Cuba on the Cusp

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Karen Bubb pattered into the kitchen of her Boise art studio where scores of brightly colored paintings, each about the size of a linoleum tile, covered two walls. She turned to a short pile of photos on a table in the corner that slid and tumbled as she sifted through them for an interior snapshot of the Museo Municipal de Regla in Havana, Cuba, which houses relics of the Santeria religion.

"We were being let in on something we would not normally experience," Bubb said of her nine-day trip to Cuba, in December 2012.

Bubb is a Jane-of-all-trades. She's the public arts manager for the Boise City Department of Arts and History and an adjunct professor at Boise State University's College of Business and Economics. But standing amid the calculated mess in her studio, Bubb was an artist preparing to open a solo exhibition in the Gallery at the Linen Building. All of the pieces in her show, Cuba on the Cusp, even the clearly abstract ones, were reproduced from the mound of photos taken during her trip.

"My job in public art has informed how I see place. I'm interested in how people inhabit place," Bubb said.

On the tarmac in Florida, Bubb took a seat on the small plane next to Cuban drummer Yoel del Sol, who performs with Yanni and was returning to the island to see family and jam with fellow musicians.

"Within 10 minutes, we were old friends," Bubb said.

During her stay, Bubb spent time in Old Havana, visited an organic farm and the Malecon--the stone bulwark that marks the line between land and sea, where Havanans fish, stroll and nap. She ate at restaurants housed in people's apartments and visited museums. Everywhere there was dancing and music with lively percussion and guitars.

The result of Bubb's trip is a series depicting a place and people dwelling in a society scarcely updated, materially, since the 1959 overthrow of the Batista regime: midcentury Chevrolets, elegantly decaying Spanish colonial architecture with rusting wrought-iron fences, hanging laundry and public art.

"Things have an age to them and a sense of meaning. It was aged opulence," Bubb said.

But Bubb's subjects offer a dynamism that belies the trapped-in-time feel of the island. The people who populate her paintings dance, sing and work--always as though they've been caught mid-performance. In a short sub-series of paintings, a group of children and the elderly perform in a Christmas pageant. In another, cocks strut through unkempt grass.

Bubb's medium is encaustic painting, a process by which melted wax with added pigments is applied to a wood surface. After adding the wax, she etched lines to add definition and dimension to her subjects.

The effect is a series of paintings imbued with warmth, luminescence and a thickness to match Cuba's atmosphere. The etched lines provide a jittery sense of motion, like waves of light emanating from hot pavement.

"The physicality of the wax is very specific," she said.

Though the trip was financed in part by Miriam "Mimi" Lawrence, the matriarch of a family Bubb nannied for and befriended when she was 17 years old, Bubb also sold as-yet-unpainted works to pay for art supplies upon her return. Bubb sold 50 pieces ahead of the opening, July 14.

"I was impressed with the creative nature of how she was going about putting [the trip] together," said David Hale, administrator for the Linen Building and executive chair of the Boise City Department of Arts and History.

Over the more than five years Hale and Bubb have worked together, Hale said they've earned each other's esteem and become familiar with the other's style. That's why Hale agreed to put up an exhibition of Bubb's work sight unseen.

"I'm very comfortable with the work Karen produces. I knew what the end product would end up being: professional," he said.

The profusion of themes, objects and people in Cuba on the Cusp suggest a sense of place that's rich in cultural activity.

"Understanding Cuba is like drinking from a fire hose," said Chuck Smith, an educator and member of the Boise Jazz Society, who was in Cuba concurrently with Bubb.

Smith went to Cuba for the jazz and to see the island "as close to as it was" before what he says is inevitable economic and political change. He also attended the Havana International Jazz Festival, where many of Smith's Afro-Cuban musical heroes performed, and researched music education in a country he says has a disproportionate number of talented musicians.

"Performing arts jazz is a way for [Cubans] to push back against the politics," Smith said.

Though Smith and Bubb met in Cuba only occasionally, they will deliver a joint discussion of their travels at the Gallery at the Linen Building Tuesday, Aug. 6, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Smith said he will likely discuss his reactions to and observations of the trip while playing some recorded examples of Cuban music, including the "charanga" style, Buena Vista Social Club, jazz and be-bop.

Like Smith, Bubb created Cuba on the Cusp as a way to preserve a vision of Cuba on the verge of dramatic change. Her works respond to a way of life that has been relatively unmoved by new technologies and global culture.

"We could see how Cuba was changing, but it's just the beginning. This is a very finite moment in history," Bubb said.

It might not be a moment trapped in amber, but at the Linen Building, Boise can see it captured in wax.

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