New exhibit at Deerfield Academy pays homage to Cuba

  • “(The mural) captures Cuban childhood as it relates to school,” Mark Guglielmo says of his photomosaic mural that depicts children singing the Cuban national anthem during their morning assembly in their elementary school’s atrium. Guglielmo’s work will be on display as part of the “Cuba in Transition: Narrative & Perspective” exhibit at Deerfield Academy through March 1. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • “The people had an impression on me,” Northampton artist Mark Guglielmo said of his inspiration to make photomosaics based on his trips to Cuba. “I kind of wanted to show what I was experiencing as best I could to Americans.” Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • One mural that is particularly special to artist Mark Guglielmo is one of an older woman named Silvia and nicknamed “Nena.” She spent 80 hours a week making a living by cutting sugarcane, until a friend lent her money to build a livestock farm in a remote area. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Northampton resident Mark Guglielmo’s exhibit, “Cuba in Transition: Narrative & Perspective,” features a photomosaic mural of Che Guevara, a major figure in the Fidel Castro-led revolution. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • There are 10 murals on display at Deerfield Academy as part of “Cuba in Transition: Narrative & Perspective.” Five have never been seen in the Pioneer Valley and three have never been exhibited before at all. Staff Photo/Melina Bourdeau


Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2019 2:26:58 PM

Is it accurate to refer to Mark Guglielmo’s traveling exhibit as a work of … Cuban cubism?

He doesn’t call it that, but he said people who view his art are welcome to do so. Art, he said, is very subjective and it always interests him to learn how people interpret his work’s message or even its medium. Guglielmo said some have compared his “Cuba in Transition: Narrative & Perspective” to a photographic form of cubism, a term used to describe a painting and structure style characterized by an emphasis on formal structure and the reduction of natural forms to their geometrical equivalents.

The exhibit consists of photomosaic murals, interviews and field recordings compiled by Guglielmo. Each mural measures 5 to 15 feet long and is handmade by taping together hundreds or thousands of 4-by-6-inch photographs. Set to Cuban music, the work will be featured in the von Auersperg Gallery at Deerfield Academy’s Hess Center for the Arts until March 1. Neither a computer nor Photoshop are used.

“I got inspired on my first trip to Cuba (in 2015),” said Guglielmo, a Northampton resident. “The people had an impression on me. I felt I could do some collages and record some conversations with them. I kind of wanted to show what I was experiencing as best I could to Americans.”

Guglielmo has twice returned to the Caribbean island nation since his initial trip in a group with a Cuban-American friend.

“It’s sort of my own photojournalist project that came to me organically,” he said of “Cuba in Transition.”

Photo by photo

Guglielmo was turned on to making photomosaic murals while in a high school photography class in 1987, when he was leafing through a book or magazine and happened upon a single small image of a larger photo collage by English artist David Hockney.

He began experimenting with the medium and, living in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2007, he realized he had never made a large-scale photomosaic like one of Hockney’s. He visited Prospect Park on a cold, frigid day and photographed four or five rolls of film of an elm tree and its surroundings. He got the photos developed and began taping them together on his apartment floor in a project that took months to complete.

He went on to create more photomosaics over the next seven years, which were then included in his first exhibit called “Shards of Illusion” at APE Gallery in 2013.

Guglielmo explained he doesn’t have a vision for the final image when he starts putting each mural together.

“I never know what the end-result large image will look like, not when I’m photographing the source images, and not even when I start composing the mosaic,” he said, adding that the end-result large image reveals itself in the slowly-but-surely process of assembling the 4-by-6-inch photographs. He said he photographs something only when his intuition clearly tells him to.

“It’s in the destruction, disassembling, distortion and bringing back together that something more real and more powerful than a simple duplication of reality emerges,” he said. “Because I’m photographing tiny details of a large area, in order to make a square or rectangular image, there are always large areas of the piece that I don’t have photos to fill. These are some of the most interesting parts of my pieces, to me, because I am forced to improvise with the images I have.”

Assembling a picture of difficult ways of life

This is Guglielmo’s fifth exhibit of pieces from the “Cuba in Transition” series, which opened in June 2017 at APE Gallery in Northampton before traveling to Boston, Colorado and The Williston Northampton School in Easthampton. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

There are 10 murals displayed — five never seen in the Pioneer Valley and three never before exhibited at all. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays by appointment only.

