Friday, 22 April 2016

Toronto skyline and a progressive cow barn

Here are a couple more sketches from my sojourn in Toronto en route to Cuba.  The Toronto skyline is distinctive, drawn here from the man-made Leslie Street spit.  The spit is a popular birding spot, with many bays made of construction rubble, and woodlands growing on the older parts.  Local birders were excited by the arrival of spring.  Spring is a relative thing - it was a sunny day, but with a strong cold wind, and I was glad for the shelter of a rock berm that I shared with two trumpeter swans and a flock of kinglets.
The Gray grist mill and Donalda cattle barn is a beautiful historical building dating from the 1830's.  After nearly a century grinding flour, powered by the Don River, it was converted to a cattle barn on a "model dairy farm" owned by the Dunlop family.  They had progressive ideas - the cows had steam heat, fresh air ventilation, and "soft radio music" (according to the historical plaque at the site).  I'm envisioning cows dancing the Charleston.  The building is shingled, except for the silo, which is covered in glazed ceramic tiles.  It looks like it should be good for another couple hundred years.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Cuba Day 9: Home

I had an hour in Havana before I had to leave for the Varadero airport, so I sat on a park bench and drew passers-by.
I splurged for a taxi to the airport, a friend of the casa owners.  The car turned out to be a 1955 Buick - one of the most common cars in Cuba, and fun to ride in, if a little bit bumpy for drawing.  If the driver looks like he's in a funny position, it's because he drove on the highway with his right leg bent up on the (massive) front seat, and his left leg on the pedals.  He drove normally in towns.  It seemed to work.
I heard horror stories of how long it takes to check in at Cuban airports, people missing flights, so I was there early.  Check-in took about 30 seconds, so I hung out under a palm tree watching birds, had a cheap lunch attended by two cats at the bus-drivers' (outdoor) cafe, then spent about one minute getting through the apparently infamously slow airport immigration and security.  And before I knew it, I was over the Florida keys and the endless sprawl of Miami, where so many Cubans have tried, or dreamed, to go.
When I landed in Toronto, I was genuinely horrified to see snow drifts at the airport, on a very grey, cold afternoon.  (OK, I exaggerated the greyness a bit).
As one final bonus from Cuba, I had got my Toronto-Vancouver boarding pass in Varadero.  Organization and computers do not seem to be a forte in Cuba, so naturally there was a mistake - they had put me in business class.  I sat there, with the businessmen all complaining about their free food and trying to pick up the stewardess, and read my copy of Granma, "the official newspaper of the central committee of the communist party of Cuba."  The masthead had a quotation beside a picture of rifle-raising rebels: "El hombre crece con el trabajo que sale de sus manos."  ("Man grows by work that comes from his hands.")  I'll take that as encouragement for urban-sketchers.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Cuba Day 8: One last day in Havana

A lot of people in Cuba spend a lot of time sitting around their front steps, on their balcony, or in the plazas.  It's probably a sign of the horribly inefficient economy.  On the other hand, a lot of people at home spend a lot of time working to be able to afford a bit of leisure time.  So on my last full day in Havana, I mostly sat around too.

The first place I decided to sit around was outside the Museo de la Revolucion, a former presidential palace turned into a museum commemorating the Cuban revolution.  People who know my (highly undeserved) reputation for attracting attention from security guards when I draw will not be surprised to know that I looked up from drawing the impressive building to see six soldiers heading straight towards me, in full goose-step mode.  I was aware that you're not supposed to photograph police or military areas, and figured that I had just involuntarily extended my stay in Cuba.  But once they got to me, they broke step, started smiling and talking, checked out my drawings, and headed into the building behind me.  It turns out I was sitting on the steps of their barracks.

