George Klauba was born in the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side 77 years ago. He currently lives in the Northwest Side neighborhood of North Center, but a big part of his heart and mind remains on the sea and on Cuba, both of which he experienced while serving three years in the Navy in the 1950s.
An internationally known artist, Klauba has created 20 new paintings focused on his time in Cuba shortly before Fidel Castro seized power. He began the series of paintings, which are acrylic on wood panels, each 18×24 inches, two years ago and finished a few weeks ago, just in time for his latest show,”Cuba: Rebels, Orishas, and 26 Julio,” which opens November 5 at the Ann Nathan Gallery.
Previous Klauba series have focused on Fallen Angels, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and World War II, and while not overtly political, most have a dark theme. His latest series doesn’t take a position on the Castro government, but as he explained, even the “angels” have blood on their hands.
The Chicago Ambassador recently sat down with Klauba to get some insight into his latest series, his transition from tattoo artist to painter, and his thoughts on recent changes in U.S. – Cuba relations.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You began as a tattoo artist while in the Navy?
KLAUBA) It wasn’t until I got out of the Navy. I went to art school and also got a commercial job. I worked for the Sun-Times for 28 years but I started doing tattoos on the side. I was interested in it because I got a tattoo when I was in the Navy and was fascinated by a lot of the things related to tattoos. I started apprenticing as a tattoo artist and then opened up a little studio in my home basement. I also worked part-time at a Southwest side biker shop, but then lost interest after awhile. I lost interest in doing tattoos. I loved tattoos and tattoo artwork but didn’t want to keep doing tattoos. There’s a lot of weird people that you’re dealing with.
CA) You went by the name ‘George Tattoo’ at the time?
CA) How did you make the transition from doing tattoo work to doing more traditional artwork?
KLAUBA) I guess I wanted to do something more. I did a Moby Dick series because there was a sea theme. From there, I did a series about World War II, because I was impressed and affected by it as a child. I’d go through my memories of things through the years [to create different paintings], which is why I did this series. I started reflecting on this period [of my life].
CA) Was your love of the sea something you had before you joined the Navy?
KLAUBA) I was always interested in it, that’s why I joined. I had an uncle who served on a destroyer in World War II. He was sunk by Kamikazes in the Philippine Sea. He was a big force in my mind. I joined the Navy after high school and wanted to experience what he did. I asked for a destroyer and served on one in the Mediterranean for three years.
CA) As for Moby Dick, it’s been a big influence on you. When did you first read it?
KLAUBA) In childhood, reading the classic comics. I was utterly fascinated by it. That’s what put the sea in my head as a child. It’s always been with me. When I left the Sun-Times, I started reading the book more and more and it really started to take hold of me.
CA) A lot of your work is violent and shows a lot of carnage. Why is that?
KLAUBA) It’s just my screwed up mind. (Laughter).
CA) Talk about the upcoming exhibit. I understand you completed or are still completing the pieces and that you started in 2013 after opening a chest of memories from 1958 that you had.
KLAUBA) It wasn’t literal. I opened a box of memories that was in my head and started working on this series. I was in Cuba in 1958 while in the Navy, and I met a girl there when I went ashore. We got together a few times and ran into some things that were unpleasant. One time we were sitting in a house with a buddy of mine and one of her girlfriends and guys drove up, ran into the house and just looked at us, stared at us. He ran back to the car and said in Spanish, ‘There are Americans in the house.’ The girls just grabbed our hand and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here fast.’ They took us to a safe place, which was a post office where police hung out. That was one incident. Another time, we were at a carnival and we were on a ride and people started throwing tomatoes at us.
CA) Because you were American?
KLAUBA) Yes. It was obvious, we had our uniforms on. We got off the ride and pushed our way through the crowd. People started chasing us and we ran to a safe place.
CA) This was after Fidel Castro took over?
KLAUBA) This was right before. It was 1958, February of 1958. In December of 1958, that’s when the last battle with Castro was going on. At New Year’s of 1959, that’s when Fulgencio Batista left and Castro took over.
CA) In this series, you don’t take any position for or against Castro?
KLAUBA) No, I really feel what I’m doing here is in between. There are things you could say are pro-Castro and things that are anti-Castro. It’s a lot of in between. But I think more than anything, the feeling I’m interested in — the Cuban people, they are rebels. Whether they were good or bad, killing people, which they were. They might be saints, trying to rescue their country against the bastard Batista, but they were killing people. That’s part of it, it was a war. You could say bad things about them, but you could also say a lot of good things. There’s one painting that I did, (Oya’s Courage as Santa Teresa Bleeds), it’s a woman who has a holster and she’s pulling out a gun. She’s facing the symbol of Batista and she’s an angel. She has the wings of an angel, but the wings are bloody.
CA) You worked as a graphic designer for the Sun-Times for nearly 30 years. Did that fulfill your need to express yourself?
KLAUBA) Not so much. I became disillusioned after a couple years. I liked the commercial field, it was exciting to do things that were in print. But I wanted to do stuff for myself and that’s why I started doing fine art on the side, just expressing myself as any artist would.
CA) And like many artists, you needed a regular job to pay the bills?
KLAUBA) Right, exactly.
CA) Since you’ve been retired from the Sun-Times, you’ve been able to survive on your artwork?
KLAUBA) I’m on disability. I’ve had a lot of back operations over the years, so that’s helped me a lot. I got laid off in 1990 and you might want to say too old and too disabled to get someone to hire me. I got disability which wasn’t great, but was good. I then thought I’d get more into producing fine art and start selling, so it’s worked out.
CA) Do you paint every day?
KLAUBA) I usually paint every week day in the morning. A few hours in the morning, but then I have to take it easy because of my back.
CA) You’ve done 20 paintings in two years for this series. Do you have a process?
KLAUBA) Every one is a different idea. A lot of these feature women and I think it reflects the girl I met in Cuba. After the Navy left Cuba, I got a letter from her saying that she was holed in a house with a lot of gunfire and bombs going off outside. She said everyone was scared to go outside and one day it got quiet and they did go outside to discover that a new regime was in power. We corresponded a few times after that, but then it just stopped. So, I always wondered what happened to her. Could she have left Cuba years later, or did she stay and become part of the militia. I don’t know. A lot of it is me imagining.
CA) At the time, do you remember if she had any position?
KLAUBA) No, we didn’t talk about that at the time. We were aware of it, but not that much.
CA) How long were you with her?
KLAUBA) Just a month, but it was a good, intense period.
CA) You said this series doesn’t really take a position. Do you ever use your work to make political statements?
KLAUBA) Not so much, but I think I was making statements in my World War II series. A lot of it about how the Japanese were like the Americans in how they had families and mothers too, and they were also cruel bastards.
CA) What do you think about what’s going on between the U.S. and Cuba these days?
KLAUBA) I think it’s great. It’s finally opening up. I hope the Republicans will vote against the embargo because it really hurts the citizens a lot. Those aren’t the people to hurt, and it’s been going on for years.
George Klauba’s latest exhibition will open November 5 at the Ann Nathan Gallery, 212 W. Superior St. and run through mid-December. For more information, click here.