My childhood years in the DR are not very clear. I know we (my sisters and I, my grandmother, and mom) lived in extreme poverty and very harsh conditions. I know at times we suffered from hunger. I know we could not afford toys or pretty clothes.
My mother made the tremendous sacrifice of immigrating to the United States, finding a job as a maid. Being a single woman of color who did not speak English was incredibly hard. She worked many years, sending money to the DR as well as saving money to bring us to America. My mother tells me the story of seeing me for the first time after our separation. I did not remember her. I would not go near her. Her heart was broken, and the pain and guilt were intense. My grandmother had to also leave the DR with us because I would not go with my mother.
Arriving in New York City and living in the gang-infested, crime-ridden area of the Bronx, we were surrounded by danger. I remember the drug dealers, the shootings, body bags, the dirt, and chaos.
I experienced fear and anxiety at a very early age. By God’s grace no harm came to us. As a single mom, my mother was a pillar of courage and perseverance. To this day, I don’t know how she was able to raise and provide for three girls, and her mom. My lovely mother and her constant prayers, her faith in God, her courage, her sacrifice, relentlessness, love, resourcefulness, and unwavering optimism were/are an inspiration to me then, and she is the heroine behind many of my paintings today.
Coming to a new country, going to school and not speaking the language were tremendously hard for me. I was always clingy, distant, shy, and introverted, always wanting to hide and be invisible yet at the same time wanting to be heard, wanting to connect, just not knowing how. I remember my mother bringing home paper and discarded fabric from a factory she worked in. My sisters and I would take the paper and draw beautiful dolls. This was the beginning for me. My love of art and my love for discarded paper and discarded materials started here.
I would spend hours coloring, making these paper dolls with beautiful cut-out dresses, drawing cartoons, and making stories with wonderful illustrations. I remember how comforting it felt to draw and color. As I colored, my anxiety, fears, frustrations, and confusion would all disappear. Art made me happy.
I did not know at the time what I know now. Art is the magic weapon I used and still use, to deal with strong unwelcomed emotions, for healing, for comforting myself, for hope and survival. We could not afford fancy toys but that did not matter if we had paper. I had art!!!
“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” —PHILIPPIANS 4:13
As I grew older, art became an extension of me. For example, the way I dressed. I would paint embellishments on my thrift store finds. I made them more interesting and unique. I was attracted to different forms of art expression like movies, books, journaling, theatre, poetry, and dance.
I was always seeking creative forms in order to express myself. I wrote little plays and stories and got together with kids in my neighborhood and created awesome puppets to make puppet shows. In high school, I joined drama class and creative writing classes. I was always looking for ways to communicate with the world through some other form besides verbal communication. In this medium, there are so many, so many ways to reflect how I feel. So, I kept drawing, acting, and journaling as a form of keeping my voice alive.
I attended the University of Illinois in Urbana, Champagne, where I majored in painting and art education. This was the first time I was truly able to experiment with paint. I was hooked!!! Although at first I struggled to find my own style, the process of mixing the paint, utilizing/recycling found objects, gluing, adding paper, working with fabric, caulk, and glitter, collaging, splashing, cutting, layering, writing, ripping, tearing, exploring, expressing, communicating, and connecting was exhilarating!!! This art process, this form of creating, gave me the courage to open up. I knew that painting was my calling. A way for me to create a meaningful life.
I got married, had a beautiful baby girl, got ill, and lost 75% of my hearing. Then quickly, in the blink of an eye, I also got divorced. I found myself being a single mom, battling hearing loss, not knowing how I was going to provide for my daughter. These were some of the loneliest, most difficult years of my life. I struggled daily to get out of this dark depressive place where my life had taken me. I felt an overwhelming sadness and loss for myself and my child. How can I be a strong, courageous mother to my daughter? Like my mother was to me.
I started having panic attacks. My anxiety, self-consciousness, and fears were debilitating. I developed an eating disorder, could not sleep, and my grief was unbearable. My family was far away. I was alone, sad, and angry. I felt completely vulnerable. I needed hope. I needed an outlet. I needed to give my emotions a voice. I took out my journal again and used my entries as prayers to God. I wrote every day. My prayer journals helped me while coping with all these painful emotions.
Then, once again, I picked up my old friend Mr. Paintbrush, my found objects, and beloved recycled paper. I began to collage, splatter, glue, draw, and paint. Once again, I rediscovered that painting, making art along with God, was the saving grace that would help me get through this horrific episode of my life journey. And, I was starting to feel whole again.
I started to really think of painting as a healer, as a teacher, a therapy of sorts that can help me navigate from a place of darkness, to a place of light. The creative process became my journey back to peace, happiness, joy, and healing. Right then and there, I embarked on a series of portraits entitled Strong Women. I am one of those women. I have grown little by little every day, a little stronger and a little wiser.
For the portraits, I select women that I admire, mostly biblical but also historical, and I try to capture a moment in time in their story in which they overcame some kind of adversity. I read their stories and gained strength and encouragement by how they faced such horrors yet emerged victorious. So, I paint them. I use lots of recycled paper and fabric. Lots of bright colors, shapes, and design. I paint them to teach me, guide me, and hopefully inspire those who look upon them and remember their stories (which I include on the back of each painted piece). As I make these courageous women, I heal. I feel inspired, courageous, strong, and hopeful. I hope my work will evoke these same feelings in others.
Today, many years later, I am married to a wonderful man (who is my biggest supporter). He encourages my art journey and does not mind the big mess I make all over the house. I am a mother to three wonderful adult children and live in a small town in MO. I am working as a paraprofessional at an elementary school close to where I live. I have some pretty amazing and supportive colleagues, and get to teach reading to some awesome kids. I am painting and working on selling more of my paintings, recycled jewelry, and other creations. I occasionally host a paint party, and I’m looking into teaching classes online. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to support myself and my family through my art.
One of my dreams is to open up a studio where I can teach both women and children the importance of art in their lives. With art as our unique voice, each of us can make a difference in how our lives turn out. Art can be a great way for women and children to cope with painful emotions. When we allow ourselves, or when we give ourselves permission, to express our anger, joy, desperation, happiness, sadness, or grief, we can better deal with these emotions. Art is that healer that connects us to a sounder mind and peaceful spirit. What better way
to heal if not by making a mess, exploring, laughing, having fun, and connecting with others. Let go and just give in to the process of making art.
I prepare my surface by applying acrylic paint. I then gather my collection of found paper and tear assorted pieces. I randomly arrange them on my recycled cardboard. I then add color. There are no rules about color, form, or technique, I just allow myself to be fearless as I apply the paint. I use both a brush and my hands. If the paper tears, I do not try to fix it. This actually creates interesting texture.
I then take recycled paper and start sketching my subject. I don’t add details, just an outline. After sketching, I add paint directly to my sketched piece. I cut the piece out and glue it to my dry board surface. I continue, adding hair and more details. I take out my stamps and stencils and start having fun covering my surface with interesting patterns.
I take out my pile of discarded fabric and add that. I then cut out words/ affirmations and arrange them around my figure. Embellishments like sequins and glitter follow.
I will continue to work on my pieces. They always seem to be in process. I hang my paintings up in my dining room studio. They remind me of who I was and who I want to be. They inspire me to keep going, keep celebrating who I am, and to live in that place of courage and fearlessness.
I am blessed, protected, and healing.