This past February, 26 Pierson High School students traveled to Cuba as part of an educational tour. The visit was made possible thanks to the recent lifting of sanctions against the Caribbean island nation by President Barack Obama.
On Saturday, May 7th, The Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum will present the first exhibit of its season, Cuba!, which explores the group’s experience in the mysterious country.
“We signed up for this exhibit a while ago,” said Peter Solow, an art teacher at Pierson High School, who chaperoned the trip and curated the exhibit. “They [The Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum] jumped on the idea because they thought it was such a cool idea.” The students were tasked with creating prints, mixed media pieces, and other works that were related to their trip.
When we spoke to Solow a few days before the exhibit opens, the students were still putting the finishing touches on their artwork and he was still working on the show’s curation. “As is our norm, we haven’t completely made the selection process. We’re trying to represent as many kids as possible,” he noted. “We have some really extraordinary photography and some really wonderful stuff. We’re trying to put the best work in that we can and at the same time get a cross-section of the kids so everybody’s represented who wanted to contribute.” The exhibition will also include journal entries and photography.
One of the things that really stood out to the students was the country’s music. “The kids, when they were in Cuba, were very excited by the music that they heard,” he noted. “There was actually music everywhere.” The group even took a music lesson while they were in Cuba. “When they came back they said they wanted to start a group and play some of the music that they heard,” said Solow. “We were able to get this really famous percussionist named Bobby Sanabria to come out from the Bronx. He’s a 7-time Grammy nominated percussionist and he did a workshop with the kids.” Sanabria is returning to the East End for the exhibit’s opening, where he will perform alongside the students, and maybe even give a brief demonstration afterwards.
“The music component of the project is something that they really took the lead on,” Solow said. “Very few of the kids are actual music students. That was sort of exciting that they had so much interest in it.” The teacher had high hopes for the students in his class that created works for the show. “Some of the students on the trip are in my advanced photography class, so my expectation of the work that they would do is pretty high,” he explained. The trip also led to a collaborative piece. “We have a big mural that we created which is a composite of different photographs, printed on a large format digital printer and then painted back in,” he said. “That was sort of a group project, which is not something they do often. Most of the work that we do in the arts program here is individual pieces.” And several students will showcase their solo strengths. “We have one of the kids, who is in a printmaking class at school, is doing a series of prints about Cuba, and has been working on that for a while,” he noted. “Another one of our students is building a large mixed media piece.” Overall Solow has been impressed with the budding artists. “So, with the kids that are engaged and participating, their efforts have been pretty solid,” he said. “They’ve been staying after school working on their artwork and practicing music.”
When asked how the students responded to the foreign country, he told us “Quite frankly it’s complicated. Different students reacted in different ways.” It was definitely an eye opening experience for those who visited Cuba. “It was a tremendously different experience than living on the East End of Long Island,” he said. “One of the things that I hope in the panel discussion is that people will see the students are not of one mind of what they experienced, and the students picked out points that they thought were particularly interesting or noteworthy.” The trip exposed both the positives and the negatives. “The people in Cuba are extraordinarily warm and friendly and kind and generous. The society is filled with music and art,” Solow said. “And, it’s also a third world country. It’s filled with contradictions.” While the country’s literacy rate is impressive, Cuba has limited access to many essentials. “They have one of the highest literacy rates in the world and they have universal health care,” he noted. On the flip side, Cubans have a very limited budget. “They have a per capita income per month of $20. They have shortages of everything you can imagine,” he explained. “And they have this Communist government, which is very restricting in many ways. You have a place that’s totally, totally filled with all kinds of contradictions.” Another big adjustment was access to clean water. “There’s no portable water, you have to drink water out of bottles,” he explained. “Getting back to the $20 thing, that’s what some of the kids make an hour babysitting, and this is what somebody makes as a monthly wage.”
“There’s a culture shock going on for more than one reason,” he said. “And, the other thing is that it’s a mysterious place because they’ve been cut off from us and we’ve been cut off from them for such a long time that we really didn’t know what to expect. So it was an adventure.”
An Opening Reception for Cuba, with Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria, will take place on Saturday, May 7th from 6 to 8 p.m. A Panel Discussion, Reflections on the Cuban Experience, moderated by Bryan Boyhan, will be held on Saturday, May 7th from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
“I hope that we have a really big turnout. I think it’s going to be a very interesting show,” added Solow. “It’s a good way to start off the season.”
Cuba! will be on view through Sunday, May 15th.
The Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum is located at 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call or visit www.sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.