Sunday, December 28, 2008

Marshall Hall on a Warm Winter Day

Marshall Hall, oils on canvas board, 11" x 14"

The day after Christmas (Boxing Day) I headed down to visit my friends in Southern Maryland. We'd planned to do an art share: a show and tell about what we have learned and done in our art classes this year, and I hoped to get in a little painting too.

Sadly, Marguerite was too sick to join us, but we three had fun in the studio sharing our art. Looking at it all together I was surprised to see how much it added up to. It was wonderful to see how each of us had grown in our chosen areas of interest this past year: Patrise in her studies of the face and figure for her illustrations, Linda in her narrative painting and myself in plein air with oils. In the evening we joined other friends in their circle for a dinner of delicious Christmas leftovers.

Getting up the next morning, it was cloudy--would it rain, drizzle or clear? Patrise had suggested we paint at Marshall Hall, at the southern end of Piscataway Park, where there is an old ruined manor house dating from the 1720's. The idea of painting ruins has always appealed to me--I think of the romantic painters' fabulous drawings and paintings of ruins--Linda wasn't so keen on that, so she decided to go to the familiar north end of the park while we packed our gear and Patrise's two dogs and headed out to Marshall Hall.

I remember that in the 60s' when we lived in Arlington, there was an old amusement park there that I think we visited once, but I have no specific recollection of it. The sun began to burn through the clouds on our drive down, and by the time we'd walked around a bit with the dogs and found where we wanted to set up, it was sunny and so warm that I had to shed my parka (on the way back I saw the thermometer in my car registered 63 degrees Fahrenheit).

The ruined house was a challenge to paint--I selected this view because I thought the shadows would help us articulate the architecture better, but the ugly chain link fence needed to be edited out. Patrise invented a broken-down picket fence for her painting which I thought added a great fantasy element to her piece, while mine is far more austere, maybe Hopperesque. There is a stark and austere beauty about this season, and the ruined house in light of the wintry sun seemed to complement it perfectly.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Painting a Still Life on a Dark Day

Still Life with Red Onions, oils on canvas board, 9" x 12"

It was dreary as I headed to Lee's studio for our afternoon session of painting: one of our typical rainy winter days. Lee had set up two still lives for us. The ginger jar and the red onions in this one appealed to me, but I knew the colors were going to be tough to bring off.

We didn't want to use the overhead fluorescent lights, as these tend to distort the colors too much, but it was so dark in the studio I really had no idea what colors I was mixing. We opened the shutters and I kept walking over to the window with my palette to mix colors. That was marginally better. Seeing my struggles, Lee offered me a tiny light with two LED's that I could clip on to the palette, which helped quite a bit. I still couldn't see my painting very well, but the colors on my palette were more visible.

I may look for a light like this to add to my kit--it could prove useful in the future. Last summer when I tried night painting, the miner's lamp with LED's proved to be too bright for the job. This might work better.

I don't know that my colors are terribly accurate, but I think at least my values are close to true. The blue bottle was the most challenging. I am developing a greater appreciation for still life painting now that I understand how challenging it can be.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ghosts of Christmas

Today as I was working on a piece for Cubanology Biweekly about old Cubans, that is to say my parents' generation, I was transported back to our early days of exile in Arlington. After I finished my piece I began looking through my collection of old family photos but could not find any with all of us (somebody has to take the picture).

I did find this wonderful photo of my sisters and I by the Christmas tree... thanks to the magic of Kodak I can tell by the furniture and the window that this was taken in the house on 11th Street we rented when I was in high school. The hair and clothes say this was the heyday of Mod London: the Beatles were all the rage, and every girl tried for the Jean Shrimpton look--the long straight hair, big eyes and pale lips--Shrimpton was the first supermodel. It must have been 1965 or so, the year I graduated.

My older sister Beatriz (standing) was in college by then. The youngest, Cecilia is on the left, Silvia in the middle and I'm on the right, with the far-away look. Desperately wanting to amount to something, wondering if I would. I'm still wondering, after all these years...

I feel so lucky to have grown up with three sisters, through all our small tiffs and teasing, rivalries and camaraderie. With less than two year's difference in ages between each of us, we four Maza girls were a tight-knit bunch. We had our own friends in school, but we tended to be herded together so everything we did, we did together. It gave us a sense of how to deal with others.

It's hard to believe it's been twenty-five years since Cecilia died. Bea, Silvia, and I have our own families and we get together but only a few times a year, on family occasions like Christmas. The children, some of them now married and in other cities, are numerous, and we add up to around twenty on Christmas for dinner. Mom and Dad, all of their generation, are gone now, and it is we who are the elders of the clan. The torch passes on. I wonder what our kids will remember of our Christmases together, if it'll be the same for them as the way we remember Nochebuena in Cuba.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Challenging Week

Still Life #2, oils on canvas board, 12" x 9"

After a very challenging week at work, I headed over to Lee's studio for an afternoon painting session. He'd set up two still lives for four of us students to work on, both using challenging colors. I picked the one with the purple cloth backdrop, not only because it was closest to where I'd set up, but because these were colors I rarely see in nature, much less paint.

This painting isn't one of my best. I had a particularly hard time articulating the difference between the purple cloth in the light and in shadow--it doesn't even look like it's deep purple, does it? Dealing with the reflections in the shadows of the bowl and pitcher were equally difficult. Looking at Lee's demo piece and how he dealt with these areas was helpful, but with the best will in the world, I was too worn down and distracted. In the middle of the session, my office called on my cell phone--that broke what little concentration I'd been able to muster!

By four o'clock the light was fading fast, so this was as far as I got. I lingered a bit talking to Lee about the state of art in our current cultural climate. He brought up an interesting point: what eclipsed the impresionists at a time when they were at their peak was the modernist movement, which dealt with abstraction from nature and breaking down of all the "rules". Now that the "contemporary" artists deal with abstractions of an abstraction and there are no rules--where exactly does that get us? Other than the current ego marketing, that is, where the artist becomes his own creation to sell because he really has no other actual commodity such as "art" to market--those are merely pieces of any old junk passed off as art (because the artist says so). Is it any wonder the public is confused?

Which is why we really need to get back to having standards and actually learning to draw, paint, sculpt, or whatever by going through a process of practical training in an apprenticeship. And why Lee believes that the plein air movement is reinvigorating American art at this moment. I agree with him, or I wouldn't be there, of course. Looking at the light teaches us how to see color in all its infinitely rich possibilities, and yet make it new.

To my dismay, I came home to open my Artist magazine yesterday and read among the predictions in "The Future of Art", the writer believes the plein air movement, "which has been going gangbusters since the 1990's, will wane as a marketing genre." How about it, fellow artists, do you agree?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Extreme Painting in the First Snow

First Snow, oils on canvas board, 11" x 14," at Gallery 1683 in December.

