Few Americans think of Cuba as a paradise for artists.
But Kelvin Lopez Nieves, whose artwork is currently part of Rider’s “Printmaking in Cuba Today” exhibit, speaks gratefully about advantages he received while growing up after the Cuban Revolution.
“Cuba is a special country where we don’t have to pay bills,” Nieves told students in a journalism class. “Education and health were free for everyone once Fidel Castro was in power. Most families own their homes.”
Nieves also said he is able to express himself politically in any way he chooses. Both he and Marilyn Sampera Rosado, who curated the current art gallery exhibit, spoke highly about the freedom and privileges of being an artist in the socialist country. (They prefer “socialist” to “communist,” the word used by exiles.)
When Nieves works, he overlaps multiple projects, creating pieces for various “series” at the same time. These series include techniques involving rubber stamps and collages and subjects like Cuban cigars and landscapes.
“We are just storytellers,” he said. “This is my life, and I just want to communicate to people through the lens of art.”
When asked about what inspires him to do certain pieces, his response was thoughtful. “I like to read and see movies, and for me, I usually try to make a translation of my life through the lenses of the visual arts,” he said. “I always try to translate my life into art.”
Education in Cuba is significantly different than in the United States.
It was made a priority in Cuba, and once students declare an interest, they need to complete a test to determine whether they can pursue their passions. For Nieves and Rosado, the passion was all about art.
“The education has a three-level system for students,” said Nieves. “The first level starts as an interview, in which you showcase your abilities. The second level is four years in a different city. The third level lasts five years, and only 15 people are chosen. At this stage there are more professors than there are students.”
Rosado’s education was very similar, but she followed a different path to further her career. At 5 years old, based on her behavior in what the United States would call preschool, Rosado applied to the best school in the capital, Havana. However, because she had not received marks good enough to become an artist, she pursued chemistry for a time. “But I was a very good student,” she said. “And once I had high enough grades, I could switch to whatever I wanted.”
Her further education in art led to her position as curator of the Center for the Development of Visual Arts in Havana.
“We were displaying our art ever since we were very young,” she said. “We got to travel with famous artists and sometimes display our work with theirs.”
Cuba suffered after the Soviet Union, its main supporter, collapsed in 1989. But since Raúl Castro took over for his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006, positive changes in civil society have taken place. Private businesses, such as restaurants, rental homes, bars and cafeterias, are allowed, Nieves said. Cubans may travel outside of Cuba. National tourism, cell phone lines and large-scale foreign investment are appearing. “All of these measures of change were unthinkable during the previous term of his brother,” stated Nieves.
He also said that his rent and art supplies are paid for by the government. By not having the unwanted pressures of needing to sell paintings in order to live comfortably, Nieves has the freedom to create what he pleases and then do what he pleases, to sell and/or display those creations.
“I have traveled to America multiple times despite the embargo,” said Nieves. “Artists have many freedoms. We are able to obtain free supplies and travel the world to gain experience.”
Nieves and Rosado each travel to the United States about four times a year to showcase their artwork, selling some of their pieces and inspiring people with their stories of their careers.
After years of free schooling, and countless opportunities from local and international galleries, Nieves is living his dream of being the best artist he can be.
“I am an artist, like you are possibly a journalist,” he told the students. “This is my life. Every day is like a new empty canvas for me.”
-Deirdre Carroll, junior communication studies major
-Josettee Spencer, sophomore graphic design major
-Jessie Wallace, freshman communication studies major
Printed in the 02/18/15 issue.