I met Raul Speek at the Speek Gallery in Solva. We chatted in the body of the old converted chapel surrounded by a collection of vivid canvases in astonishing colours. I can almost feel the warmth of the Caribbean sun.
Raul hails from, Cuba . The youngest of eleven children, his parents were farmers, their farm a good four-hour drive and six-hour walk from Guantanamo. Self sufficiency was a way of life for the family, and it is clear that ‘little’ Raul learned resilience at a young age.
Following the death of his mother when he was three years old, Raul spent part of his childhood living with his aunt and uncle in Guantanamo where realising his dream of expressing himself through painting did not make for an easy beginning. Perhaps understandably, given attitudes to artists in the country at the time, the family were keen for young Raul to take up a more practical profession.
He feels that the life he had chosen was made slightly easier because his uncle was a musician, but it was by no means straight forward. He was only briefly allowed to attend a special art school and actually left home when he was eleven.
Encouragement from one of his teachers at a Naval Boarding school concerning his ability to draw was a boost and, at fourteen, he secured a scholarship to study Navigation in Havana.
Further study at the Institute Martires de Artemisa in Havana with his teacher, Alberto Castro, allowed him to broaden his horizons and he went on to work with Rene Portocarrero and Raul Martines in their studios in Havana.
Over the following years Raul had many exhibitions of his paintings, undertook military service and began to exhibit outside of his native country. It was his introduction to the BBC Arena crew in 1989 in Havana that ultimately led to him leaving his native land and coming to the UK.
By the middle of the 1990’s his political views meant that he was attracting a great deal of attention from the authorities. His move to London in 1991 was to greater safety, but was also a confusing introduction to a world of overwhelming choice.
“ You cannot wipe the slate clean,” he tells me, explaining that the past is always with us and that we commit a grave error if we reject what has gone before as irrelevant or unacceptable. “There are steps that we take to come to where we are. It is all relevant. ”
We share our concern that knowing and understanding history is essential to the future well-being of the world. Hating what has gone before is dangerous, he believes, as he explains Cuba’s vibrant and often disturbing history to me.
The revolution that informed his youth has never left his soul.
“ I am a Marxist Christian,” he tells me with a passionate intensity. “ People say that this is not possible,” he pauses and, beaming, says “But I am one.”
I can imagine the young Raul arriving in Spittalfields in the 90’s, just at the time of the Falklands War. He never lost his revolutionary principles but he committed himself to a whole new life in the UK, away from the dangers of his native Cuba.
It wasn’t an easy transition but he was able, in some ways, to recreate the culture of that old life where artists, poets and writers congregated together. It is in this, that Raul believes true Freedom lies.
It wasn’t long before he was mixing with well over 400 artists like Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
It was also at that time that he met Heather, who was to become his wife and who is a mainstay in his life.
“I became a British Citizen in the 90’s.” he explains, “And I expected to spend the rest of my life in the UK, but London inner-city life was becoming too stressful.”
Raul was shocked by the sheer weight of choice in his new homeland. Supermarkets overwhelmed him and, the amount of traffic was astonishing.
“I felt like a fish in a tank,” he tells me, “So we planned a short break to Pembrokeshire because Heather had been familiar with the county since 1971. We found the Old Chapel in Solva.”
He waves his hand to indicate this striking building and smiles. Quite simply, this became their home and place of work. They never went back.
His life,he tells me, is firmly in Wales, which he loves. He considers the Welsh nation’s history fascinating, its long tradition of pilgrimage and the strength of it’s people to be reminiscent of his childhood home.
“I am a farmer boy at heart,” he tells me, “I need the beauty of the countryside. Wales has many similarities with Cuba. It is a beautiful and inspiring place ”.
He has forged a place for himself in the community. He paints murals, makes films, and music and shares his skills through workshops, projects and exhibitions. Once missing the kind of community life that artists enjoy in Cuba, the Gallery in Solva has become a centre of education, has a café, and workshops, as well as being a lovely location to view his work.
That is not to say that Raul has broken his ties with Cuba. Though many of his contemporaries have died or moved away, he involves himself in a variety of projects in his native country and returns there whenever he can. Cuba remains both an inspiration and a comfort for him.
“In my mind,” he tells me, pressing a hand to his forehead, “I go back to the mountains of my childhood. Cuba is my cornerstone and my place of refuge, but painting is what makes me truly happy.”
It’s time to go. I take my leave, of these old Welsh chapel walls adorned with Caribbean passion and intensity and set off through the very different beauty of the Pembrokeshire countryside, an inspiration and a delight to Raul Speek as it is to so many of us that are fortunate to have been able to make this county our home.
To find out more about Raul’s and his work, go to his website where you will also find information about workshops and details of exhibitions and events.
If you are passing through Solva, the Speek Gallery is a must see.
Raul Speek Gallery
The Old Chapel
Main Street, Solva,
Telephone + 44 (0)1437 721907
Open daily from 10.30 am throughout the Summer.
Winter opening times vary.
Heather informs us that you may ring if the gallery is closed. They live on the premises and may be around, If so, they will be happy to let you have a look around.