If the hallmark of a true painter is a determination to create art when there is neither paint nor canvas, then the artists in the Cuba Oriente exhibition are the real deal.
Although some have had formal training, many of the artists taught themselves to paint with homemade gesso, a type of chalk, on cardboard and sugar sacks.
"Insects were eating into their gesso when I first got there," says Clyde Hensley, via telephone from Key West, Fla.
Hensley, founder of the Eastern Cuba Cultural Exchange, has brought painting supplies to Cuba and collected more than 500 works since his initial visit to the country in 1995. The exhibit features 60 of those paintings and woodblock prints, done by 11 artists in Cuba's eastern Oriente region.
Landscapes and rural labor scenes twist into Salvador Dali-like surrealism, while others almost fracture into cubism. Although the exhibit presents a wide range of subjects and styles, its expressive color schemes and striking, humanistic imagery consistently portray the emotive nature of eastern Cuban identity.
Hensley created the cultural exchange in 1995 to "foster an environment of goodwill through the sharing of cultural ideas." Since then, the Jensen Beach, Fla.-based organization has supported Cuban artists, created a documentary called Luminous Shadows: The Artists of Eastern Cuba, and established the traveling art exhibition.
Cuba Oriente offers insight that strays from mainstream knowledge of Havana and Castro, as its international acclaim draws attention to the vibrant existence of Cuba's lesser-known Eastern provinces. "The paintings show where the artists live and what they see around them and who they are," Hensley says.
After touring, most of the works will return to Cuba and to the people of Oriente.
Cuba Oriente: Contemporary Paintings from Eastern Cuba
UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy.
Opening reception Friday, June 16, 5-7:30 p.m.; show runs through Aug. 4.
Free; call 262-3567 or visit galleryuccs.org for hours and more information.