A group of 10 undergraduate and graduate SVA students spent their spring break this year in a place many only dream of visiting: Havana, Cuba. And though the weather was surely warm enough for the beach, they weren’t there to get a tan. Under the guidance of the artists in residence at Cuba’s Taller Experimental de Gráfica and Gunars Prande, director of SVA’s printmaking facilities, the students spent the first week in March undertaking an intensive study of the art and process of lithography and relief printing, through SVA’s Arts Abroad program Printmaking in Havana.
Travel between the U.S. and Cuba has long been notoriously difficult, given the American government’s ongoing embargo against the Latin American country, started in 1960 in response to Cuba’s communist revolution. However, under President Obama, these restrictions have eased, providing an opening that SVA had long been planning for. Since 2003—at the suggestion of Walter Rivera, a member of the College’s Board of Directors and town justice of Greenburgh, New York—SVA has been exploring potential partnerships with Cuban art institutes. Why? Because, says Javier Vega, executive director of Admissions and Student Affairs, “If we can do this in Cuba, it sends a message about our commitment to building relationships in Latin America.” In 2004, SVA initiated a multi-year collaboration with the Taller—considered Cuba’s premier printmaking facility—that resulted in the exhibition “Date with the Angels,” which was shown at the College in 2009. The project was so successful that, when an SVA delegation including Rivera, Vega and Prande headed back to Havana in 2012, “the artists [at the Taller] welcomed us with open arms,” Prande says.
“It was the ultimate classroom,” says MFA Interaction Design student Meghan Lazier, who attended the program at the Taller this year. “The artists who practice there are also professors at local universities, and they were more than happy to talk and share and let you peek over their shoulder while they worked.” A novice printmaker but seasoned traveler—she has worked in Afghanistan and taught English through the Fulbright program in Hong Kong—Lazier enrolled in the program both to try her hand at the various mediums (she liked woodcut best) and to take advantage of the rare chance to visit Cuba. Neither aspect of the trip disappointed her. “It was incredible,” she says, citing an off-hours trip to a Havana Industriales baseball playoff game as a special highlight. “I’m from Chicago and grew up going to baseball games, so it was a great cultural comparison—all the details like what kind of snacks were served, who was sitting where, what technology was being used.”
“The youngest printmaking press [at the Taller] was from the 1930s,” says Dora Riomayor, director of international programs and BFA Fine Arts academic adviser, who served as a trip coordinator (and ad hoc translator) this year. “There were others from the 1800s, even the 1700s.” Of course, given that the general mechanics of lithography and relief printing have changed little over the years, the age of the equipment mattered less than the abilities of the artists and their apprentices, which were exceptional—so much so that Riomayor says that Arts Abroad “absolutely” intends to offer the program again next year.
By then, with any luck, it will have company. Rivera, Vega and John McIntosh— chair of BFA Computer Art, Computer Animation and Visual Effects—were also along for the trip, and spent much of the week discussing possible future programs and partnerships with representatives of renowned Cuban schools like the Instituto Superior de Artes and the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television.
“It’s not just about enrollment,” Vega says of the effort. “It’s about a meaningful exchange of creativity, technology and ideas.”