I'd signed up to go painting on Friday with Lee Boynton and a few students. We were to meet at Jerusalem Mill, a historic village from colonial times that is part of Gunpowder Falls State Park a bit north of Baltimore. In addition to the restored buildings and the mill there is a very pretty covered bridge that Lee had painted a few weeks earlier and had really appealed to me.

The weather wasn't very promising: the temperature hovered just above freezing and they were predicting snow flurries, but we agreed to meet as planned. The sun was shining when I left the house but by the time I arrived at our site the sky was getting that leaden look. The others were already setting up their easels by the old general store. I was glad I'd brought an extra polartec jacket to wear underneath my lighter nylon shell, but regretted that all I'd brought was my baseball cap.

Fortunately, one of the other ladies had an extra winter hat she loaned me--I wouldn't have lasted long without it. I had just set up my gear, loaded my palette, and was ready to roll, when here came the flurries: thick, wet flakes. The background trees became faint shadows, whited out by the snow. The snow began to stick, even to our palettes, the ice crystals mixing with the oil paint made one lumpy mess. Lee said to use more medium to keep the paint fluid, but after a while it was useless. This was really more like an ordeal: extreme painting!

Two of the ladies retreated to the porch of the store, and eventually we all ended up there (by that time my gloved hands were frozen stiff). We decided it would be a good idea to take our lunch break inside the store. Even unheated, the inside was much warmer by comparison. The flurries had stopped, and a feeble sun emerged from behind the clouds. After lunch we walked a short distance over to the covered bridge to scout our the location. Two of the ladies didn't want to chance the slippery footing at the banks of the stream; they opted to stay in the village for their afternoon painting, while the rest thought the stream, rather than the bridge, was the better view.

There was a road crew cutting down tree branches along that stretch, taking up more than half of the two-lane road, so rather than driving, we decided to walk. Along the way, my new hand-made palette somehow slipped out of its case and fell on the ground face down--isn't that the way buttered toast always lands? That did it--cleaning the palette would take time, if I didn't drive I might not make it there at all. I walked back to the car, put my stuff in, and drove over to the bridge.

The others were painting away by the time I was set up, and as I was laying in the sky, Lee exclaims, "Look, here comes the snow again!" Again our background disappeared in a fog, but the scene was beautiful with its muted colors. Again we struggled with the snow crystals sticking to our palettes, making it all but impossible to see the colors we were mixing. I managed to record the scene with incredible speed while the others, working at a smaller size, did a second painting. We packed up and went back to the porch of the now-closed store to end our day with a critique. I was surprised at how well this second painting turned out.

Lee showed us some gorgeous winter scenes painted by Emile Gruppe, a New England artist working in the first half of the twentieth century, and we talked about his paintings. He must have been one hearty artist to have endured the outdoors painting Vermont winters! As we were able to observe first-hand, at low temperatures oil paint becomes very viscous and hard to work with.

It took hours and lots of hot tea to thaw out once I got back home. If I'm going to do this again, I'll need to invest in warmer clothing. Despite the cold, I enjoyed our extreme painting experience.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rainy Day in the Studio

Last Class, Still Life with Oranges, oils, 9" x 12"

It was very rainy the day before our last class, so our teacher E-mailed the evening before that we would meet at Maryand Hall and work on a still life in the studio rather than go out to paint in the wet outdoors. I have to confess that still life painting has never thrilled me much, so I wasn't very enthused with the idea. But I recognize that there is a great deal to be learned from the study of still life, so I was curious to see Lee's demo and try a painting with the new insights about color I've gained.

I was a bit late getting there due to the slow traffic, and the class was starting so I had no time to set up before Lee began his demo. Verbalizing his thought process was wonderful, as usual: how and why he "edited" to select his particular composition, how he put in his main blocks of color and only after these were down and the white surface mostly covered did he begin to refine the color and shapes.

Since we were doing longer critiques for this last class and I had to lay out my palette, I didn't have as much time to actually paint as I would have liked. I struggled finding the right "val-hues," particularly for the green bowl and the blue bottle, and my shapes are not very refined, but it is amazing to see the theories translate into this painting. Strange how just the right val-hues can convey the shapes even at this primitive stage in the painting!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Symphony of Color

Week 7 of Class: Belvoir Road in the Morning, oils, 9"x 12"
Belvoir Road in the Afternoon, oils 12" x 9"

Driving to class in the morning, it seemed the foliage was even more vivid than last weekend: stands of trees looking like molten bronze in the morning haze, small bushes in magenta and purple-reds creating a veritable symphony of harmonies in color.

We set up our easels in the woods just like the week before, but the light was again very different from last week's sunny, crisp day. Today, fingers of sunlight played upon the road from time to time as the sun broke through the clouds moving overhead, but it was delightfully warm. The carpet of leaves was finer in color than any Persian rug I've ever seen.

I was able to stay all day and do another painting in the afternoon, painting until the last rays of the sun were disappearing behind the trees. Gloom was descending upon the woods by the time I got everything packed, though it was only five o'clock. I'm always a bit sad to see the days become shorter, though autumn brings the year's end in a glorious crescendo of color.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


This year's jack o'lantern: The Cat's Eyes carved by Herb
Fifth Week of Class: Belvoir Road on Halloween, 12" x 9"

It's been a tough week, my friends: on Wednesday evening I rear-ended an SUV on my way home after a particularly tiring 12-hour day. Fortunately, no one was injured, but as a result of the accident, my beloved 10-year-old Saab, "Spice Girl" is now a piece of junk.

I couldn't have made it to class if it hadn't been for the loan of Herb's car, but I was extremely glad to be there and put the whole week behind me. The day was beautiful and we had a different view of Belvoir to paint, with strong shadows in the foreground and a brightly-lit background.

My painting turned out fairly well--finally got to use some of the cadmium reds and oranges for the foliage colors and the light and shadows are convincing. I was amazed to see how quickly it came together following Lee's method. Another change in approach that has been enormously helpful is to sketch with straight lines only--this makes for a much stronger composition from the beginning.

In the late afternoon, just before dark, I sketched out this year's traditional jack o'lantern on the pumpkin and Herb carved it in record time, just before the first trick-or-treaters rang our doorbell. In all, it was a wonderful, warm Halloween with the fall foliage at its peak.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

In A Softer Light

Fourth week of class: Belvoir, oils on canvas board, 9" x 12"

The dawn's light was soft, presage to an overcast day. Driving to class the clouds hovered over distant Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay in amazing formations: long, flat layers with torn edges. The light from the sun filtered through the violet clouds giving soft orange hues in places. The planes of trees at different distances were perfect for atmospheric studies. I almost drove off the road while looking. How I wished I could snap away with my camera while driving! Around here it's only on the highways that we seem to get those wide panoramic views.