“I’m particularly excited about the medium because I think it will really spark kids’ interest,” von Auersperg Gallery Director Lydia Hemphill said of Guglielmo’s choice of medium. “It will be appealing to them, as something they can do with different types of images that are possible around here.”

There will also be a conversation with the artist on Feb. 16 as part of TEDxDeerfield. It will be moderated by Wilson Valentín-Escobar, associate professor of American studies and sociology at Hampshire College, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. This event is also free and open to the public.

Hemphill said that though “the subject matter is intriguing and part of the point of the exhibition,” she is not concerned that the series or Deerfield Academy is making any type of political statement.

“I’m more excited about it artistically speaking,” she said. “Certainly, in some classes some teachers will talk about Cuba and its role in the world.”

One of the murals is a collage of children singing the Cuban national anthem during their morning assembly in their elementary school’s atrium. Guglielmo said it is the only school in Cuba where the students wear berets in the style of Che Guevara, a major figure in the Fidel Castro-led revolution.

“(The mural) captures Cuban childhood as it relates to school,” Guglielmo said. The exhibit also features a mural of Guevara.

Another mural particularly special to the artist is one of an older woman named Silvia and nicknamed “Nena.” She spent 80 hours a week making a living by cutting sugarcane, which Guglielmo described as perhaps one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, until a friend lent her money to build a livestock farm in a remote area where she now raises sheep, goats and turkeys for meat.

Guglielmo said he rented a horse and asked a guide to bring him somewhere he had never before taken a tourist. This led the two on an hour-and-a-half horseback ride to Nena’s farm, where Guglielmo spent three hours getting to know her. Guglielmo said Nena roasted and brewed her own coffee beans, making the freshest coffee (or “cauffee,” as the Hasting, N.Y.-born artist would say) he has ever tasted.

Another mural that sticks out in Guglielmo’s mind is that of an elderly man who makes money collecting cans on a beach. The slew of photographs highlight a man in a tank top, his skin toughed by years of brutal Cuban sun, with tourists sunbathing behind him.

“Part of him is ancient, and part is strong and vibrant,” Guglielmo said.

The man explained he worked at the hotel at that beach until he was laid off due to his age. He now gets a meager pension, forcing him to collect cans to supplement his income. He said he gets 40 cents for every 100 cans. Also, his wife suffers from Parkinson’s disease and lives eight hours away.

“I really felt his pain, how hard his life is,” Guglielmo recalled.

Observing the pros and cons

He said there are many drawbacks to life in Cuba. The people are limited, as Guglielmo said a passport costs roughly six months’ salary and an airline ticket is expensive. He said Cubans don’t starve, but they do go to bed hungry if they don’t have extra money.

The automotive culture is frozen in time, as people drive American cars manufactured before the trade embargo implemented by the United States. Because it is now impossible to get replacement parts for those vehicles, many Cubans restore them with parts from refrigerators or washing machines. Still, Guglielmo said, there is no spiritual poverty that one might experience in the United States, “where no matter how much we have, it’s not enough because we’re not happy.”

Guglielmo acknowledged he would often feel sad after returning from Cuba, noting the Caribbean’s warmth applies to both the weather and the Cuban people. He said “Cuba in Transition” is a way of continuing his Cuban experience home in America.

“Some of the things I love down there. It’s a much slower pace of life,” he said. “Here, you’re really on your own. If you need to eat, to pay your bills, there’s no real safety net in this country. There, everyone gets a certain amount of food, free health care and free education.

“Here, there is real fear that if you stop running on the treadmill, you could fall off and wind up homeless or something,” he continued. “How many of us don’t have a big savings and, if we get sick, who’s going to take care of us? Down there, families are tighter and closer. Generations of families live together. There are safety nets in the family structure and in the government.”

He said the close-knit families remind him of the full-hearted, warm feelings he would have around his Italian-American grandparents.

Guglielmo described his portraits as “an homage to Cuba” that is not directly political and not a glorification of communism. He said he simply tries to capture everyday life in Cuba as it really is.

Guglielmo said the uncertainty that envelopes Cuba taught him to make each day an adventure and he now aims to maintain that mindset in America. He said running out of milk or having your car break down are common occurrences in Cuba, but there is a silver lining because solving these problems requires human interaction, often the formation of friendships.

“There is always this other Plan B that materializes and you get what you need,” he said. “There’s always this magical component that works out.”

Domenic Poli joined the Greenfield Recorder in 2016. He covers Sunderland, Whately, Conway and Deerfield. He can be reached at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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