Step Inside Cuba’s Oldest Printmaking Studio

At the Taller Experimental de Gráfica in Havana, process is everything

Ian Marcos Gutiérrez, a 23-year-old printer at the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, in Havana, helps the author prepare a block of lithographic limestone for printing. (Arien Chang Castán)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

I am standing in the back of the Taller Experimental de Gráfica, Cuba’s premier printmaking studio, showing artist Max Delgado Corteguera my cracked phone. He jokes with me: How do I get one like that? I tell him I’d be happy to barter a lesson in my specialty, the shattering of iPhones, for his, traditional Cuban lithography. He demurs.

I pull up the photo I’m looking for, a snapshot from a few months back of the logo for the bank my family once owned in Cuba, Banco Garrigo. It’s in my archive as part of an ill-fated plan hatched with my cousin to get the logo’s elements tattooed on our sides: A palm tree, two gears working together, and some kind of tool we couldn’t identify, shaped vaguely like a check mark.

Max knows the tool immediately: an arado, he says. A plow. For campesinos (farmers) to dig lines in the soil. The bank must have been agricultural?

“I think so,” I say. “I think it was small.” The truth is, I don’t really know the specifics, as with most of my family’s past in Cuba. I have always liked it that way—a little mysterious and vague. My grandparents fled the island on an airplane shortly after the revolution. They landed in Miami and left it behind forever. I grew up in the shadow of that trauma, tiptoeing around it.

In 2015, to my grandmother’s dismay, I flew to Havana to watch the U.S. Embassy reopen, and to look for remaining family. It was intense and difficult. The island was hot and I was alone. But it also seemed like the only thing I’d ever felt compelled to do without knowing why. That made it important somehow.

I came back to Havana this summer with an assignment to make a print at the Taller and write about the experience. Beyond that, I also wanted a reason to look up more addresses and dig through more records and cold-call more Cubans with my mother’s strange last name, Argilagos. Then there was the matter of the family’s bank crest: I often felt unsure of my claim to my family’s Cuban past. Printing the image would help me make it my own.

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Max gives me a quick primer before we get started: Lithography arrived in Cuba before anywhere else in the Americas, as a way to protect the sanctity and integrity of the country’s industry. By the early 19th century, Cuban exports, especially tobacco, had a prestige that made them valuable throughout the world. Exporters wanted a way to protect Cuban industry from counterfeiters. Using lithography, they could make seals and rings that both decorated their products and distinguished them from those of competitors.

The process depends more than anything on the repellent properties of oil and water, and their interaction with limestone. By using acids, powders, solvents, oils, and gum in specific combinations, lithographers manipulate the places a stone receives ink. In this way, they can use a stone to print precise and intricate images onto paper.

Cuba imported thousands of lithographic limestones from Germany in the 1800s, when the technology was first emerging. Cuban businessmen brought machines from France and Germany and lured experts to Havana who knew how to use them. Many of the original machines still work. The Taller’s oldest is an intricate, red woodcutting machine from 1829, still used by artists every day.

In the 1950s, shortly before the revolution, aluminum replaced lithography as the best way to protect product identity, and the stones fell into disuse. Campesinos started to use them to make walking paths through muddy fields. Habaneros, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, laid them around the city along with whatever other stones they could find to serve as barricades.

Cuban lithography would have died then but for a few artists who recognized the value of the craft. They lobbied the government to protect the stones, and in 1962, as minister of industry, Che Guevara signed a mandate to provide materials, space, and machines to Cuban lithographers in the name of art. The Taller was born from that directive, and it remains the oldest and best known print studio in Cuba. It’s been producing work consistently since then.

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The Taller offers classes in woodcutting, lithography, and etching for $100 to $500, depending on the length of the course, the techniques used, and the number of editions made. (Arien Chang Castán)

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The Taller is on the Callejón del Chorro in Habana Vieja, the tourist mecca at the center of the city. In the cathedral plaza nearby, women dress in Santería whites and smoke cigars, waiting for tourists to take their photos. Doña Eutemia, one of Cuba’s first paladares (private restaurants), is right next door. The studio itself is calm and airy. At the front there’s a gallery where pieces made in the workshop go for 10 or 20 times the average monthly Cuban salary.