The class met at Belvoir again, same as last week, but the light was so different. I wondered how we would render the difference, and Lee's demo was a great explanation of how the change in light affected the colors to soften and make them earthier. After all, that is what we are concerned with as painters: the light, how it affects objects. My awareness continues to expand, and here's my painting to prove it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saffron Harvest

Saffron crocus

Saffron is a spice valued in Spanish cuisine which is very expensive. Many years ago I remember the grocery stores would keep it under lock so people couldn't steal the tiny envelopes containing a few pistils, which were valued at around $5 in those days. I can't recall even seeing these at a regular grocery for years; I shudder to think what the price might be in a specialty store.

This ingredient is essential for paella and for real Cuban yellow rice, so I decided to grow my own. A few years ago I planted about 20 bulbs of saffron in the front yard. This past week they started to bloom: this is one of the flowers of the beautiful autumn-flowering crocus. The orange three-pronged stigma is the part used for the spice. I've harvested about a baker's dozen flowers so far, hope for a few more before the season ends.

I've seen photos of the area in Spain where saffron is grown commercially--it's a fairy-tale setting of round hills and ancient windmills. The flowers are picked in the morning as they begin to open, and traditionally are processed in family kitchens. The saffron workers' hands are stained orange from stripping the stigmas from the
thousands of flowers needed to make an ounce. Yet an ounce of the spice is worth thousands of dollars.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Colors at Belvoir

Third week of class: Belvoir, oils 9" x 12"

The Road at Belvoir, oils 9" x 12"

These are the two paintings I did yesterday at our painting class with Lee Boynton. The class was actually in the morning, but since I was free for the entire day, I brought my lunch and stayed to do a second painting in the afternoon.

The weather is turning crisper and the fall colors are starting to show, so the day's challenge was to find just the right colors to express the light and atmosphere particular to the unique day. Our class was held at a place called Belvoir, a private estate in Crownsville that had once belonged to the Scott family, renowned for having produced Francis Scott Key.

In the 1920's part of the estate was bought by relatives of Lee's mother-in-law, and is now owned by a private academy. We had permissions to use the grounds, and will be meeting there next week as well. I suspect Lee selected the location not only because it's bucolic and private, but because that maple tree we painted as it was beginning to turn, will likely be flaming with color by next week. I'm off to find more fall color this afternoon and tomorrow if the weather stays fine. Tune in next week.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Un-local Color

Spa Creek, 2nd week of class, 8" x 10"

What a beautiful day! Driving to Annapolis there was lots of "atmosphere," that light mist that suffuses everything around here on early fall mornings, fogging the distance. A bit of it stayed in the air as our class set up to paint at the same location as last week, this time in color.

Trying to find the right colors to render the effect of sunlight and shadow on the trees and water was much easier after Lee's demo and his explanation, and here's my painting, with a little help from our teacher. I 'm starting to understand how to organize my paintings better so I can achieve the effect I want. Now I'll be off to practice some more: the weather promises to be wonderful all weekend.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Painting for the Colorblind?

Spa Creek in Black and White, oils on canvasboard, 8" x 10"

This is one of yesterday's paintings done in Lee Boynton's class. His approach to teaching is that to understand landscape painting it's easier to start with value studies in black and white, but that doing these value studies in charcoal, pencil, or pen and ink (which is what most of us have done before) doesn't necessarily translate into oil painting: the student must use oil paint in order to understand how to work with it. So for this first session, we painted only with black and white paint.

I like the way he breaks down the process of bringing order to the painting. First, he subdivides the painting into three basic values: light, middle and dark grays to create the composition. Each value represents an area of the landscape, with the sky generally the lightest value, the ground the middle value and the trees the darkest. Once we have the shapes of those three areas established, the composition is in place and it should "read" as a representation of reality as well as an abstract composition.

Now to begin to articulate what we are trying to represent, each value is subdivided into three more values within that range. Within each subdivision, we can begin to define the sky as generally lightest at the horizon and darkening toward the zenith. The ground plane (in our case the water in the creek) again has subtle variations, while the variation in trees gives an idea of the distance from the viewer and their shapes.

The title of my post is intended to be amusing--contrary to what I once imagined, people with total color blindness (achromatopsia) do not see the world as we would on an old black and white TV set. They actually are quite impaired, unable perceive critical visual information in bright daylight. The neurologist Oliver Sacks writes brilliantly about this unusual condition in his book "The Island of the Colorblind," about an island in the Pacific where this rare genetic condition has a high incidence. In a chapter in another of his books called "The Case of the Colorblind Painter," he writes about a painter who becomes colorblind as a result of brain damage, and the fascinating ways he adjusts to his new life in the absence of color.

It's amazing how seeing in color informs us about distinctions between objects, distances and spatial configurations, not to mention how lovely it is in and of itself. Now that we have a better understanding of the underlying order in a painting, next week our class will start dealing with the complexities of color.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paint Annapolis

Conduit Street, oils on canvasboard, 12" x 16" N.F.S.

Paint Annapolis last weekend was a fascinating event. I spent the better part of three days there, commuting back and forth from Columbia and sold two paintings: one off the easel at the city dock sale after the Dueling Brushes competition and another at MAPAPA's All Members show at Maryland Hall.

The juried artists' work was fabulous , specially the prize winners; I am very glad to have fallen in with this group of truly serious artists. It seems to me that this is what real painting is all about: none of the gimmicks of conceptual art, installations or other celebrity-seeking artists' traps we hear about ad nauseam, just plain skill and lots of work.

This is my third painting, a quiet dead-end street just a few blocks off Main Street where I spent two delightful afternoons reveling in the perfect weather. Comparing my work to the work of more advanced artists made me want to become part of this Annapolis School of painting. The lineage goes back to the Cape Cod School of Art, the premier school of American Impressionism, but with its own local flavor.

I found that Lee Boynton, an artist who is credited as one of the artists who started the Paint Annapolis event, was teaching a class at Maryland Hall starting this week, so I signed up for his class. I'm really looking forward to working with him: his passion and committment to painting is contagious!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Birthday Gift From Above

Island, (original sold) digital prints (giclee) available.

An envelope from Gallery 1683 came in the mail yesterday; it was my copy of the gallery's consignment sheet for the two paintings I'd dropped off last Friday. The sale of a small giclee was also listed, and next to it, hand-written, J. Travolta and a smiley face. Could it be for real? John Travolta bought a digital print of my "Island" at the gallery? I called the owner today to verify and here's the story.

Another artist at the gallery also happens to be a yacht broker in Annapolis, and John Travolta was in town to pick up his yacht for a cruise to Maine. He mentioned that he was looking for art for his yacht, so Chris arranged a private appointment for him at Gallery 1683. The owners were out of town, but their daughter and another gallery artist who lives there opened the gallery for him. He bought four original paintings and my little giclee.

So there you have it-- I'm in John Travolta's collection. Island is probably hanging in the head, but whether there or on the poop deck, it's still quite an honor to have my work selected by Travolta, one of three artists from among the many artists at gallery.

