The Cuba Journals December 2011 Part 1

This is the first of several entries I will be posting in the coming weeks detailing my recent art mission to Cuba. These entries are copied from my journal that I wrote in while I was down there.

Crumbling Walls In Cuba.

My Cuba Journal. December, 2011    ©  Justin Thompson

    This blog may offend some. Cuban families who were devastated and whose homes were taken from them in Castro’s takeover in 1959 will likely not find much warmth in the words of my journal. There’s nothing I can do about that and if it does offend then I soberly apologize. I neither set out here to praise the governing body of Cuba or the United States embargo, and bitter expatriated Cubans should probably read no further. While I respect your frustration, I cannot adopt a passion of which I have no personal wound. Other Americans who have no personal or familial interests in Cuba and have adopted a shallow angry bias based on political rhetoric, partisan lockstep and uneducated platitudes, I could not care less what you think. You have to be there to know something of what it’s like.

  A little shy of two years ago, I first went to Havana Cuba with a group of American cartoonists on an arts and cultural exchange tour. Our group was put together then by Jeanne Schulz, widow of the greatest American cartoonist of all time: Charles M. Schulz. Among the wonderful places and people we encountered at that time was a poor art community named Muraleando, in a poorer area of the inner city of Havana. Noting all of the many murals we saw all over the community, several by guest artists from around the world, it was embarrassing to see that there was nothing from the United States. Not one U.S. artist to be seen. I turned to Jeannie and mentioned this and said, “Wouldn’t it be a kick if the first American mural ever to be here was of Snoopy?”

She liked the idea, and after about a year of reminders and gentle badgering from myself we finally got the OK to do it. I was to join a group and go there and spend the week in Muraleando, painting a Snoopy mural expressing our friendship and respect for the people of this incredible artistic community.

These are my journal entries of that week.

Arrival.  Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011

 There has been much change in Havana since I was here two years ago, most notably the lack of dog crap everywhere. My only real complaint about this place then was that it smelled of dog feces in Old Havana and you really had to watch your step. It was everywhere you stepped but now it’s all but gone. Many more streets and walls in the Old Havana area have been restored and beautified, especially the large plaza areas. Tourism has paid for most of the restorations and it’s on the rise. Mostly from Europe as I understand.

Getting here is always the hardest part. Changing planes, the long layovers and it seems that we’re always schlepping ourselves to the farthest possible end of the airports. Normally I wouldn’t mind that much but my knees are shot. A week after I return I will be having my first knee replacement with the other to follow next year. This was all much easier than the last time we came here. This time we flew from San Francisco to Miami and then caught a charter over to Havana. Two years ago we flew from San Francisco to Houston, changed planes to Cozumel, then took another plane to Havana. That’s another change that’s been implemented since two years ago there are now direct flights from the U.S. to Cuba. But I didn’t have bad knees and a suitcase full of paint to lug around with me back then.

I have been charged with- to me at least- a sacred task. Paint two murals of Snoopy and Woodstock in Muraleando, and make ‘em look good. Not some elaborate, colorful, and ornate impression of Snoopy (which might have fit better among all of the lovely murals there), but an accurate depiction, true to the Schulz style; simple, charming, and elegant. As I understand it, no artist from the United States has been allowed to paint a mural in Cuba so I feel a lot of pressure to get this right.

So here I came to Havana today, banging and clanging my poor, beaten, suitcase full of cans of paint down the cobblestone streets of old Havana. I’m here everyone, sorry about the noise.

How this came about

   Recapping the origin, on my last trip here I was with a group of artists and cartoonists and we visited Muraleando. Jeannie Schulz was with us, actually she had invited me to come along. So while we were admiring the art and murals of this community (as I wrote in the introduction up there) I put the bug in Jeannie’s ear that it would be really cool if the first painting here from the United States was a painting of Snoopy. She smiled and likely just thought I was being nice but I really meant it. Who better to plant a flag of goodwill and friendship than Snoopy? No one!

I thought this would be an idea well received by the main people of this community, artists themselves, who are so incredibly friendly, open, and welcoming. They have great pride in this community that they have beautified.