I had spent a lot of time in Havana taking candid pictures of people, so I figured it was time to do some people drawing.  With life lived in the street, there is no shortage of models.
I did one more drawing of the buildings, with their fascinating mix of ornate, decayed, and sometimes downright collapsed structures and details.  Judging by comings and goings, many people were living in all these buildings, including somewhere in the back of the one that was missing a roof, floors and some walls, and had trees growing out of it.
Then a few random details in the evening: practicing for my beer-illustrator career with dark beer at a micro-brewery, a rare or maybe unique thing in Cuba; a mojito that I managed to draw before drinking; little bits of architectural details that are everywhere; a restored church dome seen over a collapsing and patched-together wall.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Cuba Day 7: Havana streets and galleries

I had a more leisurely day in Havana, not feeling I had to hike around frantically trying to take it all in.  I started by changing some money, which can be a very leisurely pursuit, but by then I had a grasp of the queuing system and Cuba's two currencies, and it was pretty smooth.  And any waiting time is drawing time.  This bank was in an elegant old building, although when I looked from the outside, one corner was collapsing and patched together with plywood.
One challenge drawing in Havana is the touts trying to sell you something, but that's mostly a matter of getting away from the touristy areas, and knowing enough Spanish to get rid of them politely or humourously.  A common intro is "?De donde, amigo?" (Where from, friend?).  If you reply "Canada", they will tell you about their sister in Montreal, leading eventually to the inevitable tale of woe.  So I started answering "De Antartida, soy pinguino"  ("From Antarctica, I'm a penguin.")  No sisters there, everyone laughs, and you're left alone.  Males travelling alone also get lots of offers for "?Chica, senor?", to which I replied "No gracias, ya tengo bastantes."  (No thanks, I already have enough).  Kids also come up to you asking for gifts like pens or soap.  Cubans discourage giving into this, because the kids are inevitably working for someone who sells whatever you give them, and the kids start skipping school to pursue the short-term profits.  Much better to give to organisations, or simply spend your foreign currency, most of which goes to the government which provides the education and health care.  For me, a bigger drawing challenge was simply the overwhelming amount of detail, especially when you want to capture so much.  On a bustling side-street, I tried to do a detailed pen sketch then just colour the central point of interest.  I'm not entirely sure that worked.  The next one I reverted to my fat water-soluble pen, which guarantees that I have to simplify.
I stopped by the national gallery, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, sticking to the building with Cuban art.  I wasn't expecting much, but it was fantastic.  (And it was also the only air-conditioned building I was in the whole time).  They have some colonial era paintings, and a section from the early modern period when everyone was imitating the Europeans.  But most of the large space was devoted to more recent art, and I really enjoyed the quality and some of the messages I gleaned about Cuban identity (okay, I also tagged along with a passing tour group with a very insightful local guide).  I found many new-to-me artists for future googling.

Cuban artists have a relatively high stature in the egalitarian country, and there are some top-notch studios around.  Printing studios seem particularly favoured, maybe because of the revolutionary history of posters and pamphlets.  I visited the Taller Experimental de Grafica, a big open studio with a group of artists drawing and printing, and with its own high-end gallery, then had dinner at the Magritte-inspired Eso No Es Un Cafe outside, while a son quartet played. My excellent meal was Pollo Pollock, chicken with colourful sauces splashed around the big plate, a la Jackson of the same name.