My birthday is a little more than a week away, and here I am scheduled to go in for a root canal re-treatment a few days before, so this sale is like a birthday gift from above--just the thing to cheer me up!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fawns in the Morning

Yesterday morning was cloudy; as I was getting up Herb called out "Deer alert!"
Two fawns had wandered into our back yard, browsing on vines while one and then the other seemed to keep a look out. They went as far as the fence at our neighbor's yard, staying close to the woods, then came back. A doe showed up a few minutes later, presumably the mother of the one young enough to still have spots. I grabbed my camera and stepped out on the deck to snap a few shots. The deer weren't fazed at first, but the moment they heard the buzz of the shutter, they grew skittish and then the doe took off with the fawns at her heels.

In the evening, the sun was out and as we were going out on the deck to enjoy the golden hour, I saw a groundhog up in our neighbor's mulberry tree that overhangs their peach tree. I ran for my camera again--I knew without a photo nobody would believe it. I had a hard time believing my own eyes the first time I saw this rascal in the tree earlier this summer--groundhogs can climb trees! This one is young, agile, and fearless--he's about 15-18 feet off the ground on a precarious perch, trying to get at the peaches.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Painting in Baltimore

Looney's Pub in Canton, oils on canvas board, 11" x 14" $200 unframed.

Last Sunday I joined other MAPAPA members for a paint-out in Canton, a neighborhood on the waterfront in Baltimore that I was not familiar with (I hardly ever go into the city). We were to meet at a coffeehouse on O'Donnell Square, and being early Sunday morning there was plenty of parking along the streets. I went into the Daily Grind and was told the group had already gone off to paint. Back outside, I was immediately attracted to the bright colors of these old rowhouses facing the square, but walked around with my camera exploring for a bit before coming back to my first choice for painting. I found a nice bench in a shady spot on the square and set up right there.

Right as I was finishing the painting, two ladies came up to me--they were MAPAPA members--and we chatted for a bit. Turns out one of them, who is the president of the group, had been painting on the other sidewalk opposite from me the whole time, but with the cars and objects in between, I had not seen her at all. We talked about next weekend's event in Annapolis and I learned about other activities the organization is planning, such as workshops. This outing seemed to be much looser than the previous one at Great Falls where we'd met after painting and critiqued the work, so after a brief visit with the ladies, I headed home for lunch and other afternoon home labors.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

After the Storm

Tropical storm Hanna came into our area this morning. From the media build-up you'd think we were about to be hit with a category 5 hurricane. They were actually advising people to lay in stores of flashlights and extra water! Hanna turned out to be a well-mannered lady and brought only rain and gusts for about six hours between eleven AM to five PM. In the evening, a golden glow in the sky outside my window beckoned and there, after the storm, was a brilliant rainbow.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

At Great Falls Park

Great Falls Park, oils on canvasboard, 11" x 14"
This painting is now framed, and selling for $450 at Gallery 1683 in Annapolis.

Last Saturday I got up early to to paint at Great Falls at my first MAPAPA event. It was another delightfully cool August morning with beautiful weather. The park was deserted when I got there; I lugged my gear from the parking lot to the other side of the Tavern. Despite the great conditions, the force was not with me. After picking my spot and starting to set up, I realized I'd lost a crucial piece of my Guerilla paintbox along the way--the knob that holds the lid which is the painting holder. Going back to find it (I was lucky to recover all the pieces) cost me the first hour. Then the focal point of my composition (the C and O barge on the canal) got moved after my painting was too far along to change, so I gave up on that one. I finally started this painting around eleven-thirty, with a bare hour and a half to try to finish before critique time. Needless to say, I wasn't able to finish it, but it was a nice start. I finished it later in the studio from my photos.

Contact me at if you are interested in buying it. The price will go up after it's framed.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Brookside Gardens

Summer at Brookside Gardens, oils on archival canvasboard, 11" x 14"
This painting is now framed and selling for $450 at Gallery 1683 in Annapolis.

About twenty-five years ago Herb and I lived a block away from this beautiful botanical garden in Silver Spring and we used to go for walks there frequently. In fact, I was just starting to paint plein air watercolors in those days and worked outdoors in all seasons and weather conditions: lovely spring days as well as blustery fall days when my hands ached from the cold, nose freely dripping on my artwork (mixed media?). It was good training for an aspiring painter. Later on I had my very first solo show in the small lobby of their greenhouse and sold one piece.

Since those days Brookside has built a new Visitor's Center, completely fenced in and redesigned the gardens so that there no longer are any wild areas. Last week I was meeting an old friend who lives nearby. We agreed to meet at Brookside so I decided to come early to paint for old times' sake. This view of one pond was about the only place I could find that remained recognizable. I stood under a gazebo on what once was a tiny island where Canada geese used to nest.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cartoon of Nancy Pelosi

You may not agree with the politics, but I had great fun doing this cartoon to illustrate my article "Masters of Green" written jointly with my husband Herb Borkland. We did the article for Cubanology Bi-Weekly Issue #10, a free forum for political discourse and opinion published on line by my friend Jose Reyes. You are invited to read the article and comment.

The original of the cartoon is for sale, if anyone would care to make an offer, I'll consider it. It's watercolor with pen and ink, 12" x 9" on archival sketch paper.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Painting the Lotus at Mattawoman Creek

Wild Lotus, watercolor, 10" x 5", $100.

After lunch at Mattawoman Creek park, Linda and I put the kayak in the water, loaded our gear and started paddling upstream. In this tidal area the waters are so calm it was difficult to detect much of a current but according to a fisherman we passed, the tide was going out . We paddled lazily past marshy banks of pickerelweed and spatterdock with some grassy plants that might be wild rice. We went round a bend and behold--here were expanses of the creamy yellow blossoms of the native American lotus at the height of their glory!

We continued upstream to a tiny island where Linda had gone swimming other times, but the water weeds were so thick near the shore it wasn't very appealing, so we gave up on swimming and explored on foot instead. We found several spikes of bright red cardinal flowers, pink butterfly weed and hog-peanut vines in flower. A bald eagle soared overhead, its white head majestic in the sunlight. A couple of fishing boats trolled past. With the sun at a lower angle now, it was just the right time to paddle back to paint the lotus.

We pulled into the lotus stand and parked the kayak near one blossom starting to open among several emerging leaves, their curious folds forming half moons sticking out of the water. I looked behind me and was amused to see Linda floating her small watercolor set on top of a lotus leaf (I'm used to holding mine in my left hand like a palette because it has a thumb-hole). I snapped a shot with her camera.

A splash behind us proved to be an osprey diving for fish. The osprey missed its prey and circled around for several passes but eventually gave up and flew away. We finished our sketches around six and paddled back in the evening light at the end of a marvelous day. I felt exhausted but my spirit overflowed with joy at the sight of so many lovely lotus flowers. It had been a perfect lotus day!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Perfect Lotus Day

Lotus at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, oils on canvasboard, 14" x 11," $200

Yesterday I left the house early to get down to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in time to take advantage of the morning light. The day was delightfully cool and clear, a rarity for August in DC, when the phrase "dog days" seems to have been coined with our area in mind. By a quarter to nine there were quite a few photographers and a couple of painters there already. I walked around the nearest ponds overflowing with Asian lotus and set up my easel in a shady spot under a Bald Cypress, where I had one perfect flower in sight for a focal point.

