I was born a painter but grew up in a bland, grey house. As a tiny child, I would go wild painting the walls with anything I could get my hands on. My mother told me I could paint in the closet – clearly unsatisfying. I learned early that I needed to keep this passion protected until it was safe enough to come out. My parents’ disdain, misunderstanding, and fear of art left me bereft of any encouragement or support. It gave me a deep understanding that I needed to protect it until it would be safe to unleash.
My father, born in 1898 on a small Caribbean island, was a descendant of both slaves and slaveholders. He left his island at thirteen, eventually becoming a doctor in Harlem. He was 48 years older than my mother.
His twin brother, a talented writer, died of starvation in a New York mental hospital. My father’s fears were further stoked when I, a very shy girl of colour in a nearly uniform white school, was forced to enrol in a school for challenged children. He believed my innate artistic abilities were a mental illness that he passed on to me.
After two years of not being taught to read I simply refused to go back, telling my mother “I am not going to grow up to be a dummy. If you take me back there I will sit in front and cry all day.” I did not give my mother much of a choice. Very quickly, independent doctors determined I was “normal”, just shy, and prescribed a dog. The nuns at St. Joseph’s Academy were my saving grace. They told my mother not to worry – they would take care of me. Not only did I learn to read incredibly fast because I was starved to learn, but they caught on early that I was artistically inclined.
Being who I was supposed to be, I flourished in a way all children should. But my father had other plans. His prescription was science in the form of medical training. He encouraged me to pour through his endocrinology books filled with naked bodies of patients afflicted with various endocrine maladies. Unconsciously, disfigured drawings of myself and others marked the beginning of my return to art in my forties.
My mother’s history was no less traumatic. Colombia’s violent civil war where vulnerable women were terrorized defined and shaped her childhood. What she and her siblings (especially the sisters) experienced, left them trapped in unspeakable pain. The family was only spared because of the gratitude a rebel commander had for my grandfather.
Years earlier the commander had been wounded, and my grandfather not only sought medical treatment for him but provided him with a home and a job until he had financial security. When it was time to kill the family, the commander warned them and they were able to escape. My grandmother, a very strong, proud woman, a principal of several schools who had lived a privileged life, watched as the hillside where her home once stood was ablaze. The mountain air was filled with the smoke of a life well-lived but forever changed.
Nobody who saw her in the working-class neighbourhood in the Bronx, New York would have ever guessed the life she once had. But she never broke.
In the context of survival and loss, excelling in school was paramount. Cloaking and concealing the artist was essential as my father constantly drilled into me that artists were crazy. From my mother’s perspective, artists were poor – something she never wanted returning for her children.
My father’s death when I was seventeen plunged us, my sister and mother, into poverty and depression. Left with nothing material, I felt this unrelenting need to discover my Colombian roots. Arranging my own school, I would live from my father’s social security checks. I went to one of the most exclusive private schools in Bogota while living in a slum. I was exposed to both the cruelty and kindness of what humanity is capable of.
My mother decided to stop sending my checks. Life was very hard and I was floundering in school, the only thing I had left. I decided to return to a home where there was no home, knowing myself even less than when I had left.
One of my cousins, who counselled me to take the porn job I was offered at one point, would not let me live at her house, but another did. I attended a school in the Bronx where they have raped the vice principal a year before. Nearing graduation and looking to college, they invited me to interview at Bennington College, the most expensive college in the country. Life was finally looking more positive, but my mother was furious with me. She made my life difficult because I was dating a black man, even though my father was partially black.
That man was one of the kindest human beings I have known. As I prepared to leave for the interview, my mother, blind with anger, began putting a “spell” on me. She made the sign of the cross and spat at my feet saying “may you never have a good life!” Always understanding how deeply wounded she was, without resentment or anger I laced my boots and took the bus to Bennington, Vermont. Alone.
Bennington accepted me, but it would be nine years, working in London, a marriage, a baby, a death, an armed robbery, a fire, deception(s), an illness, a divorce, too many love affairs, another marriage, and six schools before I graduated with honours from New York University.
I planned to study dance therapy in graduate school, but my son Dante, who was born a year after I graduated, had very intense special needs. Being Dante’s mother has taught me the most about being an artist; how to create and Love – the two are inseparable for me. Dante has now graduated from the University of Miami and is pursuing a career in art history. It is sometimes hard to fathom he only began to speak in intelligible sentences at 8 years old.
My reconnection with art began in 2007 while living in Australia. I had turned forty and became acutely aware of how deeply I had repressed my painting. It took many modalities from hypnosis to transcendental meditation to uncover the seeds of my art which I tried so hard to protect. Following Van Gogh’s path, I immersed myself in drawing for several years before painting.
I sketched passengers on the Chicago ‘L’, drew patrons at classical concerts in Grant Park, and hired models for my own studio. During these early years, I supplemented my independent study with formal art classes at many levels, ranging from local community and art centres to community college and SAIC (student at large). However, the majority of my study has been on my own, especially as I transitioned to oil painting in 2013.
I have spent years in my own studio experimenting with the personality and potential of myriad materials to translate my ideas about the personal and spiritual subjects I hold dear. My art, like my writing, is autobiographical, emotional, and a narrative reflecting my spiritual life. My work is guided by the exploration of the mystery of truth.
Extensive visits to museums and galleries around the world have furnished further inspiration and study. They also facilitated a large collection of books on sundry artists. This allowed me to study their work, technique and philosophy. Some artists who are intricate parts of my artist DNA are Frida Kahlo, El Greco, Pablo Picasso, and the abstract expressionists.
The intimate relationship I have with original work is integral to my painting practice. My interest in art is not partial. I delight in the visual world. Something always enraptures me and I absorb the work of others, incorporating those elements to further my expression.
Healing my tribe is one of my primary motivations in my painting practice. While our family is mostly splintered, I feel it is part of my calling to facilitate some healing for them and others through my work.
My grandmother had twenty-two children. Apparently blocked artists have many children. She never had the opportunity to be the artist she was intended to be. When she was younger she was offered an opportunity to study art and music in Puerto Rico, but her plans were aborted – they told her only prostitutes do that type of work. Ernestina Oviedo de Gutierrez lives and breathes through my work.
On August 21, 2015, a car smashed me while riding my bicycle. My recovery has been monumentally difficult, but I am still standing. The accident solidified my desire to deepen my painting practice, claim who I am, and Love even stronger.
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