Tourists mill freely between the gallery and the workshop, which offers classes in woodcutting, lithography, and etching for between $100 and $500, depending on the length of the course, the techniques used, and the number of editions made. I paid $300 to make six two-color prints over two eight-hour days. A sign hangs from the rafters commemorating a March 2016 visit by Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama, with a signed note commending the Taller for preserving the beauty of Cuban artistry.

The artists working in the Taller are carefully selected and often have well-recognized portfolios or have earned major prizes. A committee overseeing the studio considers new members only every four or five years. The space itself is dynamic and convivial. One woodcut artist lays out a book he’s had made for his daughter’s quinceañera—festivities celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday. It’s a cardboard holographic photo collection of her in various costumes: a police officer against a New York skyline, a Southern belle amid the vines, several permutations of prom queen. These books are all the rage among teens in Havana, he says, shaking his head. The guy who makes them charges hundreds of dollars. He prints them in Miami. Now the artist is using the book as the basis for a woodcut.

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I wheel my enormous limestone to the huge sink in the workshop’s corner with Ian Marcos Gutiérrez, a 23-year-old printer who’s been assisting established artists in the studio for several years. We scrub the stone down to rid it of fantasmas—the ghosts of previous artwork. Sometimes they linger in the stone even though you don’t see them, interfering with subsequent prints.

“I do this every day, but I don’t get bored,” Ian says as he mixes abrasive carborundio dust with water, sprinkles it on the stone, and shows me how to move one stone over another to smooth and flatten its surface. In Cuba you use what you have, and substitute if something’s missing. The carborundio we’re using to grind the stone down is hard to find. The Taller traded some goma arábiga (gum arabic) for this batch with a printer in Camagüey. If we didn’t have it, we’d find a substitute, and the work would emerge slightly different.

“Lithography is always a fight,” Ian says. “You want to do something, and the stone wants to do something different. It’s a push and pull.” I rinse the stone off and he smooths his hand over it. Feels fine. So far, so good. But when I read back from my notes the steps we’ve taken, Ian rolls his eyes. I’ve skipped things and mixed up carbon and carborundio.

We wheel the stone to the lithography machine, and Max brings over a laser-printed copy of the bank logo—the Taller is not opposed to mixing new techniques with old ones. Ian wipes the stone with powders and solvents, making sure it’s wet so that its pores are open to receive ink. Max lays the logo facedown, covers it with a solvent, and runs the machine over it once. He lifts up the paper, and I see the logo has appeared backward on the limestone.

We bring the stone over to a table, and Max sets down a little cup of goma arábiga to make the print’s borders. The gum repels ink, so anyplace I put it will stay blank when I use the stone to print colors. We’ll print the logo in a reddish black and a light green. The black comes first. Ian rolls out a slick of oil paint for transferring images onto the stone with rollers, then hands me some greasy lithography pencils for drawing. “Now you get to add to the family history,” Max says.

Cleaning the stone of fantasmas, or hidden images from previous printings (Arien Chang Castán)
Placing an inked leaf on the stone (Arien Chang Castán)
Drying prints before adding another layer of color (Arien Chang Castán)
An artist works on a woodcut. (Arien Chang Castán)

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I take the pencil and stare at the stone, bewildered. I hadn’t actually considered this part. What right did I have to alter the logo? Max nudges me along, brings over some laser-printed Cuban pesos to transfer onto the piece. He cuts one out, soaks it in solvent, places it onto the limestone facedown, and presses down with his hand. A mirror image of the face of José Martí emerges perfectly. I still hesitate.