The painting went quickly and was finished around eleven. I left my gear in place and walked around the other ponds to take photos of some of the other blossoms, but the light overhead was not great, so I stopped to chat with another painter I'd seen earlier. I'd noticed she had the exact same type of Guerrilla Painter box as mine, and it turned out she was a member of the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association (MAPAPA, which I joined just last week) so we shared information about the Annapolis Plein Air event coming up in September. We were both interested in the Dueling Brushes competition, for which our morning session is great practice, and the street sale afterwards, similar to the Easton Quick Draw event.

After taking more photos I packed up, trundled to my car and drove on towards Southern Maryland, where my friend Linda lives. She had told me earlier that she'd found a large stand of the native American Lotus at Mattawoman Creek, an extensive Potomac River watershed some miles from her home. The American lotus is slightly smaller than the Asian, and the flowers are creamy light yellow.We'd agreed to take a two-person kayak she owns so we could sketch them up close, and this was the perfect day for it.

It was a bit work to get the kayak secured to the top of my car, and Linda was kind enough to lend me some extra gear: water shoes and a pair of shorts (I'd worn pants for painting, forgotten I'd need to wade) plus lots of drinking water and sunscreen. We stopped off at Safeway to pick up some sandwiches along the way and reached Mattawoman around two. I was starving by then, so we ate lunch before setting out in the kayak.

To be continued: Painting at Mattawoman Creek.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Little Night Painting

Moonlight on Black Walnut Point, oils on canvas board, 12" x 16"

This was my night painting from Walt Bartman's workshop. There is something mysterious--perhaps eerie--about this historic colonial house surrounded by ancient walnut trees on the last point of land of Tilghman Island. In the light of the full moon, with the stiff breeze stirring the leaves, it seemed magical. I liked the way the soft glow of lights from the house was reflected in the swimming pool and echoed by the moonlight on the bay.

It's now framed and is priced at $450. If you are interested in buying, please contact me at

Friday, August 1, 2008

Yesteryear's Sunsets Today

Sunset at Bar Neck Cove, oils on canvas, 14" x 11" $150

As toddlers in Cuba, my mother initiated my sisters and I into the ritual of seeing the sunset by the sea. Every evening as the sun started to descend we would walk the block from our house in Miramar to what we called la playita (the little beach) though it was really the farthest thing from a beach. Actually a rocky shoreline made up of the dead corals commonly called dientes de perro (dog's teeth) in Cuba, we children would while away the time playing in the tidal pools and pause to watch the final dramatic moments as the sun dipped into the sea. Every day we watched intently to see if the legendary "green ray" would appear: an unusual phenomenon that occurs once in a great while when the light of the sun's rays is refracted through the water.

The sea would be furious, foaming froth in January when the Nor'easters blew, strewing Man-of-War jellyfish with their long poisonous tentacles onto to the rocks, and we'd play tag with the spray from the waves. On lazy summer days it could be so calm we'd be tempted to go in for a swim and only the grownups' cautionary tales of the many eaten by sharks at that spot would keep us out of the water. The light on the clouds projected marvelous images of castles, epic battles, and beasts to fill our imagination.

I cherish those memories now as the sum of all my childhood sunsets--it was not until much later I realized: while I played, I was being imprinted with a sense of nature's timeless beauty that would form the ground for my artistic impulse. Who could have known a few years later we'd have to leave Cuba and never see our Playita again?

Sunsets on the Chesapeake Bay have a very different flavor, but they share the same enchantment of the clouds and sun over the water. Bar Neck Cove on Tilghman Island is the site of Walt Bartman's Summer Duck Studio where we painted. It was hard to find a spot where the glare wouldn't be blinding, so I picked this place behind a tall cypress. The reflections on the water were still so strong I had to close my eyes and rest for periods of time to get rid of the retinal after-images. I wasn't sure exactly what I had painted until the next day, but oddly enough, the painting communicates the heat and the hazy atmosphere of the day in the intimacy of the small cove.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Value of a Sketch

One assignment from the Tilghman Island workshop was to do about ten value sketches, a term used in art for a simple drawing in black and white to study light and shadow. One sketches with single lines and then connects the lines into blocks of shadow, to analyze the design on paper.

I sketched this with two Sharpie pens--one thin point and one thick--while sitting in an Adirondack chair in a shady spot on the grounds of Black Walnut Point Inn at the southern tip of the island. Doing this loosened me up and got me thinking in terms of abstract design rather than drawing individual objects. The lesson then hopefully carries through into your actual painting in oils later.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tilghman Island Workshop

I had a great time at Walt Bartman's Tilghman Island workshop this past weekend. Walt is an inspiring teacher; his range of knowledge and thought is amazing. The workshop started Friday with a lecture at his Summer Duck Studio, and these photos are of the first demo he did that afternoon. The heat made it difficult to work except in the shade. We painted until sunset, then went out as a group of 18-22 for a late dinner. There was a full moon: I had just enough energy after dinner to wander about the moonlit grounds of the Black Walnut Point B&B where I was staying. The stiff breeze from the south was delightful, the point of land giving one the feeling of standing on the prow of an enormous ship, with a large wooden cross at the very tip of the land's end.

On Saturday morning Walt gave a lecture on color, then we were free to paint anywhere around the island we wanted. We came back to the studio for critiques around 3:30, and enjoyed a fabulous crab feast afterwards. After dinner we drove out to Knapp's Narrows inlet to paint the sunset, and then do a night painting. For my night painting, I figured being a guest at the Black Walnut Point B&B afforded a unique opportunity to paint this unusual location, so I went back there to paint alone in the total darkness with the aid of a miner's headlamp. As I was getting ready to set up, the moon rose from the water, so orange it seemed like the just-set sun rising anew. I sat down with a glass of wine and looked at the moon for a while, then got up to paint. After spending most of the day standing, my feet were killing me but I became so absorbed in my painting, I was totally oblivious to the mosquitoes flying up my shorts, biting the parts of my legs where the spray hadn't reached, until the next day. I packed up around eleven-thirty and collapsed onto bed.

Sunday morning we met at the inlet for painting. Camille, another student who lives on the island, had a wonderful canopy and was so kind to offer me its shade--I couldn't have lasted even an hour in that heat if it hadn't been for that. Walt worked on quite a large painting standing completely in the sun for several hours--incredible stamina and dedication!