Thursday, 14 April 2016

Cuba Day 6: Viñales and back to Havana

On my third day in Viñales, I went for another morning walk, for the early birds - avian and human, as the farmers start at dawn to avoid some of the heat.  I ended up at a cave part way up one of the littler mogotes.  There are a couple big caves in the area that are main tourist attractions (one has a disco in it), and hence dis-tractions to me.  But this one was basically just a cave, with no one there.  The fun thing was that the cave went right through the mogote, and was long enough that it was pitch black for a little bit in the middle.  I started on the hot dry south-facing side with lizards basking on the rocks, and popped out on the cooler north-facing side in thick vegetation with a Cuban trogon, Cuban solitaire and Cuban vireo singing right there.  It was a nice shady place to sketch the view down to the valley.
I had a bus to catch that afternoon, I didn't know the area, and there was no trail ... but, I have a pathological inability to go part way up a (little) mountain without going to the top.  So I scrambled to the summit.  It was a bit of a challenge, with some razor-sharp rock edges and innumerable prickly things, including a vine-like cactus that I'm quite sure actively leapt towards my neck.  But I made it up, and down, and had time in town to draw some of the flowers that make any tropical town pretty.  I ended up gathering quite a crowd of schoolkids on lunch break, not to mention a German tour group, watching me draw, while a feral dog who followed me on my hike slept at my feet.
I had a few more moments to do a quick sketch of the casa I stayed in.  I had to note the nurses walking by in fishnet stockings, similar to policewomen I had seen in Havana and on highway patrols.  It's just part of the culture, and these women are completely professional - the police were just as armed as their male colleagues, and the nurses were doing their rounds checking on the elderly and sick people (something our health care system couldn't afford).  I saw one small boy shortly after he had fallen face-first off a railing.  A doctor showed up on a bike in about 5 minutes, and I saw a nurse visiting the next day.  There are a lot of challenges for the many poor people in the country, no doubt, but health care is not one of them.
The bus back to Havana had me and two French tourists.  It's hard to find tickets, but once you get one, they honour it!  Back in Havana I went to a government restaurant called "Hanoi" - reflecting political alignments, not culinary ones.  (The other places I ate were all private paladars, which is a fairly new development).  The government restaurants have a bad reputation, but the food was fine, and cheap, and the dour waiter was almost jovial when I was teasing him about whether "the best mojito in Havana - if we lie, it's free" was perhaps only the second-best mojito in Havana.  I didn't push the argument, because it was almost free to start with.  Service is supposed to be terribly slow, but I found it exactly slow enough for me to draw (badly, again), the old car outside the window.  I then spent the evening sitting in the adjacent plaza, mostly a tourist-free zone where families come for the kids to play and the adults to discuss the state of the world, baseball, and who knows what else.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Cuba Day 5: Cayo Levisa

The friendly government information people in Viñales hadn't got the memo that they are supposed to say "No" to all requests, so I was able to get a ticket for a day trip to Cayo Levisa, a white-sand islet off the north coast.  The remarkably cheap ticket included the bus to the coast, the ancient ferry to the island, lunch and beer.  I'm not a beach person, so I was ecstatic that this was the one stormy day of my trip.  The beach is about 3km long, with a thin strip of forest and mangroves behind it.  There is one small, fairly rustic looking resort of beach cabins, but very few people on the beach.

I did my little bit of lounging on the beach and swimming in the waves, but mostly I walked the length of the beach in both directions.  At one end, the beach ends at mangroves.  I did some mangrove bush-whacking - probably the only visitor to the island ever to do so.  It doesn't work; don't try it.  But there were some good birds, including a Cuban black-hawk who was very tame, but showed his displeasure in my intrusion by screeching "I HATE you, I HATE you" in a very squeaky voice.
At the other end, the beach fades into an eerie dead forest, where the shifting sands buried the roots too deeply.  But just where the open sand ends, there's a tiny hand-painted wooden sign saying "Bar a Punta Arena" (bar at Sandy Point), a little arrow and a barely discernible trail through the dead trees.  I couldn't resist following it, even though the high waves were washing into the forest at places.  After a good 500m, the trail pops out of the woods onto another open beach, with another little wooden sign.  Way off in the distance at the very tip of the island, there was a little palapa, and, miraculously, a tiny bar, complete with a nattily dressed government bar-tender.  There was nobody else within a kilometer of us, although the bartender said he had had a few customers that day.  I was wondering if they were Gilligan, the skipper, Mary-Anne...  
Back in Viñales, I defied the common wisdom that there is no good food in Cuba by having another great dinner, as I did every night I was in the country.  This was on the main street, so I could draw the colourful building across the street.  

