Viernes Culturales: Little Havana's Rebirth Begins

The plaintive wail of a bolero crooner echoes across a dusty sidewalk baked by a merciless sun. Soon the ringing chords of a Spanish guitar erupt from a Little Havana souvenir shop. Dominoes clack as they are shoved about by elderly men smoking cigars, and throngs of Midwestern, European, and Asian tourists scramble out of a double-decker bus.

It's a scene that takes place several times a day along a stretch of Calle Ocho between 17th and 13th avenues, where a collection of artists' studios, fine art galleries, cigar shops, dollar stores, botanicas, and restaurants draws people eager to immerse themselves in the historic neighborhood's exotic vibe. They weave in and out of local shops for a shot of café cubano, a box of freshly hand-rolled stogies, or an occasional work of art.

Inside the new Futurama Building, at 1637 SW Eighth St., business is booming because of Viernes Culturales — the cultural block party held in the area the last Friday of each month — and the bustling tourist trade, says local artist Katey Penner. Futurama is a cool shelter from the blistering heat, where a soaring glass waterfall greets visitors next to a curling staircase and a cascade of glistening lights.

Penner and several of the dozen or so artists in residence have studios on opposite sides of the expansive ground floor of the building. When I arrive, they are busy applying paint to canvas in their spaces as curious bystanders peek inside.

"I was the first artist to move here this past January," says Penner, whose energetic expressionistic portraits of jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, B.B. King, and Louis Armstrong, as well as salsa stars like Celia Cruz, Arturo Sandoval, and Gloria Estefan, line her modest studio walls.

Before relocating, this staple of the local art-festival circuit showed her work at the now-defunct Windisch-Hunt Fine Art Gallery in Coconut Grove. Recently, the 39-year-old Penner began a series of paintings of iconic Little Havana landmarks, including the Tower Theater and popular ice-cream shop Azucar. "It's going well for me here for several reasons," the Canadian-born painter says. "First because of the exposure of Viernes Culturales each month and also because we have a steady influx of tourists visiting here every day."

Futurama is also home to the Barlington Group, a development company owned by Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, who have been buying up properties in Little Havana since 2004 and have emerged as a galvanizing force behind the area's cultural resurgence. (Disclosure: I rent a space from Barlington on the corner of SW Sixth Street and 12th Avenue.)

Fuller and Pinilla converted the ground floor of their headquarters into an arts incubator like the Bakehouse Art Complex and ArtCenter/South Florida, and it has attracted fresh talent to Little Havana.

And although Futurama doesn't offer the type of cutting-edge pieces found in Wynwood, the artwork rates above the folkloric paintings of guajiros, nostalgic Cuban landscapes, and mulatas balancing fruit baskets on their heads, which are typical of some of the smaller galleries in the area.

During Viernes Culturales this weekend at Futurama, check out Barbara Rivera's eye-catching portraits of stiff-collared and corseted women, harking back to the Victorian era. Her monochromatic canvases boast women, basically self-portraits, sporting the occasional tattoo and revealing a bra strap while gritting their teeth or wagging their tongues at the viewer.

Rafiño is a young Cuban painter and installation artist whose works are also worth a gander. He explores notions of faith and alienation through pieces crated from mundane objects reconfigured to convey a sense of the exile experience and the ineffable nature of spirituality.

Alberto de Vegas creates totemic futuristic scenes using lush, otherworldly landscapes that captivate the senses through finely honed details, while Joseph Woodward employs both painting and sculpture to create three-dimensional works incorporating bamboo and miniature images of Little Havana's unofficial mascot, the ubiquitous rooster. "That's what the public likes. That's why they come here," observes Pati Vargas, Viernes Culturales' director, who recently relocated the organization's offices to the second floor of Futurama.

"Our visitors during Viernes Culturales and tourists love the Cuban nostalgia. But our goal as we move forward is to bring more of a world Latin flair to the area," says the 55-year-old Vargas, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Brooklyn.

In the lobby of Futurama, Vargas is presenting a selection from the Hanson Family Archive of hundreds of photos. Historic pictures of the Miccosukee, curated by Houston Cypress and Woodward Hanson, document the life of the tribe along the Tamiami Trail during the early 1900s and are complemented by contemporary imagery. "This place is such a strategic spot," Vargas says of the building and its residents.

Vargas also says she is planning a Little Havana Art Walk for every second Friday of the month. "We are organizing the first one for October," she says, mentioning that Viernes Culturales receives about 200 phone calls a week from people wanting to know what is happening in the area. "I think the time is ripe to elevate the profile of all that's happening here."

Will this cultural nurturing lead to long-term change in La Pequeña Habana? Futurama's owners plan to restore the 92-year-old Tower Hotel, at 1450 SW Seventh St., which they recently purchased for $1.7 million. They will turn it into a boutique hotel with 50 rooms celebrating the property's history and expect to invest close to $1 million in renovations.

During its heyday, jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday stayed at the Tower Hotel after their gigs at the infamous nightclub Ball & Chain, co-owner Fuller informs."This hotel will be a game changer for the neighborhood," the 35-year-old Palmetto Senior High School grad predicts. He says artists will create themed rooms based on the musical legends who stayed at the hotel, and a multi-use arts lounge will keep the landmark's history alive.

"For us, it's all about honoring the history and reshaping the future," says his 36-year-old partner, Pinilla.

"When Walt Disney built Disneyland, he made sure it was all-inclusive so visitors would stay in the area. We want people to come and stay here and fully immerse themselves in Little Havana's culture," Fuller adds.

"I think they are truly visionaries," says Corinna Moebius, founder of and a former director of Viernes Culturales. "They are all about what I call the 'spirit of place' and are vested in supporting the artists, dancers, and performers who live or work in Little Havana."

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus

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