Fresh Eyes Cuba: A Deep Immersion and Cultural Exchange in Havana

Faculty Statements



Each of the Fresh Eyes Cuba faculty members shared their unique perspective on this immersive experience, once at the beginning of the project and again during the final week. 

Tracey Shiffman, Professor, Gx and Integrated Studies; Gx Advisor for Print


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Imagine a cultured society hermetically sealed off from the rest of the developed world for half a century. Hardship and rationing, due to a 50-year embargo from the United States, has surely resulted in a rare environment and community of resourceful thinking. In visiting Havana, Cuba this October, as ArtCenter faculty, I will encourage our students to reach inside their own experiences in order to connect and understand a society that has used limited resources and innovation-by-necessity. This polarization will inspire a unique experience and worldview. As students unplug from their own cultural norms and live “off the grid” for 10 days, they will learn from and depend on one another in new ways. By utilizing all five senses, while guided by uncomplicated daily prompts, it is my hope that this project will provide rich discoveries as well as fostering a profound and generative experience for the students. Positive agency has a powerful voice and Fresh Eyes Cuba will help to inform their designs, strategies and emerging perspectives for years to come.


Cuba is a place until itself. Nothing compares to it and I am a seasoned traveler. I was two-years-old when the Bay of Pigs happened and I remember aspects of the Cold War, so for me personally, going to Cuba was something special…a historic touchstone.

We had a lot of preparation prior to the trip, including psychological preparation, for our Cuban experience, and when we finally landed in Havana, the students were vibrating with anticipation. They were so excited and joyous to encounter their workshop design partners.

Engaging in new experiences help inform a student’s visual lexicon which can only expand their reach in their future practice. This project brought a layer of adventure, emotion and a sense of agency to the table as we were all cognizant of being witness to history changing before our eyes.

I was impressed by the Cuban students’ passion and fearlessness to express themselves in a safe zone that was provided by our pop-up assignment and the university courtyard. When the two groups of students met eye to eye, they could see their own reflection in each other and they realized there was little that separated them; it is only a body of water and politics.

The constraints – working with limited resources – were challenging but we were lucky to have the Cuban students guide us. For them, it was an everyday occurrence to try to find this or that. They are fluid culturally, able to move beyond fixed ideas of what “should be” and find innovative solutions to problems. Our students got a taste of how fun innovation can be – and that was reflected in their final pop-up installations here in Los Angeles.

Even though we were gone only 10 days, coming back to the USA was a culture shock. In fact, the hardest question to answer was when people asked “How was Cuba?” It’s still taking time to process what the whole experience means.

Nik Hafermaas, Professor + Chair, Gx




To grow as artists, designers, and as humans, we need to leave our comfort zone. Every once in a while at least. When we are given the opportunity to venture beyond our familiar environment, we get the rare chance of seeing the world with fresh eyes. This change of perspective lets us embrace the now with child-like wonder; it lets us shed our assumptions, inhibitions and cynicisms, uncapping extra creative potential.  The Fresh Eyes Cuba project couldn’t have come at a better time. It marks a pivotal moment of radical change, not unlike the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing renaissance of the German capital. For of a brief few years, former East Berlin became a largely unregulated playground for creative experimentation, with an explosion of underground art, music and design enterprise; it created a fluid creative ecology that took years to gel into more established creative industries. In Havana I hope to experience one of these rare situations, a moment of vertical porosity in which ideas born on the ground can eventually bubble to the top of a new open haven for creativity. Fresh Eyes Cuba stands for being open and playful, for being bold yet humble, for checking our preconceptions at the gate; for capturing emotions and distilling the essence of what it means to be alive. 


I was a student in Berlin when the wall came down and that was an amazing moment in my life. The area of East Berlin near the wall was initially a wasteland of empty buildings, but not for long. It soon became a fertile ground of creativity; young people starting clubs, making music, changing the landscape with such energy.  I can’t help but think of the parallels to Cuba, at this point in their history.

Our students learned what it is like to be extremely resourceful and there is no more extreme of an environment for resourcefulness than Cuba. Every Cuban is a “Resolver” — a designer out of necessity. Their creations, even the mundane solutions, have fascinating aesthetic and poetic qualities.

This experience was an incredible lesson in not getting caught up in perfectionism. Our students got a chance to train a different muscle of creativity and they didn’t have to worry about producing a traditionally highly polished and refined final outcome. They responded to the Cuban’s lightness with playful and authentic creations, which was liberating in itself.

To become a relevant creative person, you have to leave your comfort zone and be a person of the world. Having these kinds of experiences adds to a student’s life portfolio which is just as important as a work portfolio. It engages students with a broader world view, which is one of the most valuable resources we need on our planet these days.

I am very proud that our students became ambassadors of a spirit of creative collaboration that might play a part in Cuba’s revitalization.

Mariana Somma, Field Advisor, Experience Designer, Entrepreneur


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I am very excited to be a part of Fresh Eyes Cuba, and know this will inspire great perspective, art, and cultural empathy for the students. It is an incredible time to experience the changes and momentum within Cuba. Students will have the opportunity to see how innovation and collaboration has flourished ‘a lo Cubano’ (i.e. Cuban style)- yes, with limits to resources that we might take for granted, but nonetheless with a drive and passion to create impactful products and services for their communities. Now, with new collaborations, new economic growth within various sectors, and new opportunities for global collaboration, there is no doubt that Cuban entrepreneurs and artists will have incredible impact globally and within Cuba- of course, ‘a lo Cubano.’


The magic of this collaboration was truly the bond and synergy the students had, and continue to have. There was never a sense of competition or division, rather a curiosity and excitement to learn about and from each other and get to work. The ArtCenter students had the opportunity to explore Havana from their Cuban peers’ perspectives, and hung out as much as possible outside of the workshop hours- from going over to a local students’ house to play dominos and listen to music, to walking the famous Malecón boardwalk with all the locals, and even a bit of dancing at the Fabrica de Arte art gallery and nightclub.