A note from the family I stayed with in Viñales: "Please tell everyone who comes to Viñales to bring earplugs".  It turns out the quiet little town of Viñales is not so quiet on Saturday nights.  From, say 11:00pm to 2:30am, when they bring out two enormous speakers into the plaza and play the loudest music I have ever heard (and I was three blocks away).  There is no glass in any windows in the town, which I originally thought was due to hurricanes.  I now realize that this is because it would all be shattered by the Saturday night music.  I told one of the sleep-deprived family members that I love the music (electronic dance/salsa) but I like to choose when I listen to it.  She said "En Cuba, no escogimos" - "In Cuba, we don't choose"... 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cuba Day 4: Vinales valley

Vinales is one of 3(?) places in the world with mogotes, vertical-sided limestone mountains.  They give an other-worldly appearance to the landscape where they pop out of flat valleys of rich red soil, where the best Cuban tobacco and other traditional crops are grown.  I circumnavigated the little mountain range in this picture, a distance of about 6km, walking along well-worn foot, horse and oxen paths through fields and patches of forest.  And occasionally less well-worn paths when I got lost.  I didn't see any mechanized vehicles in the valleys, just ox-carts, oxen pulling plows, and people on horseback or in horse carts.  They were all much faster than me, because I had to stop to look at all the birds, ranging from the tiny spherical and brightly-coloured Cuban tody to the large but very stealthy great lizard-cuckoo.  I also saw a Cuban hutia, a big rodent that looks like an arboreal beaver.  And I was reminded the hard way that you are supposed to tuck your pants into your socks when walking in chigger country.

I talked to various people en route, even managing to understand a few words of what they were saying in the spectacularly slurred rural Cuban dialect.  Tobacco farmers are given fertile land by the government, but they have to give 90% of their crop to the state.  They have quotas they have to meet, or they lose the land (though they may also have plots elsewhere with other crops).  The other 10% of the crop they can make into cigars and sell.  They come up with all kinds of secret tricks for aging, flavouring and rolling the tobacco to make their cigars stand out from the rest. I declined to purchase any cigars since I use my lungs for other things, but it is a very appealing to see the age-old traditional craft.  And I was glad that I could stand under the big ceiba trees watchng the farmers and the birds, and not be out driving an obstinate ox-team or bent over harvesting the tobacco leaf by leaf in the hot sun.
The paths around the mogotes join a road again at the Mural of Prehistory, a huge cliff face carved into a mogote and painted in a psychadelically garish mural, with images of...well, I'm not sure what exactly.  It is a good example of why people should never let their revolutionary leaders design large public art.  It was definitely not Fidel's greatest moment.  I didn't draw it, because watercolours wouldn't do it justice.  You'll just have to go see it yourself, perhaps as part of a tour of the world's 10 most hideous art works?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Cuba Day 3: To Viñales

On day 3, I hopped on a bus to Viñales, a small town in a very traditional agricultural area near the west end of the island.  Tourists are strongly discouraged from taking the normal buses in Cuba, to avoid stealing space from Cubanos and pushing prices up, and also to get the all-important foreign currency.  The buses are the nicest I have ever been on in the tropics, and, remarkably, they run on schedule.  The only problem is that it is almost impossible to find the schedule, short of taking an expensive taxi out to the bus station to look at the wall.  There is a whole legion of people employed by the government to tell tourists that they don't know the bus schedule.  So I just went out to the station early, and got lucky with a seat on a bus that left in an hour.  While I waited, I went out to the parking lot and faced one of my drawing demons - cars.  In particular, the classic American cars that form about 1/3 of the small fleet of vehicles in Cuba (Ladas are another third, then a mix of newer Asian car, the occasional Volkswagen and one "Polski Fiat" which was the humblest looking car I've ever seen).  Drawing old cars is like life drawing, with overlapping curves define the form, and it's similarly very obvious when you get something wrong. Like most of the features on this beauty:

I like to draw on buses, because it is essentially impossible.  Although there were none of the usual Latin American three-way passing manoeuvres on blind curves, the roads are in pretty rough shape, as you can see in the drawing.  But if you look carefully and imaginatively, you'll see royal palms (the Cuban national tree), a ceiba tree, a turkey vulture, a thatched house, a rider on a horse, an ox, small farm plots, sugar cane, a chicken, a goat, some little mountains, and a message from Che saying "!Homeland or death!"  And also the crucial fuzzy dice, which take the place of Jesus and Mary icons
in protecting atheist Cuban vehicles from the vagaries of the road.

