlarged our understanding even as she would offer us a different lens with which to view her country’s historical and political events, alongside Cuba’s vibrant arts culture, as well as the many dimensions of its current racial, agricultural, architectural and economic realities.

Che Guevara in Revolution Square, Cuba. “Hasta la victoria Siempre” or “Until the eternal victory”

Camilo Cienfuegos “Vas bien, Fidel” – “You do well, Fidel”

We noted that this location was well visited by many tour guides with their groups.  We came to understand that the embargo has made tourism the most important means for Cuba to build its coffers, as long as the embargo prevents the export of any Cuban good to the USA.  

This became a familiar site – the gathering of the travellers around Yunelbis, our guide, as she explained the significance of our surroundings even as she offered ways that we might navigate the terrain. How to tip, how to politely decline, how to negotiate a price, and so many more helpful insights. I was fascinated by our foot gear and our stances.

Light poles sans bulbs.  So often I would see these giant forms, reminiscent of divining rods, that seemed to have no function.  My guess is that they are light poles missing the bulbs – perhaps because of the ongoing shortages of parts of any and all kinds in the country, and perhaps because of the country’s seriously decaying power and water infrastructures.

On one side of Revolution Square was a large parking lot that was filled with the legendary Cuban taxis. These beautifully kept antique autos from the 50’s and 60’s were fascinating to behold.  Yunelbis said that the many brilliant colors on the vehicles could be traced back to another reality of the strapped economy:  Discontinued auto paints would be purchased in lots for reduced prices and then, once in the country, the word went out and the paints were snapped up by those wanting to spruce up their old automobiles.  The embargo is the underlying cause that no new automobiles can come into the country – no one can afford them.  The embargo makes everything that comes into the country very expensive because the ships that come in laden with goods must go out empty – hence the return trip is major lost revenue.  To make up for the loss, the ships charge more to the importers, who make up that additional cost by charging more for the goods being shipped in. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melia Cohiba 17th Floor Lounge daily offerings for weary guests

The group had been traveling by shuttles, busses, and planes for the better part of two days to get to this point on Day One in Cuba.  My roommate Marcia and I had caught the 7:30 am shuttle from our Miami hotel to get to the airport with enough time to go through customs and then catch our flight to Cuba with the rest of our group.  After our extended walk-around of Revolution Square we re-boarded our bus, travelled across town, and then gratefully arrived at Melia Cohiba to check in, have a snack, accompanied by our first of many welcome Mojitos, refresh and then off to our first dinner in our first paladar.   

“Paladares are a uniquely Cuban phenomenon,” said my tour packet.  After the revolution and the mass exodus of so many people and the resultant economic crash, these private enterprises became an increasingly popular way for people to earn a few extra dollars by turning their homes into restaurants.  We were also advised that all payments to the restaurants are in CUCs, (Cuban Units of Currency that are used exclusively by tourists to the country), which are then turned into the government along with earnings reports, from which the government takes a percentage and converts the CUCs into Cuban pesos, the local currency used by the citizenry.  That evening, Atelier would offer us our first experience of this uniquely Cuban phenomenon. 

Walking into the foyer on the ground floor, we see the staircase to the second level where our meal will be served. Marilyn, Marcia and Maray lead the way, while Melinda and Daniel stand on the threshold.

The antique china and silver, the embroidered linen napkins and the crocheted open-work table cloth signaled to us that every detail of our meal would be thoughtfully attended to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At dinner that evening we each stood in turn to introduce ourselves to the others in the group.  We were sixteen members in all; many from Chicago, one from Omaha, one from New York City, one from upstate New York, one from Washington DC, and one from California.   We began to bond that night and through the rest of the trip we experienced an enriching sense of connection, delight in shared discoveries, and growing mutual appreciation.   We arrived at Atelier when the light was still strong.  When we left it was dark.  After returning to our hotel, which overlooks the Malecon, a small group of us decided to brave the 4-lane highway to get to the ocean side. 

The Malecon.

Look for more entries in the upcoming days and weeks on my experiences on this trip.  I hope to understand better as I share the images and write about the days, the people and the discoveries.  