Time went by so fast, I was surprised to come back with seven paintings, some in nearly complete condition (though in need of "fixing"). I headed home after our final crits totally exhausted, sunburned and grubby, yet full of new ideas and insights. Even the traffic cooperated and didn't come to a standstill until I reached the Bay Bridge, speeding me home as I gazed upon the distant skies with new eyes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gorilla Painter

The truth can now be told--I really am not one of the Gorilla Girls! I'm reluctant to designate myself as a "guerrilla" because to me that term has such an awful connotation, and I mean that in the original sense of the word of "filling one with awe." But I happen to have collected quite a bit of Guerrilla Painter equipment and accessories for my next plein air workshop coming up tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to having more compact, portable gear. Less time to set up, more time to paint.

I often think about why the figure of the unwashed, violent guerrilla has been so romanticized here in America... starting with Herbert Matthews as Fidel Castro's first groupie on through to Che Guevara's murderous, beretted mug for sale on T-shirts, Americans have just loved the image of these idiots, if not the men themselves. I can understand a certain appeal for the young, their rebellious adolescence finds in these men the ultimate anti-authority figure, while forgetting that they end up becoming worse dictators that the ones they replaced. The older unrepentant leftists should know better, but they will never admit it.

In any case, I'd never want to self-identify as a guerrilla, it's better to be a gorilla painter. What next? Whale painter? Tomorrow I'm off to Tilghman Island.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Sunset at Fishing Creek

Sunset at Fishing Creek, oils on canvas, 16" x 20", $400

While getting my gear ready for next weekend's painting workshop on Tilghman Island I found this painting from last year. It was done from photos I took at Hooper Island in the fall a few years back, but its watery landscape is very typical of Maryland's eastern shore. Hooper Island, like Tilghman and others in this area, are only technically islands. Actually, they are more like long peninsulas separated from the eastern shore by creeks and wetlands. I would dearly love to own what I like to call a "painting shack" anywhere in this area--it would be wonderful to spend wintry weekends here painting the amazing skies and water as well as the good old summertime when we city and suburban folk flock outdoors.

If you are interested in buying the painting, please contact me at

Sunday, July 6, 2008

My First Portrait Commission

Mirna Suyapa con su hijo Cristofer, pastel, 17-1/2" x 11-1/2"

Today I completed my first portrait commission, and a really difficult one at that! I've struggled with it for several months, working only from photographs because my subject lives in Central America and I've never met the lady-- a friend who lives there commissioned the portrait of her with her infant son and sent me the photos.

It is a beautiful pose: a tender and intimate image of motherhood, but as most of us artists know, babies are difficult to draw convincingly, and the details of the two together were quite challenging. I actually did two other versions of the portrait before settling on this third one as the closest in likeness. It definitely furthered my education on portraiture; I couldn't have accomplished it without the portrait classes I've been taking at the Columbia Arts Center. I'll be going back for more classes this fall, it's great fun for me.

I hope my next portrait commission may be a bit easier, at least to the extent of being able to work with my subject posed in front of me, but I'm game for whatever may come. If any of you want your portrait or a loved one's painted, please contact me at

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Indian Pipe

The unusual flower you see here is called Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora is its botanical name. The plant is saprophytic, which means it feeds on decaying matter; in this case, the plant's roots feed on fungi growing on the roots of other trees, and there are ten genera and twelve species in this family of plants found in North America. The leaves are actually the scales you see on the stem and both the stem and flower are translucent ghostly white.

Several years ago Herb and I hiked at a local preserve, the Rachel Carson Forest, and found these growing there in amazing profusion. I didn't have a digital camera then, and the photos I took weren't usable. I picked one specimen hoping to get a better photo at home, and was disappointed to find that the plant turns black shortly after picking, or as it dies after setting seed.

I've been searching for this plant ever since. Last year I went there at about the same time of the year and there were none (we had a very dry year). This year, with the rains we've been having, I thought there might be some, so Herb and I went out to look for them today.

We walked all over, but found only a few specimens: a clump just emerging from the leafy ground, one single flower well past its prime, and this one. Here the nodding, bell-like flower is more erect and the outer petals are beginning to turn black, showing it has been fertilized and is beginning to fruit. If the rains keep up we'll go back in the next few weeks hoping to see masses as we did a few years back.

As an extra bonus, as we were walking back to our car, we saw a gorgeous Scarlet Tanager: his red plumage stood out like a flag among the green leaves. Herb said he'd noticed a red bird flying by as we were driving in, but in the forest we had ample time to identify and admire this beautiful bird I'd never seen before.

A Waterlily Jungle in Maryland

Maryland Waterlily Jungle, oils on gessobord, 12" x 9"

Yesterday I went out to Centennial Park to paint the waterlilies. At this time of the year they form large rafts on the banks of the lake. The more impressive expanses are on the far side of the lake, too far to walk loaded down with painting gear, so I'd settled for a few patches closer to the parking lot. The temperature was already climbing into the 90's and afternoon showers had been forecast. It wasn't until after had I set up my easel, I realized I'd forgotten to bring the turpenoid bucket--no way I can paint without cleaning my brushes, so I packed up and headed back home, with waterlilies on my mind.

At home I found some photos taken last summer on the way to Crisfield, on the eastern shore. Linda and I had seen a pond covered with hundreds of waterlilies in bloom, some of them pink, which is an unusual color for this variety, so we stopped to take photos. I wanted my painting to give the feeling that these waterlilies were wild, so I framed them against a backdrop of tall shady trees, and voila! I like to think in ancient times there once were jungles here in Maryland... whether the waterlilies were native or introduced, I have no idea, but if they were indeed native, perhaps there would have been waterlilies blooming in ponds in this jungle.

Send an E-mail to if you are interested in buying the painting. Shipping is additional, payment through PayPal.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Kitchen Art

Sometimes one sees objects casually arranged in a way that could be considered "art;" it's often referred to as "found art" and has been around since the days of the early modernists and their pioneering collages. Night before last I was about to steam some sugar snap peas fresh from my garden, and had thrown the strings on a paper towel for easy disposal. Just before picking them up, Herb took a look and remarked that the "arrangement" looked like one of those sea-horses known as a leafy dragon. Believe me, this was not manipulated or planned in any way, the strings and pieces just fell into this pattern, but I rushed upstairs to get my camera and took this shot. Fun, isn't it? Now let me get back to creating some deliberately designed art.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Covey Point Farm

Covey Point Farm, oils on canvas, 14" x 11"

I finally got around to finishing the plein air oil I started in May at the workshop on Covey Point Farm, and here it is. I'll be taking it to Gallery 1683 in Annapolis as soon as it's framed, along with a new painting I'm working on right now for the Red White and Blue show in July. Please visit Gallery 1683, and Riverview Gallery in Havre de Grace too. I'll be up there on Saturday July 12 to gallery-sit.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Golden Wedding Anniversary Party

Zenaida and Higinio Perez at their Golden Wedding Anniversary party

Last week my sister Bea called to tell me my goddaughter Susana had invited us to a party celebrating her mother and father's golden wedding anniversary in Connecticut, where they live. Her mother, Zenaida, was the lady who took care of us when we were children and I still adore her, so of course I couldn't pass up such a special occasion. I rode up with Bea and her husband Sergio on Friday for the surprise party.

