carved by community
story by kyle hentschel / jake charlson / zach blaine
"FOR ME YELLOW IS NOT BETRAYAL, IT'S LIGHT"
- MARLENE SILVERA SEGURA -
Amid the barking dogs, rumbling engines of 1950s American cars and music from the windows above, the high-pitched buzz of Marlene Silvera Segura’s power-carving tool blends into the soundtrack of the Marianao neighborhood in Havana, Cuba.
The green garage doors that reveal her wood sculpting workshop are thrown open to the street, a seamless portal between an artist and her muse. Segura considers the colors, sounds and faces of her community an important inspiration for her work, and has spent her life seeking ways to unite people through art.
Those doors weren’t always open so wide.
Segura began her career painting propaganda posters for the Cuban government in the 1990s. Upon graduation from design school, she was hired to create posters extolling the virtues of socialism and the Cuban Revolution, which were converted into large billboards and displayed across the country.
It was a decision born of necessity rather than passion.
During this time, Cuba was struggling to stay afloat following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was a major economic partner. As famine and shortages spread across the island, Segura said the idea of supporting herself as an artist was seemingly impossible. This was a chance to find some security during a time of deep uncertainty.
“I never thought my country would go through such hardship,” she said through a translator. “I think it took us all by surprise.”
While this allowed her to support herself, there was little room for the creative freedom she was craving. She was given strict guidelines for what phrases, colors and graphics she could employ. She was told to only use red and blue—the colors of the Cuban flag. Yellow, she was told, meant betrayal.
“I was not interested in politics,” Segura says, wearing a sunny yellow shirt. “I was interested in doing something free and for society.”
She continued to design propaganda to earn a living while attending the San Alejandro School of Fine Arts at night. It was there that she discovered the sculpture studio. She organized an agreement with some of the men who worked there: if they would teach her how to use the sculpting tools, she would show them how to paint.
For a woman at the time, to focus on sculpting was a bold decision.
“I don’t know if it’s my rebellious nature, but I could have chosen painting, engraving or photography, which [I think] are more for women,” she says. “But I chose sculpture, which is more of a man’s job.”
Segura excelled in the rigorous program, and discovered that wood was her favorite medium. She eventually found her niche creating ornate humidors, or wooden cigar boxes, and now makes her living sharing part of her culture with the wider world.
Back in her workshop, she cracks a smile as she brushes the wood shavings off her arms. She exudes a clear sense of contentment as she leans over to examine her work, the product of a freedom and creativity she wasn’t able to apply at her previous job. She compares sharing her artistic passion to a mother giving birth to a child.
“It’s something you have inside; it just pushes you,” Segura says. “It doesn’t matter if people understand me because it’s about bringing out ideas that have to come out.”
While Segura’s work has won multiple awards and Fidel Castro has even signed a few of her pieces, she maintains a family-oriented, communal lifestyle, teaching art to children and allowing other artists to use her shop for projects. She even gathers recycled materials from her neighborhood to use in her projects and encourages other artists to do the same.
It’s all part of her mission to connect people through her community, her family and her art.
“I think I am a little light,” Segura says. “And I can give a little light to the people around me.”