Although Charlene has been to Europe and Africa several times, her trips to Cuba bring her perhaps the greatest pleasure. Much of Charlene’s family still lives there. When she goes to Cuba, Charlene stays with family. Charlene believes that it is her Cuban heritage that draws her to the geometric patterns of Africa. While geographically quite a distance apart, Cuba and Africa share a history. Every time Charlene lands in Cuba she is struck by how much Cuba reminds her of Africa: “Africa smacks me in the face right when I land in Cuba. I get off the place and it’s immediate – the dance, the food, the religion, the movement – it’s Africa.”
Charlene’s first trip to Cuba was in 1999. Charlene’s mother went too. Charlene’s mother hadn’t been back to Cuba since she moved to the States 50 years before. While Charlene’s mother has since passed away, Charlene has returned to Cuba every year since. Of the many aspects of Cuban culture that Charlene has experienced, it’s the patterns and shapes in the artwork that most inspire and fascinate her. With its close ties to Africa, Charlene has discovered that many of the patterns and colors used in Africa among the Ndebele and Zulu cultures, are also used in Cuba. The repetition of patterns, Charlene has learned, expresses an optimism, a wish for good things such as an abundance of rain, children, and livestock.
Charlene uses these patterns on the furniture that she paints. Choosing a table or shelves to repurpose, Charlene sometimes combines patterns, but she always knows the origins of the shapes and figures. For Charlene, painting furniture with these African-Cuban inspired shapes and patterns is a type of meditation, a deepening of her connection with her Cuban and African heritage. “It is,” Charlene says, “in my DNA.” Charlene also teaches the people who buy her painted furniture what she has learned about the meanings of the symbols and where they came from.
Perhaps it is this connection to ancient traditions that inspires Charlene’s involvement in GRDC’s Community Garden. Gardening can be a meditative activity, and watching something grow and multiply is rewarding indeed. Charlene has worked in the Community Garden since it started five years ago. Her favorites are the fresh greens, tomatoes, potatoes, and kale. Even though she has a garden at home, she enjoys helping out at the Community Garden because she learns something each time she goes. It seems that although Charlene is a retired Detroit Public School teacher, she will never retire from being a student. Whether she’s reading about the symbolism of the painted houses in West Africa or the learning how to grow the best mustard greens, Charlene is an avid learner.
Charlene is planning on returning to Cuba in February or April. Since her retirement two years ago, Charlene is now able to stay longer and thus learn more. Her trip to Ethiopia will be after that. Charlene knows that she’s fortunate to have the time to travel, and to have a home in Cuba: “I love my life.”