I kept the idea alive with Jeannie over the following year and she finally realized that I was serious and would be very honored to do the painting myself. It was an important statement for us to have Snoopy there, not for any commercial reason at all. If the people of Muraleando felt that this was in any way a commercial venture, they wouldn’t have allowed it. But they understand what Snoopy is and what he represents. They loved the idea. Snoopy is an international symbol of friendship, fun, and boundless imagination and goodwill. Perfect for this place at this time.

When the opportunity arose to go on another tour to Cuba, we organized it, Jeannie paid for it, and that’s why I’m here.

After getting settled in my room at the Ambos Mundos hotel, I felt like wandering around. Everyone else in the group had crashed or took off, so alone I went. It was Saturday night and the streets of Old Havana were bright and vibrating with music and life. I walked down the street to take it all in, and stopped to watch a lovely couple samba dancing in the lobby of a hotel. I arrived at the Floridita bar at the end of the street and took a seat at the bar and pulled out this journal and began to write. Here I am right now, drinking a mojito and listening to a live quartet of beautiful Cuban ladies singing a song about Che Guevara.

It’s so good to be back here. I relax into it and let it all flow into me. It’s going to be a beautiful week.

Day One. Dec. 4th, 2011

I arrived at Manolo’s home by taxi this Sunday morning at around 10:30. Manolo is the community organizer of the project and generally… da’ man. He is medium height and build, with a cherubic almost constantly smiling face and reminds me a little bit of  George Foreman in that way. After a good half hour of welcome-backs, hugs, and re-acquaintances with his wife Maira and our friend Mario, a DJ and rapper friend of ours in the community who speaks pretty good English, we went to the 8 and a half ft. by 16 ft. high blank wall space.

The bus stop in Muraleando and the empty place where Snoopy and Woodstock will be.

I dragged my noisy old suitcase full of paint and brushes and got to work. That suitcase by the way is a hard shell, light yellow color, with Snoopy as the WW1 flying ace painted on the side. It’s a good old suitcase and I’ve had it for years. We’ve been to Japan many times together and I’m very fond of it. It has a smart Snoopy repeat pattern on the inside black interior and it’s in great shape except for a crack in the outside shell in the corner due to some ninja baggage handler at Narita airport in Tokyo. But it’s a familiar travel buddy and really easy to spot turning stupidly in any airport baggage carousel.

I unpacked the case inside the small rotunda of the brand new Cultural Arts Center that they have created this past year out of an old cement water tank that was sitting here on a mound of discarded dirt and garbage and merely going to waste the last time I saw it. I unwrapped the many tabloid sized pages of Bristol and regular paper I had prepared and numbered as stencils to help me get the exact image up on the walls. This painting had to be as accurate as possible, as if Charles Schulz himself had painted the image there.

Damn, this mojito is good. No wonder Hemingway loved this place. By the way, I’m writing all of this in my journal right now at the bar in the Floridita bar, across from the life size statue of Hemingway there in the corner. Cheers, Papa.

I could never reproduce an accurate Snoopy freehand, especially at this scale, and this is a one shot in a lifetime chance. A free-throw in a tied championship game with one second left. A first step on the moon- better get the damn words right- moment. Well, it is just a mural I know, but it’s really important to me that I get it right. I’m feeling the pressure ‘as-if’.

With the immeasurable help of my newest best buddy Mario (the rapper), I was able to draw the entire image onto the wall today. I had cut twenty stencils out of 11” x 17” Bristol board with an X-acto knife of Woodstock and Snoopy and for the nest, the little tree, the grass, and Snoopy’s doghouse I had printed on these sections of regular paper on the laser printer.

I traced the lines with the Bristol stencils and with the regular paper I just covered the back with a graphite crayon and did the old rub-on technique. All of these pages are numbered so that I wouldn’t get anything mixed up. This preparation took about three weeks to figure out, pin down, and get just right. I carefully placed the numbered papers in their proper places, lining up hash-marks that I had-

Holy crap! A group of four Japanese tourists just came into the bar and started taking pictures of the Hemingway statue there in the corner, and I just impulsively said, “Yokoso!” ‘Welcome’ in Japanese. They started talking with me. They were touring Havana from Tokyo and were so shocked (I suppose, they seemed so) that some blondish white guy in a bar in Havana was speaking Japanese to them that they took my picture with Kumiko, one of the ladies of the group. Life can get weird as hell.