Viñales is a pretty town.  Almost too pretty, because most of the houses are very clean-looking and painted bright cheery colours.  It's not a coincidence that most of them are also casas particulares (private homes with rooms for rent by tourists).  The history though is that a hurricane destroyed many of the older houses; the many new houses are the government-supported replacements.  The little old church may have been supplanted by a cargo cult centred around the tourist buses, but for many people, life goes on as always.  Horses and horse carts are a main form of transport, heavier goods are carried in ox carts, and townspeople mostly sit around in rocking chairs in front of their houses.   I suspect if the tourists disappeared, things would pretty much just continue on as they always have.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Cuba Day 2: Havana

I spent my first full day in Havana doing the urban exploration equivalent of a marathon. I walked around Havana Vieja, through the labyrinth of Havana Centro, to the University and into Vedado, the pre-Revolution enclave of the wealthy and corrupt.  This was no stroll through the mall.  It was more like urban bushwhacking, constantly stepping sideways or backwards to avoid other pedestrians, people sitting on their front step, passing cars or bicycle taxis, holes in the sidewalk or road, and the occasional rogue chicken.  But the exhausting thing was all the stimulation from the crowds of people, block after block of beautiful decaying buildings, the thousands of details of everyday life lived in the streets, music, noise, smells...  I picked a relatively peaceful street for my first drawing of the day. I was told that anyone who is friendly in Havana is trying to sell you something or get money from you one way or the other, and that may be true when you are walking through the touristy part of old Havana.  But when I was drawing, I'd say 4 out of 5 people were genuinely friendly and interested in what I was doing.  And the others eventually got bored and gave up on me.
When I got to the University, I was glad for the shade of a huge ceiba tree (as identified to me by a helpful student), where I sat and drew the aggressively classical architecture of the Mathematics Faculty.  And the less classical Ladas in front of it.  This is the most important building on campus, I was told by another helpful student, because it is where the Cuban communist party was started.  The students were definitely an earnest lot, although I did see one large group gathered around a laptop looking at what seemed to be the viral video of the day.  Or perhaps a speech by Fidel?
After the long walk, I was saved from starvation by a passing tamale vendor, and from complete exhaustion by a cocotaxi ride back to old Havana via the Malecon (seawall).  And then by one of Cuba's great contributions to the world, a mojito.  Bartender Wilson at 304 O'Reilly - a trendy private restaurant where me and my buddy Mick hang out* when he's not playing concerts to 500,000 Cubans - is a legend-to-be and his cocktails works of art.  The mojito disappeared before I could draw it, so I had to order a Havana special for sketching purposes.

I was actually sitting at the rooftop extension of the restaurant across the street, so had a view of a typical apartment, or probably 3 or 4 intertwined apartments, in a well preserved building.

And then, because Havana is pretty much completely safe, I could hang out on the street and draw after dark, while music played in several directions, people strolled by, little kids played games in the streets, and the older kids hung out in a doorway and were cool.  But not so cool that they couldn't send one of the group over to see what I was doing and give me compliments on the drawing.
* Not at the same time

