SAU opens exchange with Cuba via art project


A group of students and professors from Southern Arkansas University will visit the University of Artemisa in Cuba in November to undertake an academic exchange related to the decorative arts.The group, to be led by Dr. Ed Kardas, distinguished professor of psychology and director of the SAU Honors College, and Steven Ochs, professor of art, will be working with the Cuban university on what Ochs described as a concrete mural project that measures 9 feet by 23 feet. The vertical wall will be co-designed by art professors of the University of Artemisa, he said. “The imagery of the mural will be abstract symbols of art concepts,” Ochs said. “It will connect our universities and symbolize the relationship we are building.”

Dr. Trey Berry, president of SAU, said the University is the first in Arkansas to create an exchange program with a university in Cuba.

Veronica Ramirez, a sophomore majoring in Game, Animation & Design, from Huntsville, Ark., will accompany Kardas and Ochs. She was selected thanks to to her talent in art and fluency in Spanish. The group will be in Cuba during the week of Thanksgiving.

“Planning and executing the mural will be a mutual project between the universities,” Kardas said. “We began making plans last summer, but both schools needed to wait on final approval from the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education.”

Approval of the exchange was recently handed down from the Cuban ministry. “It has some conditions,” Kardas said. “The main one is that the project must be completed by the end of November. Failure to do so will mean … both schools will have to re-propose the project to the Ministry.”

Ochs said he has been busy “for the last few weeks” making plans for the trip. He has had to find a means of shipping the necessary tools from the United States to Cuba.

“I’ve been talking to my sponsors trying to figure out a way to get the materials there,” he said. “Bosch Tools will be sending dye grinders with diamond-cutting blades and Smith Paint Products will provide stains, sealer and polymer overlays. We’re shipping the materials through Canada, where there is a company that will fly them to Havana.”

He said that even though the “doors are now open” between the U.S. and Cuba, “the paperwork hasn’t caught up yet. No postal service is willing to ship anything to Cuba. Smith Paint went through 25 different carriers before they could find one in Canada willing to do it. They put a lot of time into it.”

This will be Kardas’ third trip to Cuba since May 2015. He represented SAU in visits with the University of Havana and the Ministry of Higher Education to take the first steps toward beginning exchange programs.

“SAU sent me to Cuba with a group from the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce,” Kardas said. “During that visit, I contacted officials at the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education. Those officials urged me to come back in February to attend Universidad 2016, an international conference on higher education in Havana.”

Kardas and Dr. Juping Wang, associate professor of Spanish, did attend the week-long meeting to communicate to Cuban universities their hope of setting up faculty and student exchange programs. They met with more than a dozen universities.

“Prior to that trip, Dr. Berry convened an SAU Ad Hoc Extramural Education Committee, which selected a number of programs that might serve as conduits for academic exchange,” Kardas said. “Juping Wang and I took brochures in Spanish that she had translated and prepared along with longer documents detailing our proposals.”

“Our proposal called for academic exchanges with Cuban universities where the traveling group would pay to travel and the host would pay for lodging and meals,” Kardas said. “At the conference in Havana, Juping and I spoke – in Spanish, by the way – with some 14 separate Cuban universities and visited two campuses personally.”

Kardas traveled to the Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas and Wang to the Universidad de Artemisa. “Juping’s visit to (Artemisa) was especially successful,” Kardas said. “Since then, Artemisa and SAU have been planning a specific academic exchange.”

Kardas said future plans include hosting a group from Artemisa at SAU in August 2017 to participate in a parallel decorative concrete project, and development of plans between SAU and Artemisa’s College of Social Science.

Ochs said he has a small window in which to work on the mural – only five days. “We won’t agree on a final design until I am on location,” he said. “This will be a public art piece, but that’s their home. It’s got to be a functioning design that communicates to their people. We’ll leave our representation, but it is their mural.”

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