ARTIST GEMMA O'BRIEN SHOWS US HOW TO TRAVEL TO CUBA
We like to feature members' adventures since the freedom to travel is one of the many luxuries for freelancers in the WNW community. WNW Member Gemma O'Brien was the first we've come across who has traveled to Cuba. So we reached out to learn about the logistics of traveling to Cuba, to find out what the creative scene is like, and to get a preview of what's to come now that Gemma's packing new inspiration: "I have a folder of reference photos I took on the trip that I am waiting to integrate into a piece; there's a wealth of inspiration in the textures, colour and signage from Cuba. As someone who is always drawn back to the boldness of working in black and white, Cuba reinvigorated the power of colour for me and I think that will be the biggest influence on the work I make over the next year."
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Gemma and how did she get here?
Sure! My name is Gemma, I’m 29 going on 30, I’m a Gemini, and I work as a designer/artist in Sydney, Australia. My specialty is lettering, illustration and typographic murals. My creative path began when I dropped out of Law School at age 19 and made the switch to Design. After I graduated from art school I worked in a couple of post-production studios before taking the leap and going out on my own to focus on typography and illustration in 2012. Now, my time is split between working in my studio in Redfern and travelling the world to speak at design conferences, teach lettering workshops and generally have a good time
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links all of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project differently?
I like to think the common thread in my work is text, words, and language. Beyond the constraints of working with the alphabet, I like to explore a wide variety of visual forms – from detailed drawing to loose calligraphic brush work. I tend to get bored easily so I need to keep my style fluid to stay interested.
The freedom to travel both for business and pleasure is one of the many luxuries of freelancing. How did you end up setting your sights on Cuba?
Cuba came about because I had some free time between two international conferences – the AIGA conference in Vegas and Brief Festival in Madrid. It would have been crazy to fly all the way back to Australia, so my fellow jet-setting friend, Frankie Ratford (Founder of The Design Kids), suggested we go to Cuba!
A lot of artists have an interest in visiting Cuba. Can you share a little insight into the process and logistics of traveling there?
I think there are a number of ways to get there now; however, there are still limitations if you’re American or traveling through America solely for tourism. I didn’t encounter any trouble, but take my travel advice with a grain of salt! I booked through a travel agent which involved a bit of paperwork, but it included the visa and documents. Frankie traveled via the Cayman Islands which bypasses America. I think she bought her visa on the plane for 25 bucks? My only other advice would be to get cash at the airport when you arrive in Havana, you’ll need it straight away to pay for your taxi. Internet access is very limited. It’s kind of like going on a holiday in the nineties - be prepared to live without the internet and plan what you’re doing each day the old-school way because you won’t be able to rely on Google.
Did you have any expectations of what Cuba would be like ahead of your trip? In what ways were you surprised?
Prior to my visit, I had seen images from photographer Danny Clinch and photos of murals painted by Rone in Cuba in 2016. Other than that I had no idea to what to expect. It really was unique and quite amazing when I arrived. I was surprised by just how prevalent the classic cars were - I had imagined there would only be a few set up for rides for tourists, but they were everywhere. It really felt like going back in time.
How long were you in Cuba? Did you just stay in Havana or explore elsewhere?
I only had 5 days in Cuba before I had to get to the next design conference. We stayed in Havana for a couple of nights and then got a car to take us to Varadero which is a beach town about 2 hours away. Varadero was a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of Havana. White sand, turquoise water, chickens roaming the streets and lots of delicious fruit: definitely worth a visit.
During your visit, did you get a sense of what the creative scene is like in Havana? (Murals, museums, music clubs?)
I actually didn’t see a huge number of murals, but I probably needed more time to explore. The bright colours of the buildings, hand-painted signage and interesting tile work throughout Havana all contributed to an overall sense of creativity and eclectic character. Fabrica de Arte Cubano is a big art gallery and club that was recommended to us. There was a huge line up so it's best to arrive as early as possible. I also visited the experimental graphic printmaking studio (Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana) which was incredible. It is a big workshop with an attached art gallery (Galería del Grabado) and many Cuban artists were working on prints in the studio whilst I was there. I believe they also offer lithography and woodblock printing classes which I would love to do if I visit again.
Any particular venues, attractions, or restaurants that you recommend to members planning to visit? What was your greatest experience in Cuba?
I think my favourite experience was just walking through the little streets of Old Havana – it’s a sensory overload, with so much character in the old buildings. Two restaurants I would recommend are 304 O'Reilly on Calle O'Reilly and Cafe Miglis (Cuban and Swedish fusion).
Has this trip influenced any recent projects or your work in general? Any creative lessons learned?
I have a folder of reference photos I took on the trip that I am waiting to integrate into a piece; there's a wealth of inspiration in the textures, colour and signage from Cuba. As someone who is always drawn back to the boldness of working in black and white, Cuba reinvigorated the power of colour for me and I think that will be the biggest influence on the work I make over the next year.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I am working on a few commercial jobs and a new installation for China Heights gallery in April. I have a fair bit of travel coming up too: Costa Rica for FID conference, Bermuda to judge ADC Awards, and Barcelona and Sweden later in the year for Smashing Magazine Conference and a mural festival.