Zenaida and Higinio were completely overwhelmed--there were over a hundred people there! It was wonderful to see them and their family: I had not seen some of them since we left Cuba. Wonderful too, to meet the many friends they have made over the 47 years they've lived in Waterbury. Painting will have to wait for another weekend, it was a privilege to attend such a memorable occasion for such dear friends.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Annapolis Secret Garden Tour II - Dorsey House Garden

Dorsey House Garden, oils on canvas, 11" x 14" SOLD

The weather was a little kinder on Sunday and the shady garden of the Dorsey House on Prince George Street (now owned by St. John's College) more spacious; it was easier for me to work here. I set up toward the rear of the garden so I could feature parts of the house in the background surrounded by a variety of colors in the foliage: beautiful large American boxwoods, golden Crytopmeria, silver-edged grasses and dwarf golden bamboo (there were no flowers in this garden).

I started around one o'clock with the painting showing the dappled sunlight under the trees and one docent sitting on a bench. Lots of people trooped by with many positive comments and I managed to give away a number of business cards and gallery brochures. It started getting cloudy around four-thirty, as I was nearly finished. The breeze picked up, a hint of an impending shower, so I began to pack up my gear. I had everything else packed, but couldn't find the top for my turpenoid jar as the first drops fell. One kind docent picked up my painting and held it under her umbrella (bless her heart!) as I frantically searched for the lid. By the time I found it, the rain was coming down hard. We ran out from under the trees in the downpour to take cover at the Harwood-Hammond House, a block around the corner.

The rain passed as quickly as it had started, and I called the gallery, but it being after five, I got only the answering machine--Sandy had closed and gone home. So, I left my gear with the volunteers at the Hammond-Harwood House and walked to the gallery to get my car, then drove back to pick up my things. Another adventure-filled day painting in Annapolis! The painting will be at Gallery 1683 as soon as it's dried and framed. Please stop by to see it in person.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Secret Garden Painting in the Rain

Centennial Park, oils on archival canvas board, 9" x 12," $100

What the well-equipped plein air painter wears

No sooner had I set up my gear in the charming garden of the William Coe House on Duke of Gloucester St. (a historic house dating from 1747, now the Georgian House B & B) than a peal of thunder announced the opening salvo of a series of summer showers. The skies opened up and it poured for the next couple of hours, forcing me and the two volunteer docents to take cover inside. The owners were entertaining a large wedding party from New Zealand at the B & B, so we had to wait it out on the back stairs entry on our feet.

Thankfully, the owners of the home had set up a big umbrella and my painting kit stayed under; since oils don't mix with water, my only concern was that the wooden palette might warp and not slide back in place, but it didn't.

Eventually the rain let up, and I went back out to try to get some painting done, but what with the interruptions, the dull light, puddles and the garden tour folks milling by, it was too distracting. Around five o'clock the sky cleared and the sun came out--I should have waited to start my painting then, the light was wonderful. But I was tired and my painting was too far along to change it, so I packed up and headed for home. I'll rework it later with the aid of my photos to see if anything can be salvaged. I hope to have better luck this afternoon painting at the Dorsey House.

In the meantime, above is the painting I did last weekend at Centennial Park. I like the fisherman--he was there for just about ten minutes, but I think I managed to capture his pose nicely. If you are interested in buying it, please contact me at Shipping cost is additional and I accept PayPal.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Painting at the Secret Garden Tour in Annapolis

Annapolis Secret Garden Tour

(image from last year's Chesapeake Life magazine article)

This coming weekend of May 31-June 1, I'll be in Annapolis, painting in two historic gardens that are part of this year's Secret Garden Tour, organized by the Hammond-Harwood House.

Gallery 1683 arranged for several of us artists to be able to paint in these unique private gardens during the tour. It will be interesting to be "on show", doing my painting while the public troops by. I just hope I can do justice to the gardens and have my paintings turn out well despite the added pressure. I also hope this will generate enough interest in our art so we may sell a few works. Please go on the Secret Garden Tour and stop by Gallery 1683 at 151 Main Street in Annapolis, one block up from City Dock. The gardens should be lovely this time of the year.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

The Clark Farm, oils on archival canvas panel, 9" x 12," $100.

Let's get back to painting. Someone pointed out recently it's funny how I'll travel halfway around the world to paint, but I never paint my own neighborhood. To remedy this, yesterday being a gorgeous day here in Maryland, Susan, a younger artist I'm mentoring, and I went out to paint plein air in my Howard County neighborhood. I'm breaking in a new outdoor painting rig--a Guerrilla paint box and tripod just purchased, that way Susan could use my old Julian easel.

In the morning we painted at Centennial Park by the lake. Susan did a wonderful small painting there but I wasn't happy with mine. In the afternoon, we went across the road to a dead-end street where the Clark Farm spreads out over many acres. This is my favorite place to walk for exercise and inspiration. I love the rolling hills scattered with farm buildings, particularly this barn and silo--they make such a nice focal point for the composition. The fleecy clouds made for a lovely sky.

Next weekend, I'm painting plein air in Annapolis, as part of the Secret Garden Tour. If you are in the vicinity, please come & take the tour so you can visit with me, or stop by Gallery 1683. More details about it in the next post.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Cuban Solidarity Day

Poster designed by Guyla Nemeth, graphic artist from Budapest, Hungary

It's Cuban Solidarity Day today--a day to show our support for the Cuban people, brave Cuban dissidents, political prisoners and their families. The list of prisoners is long; I'm sure there are many more whose cases are not known or classified as such. In Castro's Cuba there are many "crimes" one can be sent to jail for, from "social pre-delinquency" (propensity to commit a crime, but without having actually committed one; this usually means being unemployed after being fired from one's job by the sole employer in the country, i.e. the State--and frequently used to detain dissidents), "illicit hoarding" (economic crimes such as attempting to survive through one's own initiative by making/selling or reselling anything you can find) to more overtly political ones such as "enemy propaganda" (writing the truth about Cuba and publishing it anywhere), and "desacato" (disrespect) to the Comandante (saying or writing "Abajo Fidel" and the like). In short, actions that would not be crimes here anywhere else.

My heart goes out to every Cuban on the prison-island, but especially to the wives--the Damas de Blanco-- the families and particularly the children of political prisoners. These children are deprived of having their fathers or mothers at home (in some cases both father and mother). Some are too young to understand why their parents are imprisoned. In school, they are told by their teachers that their parent is a criminal, a "counterrevolutionary," they are often abused by their fellow students and picked on by their teachers, given poor marks despite high academic achievement.

For these children, infrequently visiting their fathers in a Cuban jail in all its medieval Dantesque horror must be a demoralizing experience. How could anyone be so cruel as to do this to an innocent child? I pray for these children, and their families, that they all won't have to endure these injustices much longer.