 Anyway, after tracing all the lines in ballpoint Bic pen,  I was done for the day. I had pre-arranged for the taxi to pick me up at Manolo’s home at Five, so at Four O’clock Manolo came over and told me I was done for the day and to bring me over to his house for dinner. And-

Wow, now I just finished talking with a lovely couple who were on vacation from Bath, England. I started to think that maybe a high profile bar might not be the greatest place to be while I write this journal, but no. It’s the best place because I’m meeting and talking with people from all over the world! This is the best!

Now the all girl quartet from last night has returned. One is playing a huge standup bass, another is on a keyboard like Laurie Partridge used to play on the show, one is scratching some kind of ribbed gourd, and the singer, who looks like Diana Ross if she ate a turkey burger, is singing Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’. You haven’t heard ‘Crazy’ until you’ve heard a curvy, caliente, Cubana sing,“Cray-seee…”

O.K. I’m back. That was a great conversation they were very nice people. I really must visit Bath, England someday.

Where was I? Oh, dinner, yes. Oh man, I had a home-cooked Cuban meal! Oh my gosh, it was amazing. Juicy, pressure-cooked sliced chicken breasts, sweet potato fries, black beans and rice, and a salad with green beans, olives, tomatoes, and dark green lettuce. Everything tastes richer and more profound in other countries to me, nothing is fake, no chemicals and additives just simple, real, and fantastic with some stunning Cuban espresso to finish it all off.

Mario (L) and Manolo (R) in conversation after our fabulous dinner.

With the old suitcase stowed and locked up safely away in the Community Arts Center, my first day of work on the mural was done. The taxi was prompt at five PM and I went back to the hotel and showered. My knees were hurting already, I’m not used to standing like that all day. The arthritis is very advanced in both of them and occasionally I have trouble walking, but really only when it gets cold and rainy. Not much chance of that here in sunny and warm Havana.

I got bored around seven thirty and walked out onto the streets to wander around some more because the knees weren’t hurting all that bad after the shower and I was still too super-excited to be here and doing what I’m doing to worry about it. After about 6 or 7 long blocks I saw the sign for the Floridita bar again and knew where my night was going to end up.

I’ll finish this last ‘Crystal Cerveza and I’m done. Big day tomorrow, actual painting!


Part 2 will be coming soon!


8 Responses to “The Cuba Journals December 2011 Part 1”

  1. BonnaMettie Says:

    For some reason, this brings to mind an old Barbara Walters interview with Fidel Castro and her surprise that he didn’t fit into the ‘monster’ stereotype that she assumed he would.
    Sounds like you had a great time and we can take pride in how well we are represented.

  2. mythtickle Says:

    Thanks Bonna.

  3. Justin Thompson goes to Cuba The Daily Cartoonist Says:

    […] read Part 1 and then Part […]

  4. papaspoint Says:

    Jealous! Maybe on your next trip you’ll need a “body guard”
    … ME! Heading to part 2…

  5. Read Boody’s Blog!! (Mythickle) « Papa's Point Says:

    […] Fast forward some 25 years; JT is married with kids, and an artist at Charles Schulz Studios. His job takes him to Japan and in the last couple years, via an artistic mission, Cuba. Thankfully, he wrote a journal during his art-mission in Cuba this past December. Here is the link to his Cuba Gooding Journal (that just flowed out… I wish it didn’t)… THE CUBA JOURNALS […]

  6. Charles M. Schulz Museum | Snoopy goes to Cuba Says:

    […] If you have been reading my blog since its infancy, you may remember the trip that sparked its first entry, a trip to Cuba. So it was very exciting when Justin Thompson, who was on that original trip, wanted there to be a representation of Snoopy in the everyday life of Cubans. To accomplish this, he returned to Cuba and painted a mural on a wall in Muraleando. Read more about it here. […]

  7. Laura Howard Says:

    I visited Muraleando in December 2012 (just a few weeks ago) with a tour from Global Exchange. The mural of Snoopy is beautiful and it was such a nice surprise to see it! We met Mario and some other members of the community and were impressed with the wonderful spirit of everyone we encoutered. Thanks for sending Snoopy as an ambassador of goodwill.

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