“Got a dollar?” Max asks, nudging me along. I pull a crumpled one out of my backpack. Max says we can transfer a negative of the dollar—Washington’s face in relief. He pushes the roller back and forth over the bill until it’s covered with toner, then hands it to me. I place it on the stone, cover it with a paper soaked in solvent to transfer the ink to the stone. We press down with our palms and lift. It leaves only a black box. Everybody laughs. “Well,” says Max, “it works with pesos.” Dollars must be better fortified. More secure.

I print the stone with a few more monedas, some American quarters. Max adds two stamps—Soy Cuba—to either side. I’m cursing myself for not planning better. I don’t want to cover the bank logo in money. It feels too literal. But I’m not a visual artist and feel at a loss for what to do.

I look up to the open-air garden on the second floor of the studio, where a Taller member is watering some plants. Can I take some leaves from there? Print the stone with something that comes from the place I made it? Max nods, and we walk up together to pick out leaves. I cover them in ink, roll and press them all over the stone. When I lift them, I see their spines and my own fingerprints. I keep pressing and other aspects of the design disappear into the brush.

We wheel the stone back to the lithography machine and start a process so intricate and so quick that I’m bound to get it wrong. I write down steps—talc, then pine resin, something to dissolve the goma arábiga—and Ian demands my notes. I’m not getting it wrong, I say, offended. But of course I am. The object is to set the stone so that some places will hold the red-black ink I’ve chosen and others will repel it. We’ll do this with the first color, then repeat it tomorrow with a second, securing the paper in place over the stone and transferring each layer to each print precisely.

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The author’s finished piece, with a Cuban peso printed on the bottom right (Arien Chang Castán)

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There are so many moments of erasure and coverage throughout the process—laying acids, dissolving them; placing color, rolling it away; opening the stone’s pores and sealing them off—that it’s hard to believe my impression stays intact, that we can alter the stone so much without losing the outline. Later the next day, when Max, Ian, and I are printing the green I’ve covered with another layer of leaves, Ian wipes down the stone completely and watches my face for a reaction.

“Everybody always thinks I’m erasing it at this point,” he says. “But it’s still there in the stone.” The design isn’t immediately visible. You don’t know what will come out, what happens on the inside. You can’t see it. Push and pull. The relationship between the work as you imagine it and the print that eventually emerges is complex, opaque—something like the one between the Cuba I created in my mind as a child and the reality where I now found myself.

Process is everything here, and everything is in flux. I look around the studio at the works made by the Taller artists—images of Che and Martí, but also giant prints of Barack Obama as Spider-Man, swinging his way across Havana. “The Cuban people love you,” the inscription reads.

Tourists mill around the studio as Max, Ian, and I finish putting the final green layer on my print. A Dutch couple looks over my shoulder and I joke that maybe I’ll sell a work.

“That happens,” Max says. For whatever reason, the Taller has an aura that makes people come after unfinished pieces, as well as ones made by students. “Students have paid for their whole courses that way,” says Max. “Beginner’s luck.”

To him, that’s the essence of what separates Cuban lithography from other studios’ approaches to the practice—it’s a little freer, deeply committed to process but also ready to use whatever’s at hand—quarters and leaves and, in my case, at Max’s suggestion, some extra cigar labels we press over the top. A little kitsch. I feel OK with it.

Here, a print completes a full life cycle. Unlike other lithography studios, which keep artists’ work on hand to make second and third editions, everything in the Taller gets destroyed after its run. The studio likes to keep each edition completely unique, made only by the artist, and only at the time she first makes it. It also clears the limestones for further use. Max calls me over to watch as he and Ian scrub a giant X into my print, “canceling” it. They wheel it back to the stone basin where it will be scoured to use again, traces of my work joining the ranks of fantasmas.

About Arien Chang Castán

Arien Chang Castán is a Havana-born photographer whose work has been widely shown in Cuba and abroad.

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About Mimi Dwyer

Mimi Dwyer is a New York-based reporter with Reuters. She has also contributed to the New Republic, Vice, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

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