By Steve Maxwell
Whenever I hear anyone say something foolish like “that’s just paint”, or “paint doesn’t really matter”, I tell them the story of Havana, Cuba. It’s the single most powerful example of the transforming power of paint – and painters – that you’ll ever see.
HAVANA IS A SPOTLESSLY CLEAN CITY. Its stunning architecture comes from an older era of affluence and style that ran full tilt until the 1950s. The streets are safe, beautiful and well-ordered. But despite all these things, Havana also has a distinct feeling of shabbiness. This feeling is unmistakable and comes from one main thing. Most of the city needs paint. Badly.
Decades of isolationism and US trade embargoes set the stage for hard times in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it left Cuba financially destitute and in a situation where paint became a luxury few people could afford. More than a quarter century later and it’s only getting worse. What paint there is in Cuba is the most vile smelling stuff imaginable and it goes mostly to resorts and tourist areas designed to impress visitors. Decades without a widespread painting program in the real Havana shows just how important paint is.
As a painter you deal with the smallest, thinnest, lightest amount of material of all the trades. What does a coat of primer and two coats of paint weigh? How thick is it? To some people this makes professional painting seem like a second-rate trade – something anyone can do. What painter hasn’t heard the words, “Wow, that much for a paint job? My brother-in-law can paint the house for half that!” You know it’s rubbish, but it’s always good to remind yourself why.
Ultimately, painting is about empowering spaces and structures so they make people feel good. A big part of the value of a good paint job is the emotional boost it delivers, and the pursuit of good feelings is one of the most powerful human motivators in the world. Visit Havana sometime and you’ll feel exactly why your life as a painter is so very important.