March – 2019 WayMaking Artist Calendar Entry

The image for March was taken in the Hartford Reservoir in Connecticut in February or March of 2002. Not too sure on the date at this point. I was visiting my daughter Kara, who lived on the 3rd floor of an old Victorian home in the historic district of Hartford. She was working at the Hartford Stage at the time. While Kara was working I went for a hike in the reservoir – the light was my favorite kind of light that comes in late winter with overcast skies and much moisture in the air. I came across an old stairwell that still stood, covered in moss, though whatever structure it once led to was long gone and no trace of a building foundation remained to tell its story.

WayMaking Artist’s 2019 Calendar by JulieV

2018 was the inaugural year for my limited edition calendar featuring photographs I have taken while in a state of mindful awareness, a state of being and creating that I eventually came to refer to as my contemplative photography practice.  More about that practice in paragraph 3 below.

Making the Calendar this year and last year:  As a creative act in and of itself,  selecting the images, assigning each to a specific month in the year and the design of the accompanying calendar page was so satisfying for me that I felt compelled to repeat the process for a 2019 calendar.  In 2018 I accompanied the images with poetic prose and poetry that felt somehow resonant with spiritual elements in the photographs.  In 2019 the images are presented wordlessly in my attempt to discover if they indeed are ‘worth a thousand words.’  Your feedback is welcome.  AND, I have a few more calendars left in the original run of 100 – they begin with February 2019 and end with January 2020.  Email me if you’re interested in purchasing one:  julia.m.volkmann@gmail.com —  $10 per calendar plus $2.50 to ship.  Tell me your birthdate and I’ll personalize it for you.

About my practice: Even before I found a way to label this practice, I had been explaining to the unfortunate souls who had to suffer my long philosophical ramblings on the subject that the act of taking the pictures afforded me an opportunity to be still and be totally immersed in the contemplation of the object or scene in situ; the quality of the light, the touch of air on my skin, the sounds of the place and the sense of being both observer and subject in the image, even if I was not seen  in the viewfinder.  My experience of capturing the image was actually an act of paying deep attention, which elicited in me a stillness, a focus, an awareness of the breath that everyday noise and bustle of life could never permit.

During my MFA IA studies at Goddard College in Vermont, my photographic practice was awakened again after lying dormant for some years. When I submitted a series of my photographs as part of my portfolio work for that semester, it became necessary to research this “thing” I was doing so that I could speak of this art practice in relationship to others’ work in the world – how it might be similar, where it differed, etc.  I was gratified to find Stephen Batchelor’s essay “Seeing the Light – Photography as Buddhist Practice” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas (University of California Press, 2004).   I saw how Batchelor and I were aligned in our approach and experience, even though the work we produced was not at all similar.   Having read his essay, I was able to lay claim to the term “contemplative photography” as the way to refer to my practice.

About the cover image:  I took this picture on my way back home from Goddard College summer session in August 2014.  I had stopped at a local motel for the night.  The next morning this motorcycle was in the space next to mine.  I was stopped dead in my tracks by the message and had to dig out my camera to take the picture before I went across the way to get my free coffee and continental breakfast (i.e. dry sweet roll) prior to continuing my drive home.  When I feel most aimless or hopeless or clueless about whatever road I have found myself on  – be it spiritual, metaphysical or literal I try to remind myself of the value of exploring.  The straightest distance between two points is not  A way, or the ONLY  way, or the best way, to get where you’re going. Life happens on the journey.

 

Contemplative Calendar – February 2018

This image of the WayMaking Cairn (WMC) was taken in late January 2015, just a stone’s throw from the Little Calumet River.  As I’ve menioned in earlier posts, the WMC is one of many images in a subset of my contemplative photography work.  It serves as an avatar-like manifestation of my spiritual engagement with my surroundings as I walk.  In anthropological terms it serves as participant-observer in the environment where the shot was made.    The excerpt from Robert Frost”s poem “Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter” created a rich dialogical exchange between the image and the text.

Contemplative Calendar – January 2018

January’s image is a historic building in Hamchek Village, Wisconsin.  Taken in October 2011 while  my sister Beth McQuade Nichols and I were hosted by then proprietor, architect Kevin Kemp.  The quote by Bertrand Russell was especially compelling for me.  It was chosen for the image and then the content of the message seemed best suited as the opening sentiment for the year.