My problem is that I don't believe that all the peaceful pressure of an international community will ever persuade Cuba's rulers to abandon power, any more than North Korea's Kim Il Jung. These unrepentant brutes would cheerfully take as many lives as possible before they would cede an inch, so where does that leave us who desire freedom for these lands? Should we aid & abet armed insurrection inside these countries or wait another half century for the horror-movie regimes to fall of their own internal corruption? Will they really disintegrate like the USSR? Cuba is in the process of illustrating that Fidel's demise will do little to dismantle the apparatus of state repression he instituted a half century ago, about the only thing that works in Cuba these days. May God help me to regain the faith that something can be done.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The First Veinte de Mayo

Island (Original painting sold, prints are available in several sizes)

Today May 20, is the 106th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Cuba. It seems there's very little to celebrate after 49 years suffering under the cruelest dictatorship to have castigated our island in its entire bloody history. The Castro regime has turned Cuba into a third-world hell-hole: a daily calvary of struggle for survival, its people impoverished, terrorized, hopeless and broken in spirit, with two million of us exiled, scattered throughout the world. In fact, this date has been largely forgotten in Cuba with the total falsification of history the Castro regime has accomplished, and is not celebrated officially.

But there is much good to remember about our republic-- imperfect as it was, we had managed to achieve a first-world standard of living. By the 1950's Cuban workers enjoyed higher hourly wages than their counterparts in England and all of post-war Europe, we had good sanitation and health care; income and opportunity were much more equitably distributed than today, with the Castro nomenklatura cemented as a new aristrocracy.

What I remember most from my childhood in Cuba is the music everywhere--not the mechanical high-decibel grinding begging-for-tourist-currency I hear in the current videos coming out of Cuba --this was music coming softly from a myriad radios, street vendor chants (the "pregones"), ordinary folks anywhere who spontaneously broke out into snatches of contagious melodies. It was a joy that permeated our lives expressed as music that had made us famous around the world.

To celebrate this date I like to remember my grandfather Pa's story of what he witnessed in Havana on that May 20, 1902. Having fought for three years with the Liberation Army, he was now 22 years old; he traveled from his hometown of Remedios for the express purpose of seeing it. A huge crowd had gathered on the Malecon, which at the time ran only a few blocks beyond the Castillo de la Punta on Havana's north coast (thank you, General Leonard Wood and the American military forces who built that first stretch of the Malecon!)

A few minutes before noon, the American flag which had been flying over the Morro for four years, began to be taken down, and the Cuban flag, with "la estrella solitaria" (the lone star) began to rise. At the stroke of noon, the light breeze took hold of our flag and unfurled it, while the cannon resounded, causing the crowd to break out in wild cheering. It was the fulfillment of an ideal we had been fighting for nearly a century. Cuba was now officially and in fact, a democratic republic with a constitution modeled on that of the U.S. The partying went on for days!

My paternal grandfather, Juan Jose Maza y Artola, a lawyer from a well-to-do family, was one of the delegates to that first Constitutional Assembly of 1898 and took an active part in writing the first Cuban Constitution. He would go on to be elected to the Lower Chamber as Representative from Havana, and later serve as Senator from Havana until 1925, when he resigned to make an unsuccessful run for the Presidency. I wish I'd had the honor of knowing him, I bet he would have had some stories to tell. Unfortunately, he died about seven years before I was born, so I didn't get the chance.

Our first republic was forged out of much human sacrifice. Now after another nearly half a century of suffering the Castro dictatorship, with so much sacrificed by valiant men and women, entire families, I can only hope all of us can unite to bring forth a new Cuban republic, applying the lessons of the unhappy present to create a democratic state with true freedom for all.

Monday, May 19, 2008

May 21 is Cuba Solidarity Day

I imagine the date for Cuba Solidarity Day was chosen because it's preceded by two important dates in Cuban history this week. I am joining this world-wide day of support for the cause of liberty for Cuba and its political prisoners by sharing family stories that tie us to Cuba and the cause of freedom.

On this day, May 19, we commemorate the 113 th anniversary of the death of Jose Marti, known to Cubans as "The Apostle of Liberty." For those who do not know Cuban history, on this day Marti was wounded in a minor skirmish with the Spaniards near Dos Rios, a small village in Oriente, in the eastern part of Cuba, and died hours later as a result of his wounds. Marti had spearheaded this last Cuban Independence movement and was its undisputed leader--his loss was a harsh blow for the new military campaign for independence from Spain that had just begun in February of 1895.

My maternal grandfather, Othon Caturla, who was quite a character, had a number of fascinating stories to tell. Pa, as my sisters and I fondly called him, liked to relate how when the news of Marti's death made its way to his home town of Remedios in Las Villas (as the central province was called before Castro changed its name), the immediate reaction from all the young men in the town was to want to join the liberation army of Cuban fighters in the countryside. Marti would not die in vain, his death would be avenged by freedom!

Othon was a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday, so he and his older brother Marcelo agreed to wait until he had turned fifteen before joining up. They made their arrangements through the widow of Urrutia (mother of the man who would later have the singular honor of being interim President of Cuba for six months in 1959 after Castro's take-over), and she put them in touch with conspirators who had ties to the troops. Many of the conspirators were women, brave and willing to sacrifice along with their men.

In late July, Othon and his brother boarded a train to a near-by town, then got off at one of the intermediate stops, where they were met by someone who led them to a safe house. From there they rode on horseback to meet General Carrillo's men. Together the Caturla brothers would survive as part of Carrillo's troops for three years, until the Americans joined the fight and beat Spain in a scant three months of the Spanish-American War.

This photo, published in a Collier's Magazine issue in May of 1898, shows General Carrillo (on chair) and his senior staff: my grandpa is the skinny lad seated first from the left, still too young to grow a beard. What an impoverished troop they appear, and yet these men were tough: they hung on valiantly for three years, fighting the better-equipped Spanish army with little more than machetes and sticks. The photo was taken by an intrepid American journalist, James Ware, who had been sent on an expedition to meet with General Maximo Gomez, Commander-in Chief of the Republic in Arms.

Ware's story makes for amazing reading from start to finish: his ship running aground attempting to run the Spanish blockade, losing all of his gear to save his heavy camera from the surf, making his way through the Cuban "manigua" (the bush) from Cardenas out to Oriente to find Gomez. His photo was reproduced in the 1950's in El Diario de la Marina, one of the leading newspapers in the Havana of my childhood, and my mother recognized her father in the photo. Otherwise, I would not have known the original source. Many years later in exile, I was able to take this photograph from an original issue of the magazine at the Library of Congress.

I have confidence that today's dissidents and political prisoners are every bit as tough and determined as my grandfather's generation to bring freedom once again to our beloved island. I salute each and every one of them with heartfelt thanks for their brave example. Let us all work until we have once again a Cuba Libre!