Students Bring Sights & Sounds of Cuba to Whaling Museum

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On Tuesday, May 3, Pierson High School students Eleanor Byrne and Sinead Murray work on a mural inspired by their trip to Cuba that will be displayed as part of a show of artwork at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday. Michael Heller photos.
On Tuesday, May 3, Pierson High School students Eleanor Byrne and Sinead Murray work on a mural inspired by their trip to Cuba that will be displayed as part of a show of artwork at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Saturday. Michael Heller photos.

By Douglas Feiden

The creative process of art-making — especially collaborative art, and particularly art that is the brainchild of a group of free-spirited students and teachers at Pierson High School — can be inspiring and uplifting. But at times, it can be a tad messy, too.

Pierson High School senior Max Micallef works on a mural inspired by his class trip to Cuba.
Pierson High School senior Max Micallef works on a mural inspired by his class trip to Cuba.

As they worked on the final preparations for “Cuba: An Exhibition of Art and Photography,” a Pierson project that debuts at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum on Saturday, May 7, the focus of the young artists gathered in the second-floor classroom turned to a mixed-media mural based on composite images of photos they had taken during a February trip to the island nation.

Art teacher Peter Solow watched closely as sophomore Sinead Murray, gingerly holding a blue paintbrush, dabbed a few strokes on the 11-foot-wide by 7-foot-tall mural. He shook his head: “You’ve got some streaks in there!” he kvetched. Her dark blues should have been a little lighter, even as her light blues should have been a little darker, he complained.

Sinead, who was painting a Havana street scene, was unimpressed by her teacher’s critique. “You sound just like my mother when I’m cleaning the windows,” she laughed.

Mr. Solow shrugged and smiled, as Spanish teacher Toby Marienfeld, who had been eyeing the exchange with bemusement, said, “Yes, he can be a little bit of a micro-manager!”

Thus was the tension broken on Tuesday as Pierson students painstakingly labored over the mural, which contains multiple photographic images — a beret-wearing Che Guevara poster, a Havana seawall enlivened with graffiti of the word “REVOLUCIÓN,” a Cuban flag painted on a doorway, a restaurant signpost, a little girl embroidering — that had been inlaid, one on top of another, using the school’s large-format digital printer.

“It’s a very colorful mural that’s designed to express the culture of Cuba,” said sophomore Eleanor Byrne.

The museum exhibition, which runs through May 15, kicks off on Saturday at 4 p.m. with a panel discussion with 10 of the 26 students who traveled to Cuba for a week-long extracurricular field trip that was sanctioned but not sponsored by the Sag Harbor Board of Education

“They’ll talk about the experience, what surprised them the most, and they’ll share it all with the community,” said Mr. Solow, who helped organize and chaperone the tour with Ms. Marienfeld.

After the discussion, moderated by Bryan Boyhan, publisher emeritus of The Sag Harbor Express, there will be a 6 p.m. opening reception in which visitors can explore the sensory worlds of Cuban music, dance, art, culture and cuisine — not to mention coupling and cigar-smoking — as photographed by the students.

Capturing thousands of impressions garnered by students, some 20 photos will be on display.

And by design, the political subtext will be tough to ignore: On a plywood board, senior Max Micallef crafted side-by-side U.S. and Cuban flags, alongside which are placed diverging opinions on the trade embargo in quotations from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, against a red backdrop, and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, imprinted on a blue base.

Max has his own opinion on the issue. “It should be lifted, once and for all,” he says. “It’s based on fear and ignorance from an older generation of politicians, not actual facts.”

No one can possibly sojourn through Cuba without being stirred by its music, students said, and indeed, they were exposed to a range of island sounds including Afro-Cuban, samba, salsa, rumba, mambo and cha-cha.

Upon their return, they resolved to put together a band to play the rhythms they learned and introduce them to the East End, and so was born Pierson’s Cuban Clave Club. Now, it’s poised to bow at the museum at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“We want to show everybody what we learned and what we brought back from Cuba,” said freshman Emily Hallock.

They’ll be playing percussion instruments like the clave, the short, thick wooden sticks that make a clicking, clacking sound when struck, and the chekeré, the dried gourd with attached beads that creates melodies when shaken.

Don’t expect a word-class performance when the claves ring out. A little “divine intervention” wouldn’t hurt, Mr. Solow said. But concert quality isn’t the point: “This wasn’t something the teachers told them to do. They took the initiative on their own to put together this musical group. And that says a lot.”

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