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Cuba Day 1: To Havana

After a few days in Toronto, I caught an early morning flight to Varadero.  The Toronto airport at 5:30am is a grey place, particularly when you're drawing it with only a water-soluble pen.
Walking out of the Varadero airport was pretty much like the point in the Wizard of Oz movie when colour was invented.  Not to mention warmth, and those tropical smells.  Almost everyone going to Varadero is on an all-inclusive package vacation. That may not be complete hell, but in my opinion it would be the equivalent of a long stay in purgatory.  Fortunately, one tour van was headed the other way, into Havana, so I got a cheap ride for the two hour trip in a spare seat in the back.  It came with a guide - a government employee, of course, since almost everyone in Cuba is a government employee.  He enthusiastically related the glorious history of the country, pointed out the fabulous factories, recited patriotic poetry, and, being a young latin male, sang along with the reggaeton on the sound system and pointed out every pretty girl we passed by yelling "!Chica bonita! Wow, Cuban girls!" It was a good introduction to the country. 
We stopped for drinks at the end of the longest bridge in Cuba - a marvel of Cuban engineering, we were told - called Puente de Bacunayagua, but better known as Puente de la Suegra (the Mother-in-law Bridge).  You can figure out why.  (Hint: It is very far off the ground, and the railings are short).  The next long bridge we crossed had a Spanish sign saying "Bridge in Poor Condition".  Everyone crossed it very slowly to avoid shaking it too much, and they made sure there weren't two heavy vehicles on it at the same.  It was not a marvel of Cuban engineering.
Arriving in Havana, I was immediately and wonderfully overwhelmed, and remained that way for the rest of the trip.  One woman I talked to said she broke down crying after her first day in Havana, because it was so...everything: beautiful, frustrating, elegant, decaying and collapsing, frantic but peaceful (no traffic), full of life, music and garbage, perfectly safe if you don't break a leg falling down a sewer hole or have a bag of concrete fall on your head (I had a close call on that one).  Old Havana, where I stayed in a casa particular (=private house), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That has supported restoration of some main buildings, plazas and a few complete blocks.  Day trippers from the resorts stick to those areas - and so get a misleading idea of the city - and that's where I did my first Havana sketch.
Most people live in a small set of rooms in old buildings that are a confusing warren of intersecting apartments with various private and partially shared spaces.  But people spend much of their time outside on the street, front doors open, sitting on the steps or out on their balconies.  These two ladies across from my room were having a lively conversation.  What about, I have no idea - my Spanish is okay, but no match for the Cuban dialect, particularly with the ubiquitous salsa music, yelling, passing 1950's Chevrolets, and salesman sing-song advertising their wares.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Cuba Day -1: Toronto, Beaver Hall group

So, I was looking for tickets to Toronto to visit my family when I noticed that the ticket from Vancouver to Varadero Cuba was the same price as the Vancouver-to-Toronto ticket.  I developed this into quite a good rant: "Why do I have to pay as much to fly to Toronto as to Cuba?  In fact, the flight to Cuba goes through Toronto, so I can fly to Toronto and Cuba for the same price as flying to Toronto.  That's absurd.  Why on earth would... Oh, wait a second..."  So I went to Cuba.  And to Toronto.  They are saying "Change is coming" to Cuba, which is hopeful in many ways to many people.  But also a bit ominous.  I had to get to Havana to sketch in these days - long may they last - before the infernal Starbucks logo showed up everywhere. (The company may be fine, in its place.  It's the logo that is infernal - white on dark green, impossible in watercolour).

But first, the free stop-over in Toronto.  The longest journey starts with a single airport-lounge sketch, so here is YVR at dawn.  Red in the morning, travelers take wa... OK, never mind.
I got to Toronto for Easter dinner and egg hunting with my family, with time to visit some familiar haunts.  This massive willow is in the ravine nearby, showing the ravages of several big ice storms.  And it was sheltering a bit of late-season snow.
But change is certainly coming to the home turf of Don Mills.  The original planned community in Canada, it is now undergoing monsterification at a rate and scale that puts North Vancouver's to shame.  These two enormities are going up (and up, and up) beside each other, one built from concrete and steel, the other apparently from construction paper and Elmer's glue.
As a bonus, I got to go with my mom to see an exhibition of paintings by the Beaver Hall group, showing at the Hamilton art gallery.  My great-aunt Prudence Heward was a member of the group, and I don't often get to see her paintings.  The Beaver Hall group were jazz age contemporaries of the Group of Seven.  They were as important as the GoS in initiating modernism in Canadian art, but are less known for historical reasons: they were in Montreal instead of Toronto, and many of the prominent members were women.  Their landscapes tended towards urban and rural scenes, rather than iconic wilderness, but their greatest strength was portraits, often strong, psychological portrayals of women.  And even, scandal!, nudes - in Canada!  It was great to see so many of their pictures together, with some time to sketch a couple to help me remember them.  The exhibition is worth seeking out if you happen to be in Hamilton, or its next stops in Windsor and Calgary, or look for the excellent catalog.
Tomorrow's installment: on to Chez Che.