Introducing JulieV’s 2018 Contemplative Calendar

NECESSITY GIVES BIRTH TO A CALENDAR of IMAGE and WORD

Over the holiday break this year while I was down with some indefinable malaise – who can really tell what is flu and what is cold?  Especially if it moves into bronchitis?  Too sick to do much, I did find focus and drew energy from reviewing thousands of images that I have taken over the years.  I’ve come to understand the lion’s share of work with camera as  my contemplative photography practice.  A subset of images within this practice contain the presence of the WayMaking Cairn (WMC); an avatar-like manifestation of my spiritual engagement with my surroundings as I walk.  In anthropological terms the WMC serves as both witness and subject in the environment where I framed and took the shot.

GETTING ONE’S CREATIONS INTO THE WORLD COSTS TIME & MONEY

As I reviewed all these images I was experiencing again the almost intolerable frustration that I couldn’t share these images in a tangible encounter with others. Paintful reality that I need to overcome:  getting my images out into the world is  a time consuming enterprise and costly.  Here are the biggies:

  1. Printing images ($15 – $100- depending on materials and size) and
  2. Framing images ($50 – 125-depending on materials and size) ;
  3. #’s 1 & 2 are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of cost because applying to the various galleries also costs time and money – one spends a lot of time combing the internet for opportunities.
  4. 98% of the time to apply to be in an exhibit or show requires an entrance fees of $20 – $40 for the privilege to submit 3 – 5 images for the curator’s review.
  5. Let’s not forget the time to frame and mount the images and the costs to deliver the finished images – either I drive these images or I ship these images – shipping is always a coin toss.  The real risk of damage to the image requires especial diligence to protect it – and more material costs for packaging
  6. Applying to show work in festivals is another huge time suck that requires more money to pay for the booth, the tent, images printed on spec with no promise of sale, and time and travel to and from these festivals also requiring overnight stays in hotels and restaurant meals
  7. Those who are early in their practice are pretty much confined to group shows in pop up or non-traditional sites.  Opportunities for solo shows in accredited galleries are slim and none.  There are a few more opportunities to get a solo show in a coffee shop, or a bank or a clinic, but those require a lot of prospecting and the possibility of sales from these personally curated shows are not significant.

THERE’s MORE THAN ONE WAY TO….

As I pondered these things and weighed their costs against my limited resources of time and money, I wondered how I might get my work in front of peoples eye’s without a gallery, group show or retail outlet.  Challenge:  How to get my work to a place where they would see it all the time?   Where they might also have a chance for a contemplative experience?  I couldn’t afford printing, framing and shipping complimentary full size 16 x 20 images to their home. Plus, giving it away sets a very bad precedent.  I need to at least cover the costs of that printing/framing/packing/shipping exercise.  How to get my work tangibly present in their homes and offices?  Though I love the digital world for its reach – its getting too noisy out here and there’s too many distractions.  Attention to one’s work on a website and blog  is fleeting.   The tangible, physical artifact seemed the strongest way in.   So, I  determined to design and print my own calendar of images.   This way each month there would be a fresh image and opportunity for a contemplative encounter for the onlooker.  Publish a limited edition of these calendars and give them to family, friends and prospective clients as a loss leader, if you will. An audience that includes potential buyers of future calendars, as well as organizations  that might commission the design of special interest calendars, and outlets where I might place my own calendars for sale.

ECONOMIC LIMITATIONS = LIBERATION + EXPANSION OF ARTISTRY & BUSINESS MODEL

This calendar becomes a liberation and expansion of my artist’s role:  I have curated my own exhibit for each calendar recipient.  This also sets the stage for the next phase of creating a way for these and other of my images to be purchased online.   I also hope to design each year a new calendar which can be ordered on line as well.  A survey will be sent soon to all who received those calendars to get a sense of how to think about next year’s design and how to price it.

Along the way though, another idea came to mind, springing from my love of poetry and poetic prose.  Though not a novel practice – many other calendars have been printed pairing evocative imagery and  writing – I welcomed the additional exploration and discovery to pair my images with text that in some way created a rich dialogue of deepening discovery between word and image.  While I made every effort to look for writers’ whose work was in the public domain, occasionally a contemporary writer’s work was so perfectly aligned with my own spiritual stance that I could not look any further.  This is a challenge and an opportunity for future calendars.

I’m a little late in this first explanatory post of the what and why of the calendar and hopes for future calendars.  The next two posts will serve as catch-ups for the January and February images and text.  At the beginning of each subsequent month I’ll post another image and the literary work that appealed to me.